If it’s not the Blizzard of ’78, it’s last year’s April Fools Day storm. Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about the weather . . . or rather this year’s lack of it. I knock on the wooden handle of my snow shovel as I write this, but it has been a mild winter. Better than mild. Should we even call this winter? It’s more like an extended fall . . . and spring is right around the corner.
This time last year I was living in a winterized cottage on the south end of Humarock. In exchange for modest rent money and a promise to keep the cat fed, a friend let me stay in her house for the first few months of the year. I lived alone and loved every minute of it.
I considered my stay in Humarock to be a retreat. Outside of work and a modest social calendar, I had almost unlimited time to myself — time I filled by writing, reading, and walking on the beach or along the river. It was a retreat from my daily routine, a retreat from the familiar — a time to look back on my life so far, reflect on it, and figure out what I wanted to do next.
Given the opportunity, I would have stayed in Humarock all year. But since the arrangement was only for three months, I had to make my time there count. To do so, I thought it would be best to spend as many hours as possible by myself, with no distractions. While this made sense in principal, in practice it wasn’t always the wisest choice.
I was at my parents’ house on the night of the April Fools Day storm, enjoying a weekly family dinner — a custom we’d begun when I first moved out of the house a few years ago. While normally I would hang out for a couple of hours after dinner, that night I wanted to get right back to Humarock. It had just begun to snow, and I knew that there was a storm coming in. I wanted to return to the cottage while the roads were still relatively clear.
The place I stayed is located in what is considered to be the “safe” part of Humarock — the part that has endured every nor’easter in recent memory, including the Blizzard of ’78, with hardly a scratch, while the rest of the peninsula has fallen victim to strong winds and stormy seas. I reminded myself of this as I crossed the South River at Julian Street, remembering how a rise in the river in a similar storm one hundred years ago had detached one end of Humarock from the mainland.
In retrospect, it seems like a foolish choice. I could have stayed home with my parents, several miles inland, out of reach of the rising water and crashing surf. But instead I opted to go back to the beach. I could say I was thinking of the cat and the long lonely night he had ahead of him, but in all honesty I was thinking more of myself and the extra time I’d be able to spend alone. The roads were slick, requiring me to drive slowly. I skidded a few times, but I arrived in Humarock safely.
Settling in for the night, I found some candles and a flashlight and climbed into bed. I was amazed at how loud the ocean seemed. Out by the beach you can hear the waves all the time: it’s usually a quiet sound, but on this night it was roaring. The wind grew stronger. I didn’t dare look outside. I was afraid, but since there wasn’t much I could do, I just closed my eyes and went to sleep.
But I slept fitfully, waking every so often to a sudden gust of wind or a tree branch scraping the side of the cottage. The power went out in the early morning hours, and with it, the furnace. The house grew cold. I burrowed deeper into my blankets — I would have to wait it out. Even when the sun finally rose behind the storm clouds, I was unable to see outside — the snow had clung to all the window screens.
Later in the morning, when the wind began to die down and the snow finally stopped, I got out of bed and put on several extra layers. In the kitchen I could see my breath, but thanks to the gas stove, I was able to make a warm breakfast and a cup of tea. While the water heated, I picked up the phone to call home — but the line was dead.
I felt a twinge of panic, but it passed quickly. While inconvenient, none of this was unexpected. I was, after all, on the beach in the middle of a snow storm — of course there was no power, of course there was no phone. My greatest concern was that I would not be able to get word to my parents that I was safe on dry land. Before, we had joked about rising storm waters carrying me and my house out to sea: now it didn’t seem so funny.
Even without looking outside, I knew that the next few hours would have to be devoted to shoveling. But I had no idea of what kind of damage the storm had done. I figured that I could clear off the front deck, get the snow off my car, shovel the driveway, and then escape with the cat to a warmer house. I put on my boots, coat, hat and gloves, found a shovel, and headed for the front door. Upon opening it, I saw that I would have to revise my plans: in front of me stood a 3+ foot high drift of snow. It would take me an hour just to cut a path to the street.
And the street! Looking toward the village center, it was clear that the plows had been through, but for some reason they had skipped the section of pavement in front of my house. Looking the other way, I found out why — wires were hanging down from the utility poles, lying limp and tangled in the middle of the road. Maybe they were just phone lines, or cable — but maybe they were electric, maybe they were live wires. I didn’t know — didn’t want to find out. I could shovel all I wanted, but I wasn’t going anywhere.
I was relieved to see that the snow drifts weren’t all three feet high. The wind had created hollows among the drifts that promised temporary respite from what I knew would be a lot of hard work. The snow was wet, heavy, and brown — flecked with sand blown in from the beach. As I hefted the first of many shovels of snow, I cursed myself for being so greedy about my alone-time. Three feet of snow would have been a lot less daunting if I’d had someone to help me with it.
I must admit, I was so captivated by the romance of being snowed in with my books and writing materials that I hadn’t really thought about the dangers associated with a coastal snow storm. Sure I’d considered the likelihood of being swept away in an ocean storm surge, but it hadn’t occurred to me that a loss of power would leave me cold, and the combined effects of downed utility lines and a loss of phone service would cut off communication with the world at large. I didn’t really know anyone in Humarock. I wondered how far I’d have to walk before I’d even find someone to talk to.
Hours passed. I just kept shoveling. By mid-afternoon I had done half the driveway. I was tired, but I kept working so that I could stay warm and avoid thinking about what I was sure would be a long, cold night. Snow plows and other cars would occasionally round the corner, see that the road was impassable, and turn back. No one else seemed to be around. What few neighbors I had never emerged from their houses.
After a while, an unfamiliar car turned down my street and stopped. Expecting a friendly comment on the weather or my shoveling skills, I looked up with an ironic smile. Much to my surprise, the car doors opened and my mother, aunt, and uncle stepped out. They had persuaded a friend with four wheel drive to bring them out to find me.
I was happy to hand my shovel over to my uncle, who finished the job in record time. My mother insisted that I go home with them, and of course I complied — especially since their plan included stopping at the Bridgwaye for a hot meal en route. At the restaurant, where it seemed that all of Humarock had congregated, I was able to check in with my friend by phone, and make arrangements to keep the cat safe and warm. I spent the evening next to my parents’ wood stove, thawing.
Power was restored late the next day, and I immediately went back to Humarock. Within the next 24 hours all the snow had melted away, taking with it the last vestiges of winter. A few weeks later, my retreat came to an end.
I learned a lot about myself during the three months I spent in Humarock, and I made a number of important and difficult decisions while I was there. While it was far from enjoyable, I don’t regret spending the April Fools Day storm in that cottage on the beach. Difficult moments bring us closer to ourselves. But next time a storm is due, I’ll think twice about enduring it alone.
All of this talk about storms calls to mind those people in Canada — thousands of them — who are still without power, still recovering from last year’s disastrous ice storm. My little nor’easter experience seems like nothing in comparison.
by Kezia Bacon, Special to the Mariner
Kezia Bacon serves on the Board of Directors of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.