Every winter for the past nineteen, I worried I might be getting soft.
Having grown up on the northern plains, on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota, where precious few topographical features block the wind, I learned how to handle the cold. Stash extra mittens and granola bars in the glove compartment, a blanket, a candle and matches in the trunk. Leave space — but not too much — in the toes of your boots. Melt icy eyelashes with your fingertips. Warm cold hands under your armpits.
These days it seems winter has a PR firm offering advice in a catchier way. I see signs and stories that say, “Layer like an onion” and “Walk like a penguin.” These are strategies my hometowners have always employed. Now our standard operating behaviors have been turned into cute characters.
In 2001, my husband, Jon, and I left the northern plains for Washington state, and for 19 years, the most recent 15 in southwest Washington, where lawns stay green(-ish) year round, I watched what I considered “normal” winters from afar. And I wondered, what if I went back to Minnesota for a winter visit? Would I find I had lost my cold hardiness?
Then in September we moved home to Minnesota, just in time to fall into winter.
When I was a student at St. Olaf College, south of the Twin Cities, Winter Ecology was one of my favorite classes. One January, after a few days in the classroom, a dozen or so of us and our professor drove north to Itasca State Park, where we spent most of the month learning about the winter world: details like identifying bird songs, trees based on their bud scales and animal scat, and broader topics like how lake and forest environments gird themselves for cold weather.
One of my favorite activities involved taking a census of beavers on a pond: After stealthily walking up to a lodge of brush, branches and mud, one of us would leap onto it and then we would all hold our breaths to listen. In the silence, we would hear glug, glug, glug, glug, four indignant beavers diving out of their home.
Our primary assignment for the course was to do an independent project, and my lab buddy Kristen and I embarked on a three-site comparison. Every day, we hopped on our skis and visited these different areas, comparing vegetative growth, sunlight penetration and other factors I no longer recall.
That’s probably because the point of our project was less a quest for scientific knowledge than an excuse to explore the woods and enjoy winter. We dressed like onions, peeling off layers as we went, one warmish day even rolling up the sleeves of our final layer and lying on a sunny snowbank in the hopes of trading the windburn on our cheeks and foreheads for tans.
For the past couple of decades in Washington, such memories seemed more like imaginings.
This week I had the opportunity to put my Minnesota memories to the test. Monday was my turn to take Leo for a run, and when I checked the weather, I saw we were at 1 degree Fahrenheit. My first thought was, maybe I should wait until it warms up. But when I saw the day’s high was only 14, I figured, why bother?
I layered up, rubbed Musher’s Secret on Leo’s paws (to combat the Minnesota ice balls we’ve found he gets stuck between his fluffy toes), and off we went.
I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous, so I left a note telling my family the direction I had headed. Just In Case. Of what? We leave it unspoken.
Outside, the light layer of snow on the ground squeaked under foot and paw, and the air felt pure and clean. The only parts of me that really felt the cold were my cheeks and nose (a failed experiment with a neck warmer). But once we turned away from the Red River and its icy wind, even my face warmed. Leo took his experience in stride, despite the icicles I found hanging off his whiskers near the end of our couple-mile adventure.
By the time we returned home, I felt warm inside and out, and not just from the exertion. The warmth came from knowing that years away had not weakened my Minnesota fortitude.
Maybe dealing with cold is like the skill of riding a bicycle — something you never quite lose.
Perhaps the wisdom and hardiness of home are things we always carry with us.