For the past several weeks, we’ve been plowed under with winter due to something called the Polar Vortex. This cold air system has brought many of us back to the winters we remember from our childhoods—if your childhood goes back to Andy Taylor and Barney Fife still being on television in prime time, that is. As this was written, there is snow in forty-nine of the fifty states, Florida being the balmy exception.
It’s been bone chillingly cold here in New York, often in the single digits, and there is actual snowpack, something I haven’t seen in a while. For the past many years, it has snowed, melted, snowed, melted and snowed again, as winter has gone through some sort of identity crisis. They’ve been fickle winters and hardly anything to complain about if one likes that sort of thing, but if I’m going to live in a place with a cold winter, I want a real butt-kicking winter. If the seasonal snow can’t be measured in yards, I’m not interested.
Yesterday, Mrs. G. and I took advantage of the blue skies, the relative warmth of twenty degrees and the fresh snow, and decided to go snowshoeing. This is something we picked up last winter when we were looking for something to do besides count the days until summer. It’s not a huge investment and once the equipment is there, that’s it. It’s pretty much free after that.
So I was sitting at the desk writing something about Sam’s Club, when Mrs. G. came in behind me while brushing her teeth. We’re both wanderers, but she has toothbrushing wanderlust even worse than I do.
“We shoob do shubshing,” she said, dripping foam like a rabid raccoon. “Less goo schnowshoobing.”
Luckily I speak fluent toothbrushese, so I responded in a very similar mouth-full-of-almonds dialect.
“K. Air oo wan oo go?” I asked.
“uh-UH-uh,” she said, which as everybody knows, means “I don’t know.”
While she went back into the bathroom to spit and rinse, I suggested that we go to Birdsong Trail, which aside from being the best name ever for a street in Disney World, is part of a trail system in Mendon Ponds Park, about twenty-five miles from our house. She agreed, so we started to get ready.
Now here’s the thing about snowshoeing. It is the simplest thing in the world to do, but it takes about twenty minutes just to get dressed for it. If the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, the first step in snowshoeing is simply getting ready.
You start with what is now called a base layer. This system used to be called long underwear, but not anymore. The difference is simple. One is a Ford Model T and the other is a Tesla Model S.
Long underwear were one hundred percent cotton, loomed in a waffle pattern under the theory that this would trap body heat. These came in ivory-colored tops and bottoms and both had to be purchased large enough to envelop a rhinoceros. This was done because once they were washed and dried, the bottoms would shrink up to shin-length while the tops would not only shrink smaller, but inexplicably wider—like something one might see on a sexy hillbilly cheerleader.
They did nothing to keep anyone warmer because they would wick up sweat like a sponge and freeze it into little waffle shaped ice cubes. If one stopped moving for even a second, rigor mortis would set in, locking the person inside a hard rime until the spring thaw. It was the best we had, unless one went with grandpa’s scratchy woolen union suit.
These new base layers are made out of a synthetic fabric that is skintight and makes people look like Superman, minus the cape and the red underpants. This system is an amazing invention that costs more than a tuxedo, but way less than hypothermia and does a remarkable job of making the cold winter days more tolerable.
After we both shimmied into our base layers, we each put on nylon snow pants and lightweight fleece tops. We’ve been at this for ten minutes and both of us are beet red, since the house is a comfortable sixty-seven degrees and we were now dressed for a windchill index of negative twenty.
Next up was something called a softshell jacket, which is really just a thick windbreaker that doesn’t make swishy noises when one moves. Then came the boots and the gaiters. Gaiters Velcro up over the shins and strap in front of the heel and keep the snow out of the boots. They also cinch up tightly on the snow pants, making us both look as if we are playing center field for the 1945 Anchorage Snow Dogs. Top all of this off with a hat and gloves and we were finally ready.
I always bring my phone, a camera and a snack and since there are a million pockets in this outfit, it all gets shoved in someplace. Meanwhile, Mrs. G. stocked the car with enough bottled water to survive the apocalypse. She’s always stocking the car with bottled water, making sure every cupholder, including the four in the doors, are full.
Twenty minutes after we started getting dressed and with the gear in the trunk, we were finally on our way.
We’re Finally On Our Way
One of the nicest things about where we live is that we’re only thirty minutes from anything. You name it, we can get to it in thirty minutes, unless I drive right by the entrance to the park, which I did. Twice. Call it forty minutes, then.
We finally parked the car, and I pulled out the camp chair so my wife had someplace to sit while she wrestled on her snowshoes. Meanwhile, I adjusted our poles and then put on my own snowshoes. After a few minutes, the car was locked, the gloves were back on, and we were all set and ready to go. Kind of.
“I really have to pee,” my wife said.
I nodded over towards a Porta-John and wished her luck getting inside with twenty-five inch snowshoes strapped to her feet. I was getting the video camera on my phone ready, just in case she wanted to try as she looked over, did some bladder math, and decided against it.
So the adventure began.
The Adventure Begins
There are two ways to snowshoe. One is to go someplace close, like a field or a woods or any large area covered with snow and just start walking and the other is to go someplace that has interesting stuff to see. We had already gone on a functional hike a week or so ago, so it would be nice to do a scenic one.
We got about ten minutes into it when a deer crossed our path, as if somebody let it out of a cage on cue just for the tourists. I was able to walk within thirty feet of it before it simply strolled away. This seemed like a good a time as any to start feeding birds, but I should point out that this required no skill or patience on our part. The birds in this specific location have been handfed for generations and all it takes is a palm full of sunflower seeds to get them to land. It took about three seconds before chickadees, nuthatches and even a tufted titmouse landed squarely on my hand. I swear a cat could put sunflower seeds in its paw and these birds would land on it. I’ve hung and stocked birdfeeders in my yard for decades, yet the birds still fly away when they see me as if they owe me money.
We fed the birds for a few more minutes and then started hiking again. About an hour into it, Mrs. G. accidently kicked the buckle on her heel binding and bent it, popping out the strap. I couldn’t fix it in the field so we had to head back early. It was still a nice walk, just a little slower. We dumped the last of our sunflower seeds on the ground for the squirrels before hobbling back to the parking lot. With the gear stowed back in the trunk, we looked around one last time and then climbed in the car. It wasn’t as long of a hike as we normally take, but it was still a lot of fun and if you’ve never had a wild bird land on your hand, I highly recommend it.
It’s supposed to stay cold for another week or so, but they’re forecasting weather near the fifties within a week, which will be nice but it will put us into that limbo season of not quite winter and not quite spring. It’s a tease of things to come that has the unfortunate side effect of making every new snowfall a bother. “Ugh … is it STILL winter?” will soon become the community mantra. I’ll admit that I won’t miss having everything that I touch feel like a giant salt lick, but I will miss winter. Now I know why.
Researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania conducted a set of eight experiments and concluded that the older we are, the more we value “ordinary” experiences. Being just a chip shot away from sixty, I found that interesting.
For me, winter is the time of the year that pares things down to a very basic level and I can’t say that I don’t appreciate that. I spent an enjoyable afternoon with my wife out in the cold, we handfed some birds, we saw some deer, and then we came home to a warm house, had some soup by the fireplace and played with the dog. I know that sounds astoundingly simple, but it was a great and now I have the experiments of some really smart people to back me up on why.
©Rick Garvia 2014. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited.