In Praise of Winter

Ullr, God of Snow(?) (Wikimedia Commons photo)

We get a variety of responses when we tell people we meet in Lansing that we moved here from San Diego. Usually stunned looks of disbelief. “But why?” some will ask. “You moved from where!?” others exclaim. Then they give knowing nods when we explain the reason for our move: Diane’s job at Wharton Center for the Performing Arts. Otherwise, it would have been crazy to leave San Diego’s perfect weather, right?

Well, not really. You see, I love snow. We didn’t get much but rain in the Northern California town where I grew up, but I can still remember the glee I felt on those few days each year when a few inches of snow would cover the hills above our house. Then it was time to head up there with a big cardboard box and hope not to get chased off by the rancher who owned the sledding slope.

Two years in Montana didn’t sate my appetite for the white stuff, probably because I was too busy with grad school to really enjoy it. Little snow fell in mid-Michigan our first winter here, and last winter was just all right, with snow followed by thaw, followed by more snow. But this winter, it’s been dumping and mostly staying cold.

I like to take a bit of the credit. I’ve been praying fervently to Ullr and Skadi, Norse gods of winter and skiing. Who says prayer doesn’t work? We’re above normal for snowfall in Lansing, though not nearly at the record. My friends who dislike winter are blaming me. Christian churches have signs out front: “Whoever is praying for snow, please stop.” (I view my success as just a bit of pagan payback.)

Of course snow has its drawbacks. It makes driving difficult, if not dangerous. Biking and walking are sketchy and even downright impossible, given the poorly cleared bike lanes and sidewalks. Then there are the heating bills, the lack of fresh air when you can’t open the windows, and the tedium of having to put on multiple layers every time you step outside.

But the question is, do the positives outweigh the negatives? For me, they do. So here’s my list of things that are great about winter:

Quiet winter scene
A quiet winter scene from the ski trails
in Lake Lansing Park North

Snow sports. Cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowboarding, skijoring, snow-shoeing, sledding, ice skating, building snowpeople, snowball tossing, making snow angels, or just post-holing through the woods. Ice fishing. Snowmobiling (though it seems most snowmobilers head north or west). My winter outdoor activity is XC skiing. And if I enjoyed none of these activities? Winter really would suck. I’ve put together a Google map of spots for active winter outdoor activities here.

Colder is drier. I never feel colder than when it’s 35 or 40 degrees F and drizzling. Give me 20 and light snow any day. And remember the ice storm? Blame it on the warm. (Although it was darned beautiful.)

Snow makes everything brighter. Even on the darkest day, a blanket of white reflects more light, which we all need in the depths of winter. Leafless woods are dreary when the ground is bare, but with snow, they’re magical.

Cold keeps the riffraff away. At least that’s what they say in Montana. Don’t know if it really applies in Michigan, where we’re desperate for more people, riffraff or not. (And hey, Riff Raff always was my favorite character in Rocky Horror.)

Water. Unlike residents of my home state, we Michiganders know where our water will come from next year. We don’t have to worry about the entire state burning down. And we can be glad our lakes and reservoirs don’t look like this and our mountainsides don’t look like this. (Okay, we don’t have mountains in Michigan, but never mind that.)

Lake Superior ice cave
An ice cave on the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. (US Dept. of Interior photo)

Lake ecology. We love our lakes in Michigan, but warmer temperatures and lack of snow in recent years have begun to harm the lakes in a variety of ways. This colder winter is helping to reverse that, with Lake Superior freezing for the first time since 2009. And that not only helps the ecology, it’s also beautiful.

Isle Royale wolves. Related to the previous point, the ice bridge between Canada and Isle Royale has formed for the first time in years. That creates an opportunity for new wolves to join the island’s dwindling pack, giving it a much needed boost in genetic diversity.

Summer recreation. Even those who hate the snow probably enjoy spending time at a Michigan lake or river in the summer. But you can’t have one without the other.

Togetherness. Facebook groups like the Lansing Bike (& Ski!) Party and Meridian Nordic Ski Club promote social winter recreation. The Lansing Area Outdoor Enthusiasts Meetup group has also had at least one XC ski outing this year.

Without winter, there’s no hope. “Ho hum, just another *#$! day in paradise,” or so the saying goes in San Diego. There’s a grim kind of hopelessness when there’s nothing different to look forward to, nothing better to hope for. But spring never feels so nice as after a long winter. After two years in Lansing, I’ll never again take shirt-sleeve weather for granted.

Readers, what are your favorite parts of winter? How do you endure/tolerate/celebrate it?

Nature Mid-Mitten Cycling

Winter Cross-Training: Cross-Country Skiing

The Grand River from Burchfield Park ski trails

It’s not all basement riding in winter in mid-Michigan. When the weather’s nice and there’s snow on the ground, there’s no better way to cross-train for cycling than to head out on the cross-country ski trails. Whether you’re doing classic style or skate-skiing, you’ll be working muscles of the upper body that get overlooked on the bike, strengthening your core, and keeping your legs in condition. In addition to the workout, it’s nice to get some fresh air, take in the winter scenes, and maybe even spot some wildlife.

Abbot Road Park
A trail in Abbot Road Park, East Lansing

If you have your own skis, the Lansing area has an abundance of wooded trails, as well as snow-covered bike paths and golf courses. For instance, today I went for a lunch-time ski at Abbot Rd. Park in East Lansing, partly on the trails and partly on the Northern Tier Trail bike path. Forty-five minutes of skiing, there and back in an hour. The snow was crusty, with plenty of previous tracks to follow. A tree had fallen across the trail since my last time there, but it wasn’t too difficult to get around it. It just added to the adventure!

If you need to rent, Burchfield Park near Holt has gear and groomed trails as well. Farther afield, Huron Meadows Metropark near Brighton has fifteen miles of groomed trails, and is popular with skate skiers.

Cross-country skis
Cross-country skis

If you’re new to cross-country skiing, you may want to take a lesson. In the Lansing area, Jeff Potter of offers lessons. Huron Meadows sometimes has classes, and if you don’t mind driving two hours north, Cross Country Ski Headquarters offers lessons, rentals, a full ski shop, and twelve miles of groomed trails for both skate and classic skiers.

Now let’s hope we keep getting consistent snow and cold temperatures for the rest of the winter, then a nice warmup in April to about 70 degrees for some good riding.

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