Depressing amount of annual snowfall sends family running for the hills
1.1 inches, to be exact. Enough to make a footprint. It had been 335 days since our last snowfall of more than 1 inch in Chicagoland. As a snow-loving father, and speaking for my kids and most likely a lot of kids everywhere, this fact sucks.
This is the least snowy season in Chicago in the past 129 years of record keeping, according to meteorological weather god Tom Skilling.
My five- and six-year-old had been dreaming of snow since Thanksgiving, when, driving home from Philly through the I-80 Poconos, we got caught in a snowstorm. The other side of the interstate got shut down due to a pile-up. We didn’t acknowledge it much. We’re winter lovers, despite and because of its elemental challenges. We ski, we skate, we sled; we shovel, we salt, we slide.
So for eight weeks, despite the excesses of the holidays, they had been asking for something I couldn’t give them. My son bet that it wouldn’t be a white Christmas, and if not for his extreme cynicism he would’ve won. There were flecks of white amid the heavy gray and the dead brown. There have been other teases. One morning at breakfast with my daughter, the sky broke into big downy flakes and we ran onto the back deck in our pajamas and caught snow on our tongues.
We’ve been hungry ever since. So we took advantage of our nibble. We took the sled to school. The kids giggled the whole goddamned way. I laughed, too, between gasps. It was too dry to make good snowballs, too thin to make a snowman, but we had a blast throwing handfuls in faces (mine) and knocking each other over. Snowballs might be the best toy in the world. There is nothing else you can throw at another person that packs a soft punch then completely dissolves, nary a trace. There’s nothing to clean up, nothing to apologize for, and nothing to do but retaliate. Snowball fights are the only battles without casualties, without losers.
Then my daughter and I went sledding. First time down I shrieked and giggled same as her. The first run surprises me every year. Such simple thrills the slick pull of gravity! Waterslides have nothing on sledding. We went tandem, single, train, laying down, sitting up (her not me—it killed my ass). Her five-year-old legs powered up that hill time and time again, without my help, until I had to drag her—red-cheeked and panting—away. Snow play is that rare bounty of fun and exercise.
The bounty is already ending. The sun’s back out and the temperature’s climbing; the forecast is freezing rain transitioning into expected highs of 50. In the end of January, in Chicago, once world-renowned for absolutely sucking from those wimpy winter haters.
What really sucks is the lack of snowfall in the past two years.
The kids reminisce about “that one year.” The blizzard of 2010 dumped up to two feet of snow in one glorious unceasing stretch, effectively shutting down the city. It snowed some more. Once the driveways and roads were unearthed, we spent days building long intersecting tunnels, we played king of the mountain on ten-foot high snow banks, we went sledding every day.
It rivaled, if not exceeded, the blizzard of 1979, which happened when I was their age. I don’t remember it. I also don’t remember a winter like this one because it hasn’t happened. The least snowy winter in 129 years has given us two measly inches. And broke two dubious records: in addition to being the longest stretch of days without 1” of snow, January 25 is the latest date for getting that elusive first inch. My first grader is into planets so we’ve talked about global warming. I’ve tried to be balanced. I’ve promised a hybrid.
Despite the irrefutable causes for our poor Chicago winter, there’s the supernatural as well. Texas has gotten more snow than us. The plains states have had their snowstorms, and all around us, too—Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, even Indianapolis was shut down due to snow. A huge white and blue whorl has teased our radar maps, only to dodge us more times than I care to count.
It’s not just the lack of snow that’s unsettling. Before last week, the temp was averaging 33.4 degrees since December 1. Above freezing. In Chicago. In winter. In our suburb, they couldn’t freeze the park district rink until the end of the first week in January, which they did only to give the kids one day of skating before school resumed.
The sun is odd, too. I guess it’s nice; maybe it won’t make February seem like the longest month of the year. Still, we’d rather have snow now, seasonal affective disorder later. My wife and I miss the cleansing smell of a good snowfall, the quietude; my kids miss the wonder of it. It is the only thing in this world that can be played with and left where it may fall, the best elements of Play-Doh and Lego without having to put it away. It can be used as a wrestling mat, a weapon, a cushion, a fort, a progenitor, an excuse, an angel maker, a toy—it is limited only by the imagination itself.
Snowplay is an act of faith—that this bounty will be here tomorrow, or come back next year—and ours is rattled. The last winter that recorded a single 1” of snowfall this late in the season was 1899, and we blew by that record.
It’s a futility measure that surpasses the Cubs. Some heartbreak we can get used to. Not this. I can’t weather the kids’ disappointment—certainly a reflection of my own—any longer. We’re heading north in two weeks, to a Midwestern ski hill renowned for its state-of-the-art snowmaking. That phenomenon used to depress me; its necessity now does.
The kids will ask to bring home a snowgun. Instead, I’ll reteach them the art of the snowball. We won’t throw it; we’ll freeze it, preserve it like an exhibit in a museum.