My first thought was, no, it can’t be. It’s only the fifteenth of October. We’ve never had snow this early. Why, last year our first frost was October 19. Surely it won’t last, this spring onion snow in October.
Big, fat flakes fell and Elanor, our four-year-old granddaughter, and her Uncle Dave rushed out to build a snowman. They wanted to have it finished before a pair of California cousins arrived for the afternoon.
They managed to scrape up enough snow to build a somewhat rickety snowman. Our son, Dave, who has treasured every snow since he was a small boy in Maine, understood Elanor’s delight in such a rare occurrence. She came in soaked, cold, but happy with their creation, which they had capped with an orange Hoss’s hat. And her young cousins were mightily impressed by the snow and the snowman. Unfortunately, because they were wearing canvas shoes fit for the sunny warmth of California, they were forced to play indoors while the snow continued to fall.
Everyone, including Elanor and her father, Steve, left at 5:00 p.m. instead of staying for dinner. Already, a couple of wet inches covered the ground and later, when I settled down to sleep with my window open, I heard the ominous cracking of tree branches outside. Then, at 3:30 a.m., the power flashed off. The phone line was also dead. For the second time in as many days Bruce cranked up the new generator we had bought a couple years ago, because we were convinced that global climate change would lead to many more power outages as strange weather patterns emerged.
Unlike our old, smelly, noisy, diesel-fueled generator, this new, gas-powered one is quiet, odorless, and handles most of our appliances. Still, I had to do a little juggling whenever I used the stove, making me more mindful of just how much we depend on electricity to power our lives.
As I looked outside, I could see that the top half of our hackberry tree had snapped, one of the front yard black locust trees had lost another huge limb, a branch of the juniper tree outside my bedroom window had broken off, and our lilac and forsythia shrubs were bent over from the weight of several inches of heavy snow.
Bruce walked the quarter mile down to the forks on our access road while I made breakfast. On our battery-powered radio I heard dire warnings about staying out of the woods because limbs were crashing down everywhere. Indeed, Bruce was relieved to make it back in one piece after being blocked by a tangle of fallen trees near our little plank bridge.
He called our caretaker on his cell phone, which was our only tie to the outside world, and Troy told him that the previous evening he and his wife, Paula, had driven down the road after dinner to get some groceries. They had had to move branches out of their way as they drove back up the road but were stopped halfway up the hollow by a huge red oak spanning the road. He pulled their car into the Dogwood Knoll pullout and retrieved his chainsaw from the trunk.
After he cleared the road, their car wouldn’t start. By that time trees and branches were cracking and breaking like rifle fire throughout the forest. They called their daughter in town to rescue them and drive them and their groceries up to their house. But there were so many branches and trees down by then that Troy spent several hours clearing the road before they made it home.
More trees and branches had fallen overnight, and they set to work cutting their way back down the road, determined to open it for us. It took them the entire day. In the meantime, Dave walked up Laurel Ridge, but branches continued to break and fall under what was the earliest and heaviest snowstorm ever in our area.
Later in the morning I chased little birds — yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows — around First Field as still more limbs and trees crashed down in the woods. The birds were after the many weed seeds in our 37-acre meadow. In places I measured five inches of snow with my walking stick. All the goldenrod and asters bowed over with snow.
As fog rolled down from the spruce grove at the top of the field, I turned homeward. Eastern towhees called forlornly from the woods. And Dave reported that a hopeful mourning dove, remembering last winter’s bounty from our bird feeders, had landed below the back porch. But I didn’t have any birdseed, because I never set out my feeders until early November.
By afternoon, it had warmed to 34 degrees and snow had melted off most of the gold and orange tree leaves. Bruce and I walked down the road late in the afternoon. Troy and Paula had cleared most of the 14 fallen trees and innumerable branches. We were appalled at the damage — our favorite white oak on the charcoal hearth had shed many branches, several red and black oaks had split and fallen across the road, their branches crowded with still-green leaves, numerous red maples — all gold and red — had either broken completely or shed many branches, tulip poplar tree branches covered with bright yellow leaves littered the road in many places, and a few chestnut oak branches had split off their large trunks and fallen. Leaves and branches clogged the stream and woods. But once we reached the hemlock zone, about halfway down the road, there was little damage, so we headed back home.
As we rounded the last curve in our road, we were relieved to see a light shining in the guesthouse. After 14 hours, our electricity had been restored, although the telephone lines were still down. Surely, the storm and its effects were over.
But the next day, the thermometer was back down to 32 degrees, and a light snow fell that thickened and clung to the leaves once again as we watched from the breakfast table. A winter wren twittered around the outside cellar door in search of tidbits.
I went out in mid-morning while it was snowing heavily again. The forest was a palette of white, gold, and green. Black birch and witch hazel trees were bent over and a few black gum trees had broken in the woods both inside and outside the deer exclosure.
Large branches littered the Far Field Road along with occasional whole trees—red maple, sugar maple, hickory, chestnut oak, and a split black cherry. Once again snow piled up on the leaves and branches of standing trees, and after I had walked over to the Sapsucker Ridge Trail and across the black-locust-bowed Far Field, I heard the smash of a tree or large branch on the Far Field Road. Nervous about my safety, I tried to hasten along the ridgetop trail but bent over and sometimes broken striped maple and witch hazel trees as well as a few fallen red maple trees blocked my way and forced me to detour around them.
Relieved to reach the sanctuary of the Norway spruce grove unscathed, I stood under the protection of the thickest limbs, and watched heavy, wet flakes sift down as golden-crowned kinglets fluttered near. A flock of mature and immature cedar waxwings landed on the tallest Norway spruce spire and continually flitted from branch to branch in what appeared to be a dance known only to them. Or maybe the “dancers” with crests, were trying to encourage the crestless youngsters, who looked miserable, to bear up under the wet snow.
I heard a few more cracks from the forest and after a silent respite in the sheltering grove, I elected to walk down First Field. At the Sapsucker Ridge edge of the field, a Carolina wren and white-throated sparrow sang briefly while many other little birds, most of which were white-throats, fluttered into and out of cover. The forest near the exclosure dripped with melting snow even though it continued snowing. By the time I returned home, the thermometer was back up to 34 degrees and the snow had thinned, but still it fell even though it no longer clung to the leaves.
The following day it gradually cleared and warmed up. But when I set out for my walk at 9:00, there were still a couple inches of wet snow on the ground and it smelled like winter.
Margaret’s Woods rang with singing white-throated sparrows. Red maple and striped maple branches blanketed the ground, but most of the large red maple branches, covered with gold, orange and scarlet leaves, were unbroken and unbowed. A fully leaved catalpa tree had split, and numerous black locust trees had broken and fallen. But sun shone through the forest, and our world was bright and glittering once again.
The first steep slope on Greenbrier Trail, where it is always the coldest during the winter, was blocked with broken tops and branches of red maples, A black cherry and a black locust tree, both with green leaves, also had lost their tops across the trail. The invasive tree, ailanthus, had fallen and deer had stripped off their green leaves. Hercules’ club, bent and broken, still covered with green leaves and clusters of berries, had had most of their berries eaten by deer, judging by the tracks in the snow. Witch hazel trees, in full yellow bloom and still retaining green and yellow leaves, had split in many places.
Farther along the trail, the largest black cherry tree was broken in half One of the few black oaks left by the logging operation in 1991 had also lost many limbs. Hickories, too, had taken major hits, their butter-yellow leaves clinging to branches on the ground. A few cucumber magnolias had also toppled.
But all the while I absorbed the damage to the trees, the birds rejoiced in the return of autumn. A ruffed grouse drummed. Robins “tut-tuted” in the distance. Eastern towhees called from every direction. Several golden-crowned kinglets, a ruby-crowned kinglet and a blue-headed vireo foraged overhead in unscathed trees.
Day after day I noted the damage along our trails. Surprisingly, at the top of the mountain, on Laurel Ridge Trail, only a few branches had broken off. But halfway down Laurel Ridge, on Black Gum Trail, the scarlet, chestnut, red and black oak branches had been torn from their moorings. Many trees were topped of 10 to 20 feet. A few trees had split near their bases. Several oaks had little left but a 10-foot-tall, branchless snag. At the confluence of Pit Mound and Black Gum trails, a tangle of topped chestnut and red oaks blocked the way. An enormous scarlet oak and a smaller red oak sprawled across the trail. The rest of Black Gum Trail was similarly strewn with oak trees and branches.
As Bernd Heinrich wrote in his book Summer World about an October snowstorm in Maine, “Trees that retained their leaves paid a steep price. Those that had shed their leaves suffered no damage. The thin, young maples and oaks in the woods around our house were snapped in half or bent to the ground. Similarly, old sugar maples with heavy trunks had huge limbs broken off, and many of their other limbs were bent and ready to snap.”
Unfortunately, none of our trees had shed their leaves and so many species were damaged. Still, from Alan’s Bench, Laurel Ridge looked the same as usual and trees, in their autumnal colors, glowed in the sunlight. I moved to the sunny side of the spruce grove and sat on a log. A ruffed grouse erupted from the spruces. Black-capped chickadees called from the deciduous woods below. Although it was warming fast in the sun, remnants of crunchy snow still remained.
Then suddenly a young black bear ran toward me from the woods. Although I remained still, it caught my scent at 60 feet, wheeled around, and ran back down the hillside. I walked down First Field Trail through and over a red and gold tapestry on the trail, in the woods, on the snow, and overhead. Two hermit thrushes ate wild grapes at the edge of First Field. A pileated woodpecker, unaware of me, landed and foraged on a nearby tree. The forest filled up with robins. Autumn had returned after our brush with winter.
All photos by Dave Bonta. Click on images to see larger versions on Flickr.