The Freeze Up on Nantucket
We are almost very nearly right on the line when it comes to snow on Nantucket. I suppose the ocean, and so much of it, makes it hard to accurately predict just how much snow, if any, will fall. It usually all turns to rain, the balmy sea air keeping us warm.
But two Sundays ago, after many near-misses, it finally snowed. Real snow, not the kind that dissolves as soon as it hits the asphalt. On those mornings, I watch as neighbor’s children make droopy snowmen in the predawn light, knowing that as soon as the sun breaks, the magic will melt.
There is something about the frozen harbor that makes you think you have traveled to another time. I think it is all because of the black and white photos on winters past that hang in the wood-paneled waiting room of the Steamship Authority. These imagines have worked their way into the island’s collective memory.
There is one from 1893 of the Island Home stuck in the ice, a freeze-up so bad men had to haul a dory out over the icy harbor to shuttle goods from the ferry back to town. The scene is full of onlookers, some skating, their feet captured as only a blur of motion in the old camera’s long shutter.
And another from 1918, when the Sankaty couldn’t get through the mouth of the harbor, and all her passengers disembarked and walked the distance to shore over the ice. A sure-footed woman carries her baby along the frozen harbor.
I remember my first winter storm after coming back to the island, in January of 2015. I was living out in Tom Nevers, about six miles outside the town center, in a small summer cottage. The wind was the only one who ever knocked on my door.
A New Englander’s tendency to prepare, or maybe over-prepare, for a storm is widely noted and sometimes mocked--just what is it we are planning to do with all that milk and bread, anyway? Chalk it up to inexperience, but my storm supplies were in, well, short supply. At least I had the foresight to fill the bathtub with water, knowing that if we lost electricity, I’d lose the pump to the well.
The power on Nantucket was out for three days. It was all over the news, with newscasters from Boston boarding the first ferry to the island in days, their satellite trucks jockeying for space alongside cherry-pickers from the electrical company, food, and fuel.
It got cold--45 degrees inside the house, as all the heat slipped through the cracks in the windowsill. I warmed myself up by digging my car out of the snow, the wet thawk of pine branches cracking under heavy snow the only sounds not made by me. And the wind, of course.
When it seemed I would never escape the snow drifts, or that I’d never regain the feeling in my fingers and toes, I reminded myself that before long, I’d be telling this story to people at some cocktail party in August.
And I did--I told that story of my three frigid days over and over again the next summer, as though my Nantucket winter survival tale was the only true currency I had.
The snow this year isn’t that bad. Just enough for the snowmen the children across the street built to see the light of day.