The Last of Winter, the First of Spring

According to the calendar, spring has arrived, but in western South Dakota, we know better than to put too much store in that! For us, winter lingers sometimes into June, but we’ve begun to taste the springtime and I’m itching for those warmer temperatures, those springtime tasks, mud instead of ice, warm dirt, growing things, and baby animals!

Our relatively mild winter was punctuated with days and weeks of unseasonable warmth, and then punctuated again with unseasonable, bitter cold. And, as always, it starts to feel like it has always been winter, sometime around the middle of February. Those little tastes of springtime that tantalize and taunt us every year, tease us with the warmth that is so close, so close. And we are so ready for springtime, and we’re praying for rain, or a good spring snowstorm to bring some much-needed moisture to the parched landscape.

Of all the seasonal changes, perhaps the most bewildering and wonderful is the change from winter to spring, from the time of slumber and death to a time of waking and birth, from a time of fading to a time of renewal, from surviving to thriving, a time of preparation and planning to a time of action and initiation.

Everything that is easy to accomplish in warm weather is a challenge in the winter, especially when the temperatures plummet and snow and ice freeze us in. A five-minute outdoor task takes fifteen minutes to prepare for inside, and twenty minutes to warm back up after coming inside again. A snowstorm wreaks havoc on travel when you live 30 miles outside of town, or your driveway is a mile long. The ground is frozen solid, everything seems poised to break, the cold creeps into the house until the best way to get some heat going is by turning on the oven and opening the door. An unfortunate calf born in the middle of a frigid cold snap is a struggle to keep alive.

And through the sleepiness and struggle of winter, we dream of spring. We dream of spring, and begin preparing. Gardens are planned, seeds are ordered, harvests are imagined, and a million other projects start forming in the mind, ready to send into action when the cold snap breaks, or when the snow is gone, or when the ground melts. Ranchers watch their cows get heavier and heavier, and pray for a good calving season.

And then at last, spring arrives. We see it on the calendar, and we see a 10 days at time of forecasts for temperatures in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. We see the first shoots of green grass. We feel the first raindrops. We feel the first truly warm breezes and smell the earth warming up. Rock-hard, icy ground turns into a mud slick, and how wonderful the mud smells! The multiple layers of jackets and sweaters diminish to the ease of a shirt and light jacket, stocking caps are replaced with ball caps, and I always cherish the first day I can wear a tank top and sandals!

The garden beds begin to soften under their preparatory layer of plastic. The first load of laundry is hung on the clothesline outside. The first meadowlarks appear. Seeds are started. Those calves that were unlucky enough to be born into the cold snap are now a month old, frisky, and thriving.

What a transformation!

In the winter, we are forced to slow down. It is a sabbath of seasons, in a sense. We are forced to slow down from the seemingly self-sufficient business of the rest of the year and only do those things that are necessary, limited by the cold, the frozen ground, the shorter days. It is an exercise in trusting God for the day-to-day necessities in the day-to-day struggles. And then in the springtime, God turns that trust into joyful action.

Happy springtime, friends! And pray for rain!

A Merry Little Christmas

This Christmas wasn’t been “as planned” in any way, shape, or form. Initially, I was quite disappointed that I’d be having to work on Christmas Day, especially with a new fiance, a sister about to get married, and almost-inlaws to spend time with. I’ve been feeling pretty worn out and run down with work lately, and I wasn’t looking forward to a holiday week, during which I would be exhaustedly trying to keep up the energy to see people and share in the fun and joy of Christmastime while recovering from 24 hour shifts on an ambulance.

Well, a week ago I started feeling puny and got tested for Covid, at the request of my work. Sure enough, I had Covid and was promptly put on quarantine. My family wanted nothing to do with me, since there’s a wedding in two weeks, but my fiance also came down with Covid, and in God’s graciousness it was mild for both of us. We spent our first Christmas together after all.

We’ve already begun making traditions that we will carry into what we trust and pray will be a Christ-honoring marriage. We have been reading an Advent devotional since December 1, which I’m sure will become a tradition for us. We cut and decorated a beautiful spruce tree. We’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life, and listened to a radio theatre adaptation of Charles’ Dickens beloved Christmas Carol. We’ve baked, and cooked, and worked on a wintry puzzle, a birthday gift to me from his mom. And our Christmas Day, though not what either of us would have chosen, was likewise delightful.

We made crepes for brunch, with homemade yogurt and the last jar of my homemade plum jam from a few summers ago. We also had homemade ricotta cheese and sausage that my rancher man and his brother-in-law made. It was a lovely start to the day. We finished our puzzle, drank coffee, exchanged gifts, went on a walk, made wedding plans, and ate a wonderful dinner of pork roast, grilled cabbage and sweet potatoes, and rice pilaf. We finished the day watching Murder on the Orient Express, an excellent movie for a winter evening.

This Christmas and holiday season is challenging for a lot of people right now. So many people are sick, and beloved Christmas plans and traditions have gotten sidelined in an effort to keep people as healthy as possible. But if those temporary disturbances distract us from the truth of Christmastime and steal our joy, we have repenting to do. The fact of the matter is that the God of the Universe willingly gave up the comfort and perfection of Heaven to stoop to become a mortal man, for the express purpose of dying a grusome death on our behalf, to give us a salvation we could never earn. Don’t let either the enjoyment of this time of year, or the disappointment either, distract you from that.

In spite of everything, this was indeed a Merry Little Christmas.

Feathers and Stars

I think we say this every spring, but the weather has been taunting us. We’ve had glorious tastes of springtime, followed by chilly, winterish days, followed by summer weather, then snowstorms. That cycle has repeated itself a few times and, as I type this, the most beautiful snow is falling outside my window, a snowstorm that began at midnight on Sunday.  I’m sure we’ve had 8-10″ by this point, in two different cycles of snow, much of which melted off in between, and it is still coming down relentlessly.IMG_8557e
IMG_8503eIn spite of the untimeliness of a snowstorm at this time of year, I can’t help but be awestruck by the beauty of snow, particularly falling snow. Part of me would prefer balmy spring weather and wildflower hunting, but the enchantment of a snowstorm – of trees in the snow, of snow-covered hillsides, of snow falling with a soft sound from heavy-laden branches, of footprints in the snow, of the silence of a snowed-in world – is hard to resist.IMG_8554eEnya, in her song “Amid the Falling Snow,” writes, “A million feathers falling down, a million stars that touch the ground.” That song is one of my favorites, and those lines have always stuck with me.

Feathers and stars, and a world transformed. Winter can last a little longer.

The Waking

Springtime stirs in the last of her sleep. Winter lingers awhile longer in the Black Hills, but the earth is warming, primed for life and growing and greenness. As much as I love the winter, I’m craving flowers and sunlight and bare feet and sun-warmed skin. I revel in lung-filling breaths that don’t hurt, and breezes that don’t sting, and light with more color. What a glorious time of year.IMG_7855
IMG_7953Rivulets of melt glisten on the roads, trickling from rocks and roofs and hillsides with the sound of warmth. The memory of winter fades. There is mud everywhere and on everything, absolutely inescapable. The sky is ridiculously blue.

The silence of winter has been broken: by the calls of birds coming back after their winter vacation, that quality of the wind music that is somehow different than in the winter (though I can’t say how, exactly), the buzz of insects, the sound of moving water, the soft noise of wet earth underfoot. Fragrances that go dormant in the winter come alive in the first warming days of spring. The scent of the pine trees. The scent of the good earth.

Earth has slept the sleep of winter. At last it’s time to wake.


Winter Gear

Over the last few years, my winter wardrobe has grown substantially and I’m just tickled pink. I tend to get cold very easily, but I also warm up very quickly once I’m moving around. It doesn’t matter how cold it is, I warm up fast when I’m moving, and over the last few years have learned some tricks of layering that have greatly increased my enjoyment of winter recreation. I thought I’d do what I’ve never done before on this blog and share some non-expert enjoyment of some gear that I’ve found that I particularly enjoy!

  1. Ice cleats. Last winter, I bought a pair of YakTrax walkers because I was cheap, and found out why they were cheap. Because they weren’t meant for the kind of hiking I like to do! By the end of the season, I had broken them, not beyond repair, but they were broken. So when this winter rolled around, I knew I wanted something sturdier and, as I thought about it, more aggressive. So I found a pair of ice cleats by Unigear. They aren’t as expensive as the Kahtoola brand ice cleats, and they might not be as durable, but they’ve stood up great to some of the ridiculous terrain I’ve hiked in over the last couple months, from ice covered AND bare boulders, rocks and rocky terrain, and normal winter conditions. The metal links aren’t welded, so I have had to to a minor fix job on them once, but that’s it. Their one limitation I’ve found so far is deep, sticky snow. They quickly form snowballs under the ball of the foot and the heel and make walking a little awkward, and they get heavy and fall off, in spite of a velcro tape holding them on. But I’ve used them on a number of hikes where they were indispensable, including a search and rescue effort where I was the only one on my team with cleats. Yes, people were jealous. I also have some hip issues which seem to crop up mostly in the winter, either in deep snow (because of having to step so high) or on slick surfaces (when the hips experience extra torque). Traction is very helpful in minimizing that torqueIMG_20190119_153606333
  2. Gaiters. In addition to ice cleats, another piece of gear I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year is a pair of gaiters, also indispensable for winter hiking. Not only do gaiters keep your lower legs and boots dry, and keep snow from getting into your boots, they’re an extra layer of insulation and wind protection. I love them. They’ve made my regular hiking boots be quite sufficient for winter hiking, including in frigid temps!
  3. Balaclava. This one I discovered on a hike where temperatures hovered around 0-5 degrees Fahrenheit all day. What a difference a balaclava makes. Not only does it keep all cold air from reaching your neck and ears, but the Carhartt one I have pulls all the way up to the eyes, keeping chin, cheeks, and nose warm, and allowing you to breathe warm air. I had no idea what a difference that could make, both in terms of comfort and in terms of (for a lack of a better word) survivability.
  4. Wool socks. Most hikers already know the joys of wool socks. I just want to briefly state that the hype isn’t just hype. Its true. Wool can absorb much more water than cotton and still feel dry and warm. A great option for winter hiking. However, I’d like to bust the myth that Smartwool is the only way to go. I bought a few pairs on discount last winter, and honestly didn’t think they were that great. I found my feet to get too sweaty in them, even in the winter. The wool socks I’ve fallen in love with are the Cabela’s brand wool blend crew socks. They’re excellent. Just the right amount of insulation, and my feet don’t over-sweat.
  5. Wool mittens. When it is really bitterly cold outside, wool mittens are the way to go. I have two pairs that I found at Menards and I love them. They’re inexpensive, which is a huge plus. They’re convertible, mittens and gloves, which I like because of my photography and needing to have my hands or at least fingers free. I’ve worn them comfortably down to 0 degrees, probably colder, definitely colder with windchill, and my hands were toasty warm. And they’re roomy enough that when my fingers did get cold, I could just pull my fingers all into the body of the glove and warm them up.
  6. Waterproof pants. This is a very new one for me, but they’re super effective. Often, the snow out here is dry, rendering waterproof pants completely unnecessary if you know how to layer. But on a recent 9-day Wilderness First Responder class, we did a lot of sitting in snow and being outside in frigid temps. They recommended bringing waterproof pants or snowpants, which I was very glad I did. It made sitting in the snow and being relatively inactive in cold temps much more manageable. Waterproof often means wind resistant, which is a huge plus in frigid temps. 2019-03-16_10-56-04
  7. Hiking pack. The only reason I include this one is because of the issue of size. I bought an Osprey Sirrus 24 pack a year ago, thinking it would be sufficient for day hiking. It is. But not during the winter. It is just enough too small that for a long hike or a cold enough hike, I’d either have to skimp on water or skimp on layers. I’d rather not skimp on either. So with some Christmas money, I bought the Osprey Mira 34, which is 10 L bigger than my Sirrus 24 (and was on clearance), and really is the perfect size, AND can be cinched way down if the extra space isn’t needed.

So there you go. A non-professional’s top seven items of winter gear, which I have found to be either indispensable for winter excursioning, OR to make winter excursioning much more enjoyable! Feel free to share your favorite winter hiking gear in the comments section. I’d love to hear what others do to enjoy the outdoors in the winter!

Hiking | Sunday Gulch Trail

Wow, already this has been a great year for hiking. I’m pretty excited to see where all we end up exploring this year! IMG_6735eOn January 5, we took a trip up to Sylvan Lake to hike one of the Black Hills’ legendary hikes, Sunday Gulch. Apparently this trail is closed in the winter. Oh, well. We weren’t the first to shrug our way around the gate…Sunday GulchThis hike was gorgeous when we did it in the late summer. It was even more amazing drifted over in snow! The higher elevations of the Hills, including around Sylvan Lake, get more snow and less of it melts off, so it piles up pretty fast. In places, drifts were well above the knee!Sunday GulchCleats were a must for this hike. We only went down the creekbed to the gulch and came back the same way, rather than doing the whole loop. The downward part was the most fun. The trail winds its way through a steep boulder field and is marked by a pair of parallel metal handrails, making descent exceptionally easy. Simply place a hand on each rail and jump, if your gloves are slick enough. You sail down sections quite effortlessly, and I’m sure we looked ridiculous.
The gulch itself was enchanting, with the creek frozen and still flowing beneath the ice, and snow mounded up in soft contours out of the way of wind. It was beautiful. It looked so different with the snow cover, and the late afternoon light was gentle and cold.Sunday Gulch
Nothing like some brisk, strenuous hiking on a chilly January day!