Monday, January 27, 2020

Spring Preloaded

I hate it when spring skiing arrives in January. It's not really spring, it's just spring-like.

Real spring skiing is a compound of physical and emotional factors. Almost none of them are present in January.

In a winter that brings fairly consistent cold weather, a little January thaw is a nice respite. But when the average conditions are more like March throughout the winter the pieces don't come together for winter or spring. A cold winter will promote a deepening snow pack that then degrades gradually through the warming end of winter and early spring. At the same time, your own physiology as an outdoor explorer will have developed fitness and adapted to cold, so that you come into March feeling a deep sense of mastery.

New England is probably not the best place to look for this. What seemed so far north to me when I had experienced less of it seems more and more southerly the longer I study it. Most of us live south of the 45th Parallel. I can drive to it in a couple of hours, but I spend virtually all of my time below it. That means that we New Englanders live closer to the Equator than the North Pole. A good deal of Maine sticks up above the 45th, but it's the more sparsely settled part of the state. But somehow we got the reputation for being "snow country."

Elevation helps. None of our peaks have altitude, but they do have height above sea level, and above their surroundings. Mount Washington famously sticks up far enough to intercept some exciting weather, and lies in the path of common storm tracks. Other peaks a bit lower still exhibit some mountain weather. But, just as most of us live below the waistline of our hemisphere, so do most of us spend our time -- even ski time -- well below the peaks of our worn-down old mountains. Somehow we manage to cop a fair amount of snow in some winters. It shapes our feelings, positive and negative.

The changing climate doesn't help the New Englander hoping for a consistent winter. Cold tends to arrive less often now, and be less deep. This is not necessarily unwelcome, considering how deep and sustained cold can be, and how much that inhibits outdoor activities. Back when wool and fur were about as good as it got, people had a more practical attitude about going out. You did what you had to do, but the idea of going out and playing extensively in it arrived with the invention of winter tourism, around the early 20th Century. People would seek some diversions, but life in general in a rural area -- which most of the current play areas of New England were -- was strenuous enough to use up a lot of the energy that people of today might have to spare. A mild winter was easier on everyone who lived closer to a natural level of survival. You burn less fuel for warmth, and face less immediate hazard from cold-related injuries. It's just easier to live.

Because cross-country skiing has ancient practical roots, it feels -- to me -- closer to a natural winter activity. A couple of my best winters of skiing were between 1992 and 1994, when we had lots of snow and cold, and I had very little money. I would ski out into the woods around my house to gather wood to supplement my rapidly dwindling supply to heat what was a small house at the time. I got pretty good at skiing back to the house with a small dead pine tree balanced on my shoulder, or a bundle of smaller saplings under my arm. The snow base depth was at least a couple of feet. In the spring, the stumps I had cut right at the snow line stuck up to show how deep it had been. Those were years in which the sense of mastery and the relief at longer, warmer days were both well built by the hard work of the deep winter.

In other years with less desperate finances I made more recreational forays, still building that sense of strength and skill to get along with winter rather than fight it or hide from it.

A determined athletic person will do whatever works with the conditions as they come along. But any activity more geared to warmer conditions is just a tease when those conditions come along out of season. You know this isn't really the time. I used to ride my bike without much hesitation when thaws would ruin the skiing and, coincidentally, cleared the road sufficiently. Increasingly over time I began to notice how those rides failed to build lasting fitness for riding, while doing almost nothing to maintain the kind of fitness I needed for winter activities.

Spring skiing is a slow process of subtraction. It's done on decaying snow. If there isn't much snow to begin with, it doesn't last long in decay. The best skiing on warmer days is done on snow that arrived cold and hung around for a while. That never happens when every storm acts like one of the last before April. But January and February can never provide the bounty of dazzling sunlight that late March automatically receives. You have to keep some measure of your winter guard up as you use what you can of days that are still short.

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