Clouds of wind-driven snow swirl like smoke outside our south-facing windows.
Backlit by the sun, the glitter is mesmerizing. A clump of tall river birch is shaking in the wind and the bird feeder swings wildly on its shepherd’s hook.
Two dark slots of open water in the ice and snow-covered La Crosse River are gradually closing, like a cut healing, in the sub-zero temps. The weather service says winds are gusting to 35 mph and the chill is already at minus 23 degrees.
So Gretchen has made oatmeal raisin peanut butter cookies on this day of record-breaking cold recently.
“You can have another,” she says after I return to the cooling rack. “You’ve been out skiing, burning lots of calories,” she adds generously.
I’m glad to have quit my ski outing before the winds kicked up. I don’t often ignore warnings of “life threatening” behavior in the cold, as the NWS puts it, but the warning has kindly added, “if precautions are not taken.”
When, in a snow-deprived winter, it finally snows, one hates to waste the opportunity to get out on it.
So I took precautions based on experience of some 60 winters of outdoor play — layers, wool mittens with leather over-mitt, heavy wool sweater over two light wool shirts all covered with a 15-year-old Patagonia shell with a hood to cover wool stocking cap and a neck gaiter that I pull up over my nose to protect my face. After a few minutes of skiing, the risk becomes overheating; by the time I returned to the car, even my fingers were warm.
I met two other skiers on the Hixon Forest trails, both smiling and enjoying the winter scene. “Fresh air is good,” said a frost-bedecked skate skier. “And it doesn’t get much fresher than this,” he added with a grin.
The second skier, who protected his upper lip with a handsome thick gray mustache, was headed back to the trail head. We both noted that the wind was picking up. And soon, I turned around and headed back as well. There are limits.
We have had many days of warnings about the cold.
Schools, businesses closed, people hunkered down. That makes sense in such extreme conditions, but I worry that, with the periodic warm weather interludes in winter, the cold, by contrast, is more alarming.
We are becoming so cold-averse that a generation of young people will miss out on pleasures of outdoor winter recreation faced, as they are, with a blizzard of dire warnings every time there’s a cold snap, which, as I recall, we used to take in stride.
The risk to our well-being is more likely to come from the indoor alternatives that many of us choose — more device time, social networking, polarizing information feeds, gaming, streaming Netflix, and, in time, virtual reality, which can be misunderstood as a substitute for real adventure.
At a time when there is growing evidence that our mental and physical health is enhanced by contact with nature, we are instead being driven toward the devices that make us vulnerable to manipulation by fake news, intrusive advertising crafted from our stolen personal information and the threats that derive from our naive forfeiture of privacy to the growing power of media companies.
I propose modifying media winter weather warnings: Bitter cold, use precautions outdoors, and use caution as well if you stay indoors on your devices.
Dark thoughts on this cold winter day. I munch a warm oatmeal raisin peanut butter cookie, my third (and possibly a threat to my well-being), and look forward to a temperature closer to zero so I can get back on the skis.