Old Man Winter teases us from Wyoming state line

Pray for subzero cold to kill grasshoppers before they hatch, because that's what it'll take

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After weeks of trying, I finally landed an exclusive interview with Old Man Winter this weekend. It was heck getting through his agent, but once I was able to get Winter on the line, he was cordial and accommodating. By January, you can expect that he'll be a little more cranky.

We agreed to meet at his October retreat, just across the state line in Wyoming's Platte River Wilderness. The drive to his place from Steamboat stretches 78 miles through North Park. Visitors know they are in "Big, Wonderful Wyoming" before they even spy the sign on the highway. The large piñon pines scattered through the red hoodoo rock formations are a sure sign that one has left Colorado.

There is no sign alerting motorists to the turn from the asphalt highway onto the dirt road that leads to Winter's retreat. You have to know where you are going.

Almost immediately, the driver must brake the pickup to a halt so whomever is riding shotgun can get out and put a shoulder into the rickety ranch gate that keeps the bald-face cattle off the highway.

Winter's driveway is three miles of rutted dirt punctuated by a mud bog that never seems to dry up, even in autumn during a moderate drought year.

Upon finally joining him on the banks of the North Platte we observed that Winter was tan and rested after his four-month hiatus. He was wearing forest green Carhartt carpenter's pants and a brown hooded sweatshirt bearing the familiar University of Wyoming bucking horse logo. Winter obviously was getting ready for a winter of hard work.

As a special treat for our party, Winter arranged for a stiff skim of ice to remain on the river eddies where they curled against the shade of the south bank. Even at 10 a.m. Saturday, there was crunchy ice on the water. Does that mean Winter will arrive in Steamboat in October as he has the past two years?

"Don't bet on it," Winter sighed. "Those big blasts of snow before Halloween really took a lot out of me. Looking back on it, I think that was a factor in my inability to produce a really big January powder dump. I'm promising my fans an epic January of 2004. Count on more than 120 inches in the first month of the New Year."

I asked the old man if he'd been made aware of the plague of grasshoppers the Yampa Valley had endured the past two summers, and he said he had not. However, he offered to deliver an Arctic blast in February, right around Winter Carnival time, to wipe out the eggs that represent next summer's horde of flower-munching devils.

"Whadda ya think?" Winter asked. "Would a couple of mornings that hit 50 below along the river do the trick?"

Steamboat hasn't seen 50 below for quite a few winters. But that's what it takes to kill grasshoppers. Fifty below also is what it takes to sell engine-block heaters, which have been an afterthought around here for at least five years. Some people who have no clue what an engine-block heater is are about to get an education this ski season. Put an extra blanket on the bed on the night of Feb. 12. It's going to be so cold the elk will apply for jobs as singing food servers just to get out of the bitter wind.

March is Camelot month in Steamboat -- snow all night, sunshine all day. We asked Old Man Winter if roofs in Steamboat will be sliding on St. Patrick's Day, or if the snow still will be piling up.

"Tell your readers that on March 31, they will be up to their armpits in wet snow," Winter replied. "It will be so heavy, all the doors in the house will be sticking."

Steamboat will have a typical spring, but Winter will make a surprise appearance July 3, with 2 inches of snow on Storm Peak. Longtime residents will ask out loud, "Was that the last snow of the winter of 2003/2004, or was it the first snow of the winter of 2004/2005?

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