February 4, 2019

FTV: Winter Travel

  When Mother Nature serves up a particularly violent weather event, it will undoubtedly get the tag ‘100 year’ attached to it.  In the summer of 2018, the Houghton / Hancock area experienced a 100 year flood that caused extensive damage all across Houghton County.  The only reason the city of Hancock escaped worse damage was the foresight of those who had excavated a broad ditch on the hill above town to keep flood waters from running through the heart of town.  This preventative measure had been undertaken so long ago, most residents were not aware of its existence until someone sent the local papers some pictures of the now grassed over channel to remind folks why Hancock was luckier than its sister city across the canal.  In the Upper Peninsula, old timers recall a winter storm of 1938 as being the 100 year snowstorm of the last century, but I swear that in my sixty-five years on the planet, I have driven through a half a dozen storms that at least seemed like the storm of the century.  Perhaps that is the difference: the storm of 1938 locked everything up and neither the trains or the snowplows ventured out whereas the blizzards I am talking about didn’t completely shut down travel.

    About now, you are probably thinking, “What kind of an idiot travels during a blizzard anyway?”  I have to admit that in most of these traveling scenarios, had I known what was coming, I would not have made the decision to be on the road during those storms.  It usually turned out that we were already on the road and had to play the hand we were dealt. In each and every case, we safely arrived at our destination and said one last prayer of thanks for making it home (or where ever we were heading) in one piece.  My hat is tipped in gratitude to those with jobs that require them to venture out during the worst that Mother Nature can offer up be they in law enforcement, the medical field, emergency services, utility companies, or the aforementioned road crews.

    During my senior year at NMU, our guitar player booked us a Christmas Dance in Coldwater, Michigan which we only agreed to play because it allowed all of us to visit friends attending school in Ann Arbor.  If we had taken a side trip from Coldwater south to the Indiana state line, it would have been no farther than the distance we travelled to the majority of our band jobs in the central U.P. With our gas, lodging, and food covered, the whole trip was a grand adventure for the members of Sledgehammer.  When we departed from Coldwater for the return trip, it was pouring rain until we were just north of Battle Creek. At that point, it turned to heavy wet snow and halfway to Mount Pleasant, it began piling up on the freeway. Even traveling at 40 mph or less, we were watching people spin out to the left and the right of us so frequently, Barry and I started counting the revolutions they made before hitting the ditch.  Driving my dad’s half ton pick up with half of our band gear on board, we eventually found out we had more traction and control driving in the foot of snow that remained on the unplowed passing lane rather than in the two icy ruts in the right lane. Mike and Lindsey had the rest of the equipment in Mike’s van but we lost touch with them by the time we hit I-75. While stopped for gas in Mount Pleasant, I took a couple of minutes to call home (yes, in a phone booth in those pre-cell phone days) and let my folks know that if it got much worse, we would pull in somewhere and wait it out.  Dad didn’t sound at all concerned but agreed that it would be the sensible thing to do.

    It was slow going and once we crossed the Mackinac Bridge, driving conditions were no better as we navigated US 2 to Engadine before we crossed north to M 28.  Just before we hit the eastern end of the Seney Stretch, the snow stopped. From Seney to Munising, the road was plowed wide enough to land a jumbo jet on. From Munising to Marquette, the roads were dry and clear.   No wonder my dad seemed unconcerned about the weather – it had been a beautiful day in Marquette. It had taken us about eight hours of road time to get to Ann Arbor, yet it took closer to sixteen hours for us to make the return trip.  The extra traction gave us an edge, but it was still a little too white knuckle for me to want to repeat this long a winter trip anytime soon.

    My wife has not been immune to these kinds of harrowing drives.  When our family still fit into a four-wheel drive Subaru wagon, she had at least two episodes where she drove into and out of  freak snowstorms between Ontonagon and Houghton. In both cases, she and her mother would have turned around and come home had they been able to see well enough to find a place to turn around.  On the return leg of one of these trips, she picked me up after school. It was one of those sunny November afternoons in Ontonagon and at first I didn’t recognize the ice-encrusted car that pulled up in front of me.  She used to claim that it was the four-wheel drive car that attracted the bad weather, at least until she got caught in a similar predicament coming to get me from the Hancock airport. She was driving our Ford Fusion in the late fall and we at that point had not found it necessary to put snow tires on either of our cars.  Had it not been for the driver of the pickup truck she followed from Twin Lakes to South Range (who would put on his turn signals to alert her to bends in the road), she might still be out there. The snow had stopped and given way to pouring rain by South Range. Halfway up the hill in Hancock, the wet, slick snow returned and she had to pull over and call for a tow to the top of Quincy Hill.  The tow truck driver suggested that we might want to invest in snow tires (‘Finnish Four Wheel Drive’ he called it) and you can rightly surmise that we went forth with snow tires on her car from that point. We are down to one vehicle now, but we won’t enter another winter without getting the snow tires put on our current Fusion before snow flies.

    The one instance I was glad to not be on the road occurred in the late 1970s when we were still dating.  The plan was for me to drop my wife-to-be off for her midnight shift at the hospital in Marquette and then head out to Ontonagon (something that I did every other weekend in those days).  The problem was finding my car. By the time the appointed hour came, my car and the snowbank were one and the same. She ended up walking to the hospital with a coworker and I called the city police to find out if I would get a ticket for leaving my car out on the street overnight.  The policeman I talked to said, “Don’t worry about it. I don’t think we have enough time to ticket every car stuck on the street so just wait and dig it out in the morning.” I called in to tell my then JH principal that there was no way I was going to make it to work Monday morning.  When I got back Tuesday, Wayne made it a point to tell me that there had been another teacher in Marquette that weekend and they had made it back just fine. I told him I didn’t have a clue when they would have left town and what kind of driving weather they may have encountered. The State Police put up a roadblock and closed the highway between Ishpeming and L’Anse.  Should I have risked life and limb by driving around a roadblock? I may still have been young and foolish, but I reminded Wayne that I wasn’t stupid enough to risk my life for the sake of missing one day of work.

    On the other hand, winter storms that keep most people off the road can make traveling rather serene.  One Thanksgiving weekend, our family had gathered at our camp on Huron Bay. I had to leave Friday afternoon for a band job with Easy Money at the Elks Club in Iron River.  It was snowing so hard that the majority of Friday was spent fending off helpful opinions that I should just call and tell the band I wasn’t coming. I assured everyone that if the driving was that bad, I would come back to camp and bunch the gig.  Once I got past L’Anse, the snow diminished and the plows had the two lanes of US 41 clear. The plan was to take M 141 south from Covington and then US 2 west to Iron River. Even though the snow had finally stopped by the time I turned south at Covington Junction, the road had not been plowed.  Just past Covington, I also found that no one else had blazed a trail from there all the way to Amasa. It was a little disconcerting because the blanket of snow on the road obscured the snow banks making it hard to tell exactly where I was driving. I resolved to stay in the middle of the flattest section which more than likely was the road.  Once I relaxed, it was a very peaceful drive though I briefly considered how long I would be stranded if I did spin out. Having given myself plenty of time, I just slowed down and enjoyed the ride. Still, it was a bit of relief to see other tracks on the road once I reached Amasa. It would be a lie to say I didn’t have the trip back to Ontonagon on my mind during the whole gig, but it turned out that US 2 to Watersmeet and US 45 north to Ontonagon were well plowed and the night was clear and cold for the return home.

    As we entered January of 2019, Ontonagon County had a meager amount of snow compared to some years.  This did not prevent the storm that blew up on the evening of January 8 from becoming my ‘100 year’ worst winter driving episode.  My wife and I had signed up for a CPR/AED training session at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Mass City. The drive to Mass City was no problem but in the three hours we were there, the wind came up and the snow came down in buckets.  As we left Mass City, we noted the amount of snow that had already accumulated but didn’t experience the teeth of the storm until we passed Greenland. On the way back to Ontonagon, the lack of previous snowfall meant the normal January snow banks weren’t there to act as points of reference.  With the wind blowing the driving snow directly at us, we turned on our fog lights, put on our emergency flashers, and resolved to travel as slow as necessary to navigate the twelve miles home.

    Nearing the old Wilber Ranch homestead, we could see an extremely bright light shining through the blowing snow.  When we were almost on top of the light, it became apparent that there was a police car with flashing lights in front of a wrecker (with the extremely bright light bar) on our left where a car had slid off into the ditch.  Between the wrecker’s light bar and the blowing snow, I was having a hard time visualizing exactly where the road was. That is until my wife pointed out that there were long stocks of field grass being mowed down by the bumper on her side of the car.  She instinctively reached over and dropped the car into low gear and I made what amounted to a right angle turn to the left to pull us out of the ditch and back onto the road. From there we found the rumble strip on the centerline and crept onward toward home.  The only bright spot I could come up with was, “Well, had I driven father into the farm field, at least there was a wrecker already there.”

    As we neared the Calumet Road, the wrecker caught up to us and then followed us as we felt our way back to town.  At times the visibility turned to absolute zero, forcing us to slow to a snail’s pace until the blowing snow parted enough for us to see some landmark that assured us we were still on the road.  The wrecker kept weaving back and forth but it didn’t appear like he was trying to pass us. Eventually we noticed that there was a vehicle behind the wrecker that must have been trying to pass him and (God bless him) he was running interference so we would not have been put into an even more dangerous situation.  We finally reached our turn off on Seventh Street and I doubt the wrecker driver saw my jaunty wave of appreciation, but my wife and I gave thanks many times over for surviving a hairy twelve mile drive we would prefer to not repeat.

    As the Michigan State Police remind us at this time of year, “Go slow on ice and snow” but there are times when it is just better to stay off the roads completely.


Top Piece Video:  Okay, a snow song but not exactly about travel . . .