“I love the cold…” – Ebeneezer Scrooge
It’s been so bloody hot here in Minnesota where we live, that I’ve begun to fantasize about the coming of autumn. I love the transitions between the seasons even more than the seasons themselves. The cooler evenings are idyllic, and it’s easier (much too easy) to linger in bed through the dawn. The changes make me feel more alive… and with that feeling comes the realization of just how short and temporary our lives really are. I love the transitions because they reveal a deeper appreciation for what I have… my family… the life I live… and just how fortunate I am to have them both.
I love the late summer fields that are harvested in the early fall… the long shadows and muted colors that seem to somehow soften the land. I also appreciate the late winter storms… those that blow out their fury just before spring… they seem to bring us the coldest days of the year. I love the late winter, and the bone-biting cold that it drapes across our world. This story is about the cold.
I listened to the footsteps that approached my bedroom for the forth time in less than an hour. Like each time before, someone paused, and their feet cast fantastically elongated shadows through the pool of light that seeped into the darkened room from under the closed door.
The shadow hesitated longer this time and I gathered every available bit of blanket and quilt around me until only nose and eyes were exposed. It started to leave… and then turned back to linger a while longer… then quietly stole away. “Do you think he’s alright in there?” I heard my mother ask as she got back into bed. “He’s got the windows wide open again… I can feel freezing air from under his door.”
“Oh, he’ll be all right.” My father said. “If he isn’t… we’ll just leave the windows open and he’ll keep ’til spring. Now… let’s go to sleep.”
I smiled with the knowledge that they wouldn’t be back again and turned on my flashlight, which was strategically propped up on my nightstand to illuminate the book I’d been reading, Lost in the Barrens. If the two boys in Farley Mowat’s story could survive a winter lost in the frozen expanse of the Northwest Territories… then I’d make it through till dawn.
“Bob… turn the God-damned flashlight off and go to sleep… right now!” My father called out from down the hall.
As I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep that night, I knew, just as surely as there’d be ice on my glass of water in the morning, that as soon as I was old enough to strike out on my own, I was bound for the north country.
Today’s image is an oil painting titled “Cold”. It just might be me, fishing with my good friend Dave, on New Year’s Day… the opening day of Trout season here in Minnesota!
Because I love the cold, it’s no wonder that winter was my favorite season. As soon as the lakes froze over, my pals and I would cut school to play pick-up hockey. Christmas was still a month away, and the skates we wore were last season’s. They were much too small, and we struggled by with skin-tight skates that didn’t allow for more than a thin pair of socks.
I can still feel the cold that was transferred from the frozen pond, up through the blades, across the leather bottoms, and through my feet before it slowly crept up my legs. But, as bad as I suffered… I’ll always remember the kid from down the block who had grown too much in the intervening year, and had to put his bare feet into his ice-cold skates… and was happy to do so. I know how my feet tingled and ached later that night in a warm bath… I can only imagine what he went through.
As cold as my feet became in those tight-laced hockey skates… I never experience real cold until the fateful day that is still referred to, in the old neighborhood, as the Big Dip.
The area lakes were usually frozen over long before the first good snow… but that year was different, and at the bottom of the long sledding hill lay open water… grey and frigid. “Crack the whip!” Someone yelled, and we all lined up, grabbing the tail end of the kid’s sled that was in front of us. Being at the tail end of the line was both scary and exciting… the kind of thing that drew us to danger like moths to a flame. “Ready… go!” Someone else called out, and the snake of sleds descended the long hill, in ever tightening turns as we sped toward the lake.
I was second to last in line and the kid behind me was my arch nemesis, Stevie Nast. At the perfect instant he let go of my sled and I was cracked from the whip. I was trying desperately to avoid the lake, when he pulled along side and expertly bumped me into the frigid, grey water. There was little to do but close my eyes and hold my breath as a quick and certain death enveloped me.
I broke the surface of the shallow lake and waded ashore cursing like a sailor and swinging my fists like a Marine. I’d like to tell you that I connected with my archenemy, but life has its way of cheating us.
When I stopped swinging… it became apparent to me that my clothes were freezing solid, and that if I didn’t get some help, that I’d become a human Popsicle.
In those days, every parent was both someone to avoid when you were having fun, and someone you could go to when you were in real trouble. I ran as quickly as I could to the Richter’s house. All of the other kids divined my intent and sped in the same direction. I led the pack for the first block, but fell far behind as my freezing woolen snow pants began to stiffen.
Mrs. Richter was waiting for me at her door, fully aware of the situation when I arrived, and I was paraded through a phalanx of hysterical nine-year-olds into her kitchen. Sally, true to her reputation, instantly had matters in hand. I was instructed to strip off my clothes and wrap myself in a robe. After I was examined for signs of hypothermia and it was determined that I wouldn’t pass out and die on her floor, I was offered a glass of homemade wild cherry wine.
To this day, I can still remember the taste of that wine and how it produced warmness from my face to my stomach… and back again. It was the first time that I had been warmed from the inside out… and it beat a hot bath all to hell.
Because I feel that the cold was somehow as pure and ennobling as the North Country that embodies it… it was inevitable that I’d live here. My move to Minnesota was significant for several reasons. I quickly realized that the cold of the North Country brought out the best in people. It required and rewarded all of the values I admired, and punished those that didn’t measure up.
I learned a lot that first winter. I could identify someone who enjoyed the cold by the calm and comfortable spring in their step as they walked down to the post office in mid January to collect their mail. There was no hurried gait, nor buried chin… no jittery ducking from the shelter of one doorway to the next, hands buried deep in pockets. The people who live here by choice are as likely to stop and admire the blueness of the winter sky or engage in a conversation about the merits of a new ice auger as other folks are to rush for the warmth of home, office, or idling car.
People who live in the north wait until the coldest part of winter to split the wood that was cut the summer before. When it’s below zero, even the toughest oak or ash fairly explodes with the drop of a good splitting maul.
I discovered that in the North Country, a “good” snowfall is measured in double figures, and more likely than not, my neighbors will take the day off to have fun with the new snow blowers they received at Christmas.
A “good” winter’s day up here is bright and clear and the colder the better. It’s a clean, dry cold that’s pure and healthy. I didn’t learn about all the different types of cold until I moved to Minnesota; there is dry cold, and damp cold… bright cold, and grey cold… still cold, and windy cold… before, and after dawn cold… midnight cold, and… Christmas-night-cold.
There’s a twisted and perverse pride that people who live in the north take in simply enduring. People who live up here swim in Lake Superior… for fun! They wet-wade in the Split Rock River…bowl with frozen turkeys in the icy alleys of Thunder Bay…and ice fish on Lake Superior with a canoe nearby because the ice is always breaking up from wave surges. People up here net the smelt run in the spring, even though the DNR requires them to wear blaze orange life jackets so that their bodies will be easier to find. People in the north take their winter vacations even further north, up at their cabins. We tell our friends from Minnesota, who’ve moved to Anchorage, that they ran away from the cold.
It was in Minnesota that I learned that happiness was more than a drawer full of wool socks … it also includes Pak boots, red wool “Union Suits”, moose hide choppers (with knitted wool liners), wool “Malone” bib overalls, beaver skin hats, thick sweaters of Argentine Merino wool with cowl necks… and scarves spun from an old hunting partner’s under-fur (the dog… not the neighbor).
The cold was the reason for my first marriage. I decided to take the woman I was dating to a cabin up north that I was thinking about buying. It started to snow very softly as we left Minneapolis and I took that to be a good sign. It was a full-blown blizzard when we arrived at the trailhead, outside of Lake Nebagamon, four hours later. The track was impassible. “How perfect.” I thought to myself as I shoveled a turn out in the snow and backed in. While she waited in the heated cab, I packed the big toboggan with food, wine, and sleeping bags and after a bit of coaxing, we started the mile long hike through the woods. The storm had intensified, and gusts moaned through the ancient white pines, driving snow before it in nearly whiteout conditions. The trail was drifting over, but I managed to lose my way only a few times. “This is great!” I yelled over the howl of the wind. “We could be snowed in here for a week!”
In retrospect, I’m not sure if she smiled or some wind driven snow found its way down her back. “Isn’t this fun!” I shouted, over my shoulder as I broke trail for her through waist deep drifts… maybe I should have turned to catch her response.
When we arrived, the doorway needed to be shoveled out as the snow was drifted over the windows. It seemed even colder inside the cabin than out in the storm and our breath hung still in the air. But, the stove was big, the wood was dry and it wasn’t long before it was comfortable enough to go without mittens for short periods of time.
I opened a bottle of wine, set it next to the stove to thaw, and started to rustle up some dinner. When the ice melted off of the front windows, we watched as the really heavy stuff started to fall. “Where’s the bathroom?” she asked after a glass or two of wine.
“Why, we passed it on the way in.” I said cheerfully. “One of the nicest outhouses I’ve ever seen!”
“Outside?” She asked in a tone that should have hinted to me that she thought that I had exaggerated about how nice it was. “Out there?”
“Oh… sure… I understand now.” I said. “I’ll shovel a path for you to the door, and light the kerosene lamp to warm the place up a bit. Why don’t you just wait here and have some of these sardines. It won’t take me long.”
I forced the door open against the wind-banked snow and disappeared into the storm. I had a double-wide path cleared in no time, lit the lamp to warm the privy, and as an afterthought swept all of the porcupine pellets into one corner where they’d be out of the way. As I turned to go, a gust from the storm blew the door open and extinguished the flame. “Well, this won’t do.” I said out loud to the night and lit the lamp again. I closed the door quickly, and took care to turn the block of wood that locked it in place.
I opened the cabin door to find her standing there in her parka and toque, a scarf wrapped around her face and my choppers covering her hands “All ready?” I asked. “Right this way… we better hurry before the path drifts over.”
The privy had indeed warmed up a bit, and once she was royally ensconced, I shut the door and turned to leave, remembering at the last moment to lock the door so that the wind wouldn’t blow it open and leave her in the dark.
I was congratulating myself on my thoughtfulness as I shook the snow off of my parka… some of it sizzled on the stove where it landed. “That’s funny.” I said to myself. “I thought that I’d dampened it down before I left.” The stove was glowing a dull cherry red and the temperature in the cabin had soared into the forties. I closed the damper again and choked the flame. “No sense in wasting wood.”
Another bottle of wine was opened and I stood before the wall-length bookshelf looking over the selection of reading material. I love to examine the collections of dusty old books in my friend’s summer places. There’s no telling what you’ll find… there are many standards, of course, ones that you’ll find in every summer retreat. Other titles are more obscure and often more revealing. It became obvious to me that this cabin was also a winter retreat when I was drawn to a first edition copy of Doctor Zhivago. I pulled the volume free, and settled down with it in an old winged back chair. The tin of sardines, which had hardly been touched, balanced nicely on one wide arm, the glass of wine on the other.
I went immediately to my favorite scene, where Lara, her daughter, and Zhivago are living through a frigid and mystic winter on the steppes of Russia, in his wife’s family’s summer estate. “Ho, ho, ho, I love the snow… I love the snow.” The daughter sings as she frolics in the powdery stuff…
“I love this scene.” I said, as I reached for the last sardine, scooping up what little mustard sauce was left, and popping it into my mouth. “It’s so idyllic.”
BANG BANG BANG!
“Wow.” I thought. “The storm has really picked up.” I took another sip of wine.
BANG BANG BANG!!
“Jeeze… I wonder if a tree hasn’t fallen.” I said aloud, looking to make sure that I hadn’t missed a little fillet.
BANG BANG BANG!!!
It was as this point that something in my training kicked in, and the rule of three gunshots to signal distress came to mind. It all became clear in that instant, and hit me like the armored train in Zhivago. “Oh shit!” I said, finishing my glass of wine before rushing to the outhouse. I’ve never seen a wolverine backed into it’s den before… but that’s what came to mind as I unlocked and opened that outhouse door. Her demonic eyes reached out from the darkest recesses of the outhouse. The porcupine pellets were everywhere… they’d really hit the fan!
Later, after dinner, I fed more wood than was necessary into the stove, in an attempt to make up for my thoughtlessness… and went back to my book. “Good thing that I brought so much wine.” I thought to myself.
Finally, it was time for bed, and I looked forward to it, if only to escape those accusing eyes. While A-frames are cute to look at and evoke all kinds of romantic images… they’re a horror to heat. The lofts are hot and the floor is cold. The temperature in the second story, where we were to sleep together had soared into the fifties! I chose to sleep on the floor instead, where it was nice and cool.
We made up, of course, but in retrospect, I’m convinced that she married me only as a means of punishing me for locking her in that outhouse.
Several months after the divorce, I took Lisa, who I’d just met, up to my cabin (one of the few things that I managed to keep during the divorce) for a long New Year’s Eve weekend. After helping me shovel out a turn-around spot on the logging road, we backed the truck in, loaded up the two toboggans, and headed down the trail. “This is great!” She yelled over the howl of the wind as it moaned in the big white pines. “We could be snowed in here for a week.”
I smiled while I watched her break trail for us through the waist high drifts. “Isn’t this fun!” She shouted, over her shoulder.
When I finally caught up with her, she was shoveling out the doorway to the cabin, which had drifted over. She stopped, as I approached, spread her arms and nodded to the outhouse. “That’s one of the nicest outhouses I’ve ever seen!” She exclaimed.
Thanks for visiting,
Since childhood, winter has always been my favorite season, because I find the cold appealing and somehow ennobling… as I do the North Country.
Minnesota fits me like a fine pair of choppers, that is to say that I’ve never felt more at home than here. After just a few years, however, Alaska beckoned… and off I went… always further north. I’m home now, in Minnesota… where it’s colder!
Even though I’ve spent a lot of time in Alaska… I’ve never wintered over, and I’ve always fantasized about winter caretaking a lodge out in the bush.
The climatologists say that we haven’t had really cold winters since the mini ice age in the late 1800’s. As a child, I remember hearing stories from my grandparents about people taking their horse and wagons across the Mississippi River at St. Louis. When I look at, and compare the people that this era produced… Teddy Roosevelt, Mallory, Shackleton, Scott, Byrd, Lindbergh, Hemingway, and many others… to the personalities of today… I realize why global warming really scares me. If it’s real… it will cause the end of civilization as we know it and ultimately the demise of our world… not because of it’s effect on the environment… no… it just won’t be cold enough to breed strong children!
From the Stormy Kromer website…
- The sex appeal rises as the temperature drops.
- A frosty head only looks good on beer.
- Anyone who doesn’t take winter seriously enough to fill their closet with wool clothing is likely to become a gruesome statistic.
- Winter doesn’t have an official fan club… the secret decoder ring doesn’t fit over moose-hide choppers.
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