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Getting the drift

Blizzards like last week's happen only once per decade or so.

Of course, we get several run-of-the-mill winter storms per winter. Some they call blizzards, others are just storms.

But only rarely do storms pack punch like last week's, a storm that combined heavy snowfall with strong winds that blew hard from one direction for a full day.

What makes such blizzards so special?

Only a perfect storm like last week's creates massive snowdrifts, snowdrifts up to the eaves, some of them bigger than the house itself!

What is so great about big drifts?

If you don't know, you have forgotten how to be a kid. Big snowdrifts allow kids to carve out tunnels and forts of amazing size -- or at least imagine doing so while riding past on the school bus.

My first big drift happened in 1969. I was four years old. We lived in a trailer house on the west edge of Winnipeg. A two-day Alberta clipper dumped snow from the prairies onto Winnipeg and covered the back half of our trailer.

No worry about frozen pipes after that! The trailer never felt warmer.

But the best part came after the storm subsided and the neighbor kids discovered our drift. Most of us were four, but luckily a world-wise six-year-old on storm sabbatical came over and taught us how to dig tunnels and make rooms.

Over the next days, we dug and dug. We built so many rooms and hallways that we began to fight over who owned which room and where the borders were. Poof, the roof, like the Tower of Babel, collapsed and none of it mattered.

We all survived. But the glorious Week of the Big Drift is one I will never forget.

After we moved south to northern Minnesota, it was another decade before we had a blizzard like last week's.

By then an eighth-grader, I was a little old to be building snow forts. But if I didn't tell, nobody would find out, and I dug a beautiful network of tunnels in the ditch up at the top of the drive.

The tunnels came in handy for the next two frigid weeks. Instead of standing out in the cold waiting for the bus, little sister and I hid in the tunnel and popped out like groundhogs when we heard the bus crunch into the drive.

The charm of a big drift is that a kid can build his own private place, a place that Mom never tells you to clean and a place where you can talk with imaginary friends without being overheard.

I never did build a tree house as a kid. My inability with a hammer was clear early in life. So a giant snowdrift was my only chance to build my own hangout.

After a long drought, the legendary winter of 1997 featured two-dozen blizzards. But not one of those storms created the perfect big drifts with a firm outer crust that allow for a solid roof over tunnels and rooms.

Oh, and by then I was in my 30s.

But advanced age didn't prevent me from dreaming of tunneling through the 12-foot drifts created by those mile-long windbreaks out in the Red River Valley. Just think: For a little effort, I could have a house bigger than Bill Gates!

I am not the only adult I know whose imagination is sparked by large snowdrifts.

Last week after the storm, I was summoned into the nursing home to visit my 97-year-old Aunt Olive. Bring your camera, she said, you have to take a picture of our drift!

And what a drift it was. Twelve feet high. "It looks like the Alps!" Aunt Olive said, as I tried to capture the thing on pixels.

My camera's flash didn't work and the sun wasn't right, so I had to go in the next day for more pictures. In the end, I took over 40. Aunt Olive posed proudly for several of them.

And she wasn't the only one. Up and down the nursing home halls, you could hear residents and staff marveling at the drifts.

"Is this climate change?" one concerned lady asked me.

No, I said, I didn't think so. It is just one of those rare, once-per-decade blizzards that excites the imaginations of kids from four to 97.