Come the thick of night, rain fell; tapped on the roof like a tip-tap hammer on nails in a coffin lid. In the pre-dawn darkness the wind roused as if coming awake and howled as if in torment. It had stayed warm overnight; near 40 and in the driveway water pooled as if after a summer rain. The night before, the backyard was a mottled white, covered with darkening snow, but covered nonetheless. In the smudged gloom that passed for daylight, the yard showed mud and the dogs hesitated to walk on it as if it was toxic. Which, in a sense, it was.
During that day, the temperature dropped like a rock rolling downhill until at sundown it was in the teens and driven by a mean wind that cut with malice toward all. And on that day, the winter was wounded beyond any reasonable measure. On that day, over that weekend, last weekend, winter became a charade, a hollow shell of little substance, a sidekick actor in the Wizard of Oz: all bluff and bluster and name only, with no substance to back it up.
Sunday brought cold but little else; it felt like January even as it looked like November. Remnant snow was frozen hard and unforgiving, flecked with dirt and debris, the ugly snow of a thaw aftermath. It was late winter snow, the snow you expect in March when the spirit of winter is broken and all that remains of the pristine whiteness of January’s snow is tattered and dirty. Winter wonderland had become winter wasteland.
That was our weekend a week ago when the rain fell on Friday, the temperature fell during the day on Saturday and the Packers fell on Saturday night. It was not a weekend that brought out good nature and cheer in many of us.
And say what you will about winter, (and in this country, everyone has something to say) no matter what you think, there is one inviolate fact: Rain in January is about as unnatural as sunrise in the west. Rain in January is an abomination even more so than frost in June or snow, no matter how light, in September. A late frost, an early snow flurry, so be it; life goes on the next day. The normal returns. Summer warmth rises in June; autumnal glory reigns in September. But rain in winter does damage and lingers far after its passing, like a scar from a fall or a dull cut that will not heal.
That is what we have now; a scabrous snow over a frozen land as we go forward into what would be the heart of winter. This is not what it should be.
January cold should come down hard and swift, hit the zero mark on the thermometer and keep on falling. January sun should rise in with weak light in the dawning and then blaze forth high above at noon, all show but no warmth, not from the January sun. Snow in January should drift high, white and pure, and the wan sun should reflect snaps of diamond light off the white snow and cast bluish shadows in the woods. The full moon of January, a week off now, should glow like a beacon over the cold and frozen land.
And it may still happen. It may come as it should, Wisconsin winter in the first month of the year. January may run out its span of days in falling snow this week and take its place as it should be, the King of Winter and all it promises. But for now, it is a faded shadow and the land lies fallow and barren and covered with litter of fall leaf and dirt.
This is written, as you well may know, by someone who finds winter a time of comfort and joy, someone who can find simple pleasure in falling snow, who feels it is his right to have snow in winter (snow in January: Is that too much to ask?), who will take time on skis or time on snowshoes as a proper part of a Wisconsin winter and take that time outside in the cold ahead of time inside, waiting for it to warm up. To this I plead guilty.
I plead guilty as well to the wish on a day off to clip on a pair of skis and go, go for an hour or two or three, ski in the fast tracks of a prepared trail or ski in the slow slog of a deep-snow backcountry outing to follow old logging trails, to wind along frozen rivers, to follow the track of fox and coyote, to cut track of grouse and hare, to hear nothing save for the sigh of breeze in the treetops and the distant call of raven. In those sounds I hear the voice of winter; in those mute tracks of animals I stand amazed at their fortitude; in the unrelenting cold I find the comfort of warmth when I come inside.
I plead guilty as charged for the simple fact that in a month, the Birkebeiner will be here, a 32-mile trail that climbs and rolls and goes on and on into the late winter day of late February, and I know that I will be there at the start line and I’ll stand there looking down the track into the distance and know that it will be a long day, no matter what shape I’m in; but know, also, with each passing day this January that we have no snow to ski on that the day of the Birkie will be longer for a lack of training on my part.
Call me a whiner; I won’t deny.
But I look at this weather with other eyes as well. I remember late fall before the ice came down that the lakes were low; sand extended too far out from shore; lake levels edged into the area of concern. I know that the snow of December and January and February fuel the runoff of spring to help fill the lakes and I worry over that lack. I worry also that the ice is too thin for mid-winter and that thin ice may go out early and expose lakes to more wind and heat and evaporation, and make a bad situation worse.
I know also that it can change in the turning of a page in nature’s book. I know that winter can linger long, that snow can stack up deep in the latter parts of the season and that this week, this week when winter stalled, this week may be the aberration, that the snow may fall and the ice may build and the winter will recover its bully boy status.
This is what I know. But it is not what I feel.
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.