I must confess I don’t recall too much about Helena winters when I was very young. I do remember my brother pushing me off the porch railing into the snow, where I wallowed around like an upside down turtle in my heavy snowsuit. And I either remember or have heard the story so many times I think I remember my brother and Tommy Patterson sledding down the hill on Harrison Street and looking up just in time to smack into a truck.
However, winter was simply a time to get through until it was time to go up Telegraph Creek where my mother and father optimistically worked a lead and silver mine. Their mine was called the Hope. My brother dug a hole nearby and called it the Little Hope. I dibbled a hole in the roadside and the family called it the No Hope.
I missed a lot by not being aware of the excitement of the spring break-up in Helena, as I discovered while poking around some old records.
Next time I come over Highway 12 from Deer Lodge I’m going to stop at the lookout on the east side and try to imagine how it must have been in 1872. One can hardly blame that long-ago editor for his enthusiasm when he wrote, “Going at last! Yielding from his embrace the valley and giving back to eager eyes the brown beauty of the hillsides, the White Monarch is abdicating…Snow squalls there will be…but the strong chains of Winter are broken. And what a winter it has been!...Gentlemen who have crossed the range…estimate the drifts on the east side of the crest at 60 feet depth; …It is reasonable to anticipate during the spring thaw immense floods in all the streams draining the region.”
Back on this side of the Divide there is a lot of discussion about the snowpack. It reminds me of the old saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” City folks sometime express wonder about our "obsession" with the weather.
It’s understandable: What is often more of an inconvenience and irritation in big cities is of considerably more importance around here. There are so many factors to consider. Is the snowpack sufficient for the coming year’s needs? Is it so much it will wipe out bridges and roads and flood the towns? Will it warm up slowly? Will the ice on the river dam the flow and make things worse or will it have thawed so the river will remain between the banks?
There’s a line in the old musical, ”The Music Man,” when the somewhat duplicitous hero asks a friend what people find to talk about in a small town, and his friend replies, “Well, there’s always the weather…when it’s in season.”
It’s definitely the season right now, and I decided to do something about it. That is, I looked for information on how to prepare for a flood. There was a lot of good advice, such as having a bag packed with essentials. Prescription drugs, glasses, and a change of clothes were on a lot of lists, but that all sounded like what you’d pack for a two-day vacation. Children and pets seemed to be a given as well. There were other things not so typical -- insurance papers, sleeping bag, food. (Who doesn’t keep some food in their vehicle?!)
But I got to thinking about things you wouldn’t naturally take, so I asked around. “Sometime in the future,” I asked, “what do you think you’ll wish you’d grabbed on your way out the door?”
There were a few unusual responses, like “an antique, chain-stitch Singer sewing machine,” and “all my guns,” but the winner -- by more than 20 to one -- was family pictures.
I liked that. In a crisis which might lead to an uncertain future, most people wanted to preserve the connection to their past. In fact, I was a little ashamed of myself when I supposed that a young girl I posed the question to would say “iPhone” or something of that nature. But she gave it some thought and said, “My mother’s stuffed animal.”