Getting older and colder this winter

John Pepin

I return once again to this messy sanctuary of countless books and musical instruments, a soft couch and a sturdy wooden rocking chair.

Outside my window, the night is cold enough to crack.

It’s one of those times when walking on certain floors in the house I can feel the cold reach up from the tiles to wrap its arms around my feet and start trying to sink into my bones.

This is especially true the closer I get to windows and doors.

I recall growing up in our old, two-story mining-era house that was built just after 1900. There were sizeable drafts in that house. The furnace always seemed to be chugging like a locomotive all winter long to keep us warm.

In the earliest days there, the heat had been provided by coal, but was later updated to heating oil. It must have cost my dad a fortune.

It had to have been tough to afford on a mailman’s salary, feeding a family of four kids. My mom was a housewife, so it wasn’t a two-parent income household.

My dad worked on numerous do-it-yourself projects remodeling that old house during the 1960s and early 1970s. That remodeling must have also cost a mint.

He had installed some fiberglass insulation, which first became popular in the 1930s, inside the walls of the house. The old walls were finished with plaster and lathe.

I also recall my dad working on the walls in the living room, installing some type of blow-in insulation that reminded me of puffed rice or oats or something.

I am not sure whether my dad was doing this work in response to building code improvements which required insulation in attics and walls by the mid-1960s, or whether the house was too drafty, and those heating bills were just way too expensive.

It might have been a combination of all three.

I remember us storing leftover turkey from Thanksgiving on the back porch when the roasting pan wouldn’t fit in the refrigerator. There was no heat to the back porch except for the little afforded by there being a door and windows on the structure.

I also recall frost on the inside of some of the windows during those earliest, coldest winter times.

As I got older, I looked out through the frosted glass on the upstairs windows seeing smoke sifting and twirling slowly into the air from chimneys across town. Lights on in homes clicked off the later it got.

Church bells chimed in that old town and sounded like the ringing was coming from heaven itself. The fire siren blew for the curfew at 10 p.m.

It seemed then like the night was blacker, the snow whiter and the winter so long that it might never end. It always felt warmer and a whole lot brighter just by lighting a candle – a beautiful winter light.

Tonight seems like one of those old-time winter nights.

I walked outside and the snow crunched loudly beneath my feet.

It didn’t seem so cold at first, but after standing outside for only a moment or two, the cold had already begun to pinch at my face and catch my breath.

The thermometer read 2 degrees above zero, while the weatherman said the windchill was close to 20 degrees below zero.

It must be incredibly difficult to spend entire nights like this out in the elements, especially if not properly dressed for the cold.

I think about the miners from back in those early times even before our old house was built. They used candles on their helmets for light in the ore mines.

I have photographs of those men out there in the wintertime, with big icicles hanging off the mine shafts and the miners look frozen.

A couple nights back, before the cold arrived, the winter snow that had been absent across the countryside came all in one big punch.

We got nearly 3 feet of snow almost overnight.

The winds were strong and scary, making the trees sway back and forth like skyscrapers. Snow rolled over the edge of our roofline at the back of the house like smoke.

A flock of about 200 Bohemian waxwings hit what was left of the crabapples in the trees around our yard the day before the storm.

Blue jays, chickadees, goldfinches and nuthatches also worked quickly back and forth from our bird feeders, readying themselves before the big blow hit.

During the storm, I didn’t see any animals out in the snow. They must have sought warm places deep within the comfort of evergreen branches to keep warm. Others likely found refuge in old woodpecker holes and other cavities.

Brush piles would be another place to hide for animals, as well as the comforts of old barns, garages and other buildings, especially for the smaller creatures, like mice.

When the storm had stopped, I saw a doe and a yearling deer – one that is very small in stature – jumping through the deep snow in our front yard in the dark.

The yearling seems like it’s small enough to be a big dog. For it, the deep snow must certainly have been a significant challenge. It was no surprise to me that the younger deer was the follower behind the much larger doe.

That same day, we had gone out to shovel and throw the snow out of our driveway. Since then, the deer have used the open space to travel, rather than jumping through the snow.

They did make it to the birdfeeders to help themselves to some sunflower seeds.

I wonder where they are tonight in this deep freeze.

I imagine it must be tough for them to stay hunkered down for several days while the temperatures remain below zero. Hopefully, walking around helps warm them up and the intake of food, like cedar tree needles and even those sunflower seeds from the feeders, does the same thing.

On the first night after the storm, I saw the doe and the yearling and another deer, which was likely another yearling, walk up the driveway and brave the deep snow to reach the cedar boughs of the trees along our driveway.

If the snow wasn’t so puffy and soft, they’d have solid footing and heightened ability to browse on cedar branches that would otherwise be unavailable.

If I turn off the lights in this study of mine and look out the windows, it’s easy for me to imagine it is one of those stunningly cold nights from way back when in the days of my youth when I thought springtime might never come again.

I do enjoy seeing the beauty of winter, being out in the snow hiking and snowshoeing, playing and even shoveling, but the days and nights when the bitter sub-zero, deadly windchill cold arrives, I feel better and safer staying at home.

I’d prefer to be here in my study doing wintertime indoor stuff like reading and catching up on indoor projects or sitting by the crackling fire in the fireplace sipping hot soup with all the lights in the house off.

Sometimes, we light an old oil lamp for ambiance and the relaxing, warm glowing light it provides. It makes the whole room bright and the shadows on the walls and ceiling are fun to watch.

I’ve always insisted life is better with four seasons, a fact I became certain of living in sunny southern California. Even on these frozen, dark nights, I wouldn’t rather be anyplace that didn’t have real winter.

The four seasons and their passage and rotation can teach a person a lot about change, resilience, appreciation, hope, faith and life. They make negotiating changes in other aspects of life easier to understand or contend with.

Each day in a four-season place there is learning in the living.

It’s part of everything we do, whether we realize it in the moment or not.

I’ll keep grasping for understanding, truth and learning in hopes of finding myself and those I love to the greatest degree possible.

Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.


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