A small but real victory on a cold Northwoods day
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
The mourning doves came at sunrise, fast-winged, graceful, drifting out of shadows at the edge of the yard, flying from the darkness of the night. They landed in the branches of the burning bush next to the house.
It was very cold. The sun had broken the tree line to the east and the doves perched in its light but the sun had no warmth, its glow a false promise, promised but not fulfilled. It was 20 below zero, perhaps colder.
At a certain point it does not matter; it is only numbers. At a certain point it goes from being cold to being very cold and after that further delineation of the actual temperature is meaningless, save for bragging rights. There is, in the north, a measure of pride in having the coldest temperature on a morning, a Northwoods one-upmanship where the coldest temperature on the backyard thermometer wins the day. But numbers are only numbers; real cold is a presence beyond measure.
In deep cold there is something as elemental as bone, sharp as crystal, hard as granite. Cold is more than numbers; cold is a state of mind and a state of being, the unlikely mix of emotion and reality. Serious cold, the cold the past days, carries power as a force of nature, carries an element of fear as do shadows at midnight under a dark moon.
The doves perched on the wire-thin branches, fluffed their breast feathers against the cold. When the low angle light of the morning sun aligned one could see the thin puff of breath as the birds exhaled, a fragile cloud that rose for a too-brief moment then faded in the bitter cold.
The breath vapor of the birds was the only thing suggesting warmth on this morning. There is no more weight to a cloud of breath than there is the a shadow, no more warmth than the winter sun can deliver, yet on this day that faint rise of breath carried the optimism of life in the winter cold.
I watched the doves and wondered how they can survive the cold. I kept the dogs inside for if they were to be let out the birds would likely take wing and in flight use energy better conserved for sustaining life. In winter cold the heartbeat of life is maintained by harboring the heat of the body and in that, holding the cold at bay.
To say that it warms up on such a day is misleading; the day never truly warms, only becomes less cold. I waited until the day became less cold and then I did what I do on a day off in winter, I dressed for the cold and went skiing.
The first step is the hardest step in leaving the house in the cold. The step from warm house to bitter cold out of doors. That is the most difficult step of the day. The house is comfort; the out of doors a challenge. The indoors a luxury; the cold day a harsh and demanding reality. I closed the door behind me and walked to the truck. The snow squeaked in that unique sound it makes only in bone-aching cold.
I let the truck run to warm up, exhaust lifting as the breath of the doves had lifted. I drove to the trailhead; the thermometer on the truck showed the outside temperature at 10 below. I parked the truck, walked to the trail and began to ski.
I learned decades ago that if you are comfortable when you start to ski you are overdressed. One needs to be chilled, trusting the effort and exertion to come will bring warmth and comfort, or at least what passes for comfort on cold days.
My hands were cold on that morning, my legs and face chilled and I had doubts about how I’d dressed. But I also knew that the first fifteen minutes are often like that, chill and self-doubt of the wisdom of the effort. I knew that things would get better. Probably.
To ski on days of bitter cold, to do anything outside in the bitter cold, is to take on a measure of tension and anxiety. One is always aware of the underlying risk in it all; to make a mistake in the cold is different than making a misstep on days of forgiving warmth. The weight of risk is always on ones shoulders in the same manner, perhaps, as that of a swimmer who pushes off over deep water where consequences of error are magnified by the potential for loss. One makes choices; one accepts the risk.
I skied alone on the morning, skied slowly for skis do not glide well in the cold, skied in the beauty of a sun-filled day and in that found satisfaction. My breath huffed out in clouds as the breath of the doves had earlier in the day, gone quickly to the cold as the birds’ breath had been lost to chill.
I skied because in my heart I am a skier, skied in the cold because it is what I have done all my life and the reward of a day of beauty is worth the inconvenience of the chill. I was alone in a place I wanted to be, performing the simple kick-and-glide of a skier, aware that come evening I would sit and watch the Super Bowl and its excess and bloated self-importance but that I would be better served in my time on skis.
I was warm when I quit after an hour or so. I stood in clear air and took a deep breath, took in the sun, the blue sky and the crystalline snow. I felt good about having skied. I felt that in the bitter cold I had accomplished a small but real victory.
Sometimes that’s all we need.
Then I stepped to the truck and drove the warmth of home.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.