There is no cold like the first cold of January. January cold is pure and real and piercing, searing and deep. January cold is the real cold of winter and when it comes all pretense falls away; winter is here and it is here to stay.
The cold of what, two, two and a half weeks past now? That cold was the cold of January come home to us. Minus 15 give or take; couple nights running.
Daytime better but not much. Above zero but not a whole lot above.
The first day or two, that cold really hurts a person. It runs deep and brings chill and despair. Couple that cold with nightfall that seems to drop like a heavy curtain in late afternoon and one feels like the world has become a harsh and cruel place. We deal with it. Live up here and you’d darn well better find some way to cope. Either that or start the long slide to cabin fever. That affliction will leave one ill tempered and bitter at every passing day, treating the cold as personal affront.
We got through it, that bitter cold. Then came snow, part and parcel of a normal Wisconsin winter. Say what you may but cold always bites harder over thin snow. Once we get a good layer of snow down the cold never seems as bad.
Thursday a week ago we skied, a trio of us, skied as temperatures budged a bit over ten above zero. The sky was blue and the sun bright over a couple inches of snow. It was a pretty good day to ski though one can argue that any day of skiing is a good day.
We skied out in the winter woods, into clear cut areas and back into the woods. There was a breeze but in the shelter of trees it was bearable. The ski trail was near to perfect; freshly cut, clear snow, tracks of a skier and dog ahead of us.
We did one loop in an hour then started another trail and came upon a pair of skiers. We stopped to visit. I mentioned the skier ahead of us with the dogs, the ones whose tracks we’d seen. The one skier looked at me like I was daft. “There’s nobody ahead of you. Those are wolf tracks.”
I recovered best I could: “I guess that’s why they’re so big.”
Wolves, three of them, smart and efficient had been using the packed ski trail instead of the energy-robbing deep snow off to the side. We’d skied over their tracks for a few miles. They were cruising the woods as we were and, as were we, on the packed trail for easier going.
The woods in the presence of wolves seem a different place than not. We skied on, easy and smooth and enjoying it all. But the shadows seemed a bit deeper than before.
On Sunday, on a different trail, I looked up and off to the side and saw a snowshoe hare still as a statue in the shadow. I coasted past, stopped and turned back. The rabbit (yes, I know, a hare not a rabbit but c’mon, you know what I mean) did not move. I got close, a few ski lengths away. It hunched there, white fur, black sparking eye and gray shaded ears.
Then I moved and it bounded away and was lost to the thickness. And I thought: Wolves one day, hare the next time out; both ends of the predator/prey spectrum. Thought; I wonder how much of this I ski past, head down, eyes on the track ahead. I like to think I see things but in truth I really don’t. My loss.
I skied once again; the third time of the past week, on a day when the weather had turned and the temperatures had risen. The evening prior we met friends and commented that it had the feel of late winter, of March. The air was heavy and humid and there was scent of dirt. Winter can deliver up a lot of things but scent is not one of them. Winter is cold and snowy but there is rarely scent in the air. On this night the darkness carried the scent of spring.
Next day I skied as temperatures bumped 40 degrees, a full 60 degrees spread from the cold of a few weeks earlier. The sun was high and bright and there were no clouds at all. The trail was moist and the skis very slow and I had to work harder than I like. January thaw had come.
I skied an hour and a half. I did not see another soul; had the trails to myself. On this day there was no wolf sign, no hares or rabbits, nothing moving at all. I pushed on the poles, skied one loop, then another and a third. It felt like spring skiing; warm and breezy and very nice. I thought of the swings in it all, the unpredictable pendulum of season and weather and what it brings to us. Nature is never predictable no matter what we think.
That morning someone had asked if I ever got away in the winter. I assured him I did, every time I went skiing. “No, no,” he retorted, “I mean south, Florida, Mexico, someplace warm.”
I told him, “No reason to.” And I meant it.