I read somewhere along the line about wintering strategies for some tribes in Northern Michigan, back when life was good and European invaders few and far between. This was up in Michilimackinac, a region surrounding Mackinaw Island in the straights that knife between Lakes Huron and Michigan. Some of those tribes did their primary hunting and trapping in winter.
Winter, it seems, offered a huge advantage: if you don’t have wheels, snow and ice are much easier to transport on. Tons of deer, moose, elk, bear, and beaver could be killed and processed and their pelts transported on sleds while the meat was preserved by the cold until treated. Also, the more physically active the human body, the warmer it remains. So, in many ways, winter was just the opposite for them as it is for us.
This full-bodied engagement with winter was on display daily where I lived for a few years in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The northern three counties bordering Quebec are known as ‘the kingdom’ and are home to rugged, unspoiled wildness. Not many people live up there, and those that do are either huddled in small towns and villages or scattered in rural isolation. But there are a fair number of resettled flatlanders from the foreign territories of New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York; people who love winter and retire there. There is unrestrained exhilaration across the generations when an October snow opens the trails of Jay Peak for skiing and snowboarding, or a May snow allows one more day of runs. Cross-country skiers and snowshoers are as ubiquitous as runners and bikers in the summer. There are so many holes in the lake ice from fishermen, that every morning coyotes can be seen in the hazy steam making their rounds from one hole to the next, looking for entrails and scraps from cleaned carcasses.
Fifteen and twenty below zero at night are not shocking numbers up there, and people know what to wear to stay warm. They know when to play and when to stay inside, but they play in the cold much more than anywhere else I have ever lived.
I was reminded of what I had learned up in the kingdom on the Sunday of MLK weekend, as I trudged to open church for whoever else would walk there through the snow storm. Eight hearty souls, as it turned out. Then later, with two of those who had cross-country skied to church, I went to Kashong Conservation Area to snowshoe in the frigid cold air and pristine, wonderfully quiet woods.
Hot breath steaming through my lips, sweat moistening my chest and back beneath puffy and miraculously warm layers, stopping to slow my breathing and lean on the poles that prodded my old knees back to balance, I thought about those tribes of the Michilimackinac. Winter as a season to be endured is miserable, relentless, and everlasting. But vigorously embraced, whether a rumination about chickadees and jays while sipping tea by the fire or watching your breath curl away into nothingness while joining the silence of a snowy woodland, winter is a time of grace.