Winter is for Snowshoeing

Admission: I avoided snowshoeing for the longest time. It always seemed so slow and boring compared to cross country skiing. My thinking was: Why plod when you can race?!?! But I changed my tune this winter and have been snowshoeing a lot, to visit the cottage, to find chaga, to gather water (more on that in a future post).

I contributed a post to the Hike Like a Woman site that went live today (and we still have snow here!). It’s called “Winter is for Snowshoeing,” and you should read it and check out the posts by other Hike Like a Woman contributors and ambassadors. Read it now!

 

Ax and Saw: A Project for Fall and Winter

There are two quirks of my personality that have a habit of sabotaging me this time of year. One is my natural tendency to want to hibernate as the days get colder and darker, and I’ve written in the past about how I struggle in the fall to keep up my positive attitude and maintain healthy habits. The second is that I always want to be doing something productive. It’s hard for me to convince myself to go outside to take a leisurely walk on cloudy cool days because it doesn’t feel productive; I might, it feels like, as well stay inside and get something done around the house. For these reasons, I don’t go outside as much as I would like to in the fall, which also means that I don’t get much exercise either.

So this year, I conspired against myself. There is a row of box elder at the property, running along a tall bank on the edge of the old river channel. The trees are short and mangy, which is pretty much the standard with box elder. As we think about the work we want to do on the land, we see opportunity to plant different trees in this place.

Row of box elder along the old river channel.
Row of box elder along the old river channel.

I decided that my project for this fall and winter would be to take down this row of trees so that we can plant something else (probably oaks) there in the spring. Also, I decided that I would do as much of the work as possible using hand tools. Hopefully, I thought, having something productive to do during the cold months would be a convincing way to sidestep my tendency to cocoon this time of year. A few weeks ago I bought a small double-bit ax (which turned out to be more like a large hatchet) and small bow saw with an extra blade made for green wood. Then this weekend was the time to test it all out.

Overall, it was a good start to the project. I cut down a half dozen or so box elder trees. Some were only a few inches in diameter and it only took a few seconds to saw them down. It was interesting to see that box elder trees have pink wood at the boundary between the heartwood and the sapwood. This is a known trait of the species, but I just learned it while watching the saw kick out pink shavings as it cut through fresh wood.

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Small box elder stump.

I knocked down several smaller box elders and dragged the tops into the woods, piling it up to make homes for little critters and decomposing organisms (aka rabbitat). I also cut down some tag alders along the shore that seemed likely to compete with the future seedlings for light. Some of the tag alder I dropped directly into the old river channell, presuming that beavers will appreciate them once the water is fully iced over. Others I temporarily placed in a pile along the shore—in a week I’ll come back and see if beavers have taken advantage of the easy food source (and saved me some work of dragging the brush elsewhere).

The last tree that I decided to knock down that day was also the largest. It was about 8-10 inches around, and it took me a half hour of work to get it down. I alternated between using the ax to make a notch in the direction I wanted the tree to fall, and sawing on the opposite side. Much of the time I would saw while kneeling on the ground, making in easy to take small breaks, look around, and enjoy the day. After it dropped, I sawed off the smaller branches of the crown and carried them into the woods, leaving the large bole on the ground to deal with later. While picking up the last of the sticks, I heard a funny sound across the old channel and stopped to look and figure out what it was.

It was an otter. I quickly grabbed my tools and hurried the dogs to the cottage, and then came back with binoculars. Hiding behind the newly-fallen tree, I watched the otter feed in the old river, which was skimmed in a thin layer of soft ice. The otter would swim in the breaks between the ice, dive down, and resurface in another opening.

Watching an otter from behind a felled tree.
Watching an otter from behind a felled tree.

When I decided that I was going to cut down the trees by hand, some of my friends laughed at me a little and asked why I wouldn’t use a chainsaw. While I was dragging tree limbs into the woods, I could imagine my husband pointing out that we have a tractor that could make the job easier. I knew it would be hard, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it. But in just a few hours, I removed about a quarter of the trees without too  much difficulty. It was exactly what I wanted: an excuse to go outside and work, so that I could really play.

My New Thanksgiving Tradition

My new Thanksgiving tradition is to go for a run. Not a formal Turkey Trot like many towns have, just an average solo run from my house, down the road, and back.

My first Thanksgiving run was two years ago. That year, the first snow dropped about two feet of fluffy snow in a single day right before the beginning of the gun deer season. Cold temperatures and deep snow meant that some hunters were stranded in their deer camps, while others couldn’t get get to theirs. On Thanksgiving day, it was cold, maybe only 15 degrees out. I bundled up and went for a three mile run, excited to be outside and have the day off. The roads are quiet on Thanksgiving, and so I probably only saw a car or two. Near the end of my run, a man was driving his four-wheeler in the opposite direction. We were both bundled up and looked cold. I was enjoying my run and felt that of the two of us I had the better deal, but he may have thought otherwise.

I don’t remember last year’s run, except that I did run and that I remember thinking how different the conditions where from the previous year. We had a mild fall last year, and it was only on the evening of Thanksgiving that the weather switched and our first snow started.

This year, the conditions were somewhere in between those two years. Our first snow came about a week ago, and a few inches of sloppy, slushy snow fell last night. Getting ready to run, I put on wool socks and prepared to have cold, wet feet the entire time. But I was lucky and the snow on the road had melted enough that I didn’t need to run through much slush. It was almost entirely quiet out on the road, mostly just the sound of my steps and my breathing. In covering 4 miles, I encountered only two trucks. The highlight was watching a crow (or a raven; I still can’t tell the difference) fly from tree top to tree top and listening to the sound of its wings. There were some chickadees too, and a few screams from my neighbors’ kids playing in the woods back behind their house. But other than that, it was very quiet. Just me and the woods and my thoughts.

While I ran, I listed off some of the things I’m grateful for: the health of my friends and family; that I have such wonderful friends and family; that I can run 4 easy miles without much effort; that my feet weren’t sopping wet. I thought a little about what I want to do better next year, too. But mostly I just ran and didn’t think too hard.

Happy Thanksgiving!

An Open Letter to My Pre-Workout Self

Dear Maria,

I know you don’t want to work out. I can imagine exactly how you feel right now: tired, burnt out, unmotivated, and/or slow. Also, probably hungry. Just about anything seems better than changing clothes and getting down to it. Suddenly, work just got a lot more interesting didn’t it? Or did you suddenly realize an errand that needs running? Or has it just been a really really long day and you feel like you just need to go home and relax?

Yup, I’ve been there. I totally get it.

But here are three reasons why I think you should do that work out even though I know how much you don’t want to. Continue reading “An Open Letter to My Pre-Workout Self”

Racing the Chippewa Canoe Triathlon

This past weekend was one of my big highlights for the year: the Chippewa Canoe Triathlon. Sara, my best friend from college, first suggested we do the race in 2010. We’ve done the three events—canoeing, biking, and running—through woods and water in northern Minnesota nearly every June since then. It’s a hard race traversing nearly 50 miles: starting with 14 miles of canoe trail, followed by more than 25 miles of biking over a mix of pavement, gravel, woods road, and single track, and ending with a 5-mile foot race to the finish line. I love the race because it is so unique, so I thought I’d try to describe what its like to do it.
Continue reading “Racing the Chippewa Canoe Triathlon”

Two Rules to Dress for Cold-Weather Running

When it gets cold, I forget how to get dressed.

As fall transitions to winter and the temperatures start to drop below freezing, I respond by piling on more and more layers (and eating more and more cookies, although that’s not the point here…). This sounds warm and cozy, but it’s problematic when I go for a run. Just the other day, which was beautiful and sunny, I looked at the snow on the ground (just 2 or 3 inches), the temperature below freezing, and the slight wind and decided to pile on the layers so that I could stay warm during an easy run. Well, I’d severely overdressed. Not much more than a half mile in, I was unzipping my light jacket, and ditching my gloves. At the first mile mark, I had to ditch my hat and tie the jacket around my waist.

This situation reminded me of two great rules for dressing for cold weather running that (when I follow them) work like a charm: Continue reading “Two Rules to Dress for Cold-Weather Running”

The Thrill and Novelty of Unusual Races

One of my favorite weekends of the year is the second one in June because that’s the weekend of the Chippewa Canoe Triathlon. This was the fifth year that my friend, Sara, and I have done the race, and it was a pretty good year. The race course always changes a bit every year, but it’s always just shy of 50 miles long: 14 miles canoe (including 2 of portages), about 27 miles of biking on every type of surface, and about 5 miles of running (or often walking, in my case).

Of course, I don’t have a lot of photos because I’m too busy running the race! But this video does capture the craziness of the beginning of the race where we start in Cass Lake and are funneled into a channel that runs under a bridge. After that initial excitement, things slow down for the next several hours.

As it happens, my race was pretty solid this year. Sara and I had improved our canoe time by about 9 minutes, even though we had a pretty irritating headwind much of the time. My bike was solid, but I walked the run because I was pretty tired and my back was super tight from the canoeing. Meanwhile, Sara had an amazing race. She caught up with me in the last half mile or so and we ran in together and tied for second place. It was the perfect finish!

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I was interviewed for a local TV segment and was asked why I liked the race. My off-the-cuff answer was a bit awkward, but I was able to identify the three reasons I like this race—and the races that I do in general:

It’s different. I was voted most unique in my high school class, and I’m forever drawn to things that are just a little unusual and give me a good dose of novelty. When I first heard about this race and the canoe-for-swim substitution, I was sold. (It also helped that I couldn’t confidently swim at the time.)

It’s hard. The race has a time limit of 9.5 hours. Much of the race is in the middle of the woods, and I’ve probably gone close to an hour at times without seeing another person or knowing where I was relative to a major roadway or landmark. Often I’m too exhausted to run at the end, but everyone else is so exhausted and slow that I don’t get passed by many people.

It’s small-town and mellow. Yes, a 50-mile, 6+ hour slog through muck and mire is mellow in some ways… exactly because it’s so hard. There’s a relatively small (less than 300) group of people doing the race and we’re all in the same metaphorical boat, pushing ourselves. And the volunteers too, who are so nice even though I think they have the harder day standing out in the bugs and blazing sun, offering water to anyone who happens to pass by.

Every year after the race, I ask Sara if we’re going to do it again next year. It’s already on next year’s calendar.

Brr! How to Layer Up and Brave the Cold

Colder weather can make it hard to get outside and enjoy being there for any length of time. Fall poses a triple threat: the days get shorter and darker, the weather can be finicky and unpleasant, and there always seem to be a lot of holiday distractions (hello Halloween candy!!). Winter is just plain… winter.

Dressing the right way can make the difference between a cold and miserable experience and being happy as a clam in any condition. Follow these guidelines for dressing up for cold weather and then go get outside.

1. It’s all about the base.

The most important part of getting dressed for any cold-weather activity—except, of course, saunaing—is the base layer that is in contact with your skin. It provides the first layer of insulation, which traps warm air and keeps you comfy. Also important, the base layer is responsible for wicking away any moisture (aka sweat) because any moisture is going to have a tendency to pull heat away from your body and make you feel cold and wet.

There are two things to consider when picking out your base layer, and what you choose on any particular day will depend on the weather as well as what type of activities you plan to do.

Fabric

There’s a saying in the outdoor community community that “cotton kills” because it’s a terrible fabric for keeping warm. Cotton is very absorbent and doesn’t wick, so it will absorb moisture and loose its wicking ability very quickly. Being cold and wet is definitely not fun, and can be dangerous in very cold temperatures. So avoid that cotton union suit, even if it is mighty stylish. Instead, go with long underwear made from synthetic fabrics, wool, or silk.

Stylish? Yes. Ready for the outdoors? No way! (Photo via flickriver.com)
Stylish? Maybe. Ready for the outdoors? No way! (Photo via flickriver.com)

There’s a lot to say on the different fabrics, but pick something based on what you like and have handy, because that will get you out the door the fastest. Polyester-based synthetic fabrics have good wicking properties and are pretty easy to find—it’s likely you already have something in your closet that will fit the bill (think: tights or that free race t-shirt). Just be warned that these fabrics can build up some serious stink over time, so you may want to wash after very use. Wool, meanwhile, is a wonder fabric and manages to insulate without necessarily wicking. Baselayer wool is cozy and soft—not itchy—and will generally outperform synthetics in cold temperatures.

In short: Go for synthetics at higher levels of activity (running, cross-country skiing) or if your base layer might get wet and need to dry and switch to wool when your activity or the temperature drops.

Weight

Base layers come in a variety of weights. While you can get technical on the merits of lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight fabrics, the main idea is that fabric thickness translates to warmth. The trick is to pick something that keeps you warm enough, without roasting with too much clothes on. At higher levels of activity, go for lighter weights to keep from overheating and reduce bulk—you can always layer (more on that in a sec). Cold temps or less activity? Lean to heavier weights.

Socks! Don’t forget that socks, gloves, and hat are a critical part of the base layer, and all the same rules apply!

2. Layer.

If you’re super-active and it’s not too cold out, the base layer may be all that you need. But if it’s not enough, layering is key.

Get out like these Keweenaw runners! (Photo by G. Thanks, G!)
Get out like these Keweenaw runners! (Photo by G. Thanks, G!)

Here’s the obvious-but-brilliant premise of layering: add layers of clothing to add warmth. There’s that insulating/wicking base layer described above. Then there are any number of insulating middle layers. And on top of all that is a protective outer layer that blocks wind, rain, and snow.

Middle Layers

The middle layers provide insulation to trap in heat, so the number and weight of these layers will vary a lot based on season and activity. Go-to middle layers include wool sweaters and fleece. Cotton still isn’t recommended since its a crummy insulator, but it could be decent to use at milder temperatures—for example: a base layer/hoodie/jacket-sandwich for a fall hike. Go with more layers if your activity level will vary or if you’re unsure about what to wear because you can add or remove layers as needed. For sitting in the bitter cold (think: deer blind or ice fishing), go heavy on insulation.

Outer Layer

The outer layer protects everything under it from elements like wind and rain to help keep that warm air inside. At the same time, it ideally lets moisture out so that all that warm, moist air isn’t trapped inside with you. An outer shell can provide the protection that is needed for a variety of conditions. Staying dry in very rainy weather can be a little more difficult because the most waterproof materials also tend to trap a lot of moisture. You may end up feeling a bit hot and muggy under your rain jacket, but you can also reduce the base and middle layers to compensate. In most other conditions, you’re just looking for something to block the majority of the wind and water.

3. Pick your flavor of the day.

Of course, every day is different and it all depends on what you’re going to do and in what kind of conditions you’ll do it in. And if in doubt, go for a greater number of layers so you’ll have ultimate flexibility.

Now quit reading and go get out!