Sunday, August 19, 2018

Getting Out

Affection lost: Enjoyment of cold conditions, winter weather lessens as outdoorsman ages

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    A lonesome coyote wanders the snow-covered woodlands of northern Wisconsin hoping to find a meal as the temperatures plummet. People and animals struggle in extremely cold weather.

    Photos by Bill Thornley

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SPOONER — Tall golden grasses poked through the deep crusted snow, bobbing in the gentle-yet-biting wind. 

Various animal tracks crisscrossed the grey landscape, a squirrel there, a rabbit nearby, a couple of ruffed grouse meandering through the pines.

I stopped my car along the trail to take a look and see just what kind of critters might be out and about. 

Further inspection indicated that a fox and a couple of deer had also wandered through the area recently.

I turned my suddenly chilly face to the yellow orb in the sky, an orb muted by occasional thin clouds and a kind of blue-grey haze. 

Nope, no warmth there. And I wondered, what the heck am I doing outside in this sub-zero purgatory?

I have discovered as I navigate middle age that I have become something I made fun of as a youth. I am rapidly turning into a cold-weather wimp.

I went to the AAA Sportshop ice fishing fun day this week in Spooner. The temperature was 20 degrees below zero early on, but by mid-morning things had warmed, although I was still chilly. 

The big bonfire at the site was a welcome retreat, and I felt a bit odd as I saw several little kids running around the ice without a care as if it were 60 degrees. That used to be me.

Thoughts of gathering outside to ice fish all day or play a game of pick-up tackle football once excited me. Now those sound like horrible ideas to partake in when it’s so cold. 

I never even used to own gloves; now I have a pair on my hands and two pairs in my car just in case I forget one.

Harsh weather, harsh words

My eyes begin to water and my cheeks turned red and started to sting after just a little exposure to these subzero days. 

I used to think nothing of working or playing outside all day in such weather. I have become my father, or possibly my grandfather.

How do I know this? I catch myself mumbling unflattering things about Old Man Winter under my breath as I used to hear them do. Things like “#$&**#?!!@* cold weather,” just as my dad used to utter as he tried to start that family car by burning coals under the engine block.

Or maybe it’s the  “*&^%$#@**& lousy winter!” like Grandpa used to say when he attempted to thaw out numerous frozen pipes at his home. 

Now I hear myself echoing those good old days as I turn the air blue with swear words when the washing machine pipes freeze, or when I discover that my battery is dead just because the car sat outside all day in minus-15 degrees.

Yes, I take notice now when I open the front door in the morning — if you can call it morning when it is still pitch black as we leave for work each day — only to be slapped hard in the face by an arctic blast that seems like it has been hanging around since late November. 

That same cold envelops us again at the end of the work day, when it is once again dark as pitch as we leave the office.

Up in the dark, work during the daylight, go home in the dark. No wonder this time of year depresses many. 

I guess we haven’t had the long, steady stretches of temperatures in the minus-20s or minus-30s, but it just seems like this has already been a long, consistently cold winter, even though January hasn’t yet begun. 

I’m already looking forward to the arrival of April when I can shut off the furnace again for the summer.

I appreciate my furnace, especially given the recent cold weather. Hearing it kick on at night makes me feel just a bit warmer, and when it does the cats all scramble to lay right on top of a register as the warm air blows out. 

But I also smell money burning every time it comes on.

Winter costs

In the last month, as winter has really settled in, I have noticed that my heating bill has nearly doubled. 

The heating utility folks are not shy. They offer an insulting, “Well, because it is cold,” if I dare to inquire why my bill went up so much in so short a time. 

No kidding. These are the same folks who say, “Well, because it is hot,” if I dare to use the air conditioner for a couple of days in the summer and then question the severity of their bill. Guess there is no denying their logic.

Can common folks get a break? Not likely, and never in winter. Heating bills go up, gas prices rise, property and income taxes, along with insurance bills are due, groceries are expensive. It’s enough to make me want to hibernate.

It seems the mail brings nothing but bad news and everybody has their hand in your wallet. The only thing that doesn’t go up, of course, are paychecks. Many are hurting, and many are without jobs. 

Way of life

Yet some folks love this time of year and actually thrive in the cold weather. You have snowmobilers, cross-country ski enthusiasts, dedicated ice fishermen, snowshoers, trappers, builders and loggers who work outside day after day, no matter how cold.

You have farmers who rise long before the sun, pulling on their jackets as they prepare to milk their herds. There are snowplow drivers and city workers whose jobs it is to be outside when the weather is the worst. 

I admire them all and wonder just how they do it.

I used to do it. I used to enjoy winter cold and snow. Back when I was a kid, I would dare say I loved it when the drifts would pile up and the temperatures would plunge so low that schools were forced to close. 

Of course I didn’t have to work in those conditions or pay more because of them. I just had to be a kid and build snowmen and forts until I got cold and Mom called us in for hot chocolate. 

As we went into the house, we’d pass Dad heating up the car and Grandpa cussing about the frozen pipes.

Without a doubt we’ll be outside no matter how cold it is this weekend. That is just the way it is up here in northern Wisconsin. 

Despite my growing trepidation about winter, I have to admit, I wouldn’t want to live somewhere without that season, even with the cold.

My body has changed somehow, and I now prefer a blanket to a chill wind. 

But this is a great place to live, even when Old Man Winter slaps you right in the face.

Thornley is the outdoors editor at the Spooner Advocate newspaper.

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