Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 1
January 3 - 9, 2002
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Winter, Where Art Thou?

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.

– American Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet:
“Meditations Divine and Moral,” 1664

Well, Annie, let me tell you. For a time hereabouts, a bunch of us were wondering whether or not we were going to have a winter. But now we’re observing — and feeling — some signs of a mild season between spring and fall.

Until a week ago, we were wandering around in shirtsleeves. The big fuel tank in the basement of the Burton household on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County made it through Christmas without a visit from Allied Fuel.

In the modern-firearms deer season that closed at the end of the first week in December, mosquitoes were still biting hunters enough that on the Eastern Shore bug repellent was among the biggest sellers in sporting goods stores.

Duck hunting in Chesapeake Bay Country was pretty much of a bust. What with all the warmer weather to the north of us, ducks had no reason to fly south. They’re like us: they appreciate creature comforts, the foremost of which is warmth. So why spend all that energy to head our way when things were comfy where they were?

It was a bit different with Canada geese. They seem to go more by the calendar than do ducks. We heard honking on schedule, and the first short goose season was highly successful. The second half of the split season that opened in mid-December started off with a bang, a big bang. Literally.

Rewards of a Late Gardener
A few days after the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I picked a few tomatoes from the garden.

Unheard of late peppers were downright tasty, even the lone jalapeño that skeptic Alan Doelp picked from the one plant of that variety in my garden. He’s from west Texas (he naturally would claim the west should be capitalized, but you know how Texans are.) But when he got one of the jalapeño seeds stuck between his teeth and he felt the heat, my hot peppers got his approval, which from a west Texan is rare indeed.

A few days before Christmas when the media weathermen told us that freezing temperatures were on the way, I picked the last of the bell peppers, about a dozen in all. They weren’t big and the plants were somewhat droopy, but the peppers, both red and green, had good flavor. One is still on the kitchen window sill completing the ripening process.

I learned something about all of this that should interest those who procrastinate when it comes to gardening tasks once the plants that bear fruits, vegetables and blossoms begin to fade in fall. The tidy gardener sets forth immediately to clean up the garden, pull or cut back the vegetation and look with satisfaction at the bare and neat soil ready for the spring planting several months hence.

I don’t do that, not when fish are still hungry and when ducks, geese, grouse and quail are still flying. Moreover, there’s much satisfaction in seeing a late blooming rose, flower or vegetable. Also, I admit it, I procrastinate. Fishing and hunting are much more fun than gardening.

It’s just as easy to pull all the browned plants in April or May when it’s time to replace them. No need to miss a day when Chesapeake Bay waters might be warm enough that fish will bite, not to mention when fowl are flying.

Fish Are Still Biting
This year, Bay temperatures stayed relatively warm much longer; matter of fact, white perch and rockfish are still being caught. Some of the rockfish are big and as far north as the Bay Bridge, with more than a few of 10 pounds or more still accommodating even farther north at such nooks as the mouth of the Patapsco, Baltimore Light and off Love Point.

Hey, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be — not when we cut the rockfish season off at the end of November, which, coincidentally, has been in recent seasons when the biggest stripers of all are present, fresh in from the sea.

It’s a forceful argument for those who want the season extended into December, if not all of this month. No better chance than then for hooking big stripers and keeping them rather than just catching and putting them back.

Unseasoned Years
Still, who wants a year without a winter? What fun would there be without spring to look forward to? The only plus for no winter that I can think of would be we wouldn’t be subjected to hyped and shameless media weathermen warning us to go out and stock up on toilet paper, milk, bread and cigarettes because the storm of the century is headed our way.

When I got to thinking about a year without winter, I thought of a year without summer. Being from Vermont as a youngster, I was constantly reminded about the legendary Year Without a Summer. Vermont was one of the states hardest hit by that virtually summerless year of 1816.

Following that year, no Vermont farmers ever complained about the heat when haying, mending fences or working the soil of their farms. Any disparaging word about hot summer temperatures drew the instant reminder of what it was like in the year “Eighteen Hundred Froze to Death,” which of course was an exaggeration because the toll was 18, not 1,800. Vermonters have long memories, but they’re not always accurate.

The Year Without a Summer was also referred to as Poverty Year and Pioneer Year. Poverty because crops failed as frost or even snow kept returning to wipe out seedlings. Pioneer Year because more than a few Vermonters headed west to homestead: They could take Vermont winters, but not Vermont summers.

The whole mess was attributed to three major volcano eruptions on the other side of the world raising dust that took years to fall back to earth, clearing the atmosphere so the sun could do its usual thing. Vermont wasn’t the only frigid state; summer frosts were endured as far south as Maryland and Virginia.

In Hardwick, Vermont, a heavy snow fell from June 7 to 9. Farmers had just sheared their sheep and had to bring them into barns and even homes for warmth. Still they lost many, also livestock, because there was little if any haying that year, thus no food for them. They starved.

Whatever grew — including livestock — was saved for the family table. One farmer fed his family the cut-up potatoes with eyes that were planted but hadn’t pushed through the ground. Each day he dug some up for the dinner table.

At times, people could be seen in summer wearing overcoats and mittens. Ice was on ponds as far south as Philadelphia as intermittent cold snaps returned. The weather would warm, and farmers would re-plant their crops only to see reoccurring frosts kill them. That went on all summer.

A farm woman in Connecticut on June 7 spread some clothes out to dry on the lawn as was a common farm practice at the time. When she gathered them up, they were frozen stiff.

A few miles south of the Vermont border in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the temperature was 85 degrees at noon on June 5. At 7am the following day, it was 45 — and that was the highest it would rise that day. Several days later, it was 30.5 degrees. At Danville, Vermont, the weekly paper North Star wrote of snow drifts 18 to 20 inches.

Just think of the ball TV weathermen could have had in the ‘Summer’ of 1816.

Enough said about years with neither winters nor summers. I’ll take things as they’re supposed to be.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly