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‘Snowbirds’ escape cold, but keep ties to the north country


Henry J. and Janice I. Henderson packed their red 2011 Lincoln Dec. 12 with a miscellany of clothing, but not winter coats, hats or boots.

Those are items the Watertown “snowbirds,” who are spending their 13th winter in Fort Myers, Fla., won’t need at their home about a mile and a half from the Gulf of Mexico.

Snowbirds interviewed by the Times, including couples from Clayton and the town of Watertown, have grown accustomed to climates where snow blowers, shovels and cumbersome bags of de-icing salt are forgotten. But while the couples say they’re happy to escape another Northeast winter, they’ll stay connected to their left-behind communities by phone, email, blogs and news websites.

The term snowbird was coined in 1923 in reference to northern U.S. workers who traveled to the South to work during the winter, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. But north country snowbirds are better defined by the term’s modern definition from the Oxford U.S. English Dictionary: “A northerner who moves to a warmer southern state in the winter.”

A 2004 University of Florida study found New York had the greatest number of temporary residents who meet the definition of snowbirds — 13.1 percent, followed by those from Michigan (7.4 percent), Ohio (6.7), Pennsylvania (5.8) and Canada (5.5). The average length of stay among snowbirds was five months, according to the study, which is the most recent such report available and was conducted by the university’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

The Hendersons are seasoned snowbirds who have mastered their annual travel routine: after packing their Lincoln with belongings, a neighborhood friend, Terry Williams, drives the car to Florida on their behalf, taking a trip of his own to visit his grandchildren in New Port Richey, about two hours north of Fort Myers.

About a week after Mr. Williams leaves, the Hendersons take a flight to Fort Myers. There, Mr. Williams leaves the Lincoln at the airport for them to pick up as he takes a plane back to Watertown, ensuring the Hendersons have a car in Florida.

When the Hendersons are ready to make the return flight to the north country in April, Mr. Williams will take a plane to Fort Myers to pick up the Lincoln and drive it back to Watertown.

It’s a travel routine the Hendersons will complete for the fourth consecutive year.

“He’s been kind enough to do this for us and likes to drive,” Mrs. Henderson said of Mr. Williams. “We pay for the gas, food, lodging and a little bonus.”

It dawned on Mr. Henderson after the couple’s first Florida trip in 2001 that he’d lost his fervor for winters in the north country. Activities that once made the season charming when the couple was young — downhill skiing, cross-country skiing and hiking — no longer are possible as senior citizens.

“That first winter we came home in March, saw the snow and thought: what are we doing here? I got tired of shoveling snow, and we couldn’t do winter sports anymore,” said Mr. Henderson, 78, a middle-school teacher for 10 years and a superintendent for 24 at LaFargeville Central School District. He retired in 1990.

The Hendersons gradually assimilated into a second community at Siesta Bay Resort, joining choir, drama and square-dancing groups composed of snowbirds from across the country, said Mrs. Henderson, 76, who serves as chairwoman of the Watertown Musicales group for half the year. She keeps tabs on the group’s monthly meetings over the phone while in Fort Myers, and the couple reads the Times online.

Mrs. Henderson said they stayed in Watertown later than usual this year to participate in Northern Choral holiday choir performances Dec. 13 at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music and Dec. 14 at the Dulles State Office Building. Because of the couple’s unusually long stay in Watertown, antsy members of Mrs. Henderson’s Fort Myers “Beach Babes” group made several calls in early December asking when she’d arrive in Florida.

“They keep telling me things like, ‘It’s 80 degrees and much nicer down here at the beach,’” she said.

‘Pool and hot tub’

William G. and Joan S. Senkowicz, Clayton residents for 40 years, became snowbirds in 2001 in Bradenton, Fla., after learning about the area from a friend in Black River. The retired couple now spends about half the year in Florida, leaving in November and returning in April.

During a phone interview from Bradenton this month, Mrs. Senkowicz, 64, rattled off a litany of things she doesn’t like about north country winters.

“I don’t miss the rotten winter roads and never knowing if you would get to work in one piece,” said Mrs. Senkowicz, who used to make a daily winter commute from Clayton to Fort Drum, where she worked as an administrative assistant. “I also don’t miss chipping off ice on the windshield and using hot water to open doors.”

But in their home in their Bradenton community, which is for ages 55 and up, she said she plays water-coloring and painting classes, pool aerobics and bicycling. Mr. Senkowicz, 69, enjoys pickleball and shuffleboard. Those activities keep the couple busy during months they say would be relatively dull in the north country.

“Here, there are free dances with live bands every Saturday and a heated pool and hot tub,” Mrs. Senkowicz said.

Added Mr. Senkowicz, who retired in 2001 as a U.S. customs agent: “I’m able to get in a quick two weeks of hunting before we leave (Clayton), but after that the weather is too bad. I used to go ice fishing up there, but the reason you ice fish is because of boredom.”

The Senkowiczes said they routinely keep in touch with Clayton friends by email and phone. They visit their only son, Ben J., and his family in Philadelphia, Pa. twice a year by making stops on the way to and from the Sunshine State.

‘i just don’t like winter’

Town of Watertown couple Steven T. and Barbara E. Harter, 68 and 67, respectively, became snowbirds for the first time this winter, flying down Nov. 10 to settle in at the house they bought in 2011 in Leesburg, Fla., about an hour’s drive northwest from Orlando.

The Harters took only two-week vacations in the previous two years because Mr. Harter worked full time as the supervisor’s administrative clerk for the town of LeRay; he retired in June after holding the post since 1974.

It was logical for the couple to become snowbirds, Mr. Harter said, because they have a 38-year-old son, Bryan J., living in Clearwater and a 37-year-old daughter, Kelly L., in nearby St. Petersburg. Their eldest son, 41-year-old Michael S., lives in Virginia.

“We haven’t had any kids home for Christmas in a number of years because they didn’t have time off to make it,” Mr. Harter explained. “We’ve been flying or driving south for Thanksgiving for the past eight to 10 years. But this year, chances are the younger ones will come up to our house for Christmas because the drive is about 100 miles.”

Mr. Harter — already sounding like a seasoned snowbird — said the couple won’t feel any nostalgia for winter in the north country.

“I grew up in the town of Rutland, and she grew up in the hamlet of Tylerville, and we both have survived the winter weather for years,” Mr. Harter said. “I used to have all of the toys, including a snowmobile and everything else. At one time I had three snow blowers. I’ve shoveled and blown snow, played in the snow and had all of the experience I’ve wanted with winter. I love the north country and its people, but I just don’t like winter and have had enough.”

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