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Tug Hill Plateau: Welcome to another winter in region known for heavy snow

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While the entire north country generally receives its share of snow, one region is renowned for measuring its totals in feet as well as inches.

The Tug Hill Plateau.

“You’ve got to like your winters,” Rodman Town Supervisor Gary R. Stinson said of living in the region. “You’ve got to like your four seasons, that’s for sure.”

The Tug Hill covers 2,100 square miles in Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida and Oswego counties and is home to 103,955 people, according to the Tug Hill Commission, a state agency that assists municipalities in the area. However, most of the population lives in villages on the periphery of the region, with only a few thousand people residing in the Tug Hill’s heart: an 800-square-mile, heavily forested area where the highest snowfalls are recorded.

Tug Hill winters are infamous.

During the winter of 1976-77, which included a five-day blizzard that started in late January, 466.9 inches of snow (nearly 39 feet) fell on the Lewis County town of Montague. And in January 1997, Montague set an unofficial national record for most snowfall in a 24-hour period at 6 feet, 5 inches. (While National Weather Service officials acknowledged the heavy snowfall, they didn’t list it as a record, citing lack of adherence to established standards by snow spotters.)

Overall, the weather service lists the average snowfall for the Tug Hill region at more than 200 inches per winter. In fact, the snowfall is so heavy that it has attracted the attention of the Ontario Winter Lake-effect Systems field program, an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation.

This winter, program participants from several colleges and universities throughout the country plan to study the impact that lake-effect storm systems from varying wind directions have on Tug Hill snow totals, according to John K. Bartow Jr., the Tug Hill Commission’s executive director.

So what causes such a massive amount of the white stuff?

Heavy snow accumulates when winds blow from west to east over Lake Ontario, collecting moisture in the air. The saturated air then is compressed as it moves to the Tug Hill’s higher elevations, which reach a maximum of 2,000 feet above sea level, said James A. Mitchell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Buffalo.

“It’s basically like wringing out a sponge,” he said.

Lake-effect snow tends to come in narrow bands, and it’s difficult to forecast exactly where the heaviest snow will come, as slight shifts in wind direction can dramatically change the trajectory of those bands, Mr. Mitchell said.

While it’s too early to predict how much snow the region will get this winter, it’s “usually a pretty safe bet” that the totals will be substantial, he said.

CLEARING THE ROADS

The budgets of most of the Tug Hill Plateau’s 41 towns devote 60 to 80 percent of spending to the highway department, with more than half of that money set aside for snow removal, Mr. Bartow said.

“It’s a huge expense,” he said. “And, any given year, it can have significant bumps.”

Mr. Stinson said the town of Rodman typically budgets about $130,000 a year for snow removal. Mr. Bartow said crews keep Tug Hill roadways — particularly main thoroughfares such as Route 177 — relatively clear regardless of what Mother Nature throws at them.

However, that wasn’t the case in the early 1900s, when large snow-moving equipment hadn’t been invented, he said.

“I can imagine there were days, if not weeks, that you were stranded,” Mr. Bartow said.

While figures for wintertime car accidents in the Tug Hill were unavailable from the New York State Police and the state Department of Transportation, Lewis County Sheriff Michael P. Carpinelli said he hasn’t seen a disproportionate number of accidents in the region, even though the heavy snow does lead to some crashes and stranded motorists.

“I see more accidents where there’s less snow than more snow,” the sheriff said, adding that Tug Hill residents know how to drive in the snow and tend to be cautious during inclement weather.

Part of the economy

The Tug Hill Commission website says the best guess on the origin of the region’s name is that it was used frequently in the 18th and 19th centuries for many areas reached by horses or oxen “tugging” a wagon up a long road to get to high ground.

These days, visitors from the Northeast and beyond tug their snowmobile trailers to ride the region’s extensive trail system.

“It’s a big part of our economy up here,” Mr. Bartow said. “It’s when we have snow, and other areas don’t, that our snowmobile numbers go through the roof.”

Anne L. Merrill, executive director of the Lewis County Chamber of Commerce, said her office began receiving calls from snowmobilers in late October, after the region’s first dusting of the season.

“It’s crazy when the snow does fall, because people are constantly calling for conditions,” she said.

Along with bars and restaurants that cater to snowmobilers, heavy snow also benefits the Snow Ridge Ski Resort in Turin and other areas that offer winter sports, including cross-country skiing and even dog sledding, Mr. Bartow said.

Snow Ridge Manager Judy E. Sweeney said her facility, which opened in 1945, is one of the oldest ski areas in the state and typically boasts the highest natural snowfall totals, lessening the need for large amounts of manmade snow.

“A normal winter, we average 225 inches,” she said. “I don’t think anyone else can say that.”

A LEARNING EXPERIENCE

Mr. Carpinelli and his wife, Vickie, began visiting the Tug Hill region in the early 1990s for snowmobiling and eventually bought a camp in the town of Osceola. They built a residence on the property and moved there with their young daughter after Mr. Carpinelli’s retirement from the Rochester Police Department in 2006.

“I moved here because I wanted some adventure but also for the peace and serenity,” he said.

When asked if he were prepared for his first full-time winter on the Tug Hill, the sheriff said, “absolutely not.”

Mr. Carpinelli, who worked as a part-time deputy in Lewis County before being elected sheriff in 2011, recalled several occasions where he ended up stranded in snow drifts. One time came during a routine camp check, when he drove a Ford Explorer into snow that was up to his vehicle’s doors. After climbing out of the window, he trudged a quarter-mile to the nearest residence, and the farmer there rescued his stranded vehicle with a tractor.

“He promised me he wouldn’t tell anybody, but that didn’t last,” the sheriff said.

On another occasion during a massive storm, a groomer operator from the local snowmobile club helped clear the Carpinellis’ driveway with the massive piece of equipment so that the then-deputy could make it to work.

“It was the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Mr. Carpinelli said, referring to his personal attempts to plow out as “futile.”

The sheriff said he now owns a walk-behind snowblower, a tractor with a snowblower on it, and a pickup truck with a plow.

“Sometimes that’s not enough,” he acknowledged.

Despite the difficulties, Mr. Carpinelli said he loves to hear the birds, coyotes and other wildlife after a snowfall. And he enjoys having neighbors who will quickly show up to free a stranded vehicle, clear a driveway or get snow off a roof.

“That’s what brought me to the area,” he said. “There are a lot of good people up here.”

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