The lake effect snowstorms that churn up over the open waters of Lake Ontario are of epic proportions. It is not uncommon to receive dumpings of several feet of snow from these unpredictable storms in a matter of one or two hours. One minute the sun will be shining and the next minute you are literally unable to see your hand in front of your face as the white stuff cascades from the sky.
I grew up in a small community in the Tug Hill region of New York State about twenty miles east of Lake Ontario and in the direct path of these monstrous storms so I learned from an early age how to spot the signs of incoming snow. One sunny afternoon in February of 1975 I was driving home across one of the more remote regions of Tug Hill after a weekend of winter camping with some friends when, glancing to the west, noticed a large gray cumulus cloud formation off Lake Ontario heading in my direction. I knew from experience that snow would soon be falling and less than a mile further on my journey it started to come down, first as snow flurries and then as if the heavens had opened. I kept on but proceeded slower and slower until I was at a crawl, and unable to see much in front of or on either side of me. I looked in my rearview mirror and was just able to make out the headlights of a car right on my tail.
The problem with driving in weather like this is not so much the snow per se but trying to find the road while watching out for vehicles approaching from either direction. The safest thing to do when you can no longer see the road is to stop, hopefully without driving into a ditch, and then wait for the storm to pass.
As I crawled along at ten miles per hour I knew I was going to have to stop soon but was nervously eyeing that car behind me; I was hoping the driver would see my brake lights and stop before sliding into my rear end. I put my right directional light on, pulled off the road as far as I dared and, thankfully, the driver in back of me did the same short of colliding with the cast iron bumper of my pick-up truck.
I turned on my four-way flashers, shifted the truck to neutral and set the emergency brake. I got out and as I walked to the car behind me glanced down at the front bumper. The Georgia license suggested the driver was probably from the nearby military base and most likely unaccustomed to our winter storms. I made my way to the driver’s side of the car and the woman behind the wheel lowered her window.
“You OK?” I said.
“I’m scared…my baby! I don’t know what to do!” she said with panic in her voice.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“And your baby?”
She held her baby close to her and said “James.”
“Well, Mary and James. Don’t worry about a thing. We will get through this just fine. I’m going to get a few things for you…I’ll be right back.”
By that time the snow was coming down so hard I could barely see past the hood of her car as I slogged back through the snow to the camper on the back of my truck. I climbed inside, turned on the ceiling light and grabbed a couple of Snickers bars, a spare sleeping bag and a length of rope. Then I trudged through the nearly two feet of snow back to her car and she rolled her window down.
“Mary, while we wait out this storm I need you and James to bundle up in this sleeping bag. Keep your windows opened about an inch to let fresh air in and keep your motor off. It’s not too cold…you should be warm enough; but I’ll be checking on you every few minutes. Can you do that?” She shook her head yes.
“Here are some candy bars. How much water do you have?”
“About a liter, I think.”
“Good. Make sure you stay hydrated. If you run low on water I have some more.”
I was looking at James and she must have read my thoughts.
“I nurse him” she said “he will be OK.”
She looked at my hand and said “What’s the rope for?”
“I’m going to tie it to your mirror and then to the back of my truck so I can find my way back to you.”
“Could it really snow that hard?!” she said.
“It might. I’ve seen a lot worse than this. OK, so I am going to head back to my truck and watch for a plow to come through. I’ll check in on you in fifteen minutes.”
As I turned toward my truck she said “Wait…what’s your name?”
“Bill” I said.
She smiled and said “Thank you, Bill.”
I tied the rope to her mirror and walked to the back of my truck where I tied the other end to my rear bumper. Next I made it to the front of my truck and locked the Warn hubs on the front wheels in case I needed to use the four wheel drive. I climbed back into my cab and listened for the sound of an approaching town plow.
The snowfall was getting more intense, and looking straight ahead I had no hope of seeing anything other than white. I focused all of my attention on listening for that plow while praying that the driver would see my truck in time to avoid a collision.
“Dear God, I know a plow will be coming by soon. Please help the driver see my truck before it’s too late.”
I waited the fifteen minutes to check on Mary and James but was unable to open my door: The snow was too high. I lowered the window, slid out into snow through the opening and half swam, half hiked my way to the rear of my truck where I climbed into the camper and put on my snowshoes. I went back out into the snowstorm and groped for the rope leading to Mary’s car. I checked on them and confident they were safe and warm started back to my truck.
Visibility was still nonexistent so I heard but could not see the approaching plow. I stopped for a moment as I tried to judge how far off the truck was when I realized I was not hearing a snowplow at all. The deep grinding and blowing sound heading in my direction was that of a giant snow blower. My mouth suddenly went dry and my heart raced because I knew that out there, somewhere in that world of boundless white, was a behemoth snow eater heading right toward us.
All of the towns on Tug Hill had the usual snowplows for clearing roads but when there was this much snow they would plow through the snow only to have it slide back into the road. There would be no place for the mountains of snow to go. To answer the call for these crazy lake effect storms a few of these towns had huge snow blowers. These custom-built trucks typically consisted of a blower mounted on the front of a Mac truck. On the flat bed behind the cap sat a Rolls Royce aircraft engine the size of a small school bus which providing the muscle to the blower augers. The blowers themselves are taller than most men and can easily clear a single lane country road in one swipe. They are unstoppable as they chew up and blow mountains of snow fifty feet off the side of the road and I was fearful that this one in front of me wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to our undetectable vehicles buried in its snowy path.
I had to think fast. I estimated the snow blower to be about two hundred feet up the road but sounds can be deceiving in heavy snowstorms. All I knew was that I had to try to get the driver’s attention before he collided with my truck or, worse, sideswiped Mary’s car with her and James inside.
I grabbed my flashlight off the dash of my truck and snowshoeing as fast as I could in the deep snow headed in the direction of the approaching beast while searching through the blinding snow for the flashing lights I knew would be adorning its head.
Pushing on through the snow I finally saw just the slightest glimmer of a flashing red light. Yes, I could just barely see the outline of the truck. Pointing my flashlight directly at where I estimated the driver to be I began to tap out SOS: dit.dit.dit.dot…dot…dot.dit.dit.dit; over and over. The beast kept coming toward me and the thought of being ground up by the augers and sprayed over the snow crossed my mind.
Suddenly the blower went quiet and the truck stopped. I hurried up to the driver’s side, released my snowshoes and climbed the eight or so steps of the ladder to driver’s window. Inside was an older man in a flannel shirt and suspenders calmly smoking a pipe while basking in the warmth of his truck’s cab. He didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see me when he said “What’s up son?”
I explained the entire scenario to him and he said “Hold on tight. You keep an eye on your vehicles and guide me past them.” He engaged the blower, shifted the truck into low gear and slowly started moving ahead.
By now the snow was beginning to let up so that by the time we were within fifty feet of the vehicles Mary could see me hanging on the side of the truck with one arm while waving madly with the other. She waived back and I could tell she understood what we were doing.
Well past Mary’s car and now with the snow storm spitting the last remaining flakes, I thanked our friendly snow blower operator and bid him on his way.
Climbing down the ladder I could clearly see for the first time what we were dealing with. While standing on the nearly bare road I took in the incredible volume of snow that had fallen in less than one hour. On either side of me were perfectly straight five feet tall walls of snow.
I ran up to Mary’s car and had to shovel snow away from around her door with my hands to find her and James safe inside.
She lowered her window, looked up at me said “We’re OK. Is it over?”
“It is” I said pointing at the sky “sunshine and blue skies from here on. Now we just need to get you and James back on the road and on your way.”
I got a shovel from my camper and dug enough snow away from the front of her car so I could attach a chain and pull her out onto the road. I fired up my truck, slipped it into low range four wheel drive and gently pulled Mary’s car from the snow bank. I finished clearing the rest of the snow off both vehicles and stepped around the side of Mary’s window.
“So, where are you headed on this fine winter’s day?”
That made her giggle as she explained she was on her way to Scranton, Pennsylvania to see her sister. She then asked if I knew of a phone nearby; her sister would be worried about her arriving late and she needed to call her husband back on the base as well.
“There’s a little diner about five miles ahead. Follow me and I’ll show you.”
“You’ve done enough for me already” she said “I don’t want to hold you up.”
“I’d actually feel better knowing you made it out of this snow. This was an isolated band, once we reach that diner you’ll be surprised how little snow there is.”
My prediction was right; as we pulled into that diner there was no sign of any fresh snow at all. I helped her inside with James and ordered some coffee and apple pie for both of us while she called her sister. When she returned to our table we talked a bit while we ate and then she excused herself to phone her husband while I watched James for her.
Emerging around the corner from the phone booth a few minutes later she said her husband Tom wanted to speak to me. I walked past a few folks sitting at their tables and picked up the phone.
“Hello, Tom? Mary said you wanted to speak to me.”
“Hey Bill. Yeah, I really appreciate what you did for my wife and son. Mary said you risked your life out there in that snowstorm. I don’t know how I could ever repay you.”
“Not a big deal” I said “Glad I was able to help out.”