Winter is here in full force. I think it arrived during deer hunting season, and like an unwelcome guest, it doesn’t have the good sense to leave.
As I write this, we’re in for a long stretch of sub-zero nights, and the days won’t be much better. This isn’t three-dog night weather. You’re gonna need four or five dogs to keep you warm if you want to survive this arctic blast. It looks like this will be with us for over a week. Uff-da. This is what I call bone-chilling, character-building weather.
As cold as it will seem to us, we are so much better off than our ancestors were. I think of how harsh the winters must have been for our ancestors when they first arrived in this area. I know that many of our grandfathers and great grandfathers headed north in the winter to work as lumberjacks in the pineries.
They left for Black River Falls at the beginning of winter and didn’t return until spring. My grandfather, Oscar Hanson, and his father, Ole Hanson, both worked as lumberjacks. They left their families behind to take care of the farms and survive the long winters while they headed north to make some much-needed money. It was a very tough life for everyone involved.
When I interviewed my father about his life, he told of dealing with the cold weather in his early days: “It was so cold, when I went to the barn to milk by hand, the manure was frozen in the gutters. We had no water in the barn, so I had to let the cows and horses out to drink. I pumped water from the cistern to a tank in 25 below zero (weather) some days. You had to thaw out some water to prime the pump before you could get any water to come.” (Priming the pump was pouring water down the opening where the handle fit in the pump. You did this while you pumped the handle and eventually would get enough suction for the water to start running. I also remember when I did this).
“There was no water in the house either. We had to carry it in buckets from the cistern. The old Sherpe house that stood across from where Old Towne Inn is today (south of Westby) was an old log house. We had a kitchen stove and a round, wood-burning stove. The two bedrooms had no heat in them. When the wind blew hard in the winter, you’d wake up with snow on the covers. It blew right through the cracks in the walls. I remember the water on the stove was frozen in the morning, too.”
In most cases, each succeeding generation has it better, but even I remember how cold our upstairs bedroom was when I was young. A small, round hole in the floor (register) was the only way for heat to get to the upstairs. All three of us boys slept in the room with the register during the winter.
On cold winter mornings, the windows would be frosted over with wonderful designs painted by Jack Frost. It was so thick we had to scratch a hole in the ice to peer outside. Even today I’m fascinated by the designs that frost makes on windows. It was so cold in our bedroom we could see our breath in the morning. We dressed quickly and dashed downstairs so we could stand next to the kitchen stove and warm up.
Those were character-building days for us, too. Now if it gets a little chilly in the house, we complain about the cold and crank the thermostat up another degree.
On these cold days I think of all the birds that visit our feeders. I wonder where they spend the night when it gets so cold. I hope they’re protected from the cold wind, and are as dry and warm as possible. They need every bit of energy from the food they’ve consumed during the day to maintain their body temperature through the night. I hope they all survive and will be back in the morning. I keep the feeders full so they’ll have plenty of food available. Winter in the North Country can be harsh for our feathered and furry friends. A little assistance from us humans, to help them make it through the winter night, certainly doesn’t hurt.
Character-building winter weather can be tough for both man and beast. Fortunately there’s a lot of ying and yang in winter. Some people only see the cold, dark side, but there’s also a warmer, lighter side.
Go for a walk, ski, or snowshoe in new-fallen snow and you’ll visit a winter wonderland. Pine trees hang heavy with snow and the dark limbs of trees are accented with blankets of white. The fresh snow crunches under your boots in the cold air as you make tracks where none were before. Snow will lighten even the darkest corners and soften the hard edges. There’s also an insulating property to snow that softens the sounds and creates a quiet, meditative world to explore.
If you’re physically able, venture out, explore and enjoy the wonderland that winter creates. Winter is a big part of who we are here in the North Country.