Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

When it is cold, be a chickadee

Has it been cold enough for you? Minnesota entered the New Year with a bitter bout of cold weather. On some days, the high temp remained below zero. Nighttime lows dipped beyond 20 below. This is not unusual weather for early January. Knowing that doesn’t make enduring a cold spell any easier.

Cold spells have their high and low points. I like the way the snow squeaks beneath my feet when the temperature is below zero. I don’t like the way mechanical objects refuse to start or actually break on cold days. One recent morning, I felt like a school bus driver as I picked up coworkers whose vehicles didn’t start and drove them to work.

Like most sensible folks, I use those below-zero days to catch up on indoor projects. Since I heat with wood, keeping the furnace stoked with firewood is a ceaseless task. For reasons I don’t understand, the furnace voraciously burns wood when the temperature is below zero, going through nearly twice as much wood as it does when the outside temp is 20 above. When you factor in that power outages, never uncommon out here in the woods, will render my back-up propane furnace useless, you can understand why I prefer not to travel when the temps are below zero. Minus 20 temps kept me from attending the annual DNR Roundtable last week.

Since I have dogs, there’s no way to hibernate indoors during a cold snap. The dogs need daily fresh air and exercise. My old guy, who turns 14 in April, becomes stiff if he stays out too long in sub zero weather. The young Lab has more energy than good sense. I am careful to keep a close eye on both of them when we are out in extreme cold.

As for me, I just try to stay out of the wind. Television weathermen make a big deal out of windchill, which more often than not inappropriately exaggerates the severity of a cold snap. Windchill is a calculation. The actual temperature is the real deal. If you take seriously the weatherman’s melodramatic warnings about windchill, you’ll cower inside from October to May. Most Minnesotans have the good sense to cover up exposed skin before heading outside on a cold and windy day. Once they do, those Minnesotans think nothing of hopping on a snowmobile, getting some exercise on a ski trail or participating in other winter activities. In Minnesota, winter is just another season. Only the very coldest weather is likely to convince folks to stay indoors.

Every year, I physically and mentally acclimate to cold temperatures as we pass through winter. Early on, I’m easily chilled. By March, I can shovel the walk while in shirt sleeves on a cold morning. However, I’m not one of those guys who is so impervious to weather that I can go all winter wearing little more than a windbreaker. After years of hunting and fishing in freezing temperatures without wearing gloves, my hands now quickly become cold and are notoriously slow to warm up. This condition takes the fun out of ice fishing for me. When I’m out there shoveling snow in my shirt sleeves, I’m wearing gloves.

Some readers may be surprised to learn that Lake Superior didn’t freeze over during our bout of cold weather. Nearly every day, great clouds of steam, the product of evaporation, rose off the lake. Some folks call these mists “sea smoke,” but I prefer the Ojibwe reference to “spirits.” Spend some time watching these shrouds of mist rise dancing from the lake and you’ll understand why.

Superior’s sheltered bays begin freezing in early winter about the same time as nearby inland waters, but the main lake typically remains open well into February. The Duluth end usually freezes first and is very often the only place along the Minnesota shore to get firm ice. In most years, pack ice moves around the open lake with the wind. Sometimes, pack ice gets anchored to the shoreline, creating firm ice that may extend a quarter mile from shore. When this occurs, you may see wolves, coyotes and fox roaming the ice.

Since Superior makes ice so late in the winter, it isn’t long before it begins breaking up. The lake’s powerful wave action can quickly break up ice that is more than a foot thick. Sometimes, big sheets of ice break away, taking hapless ice anglers with them. At other times, open water leads form on breezy days. I’ve heard some “pucker factor” tales of ice anglers skipping across those leads riding gear-laden snowmobiles.

Northern Minnesotans have a saying that our cold winters keep the riff-raff away. This is true not only for people coming from warmer climes, but for invasive and pest species in nature, too. Subzero cold, the colder the better, can set back everything from forest insect pests to north country invaders such as skunks and raccoons. Our native plants and animals are well adapted to the cold weather. For some, such as moose, cold winters can actually improve their chances for survival. For others, such as deer and wolves, only the fittest will survive a cold and snowy winter. In other words, cold weather is a normal and necessary part of our Minnesota winters. The further north you go in the state, the colder that normal becomes and the longer that it lasts. Where I live, 20 miles from the Canadian border, it is not unusual for subzero nighttime lows to occur during March.

Some Minnesotans don’t like the cold weather and escape to warmer climes. Others, by choice or necessity, stick around during the winter. Count me in the latter group. While I may grumble about the cold (who doesn’t?), the chickadees help me get by. Every morning, no matter how cold, the chickadees are at the bird feeder to cheerfully greet me when I step outside. If such tiny bits of feathered fluff can make it through a cold snap, so can I.

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