Thursday, January 11, 2018

January Thaw

For about three years running when I was a kid, I wanted to have an ice-skating party for my birthday, which falls this month. Each year, winter would start off all frosty and lovely. The ice would freeze smooth on the pond just down the road. The invitations would go out. And then the January Thaw would arrive, just in time to turn the pond to slush and ruin my plans.

This year, winter has started off with a combination of lots of fluffy snow and brutally cold days. Several days over the holiday vacation week, I felt as if I were wearing a corset as I zipped into my coach’s jacket, so tightly packed were the layers of polypro and down beneath.

So when I snuck out for a few runs early this week, it was blissful to ski without being hunched up against the cold and wearing so many layers that I could barely move. Those runs were beautiful. A bit of fresh, soft snow, great cover on all the trails, and a temperature right around freezing.

That moment of bliss, I’m afraid, preceded this year’s January Thaw.

As I write this column, it is still solidly winter. The trees are dressed in lacy white. The field is fully covered. The mountain peaks at the edge of my view are snowy. But the forecast looks warm and wet for the end of the week. By the time anyone reads this column, we’ll know how bad it is. I won’t even utter that four-letter word that begins with R; it’s dirtier than the mud it causes. Alas, I’m afraid it’s coming.

The January Thaw is a bit of an ambiguous concept. There’s no exact date for the dreaded phenomenon, and some years it doesn’t even happen – or it comes in December or February or, the worst, multiple times over the course of a winter. The Farmer’s Almanac, that bastion of long-range weather prediction that meteorologists urge us not to believe because the science is vague, or, perhaps, non-existent, describes The Thaw thusly:

“Small ‘blips’ in the overall pattern reveal noticeable fluctuations that can be observed from year to year. These blips are called singularities in weather lingo. Indian Summer, a period of unseasonably warm weather that usually appears in mid-October, is one such blip. The January Thaw is another.”

I will say that I much prefer the other singularity – Indian Summer – to this one. The Almanac goes on to say the January Thaw typically sees temperatures an average of 10 degrees higher than the previous week. Well, this is one heck of a thaw. By week’s end, temps are forecast to be in the mid-40s – above zero. That’s about a 70-degree change from a week prior!

If I can find any solace in this weather “blip,” it is that it will be brief – and in the fact that it has been happening (though perhaps not as dramatically) for far longer than I have been lamenting it.

Some years ago, my mother gave the kids a book called “Ollie’s Ski Trip,” written in 1907 by Swedish author Elsa Beskow. Young Ollie loves winter – and snow, skating, sledding, skiing – and is thrilled to meet Jack Frost, but dismayed by the occasional early arrival of winter’s “cleaning lady,” Mrs. Thaw, who forgets when she is supposed to set to work and sometimes tries to melt Jack Frost’s handiwork before spring arrives.

Whenever Ollie noticed hints that Mrs. Thaw was at work, he’d chant, “Mrs. Thaw, Mrs. Thaw, Please don’t sweep our snow away! Come again some other day!”

If only it were so easy to control the weather. Here’s hoping Jack Frost follows close on Mrs. Thaw’s heals this January, and there’s plenty of winter still to come.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the January 12, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

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