Yuki no Gengo: The Language of Snow

Snow has been a kindred companion to me for a good many years now. It got into my bones and began to speak to me the very first winter that I set my boots down in the Rockies. That was 1995. I awoke in the Fraser Valley of Colorado to an expanse of fields, foothills, and peaks blanketed with white in every direction and reaching upward to heaven. The sight, along with the thin air and my first morning cigarette at 9,000 feet, literally took my breathe away.

5383273466_a0848d4ddd_bImage courtesy Flickr user Paul Schadler: https://flic.kr/p/9cGFDL

I had traveled over 1,200 miles from Michigan by bus and train to a new home in the mountains. The chalet apartment I bunked down in the previous night would be my new home. Secured with a deposit by mail, I had never met or spoken with the landlord. I had not even seen pictures of the property (the internet was just taking off mind you). Before arriving I did not know whether the place had a stove or a refrigerator, only that it had four walls and a ceiling. Having acquired a job at the nearby Winter Park Resort via an on-the-fly recruitment interview held in Grand Rapids (MI), the only thing I knew stepping off the train was that I had a place to stay and a steady paycheck to look forward to until the following summer.

Nothing could have prepared me for what that first season of endless snowfall was going to whisper deep down inside me. That year I experienced every variety of the mysterious white substance that the subtle variations of moisture, temperature, and the jet stream moving across the state are capable of producing. That 1995-96 ski season brought extreme precipitation to the Berthoud Pass and to the Mary Jane side of the resort. And amidst the endless deposits of powder I was swiftly inducted into the raw, tribalistic culture of backcountry snowboarding. Awaking every morning to chase fresh turns. Returning home every evening to relish our epic stories of conquest.

16164814470_2fabb97c45_zImage courtesy Flickr user paultalb: https://flic.kr/p/qCqUaL

From that first season I went on to spend three more. There were beautiful off-seasons of course. But it was always the snow. When it fell, however it fell, it stirred something primal and survivalist in me. In all of us. It was symbiotic and magical. It occupied our dreams. When we played in it during our waking hours we could scarce distinguish it from the ethereal nocturnal realms of our sleep. The mountains were benevolent wizards that summoned stormfronts to rake over their peaks and release torrents down upon us for our revelry. It was a fine place to be. Time stood still for a few years.

But then the time came to grow up and move on. Even upon returning to my childhood home in Michigan to embark on the “so-called” project of adulthood, the snow would speak to me in passing from the light drifts that skated across the contours of our lakeshore sand dunes. It still does. Speak to me.

GreatLakes.A2005027.1635.250m-1080x831Image courtesy Lake Effect Living: http://lakeeffectliving.com/wordpress/lake-effect-snow/

We occasionally get epic snowstorms here in Western Michigan. We are the lucky recipients of a phenomenon known as the Lake Effect. Usually once or twice each winter a significant cold air mass will move down from Canada or eastward from the Northwestern states and make its way across Lake Michigan. When that cold air mass meets the warm lower layer of moisture in the air over the lake it will take it up into its colder upper layers and deposit it down along the lake shore in heaps. We get absolutely covered in thick, fluffy snow.

The Northern region of Japan’s main island of Honshu and the entirety of the island of Hokkaido benefit from a very similar phenomenon, as cold air from Siberia moves down across the warm waters of the Sea of Japan. This is the Japanese Snow Machine. Japan’s snow deposit via this similar engine is highly unique as the systems that move down from the North to meet the Western shores are much much colder than those typically running their gauntlet across the Great Lakes. The moisture yanked up from the Sea of Japan is taken up even higher into the troposphere and made especially cold and frozen, leading to the deposit of very dry snow in vast quantities. This is the famed Japow!

Screen-shot-2011-01-21-at-18.31.46-1024x659Image courtesy The Reason: http://thereasonmag.com/japow/

It is this Japow that is the siren call of my February trip into the backcountry terrains of Iwate, Akita, Aomori, and Hokkaido. And rest assured we will have plenty of time to explore my itinerary in full.

For now, as I reflect back on how this love affair with snow got into the fabric of my soul, and as I look ahead to the transcendent experience of visiting Japan in the heart of winter, my nostalgia and excitement becomes tempered with a soft lamentation. Our world is heating up. We are entering a future of extreme climate change, and every model that scientists generate for us has our glaciers receding, our arctic regions warming. There is no telling how these changes will effect the reliable engines of our annual snowfall over time in places like the Great Lakes and the Sea of Japan. It is complex. But the most recent report of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) predicts that our Lake Effect Snow will likely become Lake Effect Rain over the next few decades. And Hokkaido, Japan just recorded its latest ever snowfall.

There really is no telling what the future holds.

IMG_3456Image courtesy Matt Schultz

Despite the uncertainty, snow remains my kindred companion and as I contemplate a future where there will likely be less and less of it reliably in the places where it falls most naturally, I feel compelled to treat it like something of an endangered language. To understand it better in all of its beauty and mystery. Both its splendor and its treachery. So, with that in mind, ten days from now I will be in Estes, Colorado taking my first-level avalanche rescue training, learning how to read the snow, to better understand its relationship to the weather and to the terrain. I’m returning to the valleys where snow first got into my bones to learn an age-old language all over again for the first time. I will take you with me there and we will excavate its layers and learn to obey its grammar.


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