I step outside on January first under a clear sky, dawn coming, eastern sky egg-shell white. New day, new year. The dogs push past, hit the snow at a run, breath showing in clouds on the morning. The cold comes over me like a wave and I think, strangely enough, of summer. January, near zero degrees, thoughts of summer come to mind like a swirl of snow. Strange.
Or not. Summer heat builds in the long days but lakes can stay chill long after air warms. Sit ashore, let the heat come down and wrap you up as if in a blanket, then take a sprint to the water; dive deep through the strata of water, down to where it holds the chill; there, that’s what January cold can feel like, all encompassing, a shock head to toe. It takes your breath away like a stomach punch.
That’s why I think of summer heat on the day of winter cold.
The dogs retreat to the kitchen, bringing the draft of winter with them. I close the door tight and make coffee; no need to hurry outside into the chill.
January cold can be a mean thing, like the dark side of human nature; you know it’s there and you know it’s unpleasant, but you know also you cannot change it, can only live with it, do the best you can when it descends.
I need time to adapt to the cold like I need time to adapt to all change; it is not comfortable for me, not at first. November cold brings an awakening to the potential of cold; December can have a bite to it; January is the real deal. In November cold, I feel the chill when I’m outside, draw down into collar of jacket like a turtle to its shell. November cold does not last, but December cold might; it can go deep below zero; it can last for a week. I get better in the cold of December; I grow used to it; I wear the thick, down-filled coat topped with wool headwear. By January, I’m ready for it.
Still, I hold back on this morning; a day off and no reason to hurry out to ski. I drink a second cup of coffee, look outside, see a flash of red; a cardinal, red as a beating heart on the cold of this morning. He holds tight in the lilac thicket; cardinals are wary, aloof, the opposite of the friendly and trusting chickadee and finches. Then, in a blur of crimson, he flies across the yard, lands in the bush near the window and holds a pose. The sun is above the tree line now and the low light catches the red of the bird. The bird goes to the feeder, takes a seed, flies off. The backyard loses the blaze of color that has graced it as had the color of October leaf. I finish my coffee, gather my gear and leave the house to ski.
It’s been a poor early ski season; snow lies thin and frail; trails hold meager snowpack; dirt shows through frost-thin cover. There is very little good skiing to be had, not near home, not where it’s convenient. Such tracks as there are lie thin and poorly defined. It takes more effort to ski in poor track; you have to concentrate more; it is less relaxing. I go out anyway; bad skiing beats no skiing, though at times one has to wonder.
The cold holds close to the ground; there is a wind, north-northwest, and it cuts; there are no warm breezes in January. I walk in the morning cold from the truck to the trailhead. Footfall on dry snow squeaks; it is the only sound. If you hear the sound of snow squeaking underfoot, you know all that is important, for snow never sounds that way unless it is very cold. I feel chill; the temperature is still near zero.
But the sun is ablaze and the woods a wonder: sparkling white snow, somber tree trunks a stolid presence in the winter. January cold is most often a companion of clear skies, and so the price you pay for a beautiful day is most often the cold that comes down over the land and from which you cannot escape, but you can deal with. Cold is easy; add an extra layer or two of clothing and get into the woods, away from the wind.
I put on the skis, weave pole straps though my gloves, push off, nice and easy. The trail goes into a long downhill and I let the skis run, chill air against my face, biting. The snow in the track is good; the skis run easy. I feel good when skis run smooth and free; it is one of the highlights of time on skis. I relax, lift my eyes to the sun of the day, bright in my face.
Then I hit a patch of dirt and go down like I was tripped. I fall fast and hard, face-first, pulled by momentum and gravity both, down as if I’d fallen off a curb. I land on my pole, hit rib and leg, face digs into snow and plows a furrow. I sprawl ignominiously in the snow under the January sun on a cold morning. I am not particularly pleased with this turn of events.
I’m up in a hurry. It’s best that way, best to get up and keep on before you have time to think things through. Think too much and you can get discouraged; get discouraged and you tend to second-guess the wisdom of even being outside. So I’m up and I ski on, snow on my face. I’m irked; dumb move; I should have seen the dirt. But it’s what you get in threadbare conditions; dirt and rock are covered by a gauze of snow, enough to camouflage it; not enough to cover it deep. Hit dirt and you’ll be on the ground in a flash. And hard; there is not enough snow to cushion the fall.
I am chilled; that’s a good thing, for if you are chilled at the start of a ski outing, then you are dressed correctly. As you ski, the furnace of your body revs and roars and produces heat and that heat sustains you in the cold. If you feel warm at the start, you’ll overheat and that, strange as it may seem, is a larger problem in the cold. Five minutes into it and the chill begins to fade; 10 minutes and it’s gone.
I ski for an hour and a half on this cold January morning, ski into the new year and all that it may bring, the mysteries that we can only guess at. The sun has thin warmth on such a day in such a month, but the warmth of the sun is not measured only in the heat it brings, but in the warmth you feel for simply seeing the sun after days of cloud. A sunny day in January will most often be cold; it’s a fair trade, for sunny days in January sparkle with a beauty rare and unique as a cut stone, hard and inanimate, delivering up a warmth when held up for view.
January is as a hard stone, glittering as a diamond in the cold, short days, bringing with it a beauty and in that beauty a comfort, for January of all months delivers what it promises; cold and snow and beauty. There are no surprises in January; it is an honest time.
I drive home, heater blasting in the icebox of the truck, still aching from the fall, thinking of swimming in cold water under a high summer sun, thinking of the shock the cold can bring, thinking that you can never truly feel warmth until after you’ve been cold.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.