A mid-November morning, rimed round the edges, dead leaves skittering down the street, raucous magpies convening at the head of the cul-de-sac that caps our street.
Two men share a thermos of coffee and talk Montana weather. One remarks, “Mayor Willard Fraser said other cities have weather but Billings is blessed with climate.”
“Blessed with weather. Cursed with climate. What difference does it make?” the second man wondered.
“I dunno,” said the first. “I do know that mallow grows in the dead of winter. Geese have stopped flying south. Whitetail deer are dying and no one ice skates anymore.”
Wild ice on sloughs and ponds freezes too late and thaws too early to support a decent ice skating season. Common mallow doesn’t need much heat, only a thawed patch where the ground can catch to sun for half a day. Folks feed the big honkers, in their backyards or in parks, taking the wild out of them. The birds find no reason to migrate.
Cleaning out the cupboard in search of sugar today, a friend found a single wasp. What the wasp thought he was doing in that place at this time of the year is anyone’s guess. The thoughts of the friend, who was looking for sugar to cure a long siege of hiccups, were obscured by the texture of his voice.
“^$^%$#^,” he said. I found the wasp’s corpse when I took over the sugar search. I found no sugar but did find a bottle of pancake syrup. The syrup shut down the hiccups.
The climate/weather chatter halted for a moment, then resumed. The men talked about winter, back when ice skating rinks (as well as sloughs and ponds) still froze.
Muskrats and large carp swam beneath the clear ice. “We used to chase them,” the first man said. “Of course, we never caught them,” the second man added.
They once imagined ling slithering through deep holes like eels, pig-faced catfish weighing 10 pounds or more and shad flashing silver near the bottom.
“Remember when we found that big clam?” the second man asked.
“It was a mussel, not a clam,” said the first man.
The mussel was bleached white, lying splayed open, and reminded the men (then still boys) of a half shell found in the bottom of an eight-foot pit. They had dug the pit to hold a septic tank in a corner of the yard where homesteaders had buried two children long ago.
The shovel clanked when it hit the empty shell, scraping away river sand that had buried it. The exposed clam shell looked very much like the cap of a boy’s skull. It took the diggers seconds to vault out of the hole and hours to muster the nerve to return to their digging.
Weather palaver drifted through December and into January. Clothes pulled from a bouncing, jostling washing machine froze on the line, so stiff they would stand up in a corner. Pans of water set out for the chickens produced round cakes of ice. Cars refused to start. Water pipes froze. Coal oil, coal and wood drained the household budget.
Sometimes an Arctic front would drag tragedy in its train. The massacred big game made gory wire service photos. Imagine 16 or 20 deer or pronghorn antelope bedding down on a road or railroad bed. Drifting snow would capture the lot. A single locomotive or semi-tractor trailer would turn living animals into carcasses of shattered white bones and bloody pieces of hind quarters.
Cattle caught in a blizzard would turn their backs to the wind and plod onward until icicles grew from their noses. Clouds of ducks would burst into the sky at the approach of a dog or human. Moisture on their bills would freeze, sealing their nostrils.
Once a pair of teenage boys in a ranch pickup was stuck in a drift covering a patch of highway from shoulder to shoulder. The boys started walking. Both were found frozen to death within 200 yards of their truck.
The freeze-up of rivers as big as the Yellowstone begins high in the mountains. Water gains density as it cools toward the freezing point. Just before crystallizing, the water expands and rises to the top of the stream. Soon slush floats six inches deep on the breast of the flood.
Floating slush becomes floating ice. The frozen armada grinds to a halt on gravel bars and grassy shoals. It has only to stall for seconds for the white slush to solidify into clear ice.
Just before breakup, water runs in rivulets atop the ice. Sun weakens the ice. Rising floodwater shatters it. Slabs of ice a foot thick and as big as the kitchen floor bash one another, jam together and raise the flood behind them.
Sometimes a large cake of ice melts away in a patch of wild rose.
The spring breakup once drew crowds along the Yellowstone. The clash of slabs of ice would clog the river in the bends and atop riffles, creating jams that would, in turn, create instant floods.
When floods threatened homes or even towns, the imperiled would urge desperate measures. Once, in Miles City, officials considered bombing the ice with coal dust (to increase the sun’s effect) and using dynamite to break up a stubborn and dangerous jam.
In the end the same Nature that created the problem solved it and the ice drifted downstream.
Today, milder winters have produced thinner ice or no ice cover at all, robbing us of this spectacle.
Second man suggests that the loss of goose migrations, ice jams and ice skating can all be blamed on a single man - Al Gore.