A Love Letter to Winter

What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.
— John Steinbeck
Image source: Pexels

Image source: Pexels

All over the world residents of the Northern Hemisphere are eagerly anticipating the return of spring. The days are getting longer, the warming sun is starting its climb into the summer sky and buds are straining to emancipate themselves from their barked entombment.

And while I too rejoice in and celebrate the return of spring I also take this as an opportunity to bid winter a fond farewell, and to say thank you for the many blessings I'm grateful to winter for (which includes a perennial reminder of the many ways I love spring).

Of course there's always a chance that, in the more northern latitudes (including where I live, in the Hudson Valley of Upstate New York) that winter will come roaring back, one last spasm of arctic air and even snow sending us running back to our closets for the sweaters and hats and snow boots we perhaps too optimistically stowed away until next season.

But spring will ultimately have its way. The sun will melt even the most bashful snow hiding in the deepest forest crevices, the birds will return to serenade us with their sweet songs and the land will turn green and fertile, a transformation that will bring relief to many thousands of runny noses, chapped lips and perpetually cold toes.

I'm always a little bit sorry to see winter go, to bid farewell to that most stoic of seasons. Winter is the only season, in my estimation, that builds character, that requires patience and fortitude and humility in the face of an indifferent Nature. Winter appears to ask for more than it gives, but its harvest, if you know how to reap it, is plenty bountiful.

Winter is certainly not going to win any popularity contests going toe to toe with the warm, languorous embrace of summer or the crisp clap on the back of fall or the welcoming arms of spring resurgent. Winter doesn't need you to like it, because winter's going to do what it's going to do whether you like it or not. So you best learn to like it.

Winter reminds me that there are still things in this world that are beyond my control, beyond my ability to bring to heel via even the most impressive human technologies available today.

Winter demands that I tolerate, even expect, inconvenience and messiness and unpredictability.

Winter is a reminder that I am stronger than I think I am, and that I can endure and even thrive amidst discomfort and inconvenience.

But my love for winter transcends the many ways it shapes and molds me. Winter harbors many of its own intrinsic delights.

The spare, stark beauty of a pristine field covered in snow.

Bony, leafless trees branches scratching up against low-slung, steel-gray clouds.

The muffled silence after a snowfall, when the only sound to be heard is the crunching of your own footsteps.

The mournful howl of a winter wind rattling through the leafless trees.

The crackle of a fire in a wood stove and the archaic, old-as-dirt smell of burning wood.

A walk through snow-covered woods illuminated only by a full moon.

The quality of light refracted by the sun as it descends to the horizon during a winter afternoon.

The animals that are unable to migrate or hibernate -- the deer and squirrel, the chipmunk and raccoon and fox -- remind us that winter is part of nature's timeless rhythm, which we often resist or try to bend to our will. They have adapted to the weather over millennia; they have nowhere else to hide.

And though we have engineered micro-climates to retreat to during inclement weather (both hot and cold) we would be well-served by venturing outside, into the wind and cold, to better learn how to face winter head-on, on its own terms.

Find something you like to do outside during winter (or could learn to like, in time), like skiing (downhill or cross-country) or snowshoe hiking or ice skating (I've omitted activities such as ski jumping and curling but they are most certainly options!). If you don't find something to get you outside then winter can feel interminable, something to dread and which drags on seemingly forever. And remember: if you don’t use it you’ll lose it. Figure out how to stay busy during all four seasons.


It's All About the Gear

Being outside in the winter, sometimes for hours, in sub-freezing temperatures can not only be uncomfortable, it can be dangerous. So make sure you know what you're doing before heading out (or go with someone who does if you don't) and make sure you've got the gear part covered so you stay as warm and dry and comfortable as possible so as to avoid nasty complications like hypothermia or frostbite or a painful slip on the ice. Here are some tips for the uninitiated.

Layers are where it's at. Start with a base layer of either synthetic or natural fibers (silk or my favorite, merino wool). A good base layer will trap heat close to the body, wick moisture away from the skin, provide some measure of insulation and won't stink after even repeated use. My advice: invest in a high quality merino wool base layer, top and bottom, from a company like Icebreaker; you might have sticker shock upon your first introduction but if you spend any time outside in the cold you will never regret the expense.

Next, add an insulation layer (or two) appropriate to the temperature and level of activity you'll be engaged in (try to avoid over-insulating; you don't want to sweat because sweat freezes once you stop moving). Insulation layers should be lightweight and high-performing (highest insulation at lowest weight). I prefer merino to synthetic fibers (like fleece, for example) because wool is naturally breathable. And there's nothing like goose down on top when the temperatures really plummet and there's no threat of precipitation. 

The top layer is the shell, the purpose of which is to shield the body from wind and precipitation. The shell should be water-resistant or water-repellent, and it should feature a sturdy hood that you can pull over the layers that are hopefully keeping your brain warm (I layer my head as well, which lacks the negligible insulating benefit of hair).

Protect your extremities. Fingers and toes, and then hands and feet, are the first to feel the sting of cold as your body temperature drops and vasoconstriction in the far-flung regions of your anatomy shunts blood to your vital organs to keep them warm and fully operational (this is a good thing). If you're facing very low temperatures, or if you anticipate being stationary for long stretches of time (like on a ski lift line) consider glove and sock liners (silk or merino) as a layering option for your hands and feet. I wear nothing but Darn Tough socks on my feet (another sticker shock warning, though Darn Tough socks, one of the most expensive wool socks on the market, come with a lifetime warranty. Send your hole-y socks back to Darn Tough in Vermont and they'll replace them, no questions asked.

Be sure-footed. If winter hiking (including snowshoeing) might be your thing then make sure you invest in a comfortable pair of winter hiking boots. Winter hiking boots come insulated (for very cold temperatures) or just water-proof; you might not need the former but you'll definitely want the latter. Slogging through the woods in wet boots is no fun. You'll also want a pair of easy on/off traction aids like Yaktrax or Microspikes (my choice) in case of ice or packed snow; if the snow is loose and more than 4-5 inches deep then you'll probably want a pair of snowshoes, which come in different styles and form factors to suit the activity of the hiker.