‘My First Winter in Oswego’

WRVO reporter Payne Horning trying his hand a skiing at Toggenburg Mountain in Fabius last year. Photo courtesy of Pam Cantine.
WRVO reporter Payne Horning trying his hand a skiing at Toggenburg Mountain in Fabius last year. Photo courtesy of Pam Cantine.

A news reporter from Iowa who now lives in Oswego reflects on his first winter in the Port City. ‘There was no shortage of warnings about the snowfall from the people I met here’

By Payne Horning

When I first announced the news to my family and friends that I was moving to Upstate New York, the first thing they said was congratulations on the new job.

The question that always followed was, “Are you aware of the amount of snow they get in that part of the country?”

I dismissed those warnings. After all, I was from Iowa. We don’t exactly get passed over when it snows. But I would soon be schooled about just how severe the winters are here.

I arrived in Oswego in October 2015. There was no shortage of warnings about the snowfall from the people I met here either. I told them that I had spent every winter of my young life in the Midwest, good training ground for whatever was in store. Amateur hour, they said. I began to fear that I should expect something from the apocalyptic weather movie “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Still, like many 20-somethings before me, I was brash and disregarded the advice. That worked — for a while at least.

There was no snow on Halloween my first year in Oswego. I was told that was an anomaly. That was my first warning sign of how different it is here. After all, I had only experienced snow on Halloween once in my entire life and it happened while I was at a Halloween wedding in Indiana. It was a Halloween wedding where the bride and groom were dressed as Frankenstein. Nothing was normal that night anyway.

No snow arrived in November, despite the fact that it had fallen in Iowa by that time. That frustrated my family who called eagerly to see how much I got in comparison. It did arrive in Upstate a few weeks later, but the snowfall wasn’t anywhere near as bad as everyone expected. To my family’s chagrin, the Midwest had gotten more precipitation by the time I returned home for Christmas. Hubris was on full display that holiday. I told you I could handle it! Just wait, they said.

[To survive] Oswego’s winters is to have the right mindset. Until that global warming everyone seems to be talking about changes Upstate’s climate, it seems like the trick is making the most of our situation.”

They were right. The first lake-effect snowstorm I ever experienced hit me like a ton of bricks. My trusty SUV, which had to be dug out from several feet of snow, was all over the road on my way to work that day. To make matters worse, I had only a topcoat and leather gloves to shield me. What a fool I was, I said over and over as I pushed through a white wall on my way into the building. I had refused to bulk up with any heavier apparel like snow boots, heavy gloves, a hat, scarves and a puffy coat because I didn’t want to look like that kid who couldn’t put his arms down from the movie “A Christmas Story.”

The iceman cometh

The heat inside the office that day was such sweet relief. I clambered to my desk and shed off the light winter gear I had. Many of my coworkers came over to my desk, grinning from ear to ear as I stood in disbelief, the snow dripping off me. What did I think of my first lake-effect snowstorm? Well, I’ve finally seen Hell freeze over, I said. Soon after that storm, I stomped into an apparel store and left with a heavy coat, fleece socks and gloves and a pair of thick snow boots.

This is war.

The additional layers helped me endure subsequent lake-effect snowstorms, but getting acclimated to the rules took longer. I once left for Utica to do an interview as one of the storms was blowing in. I can escape just before the worst of it arrives, I thought. The National Weather Service said it was clear beyond Oswego County, after all. But as I was approaching Fulton, I got a call from my news director. She told me to reschedule. “You cannot go in this weather,” she said. I tried to explain that I have had experience driving in blizzard-like conditions before in the Midwest. Right as I was making my case, a car in front of me slid off of the road into a ditch. “Turning around now,” I said.

As I approach my third winter in Oswego, I feel better equipped to handle the storms ahead. I have first-hand experience and advice from friends, coworkers and family that I now readily accept. From what I’ve been told, you can never be too prepared for these awful snowstorms, but you never really get used to them either. It seems everyone here, even the lifelong Oswegonians, dread winter. You do what it takes to endure them, and help others along the way. Twice last season I pulled over to the side of the road and insisted that perfect strangers who were walking in horrible lake-effect conditions take a ride. Thankfully, none of them killed me — including my boss when I arrived to work late as a result.

But perhaps the most important tip I’ve learned about surviving Oswego’s winters is to have the right mindset. Until that global warming everyone seems to be talking about changes Upstate’s climate, it seems like the trick is making the most of our situation. That’s why I went skiing last year. Scratch that, I attempted to go skiing. Most of my trips down the hill were on my stomach or back. There weren’t enough Icy Hot patches in the Central New York region to soothe the resulting pain.

But the experience has not deterred me from wanting to do it again, despite objections from my fiancé. It gives me something to look forward to as the temperature drops. That will have to do until I can become one of those retirement snowbirds — only 50 more winters to go!

Payne Horning is a reporter at WRVO, an NPR affiliate based in Oswego.

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