The snow started on the prairie yesterday and continued to fall through the night and, in places in the region, into the wee hours of this morning. This storm represents not just the first snow of the calendar year, but of the calendar season. We were blanketed with a substantial supply of the white stuff back in late autumn, but winter thus far has only offered precipitation in the form of rain. At least until now.
I find it interesting to chronicle this here not because it’s breaking news - anyone else living in the Midwest knows that’s it’s been snowing. But it is interesting to keep a record of when these things occur. To my recollection the warm temperatures and lack of fluffy precipitation this late into the season is an oddity, if one that is becoming less odd with the progressive peculiarity of climate change.
The thing is, while I don’t believe our region ever was an all-winter long snowy wonderland, my (potentially faulty) memory is of more snow, lasting longer. There is the risk for anyone from northern Illinois who is of a given age to picture the winter of 78-79, when the snow made walls to either side of the roadways after the plows cut through (if they could cut through) as typical, and it was not.
But I do recall extensive periods of winter play - building forts, sledding, and snowmobiling.
And this last is probably the thing that seems the most different. Sledding (downhill) is a single day activity in the Midwest, given that one must travel to find a hill of sufficient height (my Dad would take us to a hill just off of Beemerville Road). One good snowy day is really all you need if you strike while the iron is hot (or perhaps when the snow is nigh). But snowmobiling? To justify such a machine really requires the availability of a real quantity of the white stuff over a meaningful period of time.
Back in the late seventies and very early 80’s, when I was a kid living across the field, we had snowmobiles. They were a pair of Arctic Cats - my Dad had a Panther, and I had a Lynx (or, perhaps better said, my Dad had it, and I was allowed to ride it). I can remember riding that little sled all over through the fields and up and down the ditches. If my recollection is correct, the Lynx model I was riding had steel cleats as part of the tread. This meant that one could jump up out of a ditch at speed, land on an icy, snowy road, and the cleats would dig right in to the ice and shoot you forward. It was very cool.
It also meant that, when you "borrowed" your Dad’s sled, which did not have steel cleats, this same feat would leave one suddenly sitting, sideways, in the ditch on the opposite side, wondering what happened. Or, you know, so I hear... (Reminding me once again that it’s probably something of a miracle that we did not die as kids)
For at least one winter, and maybe a couple, we rode up and down the construction site that would eventually become I 39 (Illinois’ budget issues are not a new phenomenon - the highway was a project that had been started, and then sat incomplete for quite some time due to a lack of funding). When I got older and we moved into town we still had the snowmobiles, at least for a winter or two. Riding them meant carefully selecting a route through town that would touch on private property - well, at least on private residential property - as little as possible as we found our way into the country. This led to one encounter with the local constabulary which, thanks to the combination of overland mobility of the machine, and the complete anonymity afforded by gear that included a face mask and helmet, was probably the only time I ever actually got away with anything. The statute of limitations has probably passed, this event being, say, 35 years ago or so, but I’m still reluctant to say more. Let’s just say that it’s hard to chase a snowmobile with a police car...
Snowmobiles are comparatively rare here now. Occasionally I’ll hear one going down the ditch, or simply see the characteristic tread marks in the snow. Still, the lack of reliable white stuff to ride on has caused folks to sell off their sleds in favor of other pursuits. I have family who have done so, to be sure. It’s easy to see why - even today, after a day and night of snow proceeding, we have drifts of snow, but between them the grass and ground can still be seen. You could ride a snowmobile over this - and certainly there are people who will - but it won’t be terribly pleasant.
Of course, this just means that one has to find other ways to enjoy the winter weather. But it does speak to a real-world change in weather patterns - people who love snowmobiling don’t sell them off if they are continuing to have opportunities to enjoy them...
There is an older website, called Boss Cat Legacy, that archives Arctic Cat information (of course there is). Based on my memory, the pictures of the ‘77 and ‘78 Lynx on this page most closely fit what I recall.