(Originally published December, 2010)
Story and photo by Gillian Brunette
When Huntsville and area residents awoke on the morning of Dec. 11 last year, they might well have believed they’d been transported to the North Pole overnight.
As people slept, a huge snowstorm blasted its way across the region. By 7:30 a.m., Huntsville’s mayor reported more than 50 cm (1.64 feet) of snow had fallen and residents of Ontario’s cottage country were being told to stay home amid predictions that a massive snowstorm could dump as much as 80 centimetres of snow in some areas.
It took days before the area returned to normal.
The snowstorm of 2009 is one residents are unlikely to forget, but Huntsville’s unofficial weatherman, Harry Brown, recalls another time over Christmas in 1998, when conditions were as bad, if not worse.
“The reason that sticks in my mind is the aftermath of trying to clean up,” says Brown. “I used to do the snow clearing of the drive and parking area at the little church down the road. On Dec. 23 about 30 centimetres of snow fell, so I went down and cleared that out. On Christmas Eve it started snowing again in the afternoon. I went down at suppertime and blew the snow out again, so everyone could get to the Christmas Eve service. Afterwards it was still snowing and when we got home I couldn’t get up my driveway. When my wife tried to get out of the car the snow was so deep she couldn’t open the door.”
By then 55 centimetres of snow had fallen with a further 15 centimetres accumulating overnight and into Christmas Day. “We had a total fall of 70 centimetres (2.29 feet) just in those three days,” says Brown.
Brown has been collecting weather data since the early 1970s. Every bit of information – temperature, precipitation, air pressure, cloud cover – is compiled and filed, so when asked about weather patterns, he has the answers readily at hand. Based on his findings, Brown can report that the average annual snowfall in the Huntsville area is around 10 feet, although 15 feet is not inconceivable.
“In 2002 we had 15.3 feet of snow for the year. In 1995 it was 14.3 feet and in 1997 it was 13.9 feet.”
To measure snow accumulations, Brown’s method is by no means pure science. He takes two, five-gallon pails and places one in the open and one in a partially shaded area. When the snowfall is over he brings the pails inside and after the snow has melted pours one pail into the other. He then measures the water and halves the amount to get an average reading.
Brown arrived in Muskoka in the early 1960s to run the nature program at Tawingo College, which at that time was a summer camp. “I just came up from Ottawa for the summers until 1971 when the program at the camp was expanding to year-round,” he says.
Brown’s nature program included daily weather reports, which the students relayed to the campers each day. “We had a small weather station at the end of the building and from the data we collected we would give a weather synopsis and prediction.”
After Brown’s career at Tawingo ended, he turned to teaching and joined the faculty at Spruce Glen School, where he remained until his retirement in 1989. “I was with the Grade 2s at first, then I taught science to Grades 6 to 8 and carried on with the daily weather reports.”
Brown recalls another time in 1987 when a massive snowfall closed schools and roads and had businesses shutting their doors early. He had taken his class to the Yearley Outdoor Education Centre (located about 28 kilometres northwest of Huntsville) for a two-day, outdoor, winter camping experience.
Upon arriving at the centre, the students began piling snow into large mounds to construct quinzee huts – basically a combination of an igloo and snow cave – for their sleeping accommodation. “Students were allowed to sleep out providing they had permission from their parents and possessed a reasonable sleeping bag,” says Brown.
Having cooked supper over an open fire, the students settled down for the night. “It was still snowing and one of the quinzees collapsed under the heavy snow. There were kids in there, but they all scrambled out in a hurry.”
The snowfall that day and overnight amounted to 40 centimetres (1.31 feet) and some of the parents became concerned about their offspring stranded at Yearley. “I told them we were fine, we had lots of food and we’d be ready to go when a bus could get in,” says Brown.
What started as a school project has become a full-time hobby for Brown, who meticulously checks every aspect of the weather every single day and records it for posterity. “When I’m away, which isn’t often, I get someone to come in and check it for me,” he says.
There aren’t many guarantees in life, but one thing Muskokans can count on is snow in winter. Sometimes it comes early. Brown recalls one year when it snowed in September, when the leaves were still on the trees. “A beech tree at the church was bent right over with the weight and made a perfect arch,” he says. It has also been known to snow in June. “Not a lot, but there was enough on the ground to make it white.” And even July and August haven’t been totally immune to cold weather. “There was one year when we had frost every single month,” says Brown.
So far this year, snowfall has been light. Only 45 centimetres was recorded for the whole month of January, 43 centimetres for February, nothing in March, two centimetres in April and one centimetre in May. “To date we have had 91 centimetres of snow, which is way down when you compare that to the 342 centimetres (11.2 feet) that fell in 2009,” says Brown.
But before complacency sets in, remember we still have a few weeks to go before year’s end and as history has shown, nature is a force unto its own. “We are supposed to be in an El Nino year, which means we should get more snow than normal,” says Brown.
Less scientific are nature’s signs, which also portend a harsher winter for us.
“My mountain ash tree is loaded with berries this year and there is a red squirrel I’ve been watching daily,” says Brown. “He’s been very busy harvesting Scotch pinecones for a couple of weeks now. He has a real cache.”