Savoring the gifts of snow

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2009

A few days after I enjoyed the uniquely Juneau experience of shoveling in the rain, I read today that we are on our way to record-breaking snowfall again this year.

The hand-dug mountain blocking the view out of my driveway is a testament to this, and I felt disturbingly unsurprised. Maybe it is the brightness for all of us Juneauites used to the gray skies; the snow seems to reflect not only whatever residual brightness we find in the sky, but also whatever we find in ourselves. As a beneficiary of many random acts of snow kindness, I know this is true.

I really cannot count the number of times strangers have plowed the undercarriage-busting berm from the foot of my driveway. Each time I began the encounter flushed with sweat of exertion and ended it flushed with relief instead. And though I can't dig someone else out easily, each encounter pushed me to find a way to pass this moment of relief on to someone else.

Once I was shoveling my driveway with my daughter already strapped into her carseat in the car, and a man with a plow came by. He rolled down his window and one-finger waved me out of the driveway. I felt awkward for a moment, seeking a place outside the plow's reach, shovel in hand. But with a few shoves of his plow, my drive was clear. I thanked him, and he called me over.

"If your car is gone when I come back by in 15 minutes, I'll plow out the whole spot, if you want," he offered.

I got in the car and moved immediately. When I returned that night, what had previously been a narrow, bumpy spot was a clean and wide. It was a tremendous gift and I wished I could thank him for it.

Lately, on mornings after a snowfall, when my daughter and I are walking to school in the snow muffled darkness, we are greeted at each driveway with the scrape and roar of snow removal. On days when there is no snow, we never see another soul on our walk; on the days when nature knits us a new white blanket, we are all equal, all grunting and struggling against the weight of the weather in the predawn morning.

I feel this same camaraderie whenever we go to Eaglecrest, a place that naturally brings people together in the snow, that really defines itself by this connection. Out there, the more snow, the happier the crowd. More people show up in the deep snow; the community of Eaglecrest grows with mounds of snow in the parking lot. We are united by the snow in our universal pursuit of fresh air and the thrill of the outdoors.

During the most recent heavy snow, my daughter and I went Nordic skiing at the campground. The snow fell thick and fast, and before I could put both of our hoods up, they were filled with fat, wet flakes. The skiing was not forgiving, gripping our skis, preventing us from moving well. But ahead of me, my daughter tugged her skis through the snow with an ever deepening pile atop her head, I knew the effort was worth it, to have that moment of white quiet with her.

Now this weekend, my family has decided to try sleeping in a snow cave. It will not be tremendously adventurous; it will likely be in our yard. Having slept in many snow caves, my husband insists they are both warm and cozy. I am doubtful. But it is my husband's hope that after this, I will be willing to try the snow cave in a more interesting (remote) location. I will make no promises. But I'll be there in my sleeping bag, engaging with the snow again and hoping, again, for it to bring out the best in me.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a Juneau parent and teacher.

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