Winter: Lost in a whiteout in the backyard

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Back in 1992, my family and I vacationed in North Dakota. One of the highlights was encountering local folk singer Chuck Suchy. His music celebrates rural life, farms, prairies and people.

One of Suchy’s songs, The Story of Hazel Miner, is the tale of a 15-year-old girl who gets lost in her horse-drawn sleigh when a blizzard closes school at noon. At nightfall, she stops and drapes her body over her younger brother and sister to wait out the storm.

When searchers found the sleigh the next day, Hazel was dead, but her siblings survived. It’s a terrifyingly beautiful song, and my daughter, Nora, who was 8 at the time, still says it scarred her for life.

Lesson

But it’s a good lesson to have learned because whiteouts can be deadly.

I was reminded of this last Saturday as the wind picked up and temperatures plunged. The severe conditions arrived just as the weather forecasters had predicted. It was midafternoon, and I needed to put the car in the garage. I knew conditions would only worsen over time, so I headed out to the car.

The garage is 150 feet from the house, so I really didn’t expect the deteriorating weather to be a problem. I walked out to the car, which was parked about 30 feet from the house; that left only 120 feet to the garage. I opened the back door to get my gloves, and in literally 5 seconds the wind turned from stiff to ferocious.

Suddenly tree branches were blowing across the yard, and the roof on a nearby shed began pulsating up and down. I jumped into the front seat of the car to protect myself from flying debris. The car rocked back and forth, and I realized that the blowing snow had created a total whiteout.

Whiteout

I could no longer see the garage. In fact, I couldn’t even see the front of the hood of the car. I waited for a few minutes hoping the wind would subside, but it did not. So, I blindly inched the car down the driveway. If I kept the steering wheel perfectly straight, I thought I could find the garage.

Finally after about 2 minutes, the building came into view. Unfortunately, I was directly in front of the center column between the garage doors. So I backed up and corrected my mistake. At this point the whiteout continued, but I had to get out of the car to open the garage door. I couldn’t even see my outreached gloved hand. Finally, I managed to park the car.

Now I had to walk back to the house.

The wind continued to roar, and the blowing snow stung my face. I should have waited out the storm in the garage, but it had become a challenge to see if I could make it back. After all, I was just in my driveway. As I began the 150-foot hike, I still couldn’t see more than 2 feet in front of me. And I couldn’t lift my head because the temperature had fallen from 20 to 10 degrees, and the blowing snow continued to sting my face.

Slow

So with my head down watching my feet, I advanced slowly one small step at a time. After a few minutes, I felt the wind ease a bit; I looked up and there was the house. I had made it. Unbeknownst to me, my wife had been watching the whole time, at least while I was visible.

Relieved that I made it back, she laughed and said, “As you staggered into view, you looked drunk as a skunk.”

Sometimes danger lurks close to home. If you get caught in a whiteout anywhere, getting lost and disoriented is a real possibility. Better to be safe than end up like Hazel Miner.

Hunters, hikers, birders, travelers, snowmobilers and skiers should beware sudden changes in winter weather. Be sure your cellphone is charged, and be certain someone knows where you are going and when you expect to return. And if you’re in a vehicle, get safely off the road and wait for the storm to subside.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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