(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2005)
The UP. Michigan's Upper Peninsula. That chunk of the state above "the mitten." Its location -- far north, in the midst of three Great Lakes -- makes it the snowiest inhabited place east of the Rockies. The people are called Yoopers, and some not only deal with the inordinate amount of snow, they revel in it. Go ahead and call them crazy, but they'd use a different word. Lucky.
Each year, by most definitions, the UP gets positively pummeled with snow. Here in its far northwestern region, typical winters unload between 10 and 20 feet, from the first slushy October inches to the final March dumping. Above-average winters can bring double that. Think of it this way: There are places here that have never seen fewer than 130 inches of snow -- a record-setting amount in most states; enough to bury a home past its gutters.
It only stands to reason that people here know snow. They invent words like pank (definition: to pat down snow, as on a trail or campsite). When they shovel the roof after every hundred inches or so, they know not to dump it in front of the picture window (it'd block the view). Avid gardeners learn to regularly snowblow their yard so that, come April, they can work freshly turned beds as the sun erodes nearby snowbanks, still several feet high.
Meteorologist John Dee envied these people. He first set his sights on the UP in 1991 while planning a snowmobile trip from his Chicago home. Recalling its reputation for lake-effect snow, he eyed the area on a map, and he saw it. The UP's finger of land pointing into Lake Superior. The Keweenaw Peninsula. That place, he thought, must just get hammered. He visited that winter, and each one after, until he moved there in 1999.
John's soft voice grows louder, his calm hands gesture excitedly, when he explains why. "All meteorologists have their passion. Probably for most it's severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, stuff like that. I'm fascinated by it, but when I see a good snowstorm getting ready to wrap up, that's what really gets my heart racing," he says.
Now, from the heart of his meteorological dream, John runs a freelance forecasting service. Maps and computers crowd his home office, which features a digital camera trained on an outdoor snow station. Every five minutes, the camera transmits a live shot to John's snow forecasting Web site, johndee.com, where he also chronicles his UP life, including long winter walks and snowmobile rides. The site is his gift to people like his former self: south of the UP and dreaming about snow.
There is a downside, he admits, to living in a snow-lover's paradise. "Every spring, I get a little depressed," he says with a laugh. "Even though I know it's coming, I'm like, 'Awww. Does it all have to go so soon?'"