Posted by: trevormeers | March 8, 2010

Defrosting the Coon-shroom

When temperatures hit 35 last week, Iowans started driving around with their windows down and wandering out into their driveways in flip-flops to stare transfixed at  water dripping from their ice-dammed eves. But plenty of folks in seriously cold climates aren’t quite as excited as we are about the growing thaw. A few weeks ago in Minnesota, I heard a visiting meteorologist tell a conference audience that February looked like it might trend slightly warmer than usual. During the Q&A session, I was basking in the hope promised by such a statement when a resort owner raised his hand and said, “That won’t ruin our snowmobiling will it?”

Alaskans know the spring thaw (still a good month away for most of them) as “breakup,” which isn’t all that welcome for many who live deep in the bush. In winter, rivers provide frozen snowmachine highways. During breakup, they are raging, impassable torrents choked with ice flows. If you live in a remote cabin, you’re usually stranded until breakup is over. (Fans of Into the Wild will recall what living downstream of breakup meant to Chris McCandless.) New Englanders call this “mud season,” which, to them, is as much a fifth season as high-school football is to Texans.

Iowans don’t have a good name for the spring thaw, but Groundhog Season wouldn’t be a bad option. Because even though an entire, hard-won month of winter now separates us from Feb. 2, the thaw has turned us all into Punxsutawney Phils, glimpsing winter’s shadows over our shoulders in every direction.

As a near-record accumulation of snow (62 inches of it in central Iowa) slowly seeps into the creeks, rivers and Earth, it reveals secrets entombed since the first flakes flew more than three months ago. Winter’s slowly relaxing grip has reminded me of the story I read in Highlights magazine as a kid, where one winter grew so cold that it froze people’s words in mid-air. Once the atmosphere finally thawed out in the spring, the air filled with the sound of preserved conversations and—in an image I’ve never shaken—the thawing howls of wolves.

Now that Iowa temperatures are regularly creeping past 40, seemingly every highway median is coughing up whitetail deer like ice caps melting down to reveal their inner mastodons. I passed one twisted basket buck yesterday. The evidence says he’s been there since right after the new year, since all the living deer shed their racks by mid-January. Looking for such evidence turns a commute to work into a game of CSI: Roadside Ditch. Teri spotted a raccoon melting out of a snowbank yesterday, his compressed carcass teetering atop a small pillar of snow the sun couldn’t reach through his body. A coon-shroom, in her words.

On the interstate in northern Missouri, I saw a Christmas tree in the median, providing me a few miles of distraction as I speculated about the scene. Did some yokel decide a remote interstate median was the place to dump their tree in January? Or did the tree blow off a minivan back in December, prompting a flustered suburban dad to just go buy a new one at Home Depot rather than wade out among the semis in the dark?

Every road wears a halo of automotive shrapnel, shattered plastic evidence of what must be the most crash-intensive winter we’ve had in decades. A mile from our house, an entire yellow bumper has sprouted from the snow like the first tulip. About five miles from our house, the snow banks have receded enough to reveal a big 4Runner-shaped indentation that still makes me breathe a prayer of thanks with each passing.

At the end of our driveway, three square feet of sod just emerged at knee level, plucked neatly from its home by a snowplow at some point. I wish sod was all I’d find when the backyard melts down enough to release all the treasures Moose has deposited beneath the snowy mantle over the last few months.

This year’s snow seemed like one that might just stick around long enough to create cornfield glaciers. But now brown grass is popping out on hillsides everywhere, and suburban intersections are growing steadily safer as snow piles shrink from car-top to door-handle height. Still, the snow is releasing the state only grudgingly. The weather radio is already warning of streams swelling with runoff this weekend, ensuring winter will keep casting its long shadow for weeks to come.

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