The chill and beauty of winter
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
Cold comes in as if on riding on the wings of a white owl; silent and pure and beautiful. But beneath the beauty, steel-like talons and piercing bite. Cold comes as if in the long glide of an owl in flight; dark sky, moon’s glow, ghostlike movement, then change sudden.
Dawn brings a rich blue sky but the beauty is deceptive; it’s 20 degrees below zero. Or more.
An hour after sunrise the sky color is a blend of pearl and washed out blue. Smoke rises straight. Trees stand as if shocked into stillness. It is very cold.
The first birds appear as if by magic. One minute the yard is clear; the next, movement. Small birds come as if materializing out of the cold air. Where have they been? They perch on whip-like branches, considering their next move. Then they move to the feeders, the chickadees and finches and doves and cardinals.
“It is sunny and the day is one of wonder and beauty.”
I look at the small birds as if beholding a miracle. The small ones, the chickadees and their like, would fit in the palm of my hand. If I were to hold one such it would seem to bring no more weight than a shadow or a snowflake. Yet they burn bright with energy after the night of the cold and in the time after dawning they come to the feeders. One cannot watch the small birds in the bitter cold without a feeling of wonder.
The birds crowd the feeder. It is still in the minus teens.
By early afternoon it has warmed (though in matters such as this “warmed” is deceptive), it has warmed to near zero. A few degrees above or below zero; it really does not matter.
One does not dress differently nor take added precautions for a measly couple degrees. I dress and gather an armful of skis and poles and leave the house.
A foursome of doves regard me from their perch on the side of the garage then take flight, lifting into the cold air, the sounds of their wings cutting the chill. I feel bad for them flying; it takes energy better hoarded for warmth and safety and I am no threat to them. They, of course, do not know this and rise into the air as they do when my dogs patrol the yard.
A thin wind sweeps the trailhead as I put the skis to snow. I think of the image of the white owl of the cold and the hard talons hidden beneath the beauty. It is sunny and the day is one of wonder and beauty. And of cold; cold that settles as a cloud, cold from which there is not true shelter to be found out-of-doors. Cold as harsh and unforgiving as a predator.
Then I begin to ski.
I ski with the knowledge that I will not fully warm up for at least 10 minutes. It will take that long to generate the heat to sustain me. I know my hands will chill and fingertips will ache and that I will hunker down into the high collar on my jacket. I know also that in time, 10 minutes, 15, I will find comfort. But I know also that if I go too long the heat will begin to fade and I will begin to feel the true cold and that I will, should I be out that long, find risk in the bitter cold.
I ski in that sweet spot between chill of starting out and chill of time too long spent, on this day an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Were it colder, ten below or more, an hour would be the maximum.
There is movement ahead; a deer. The deer crosses the ski trail and edges into the woods. I slow; regard the deer with interest. No horns. Young. Blocky in build, built to take the cold of Wisconsin. Then the deer is gone and I ski on alone.
It is a beautiful day of sun and shadow, of tall trees and a winding ski trail, of shadows of trees cross-hatching the white of snow. It is very quiet. The woods are at peace. I find the rhythm of cross country skiing, the kick and glide metronome of repetition and ultimately of relaxation. I am aware that I am chilled and then, later, aware that I have warmed and the chill is at bay.
I ski for an hour and a half and I am pleased with that, pleased in the sense that I have gotten out when the easy thing would have been to stay inside. When I was younger I would routinely ski at minus 10 or minus 15. Now it comes harder, that effort in the cold.
It is more difficult to find the motivation to leave the house. It is, thus, more satisfying when I do.
When I am done skiing, I load skis and poles and the back of the truck, take my gloves off and walk to the door. There are grouse high in the popple trees feeding on buds, puffed up against the bitter cold. Four of them and the high sun lights them and they seem to glow.
In late afternoon the shadows reach out and the temperature begins to slide. It will be another cold night. The cold has settled across the land and it is not going to leave soon.
It is part of it all, the deep cold, part of life in the north. We know only that the cold will come as if on the wings of a white owl, come and stay and reach us all and we will all deal with it as we will. It will come as the changing year will come, irreversibly and irrevocably.
In the dark after sundown the moon rises. New Year’s Eve draws near. The temperature drops. It will be another night of bitter cold.
In the dark of night the white owl takes flight.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.