Looking out across the Fox River Valley from our second floor bedroom windows, we can see the river has more of its surface frozen over than any time in the last few decades.
Which isn’t surprising given this year’s invasion of the “polar vortex.” Knocked off it’s usual orbit over the Arctic by unusually warm weather in Alaska and Canada, the vortex has spun subzero temperatures down into the Lower 48, all the way south to the Old Confederacy.
Last year, the ice skating rink the Oswegoland Park District maintains on Briarcliff Lake up in Montgomery’s Seasons Ridge Subdivision was scarcely opened a single day. This year, the green “safe” flag has been regularly flying, inviting hardy pleasure and hockey skaters to try their luck.
And because of all that cold weather, the river has finally cooled off enough for much of its surface to freeze. Most recent years, the river only froze sporadically as warmer temperatures and warmer river water meant a free and open stream that thousands of Canada geese and ducks of various species enjoyed. Now, with more and more of the river’s surface covered with ice, the numbers of geese and ducks has decreased a little as they moved elsewhere to find open water.
The cold also persuaded larger than usual numbers of Bald Eagles to leave their usual wintering grounds along the frozen Illinois and Mississippi rivers to the Fox River Valley in search of enough open water to allow them to fish. With the extended cold spell this winter, there are fewer of the big, distinctive birds, but a few weeks ago, folks were counting them by the dozen on the six-mile stretch between Oswego and Montgomery. Some drivers were so dumbfounded by seeing whole flocks of the giant birds that they simply stopped right in the middle of Ill. Route 25 to gawk.
The good news on the eagle front is that the species has apparently walked back from the brink of extinction. Thanks to bans on DDT and other pesticides that traveled up the food chain to plague the eagle population, we’ve got a breeding pair right here in Oswego. My good friend Glenn watched Mr. and Mrs. Eagle raise their eaglet this year in a nest they built in a tree on an island in the river, easily monitored from Glenn’s upstairs deck.
Time was, there were no eagles around these parts, much less geese and ducks, except the tame ones raised by farmers. We built a blind back in the early 1960s on one of the river’s islands, and tried duck hunting for three years in a row, and never saw a single duck—except the high-flying Vs during the fall and spring migrations. Same with geese; it was a big deal when a flock of the big birds flew over heading north or south, depending on the season. Nowadays, with somewhere north of 60,000 of the giant (and obnoxious) birds living in the Fox Valley full-time, a bunch of the birds flying over doesn’t even rate a second look.
For most of us, the winter’s extreme cold has not been life threatening, so there’s that. We don’t have to worry about freezing temperatures inside our homes as long as we keep sending checks to NiGas and ComEd. But the time was, that wasn’t the case. Back in January 1873, the Kendall County Record reported: “Scores of our people are mourning the loss of cherished house plants by frost during the past week, while a great number have their cellars lumbered with vegetables rendered worthless in like manner.”
And back in that day and age, losing those vegetables was a big problem, since so many folks depended on canned and otherwise preserved fruits and vegetables from their own gardens and orchards to survive.
Two years later, another extreme cold snap hit Kendall County, with Record editor John R. Marshall reporting: “We have been congratulating ourselves for some time over the mild winter and glorying over the light calls upon the fuel pile. But Old King Winter was not satisfied to let us off so easily and last Friday night with the assistance of Old Boreas, he sent the mercury down to zero—down to ten below; and not yet satisfied Saturday morning, the thermometer indicated from 20 to 25 below, according to location. All the night the wind blew a hurricane and the icy air entered at every crevice. Leaky cellars were no protection to vegetables, and potatoes were icy balls in the morning. Plants were frozen by wholesale and housewives mourned the loss of their favorites.”
And then there was the big blizzard of January 1918. That year, my grandfather left his home on Hinman Street in Aurora for work at the sprawling Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shops on South Broadway, and he didn’t get home for two weeks. CB&Q officials loaded every able body they could lay hands on aboard trains and sent them west to hand-shovel the main line.
On Jan. 9, 1918, the Record reported: “The blizzard which visited this part of the country Sunday was one of the most severe in years. The old-timers had a great time telling of what happened in ’48, but the younger ones were satisfied that this storm was a corker. Snow started falling Saturday night and continued with unabated fury all day Sunday and well into the night. A high wind accompanied the snow and filled the roads and walks with immense drifts. Traffic of every kind was stopped except on the Morris line. Superintendent Miller and his crews had cars going all night to avoid a tie-up. Aurora traffic stopped at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning and was not resumed till Tuesday night. One car lay in Yorkville all that time while another was held at Oswego. Trains on the Burlington were delayed and the mail carriers were unable to make their regular trips. Fortunately, the temperature stayed about 20 degrees above zero during the storm. On Tuesday morning, however, the mercury went to 12 below.”
A corker indeed. And, in more modern times, of course, we should not forget the Winter of 1979, when snow became piled so high, it hid entire buildings, not to mention every fire hydrant in town.
Us 21st Century residents have gotten a taste of Old Boreas—the Greek god of the north wind—this year as well, with wind chill warnings regularly reporting temps below -20° F. Nowadays, we have Thinsulate and down-filling and all manner of other modern miracles with which to defeat cold weather. And just like last summer’s high temperatures, we’ll just have to grin and bear the Winter of ‘14 until Boreas or Tom Skilling or someone decides it’s time to warm up a bit around these parts. At least we’ll have something to tell our grandchildren, so there’s that.