It’s another snow day. Prepare for a curmudgeonly rant.
Schools are closed. Once again, for a storm in the forecast, not for any conditions present at the beginning of the day. When I was a kid we counted years between snow days. Now we count the days or weeks.
You’ve doubtless heard about folks who claim to have walked uphill 5 miles both ways to get to school. Obviously, that’s hyperbole. But my brother and I shared a pair of boots. I carried him to school in the morning. He wore the boots and carried me home in the afternoon. He was bigger so we figured he would be stronger in the afternoon. “Oh, you had it easy!” my neighbor says. “You had a pair of boots! We had one boot between us, so we had to carry each other to school while hopping on one foot!”
It was actually easier to get to school in a snowstorm. Being Finlanders, we always had a pair of skis around and they were less size-dependent than boots.
We didn’t cancel school because of the cold, and wind chill was not an issue – it was the CRT of its time, an esoteric school of thought known only to meteorologists, not the public.
I remember days so cold that, when we talked on the way to school, the words froze in mid-air and we had to carry them into the building and thaw them out in order to have a conversation. If someone was particularly wordy, we’d sometimes have to toss some out when they became too heavy to carry. Conversation would be harder to follow due to the missing words.
If the roads were too icy, we’d skate to school. Skates were easier to afford than boots, as we had a Skate Exchange, where you could trade outgrown skates in for new ones.
So the next time you hear someone complain about they rough they have it, remember it is nothing like it was in 1948.
I call it “fun”. My complaining about the snow ruining my skating lasted for less time than it took to shovel it.
I realized that 5 inches of fresh power called for getting out the skis, not complaining about not skating. That same giant park that works for ice skates works for skis as well.
I retrieved the skis from the garage, brought them onto the porch to warm up, scraped off the old wax, added a coat of Special Green (for 14 to -4 degrees F or -10 to -20 degrees C), and walked down to the lake. My old wooden touring skis are perfect for cruising through fresh snow.
I soon found I was over-dressed, as the temperature was almost in double digits (-13 C). I started across the lake on roughly the same route I skated last week, then decided on a change and turned west to ski the length of the lake instead of across. I needed to zip up my jacket to head into the wind.
I skied downtown with a stop at the convention center, a Frank Lloyd Wright design that only took 50 years of discussion to build.
There were several other skiers, a few snowshoers, a handful of fat bikers (not bikers who are fat, but people riding fat bikes), and a fisher or two. I stopped and asked one, and he told me the ice was 8-12 inches thick – almost enough to drive a car on, plenty thick for skis.
Water expands when it freezes. It has to go somewhere. This is where the extra goes — up.
Another few inches are on the way tonight. With the temperature holding steady at 8 degrees (-13 C) it will be powder again, possibly enough to obliterate today’s tracks and make the park pristine, ready for fresh tracks.
Monday, 24 January
Three inches of new powder overnight heralded the leading edge of an Alberta Clipper. The temperature is up to 18 (-8 C) but the windchill down to -1 (-18 C). The warmer temperature meant adding some blue wax (23 to 31 F, or -5 to -1 C) for traction – blue because I couldn’t find or am out of green for the 14 to 23 range. The snow doesn’t care about windchill, but my windward cheek does. The temperature will be below zero by the time I go to work tomorrow.
I skied to the library. It being Monday I had the lake to myself. The only sounds were the schussing of my skis through the snow and the scratching of my pole tips across the ice. The light was flat and grey. The lack of contrast made the wind-driven waves hard to see and harder to photograph, but the snow had the contours of water on a windy day at the right angle.
I skied from our neighborhood park to the beach, then walked to the library.
[Aside to MAK: I can’t disagree with you but, working in healthcare, I have to work the way your source works. When I walk into a patient’s room much of their backstory becomes irrelevant. One of my favorite patients (worked hard to rehab, was appreciative and polite, seemed like an all-around nice person) was charged with manslaughter. I have treated murderers. I have treated people who were shot in drug deals. I have treated people who drove drunk and killed their best friend or their child in the passenger seat. Like their vaccination status, that can’t matter while I’m in the room with them. My brain compartmentalizes that for me. It doesn’t seem to be a conscious process. You, on the other hand, don’t have that responsibility, and I applaud your rant from my position at home in front of my computer. I know that rant is no longer accessible but, to those of us who subscribe via e-mail, it arrived in our inbox. Thank you for speaking honestly. And if you like rants, check out this one: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2022/1/21/2076138/-Is-Clarence-Thomas-the-most-corrupt-Supreme-Court-Justice-in-your-lifetime?detail=emaildkre ]
The biggest area of local parkland is now open for the season. One catch – there is no land.
It is a beautiful winter day…27 degrees (-3 C), a light breeze, and lots of sun. Since there is very little snow on the lake, no need for sunglasses. Sunday there was an iceboat regatta, dozens of skaters and ice fishers, a few people out walking, and one person riding a bike across the lake. A few skaters used hand-held sails (to which I was introduced by my uncle about 60 years ago) and several had kites or parasails.
The breeze was from the north, so I didn’t notice it walking to the lake, nor on the shore. Once out on the ice, it was a tailwind, so I didn’t notice it until I crossed the lake (about 1.5 miles plus a bit of meandering around snow patches) and turned around to skate home. On the other side, I stopped to take a picture of the boat above. Seconds later, the sailor appeared and set sail, as shown below.
According to the Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club, some boats can achieve speeds of 5 times the wind velocity and Skeeter class boats have been known to exceed 100 mph (160 km/h). Water offers little resistance when it is frozen. We spoke of covering skin when biking in the winter – at 100 mph there is always a wind chill.
The second video (drone video of Sunday’s regatta) is by Deb Whitehorse, widow of Ho-Chunk artist and iceboat designer/builder Harry Whitehorse. We have mentioned him in these pages before.
Out on the ice, it’s pretty quiet. The only motorized conveyances are the 6-wheeled ATVs the fishers use to haul their equipment onto the ice. No permanent shanties are allowed on this lake, so folks carry pop-up shanties along with an ice auger and something to sit on (plus fishing gear and food/beverage). Some walk and drag a sledge, others drive.
Otherwise, it’s the wind, the sounds of blades carving paths along the ice, and the echoing booms of the ice shifting. That sound takes a bit of getting used to, especially if it happens close by.
Skateable ice is a rarity. If the lake freezes on a cold, clear, still night, the ice is great. If it’s particularly cloudy/foggy, the ice won’t be as smooth. If it’s windy, the ice won’t be as smooth. If it snows the night it freezes, the ice mixes with snow to create a lousy surface. There may be great ice, but it’s cold enough for only the hardiest to want to go out. There may be great ice for a day or two, which is then buried under a snowfall. Freeze/thaw cycles will cause the snow to mix with the surface of the ice, ruining it for the rest of the season.
A day like this means get out while the getting is good. The last year with skateable ice that lasted, it was so clear and so cold that the ice was totally transparent. I could see the bottom. I could see fish. I had to hope to skate over a crack so I could see how thick the ice was. It was eerie, and I turned back before I got across the lake. This year, while the ice is dark, there are enough air bubbles to tell I’m on thick ice and not a thin film over water. It has more of the frosty appearance of ice cubes made in your home freezer and not the total transparency of store-bought ice.
Joni Mitchell famously skated on Lake Mendota for a photoshoot for her album “Hejira”. The woods in the background are Picnic Point. This is the “other lake” from the one I skated today (1/17). If it’s still nice Sunday (1/23), I’ll skate there to watch the next regatta. Meanwhile I may make a trial skate to work (maybe a hundred yards out of the frame to the left above) to see how long it takes and maybe add another form of transportation to my commute.
On a prior album, she sang about skating:
On the album “Hejira” she sang “Furry Sings the Blues”. Rather than that song, I’ll leave you with Furry himself – Furry Lewis – nothing but Furry and his guitar. He has recorded this a few times, but this is the version that introduced me to his work.
Addendum: The regatta was postponed for a week due to drifting snow that hardened, making sailing dangerous. As of bedtime Saturday, it is snowing, and I just shoveled the first couple of inches. And with new snow falling, skating on the lake is probably over for the year. The regatta will likely be postponed again, if not canceled. We’re in a drought and about 15 inches behind on snow for the season, so that’s a good thing…but I was hoping to skate to work. I’ve commuted to this job by walking, skiing, biking, bussing, carpooling, and driving. Skating would have been a nice addition.
On New Year’s Day there was no ice on the lakes. A week later, they were totally iced in. Three more days and the river is almost frozen over. The river current is swift enough that it seldom freezes and, when it does, it’s not for long. But today, this is what we have for open water:
The road is icy enough to skate on, but it’s cold enough that I don’t want to. I did shoot a video selfie of skating on the road a few years ago. If you look fast, you can see the skates at about 17 seconds. It was early morning and I didn’t want to wake anyone to shoot the video for me.
It is cold enough to revisit winter biking clothes. The important things for extreme cold: keep hands and feet warm, and exposed flesh freezes so cover all skin.
For hands I use mittens from Empire Wool and Canvas. If it’s really cold I add liners. (Silk, neoprene, or even nitrile exam gloves can help. If you wear nitrile, your hands will be wet from sweat. That will feel weird. Wet is okay only if you stay warm. Wet and cold is not a good thing.) Most “winter” bike mitts are not made for real cold. Pogies or bar mitts are also popular, and you can wear gloves or mittens inside them. If your fingers get cold, you can make fists (occasionally tuck your thumb inside) to let your palm warm your fingers. Sometimes just holding one hand behind your back (out of the wind) will warm it up. If you get cold and then stop feeling cold (without having done something to warm up), that is a bad sign. Get out of the cold. Numb is not better than cold. The boots I use are from Bontrager but there are others. They’re not cheap, but neither is treatment for frostbite. (We could talk about treating frostbite, but that would make this even longer.) I just wear regular (wool) dress socks down to about zero, then add silk liners. The neoprene socks shown above are only for extreme cold.
Dress for the weather and for your tolerance. Usually I just wear rain pants (for wind resistance) over my work pants. The combo of tights above are for bitter cold. Down to about 25-30 degrees (-4 to 0 C) I wear just the yellow jacket shown over my regular shirt. Down to about zero (-18 C) I would add the down vest. When it gets really cold, the windfront membrane stiffens and makes crackling noises, like cellophane, but doesn’t seem to be damaged. The hat by itself is good to about 15 degrees (-10 C). After that I add a silk balaclava that lets me cover or uncover my mouth and nose. Below zero I switch to a wool balaclava that covers my nose and has a small breathing hole for my mouth (the black one above with goggles). At about -20 (-29 C) I trade that for a fleece balaclava (the blue one above with frozen eyes).
Remember also that windchill or “feels like” temperature refers to the flesh-freezing properties. The numbers noted above are temperature. You results may vary. If the wind is strong enough, I would alter the ranges a bit. The -30 referred to above was a day with actual temperature of -26 F (-32 C) and windchill about -55 F (-48 C), with the worst about -60 F (-51 C) from the wind tunnel effect between buildings. Since I couldn’t measure the wind velocity in that area where I was nearly blown backward, that’s an estimate.
The handy thing about the Fahrenheit scale is that each 10 degrees makes a difference in comfort. Bike clothes or regular clothes? Your choice. Ranges will vary person-to-person and with the wind. On a 40 degrees day, I may see one person in shorts and another in a face mask and goggles. 30s: Snug hat (cover ears) under helmet. Warm gloves. Shoe covers. Winter bike jacket over long sleeved jersey or regular shirt. Winter tights or regular pants for work. 20s: Same hat. Consider mittens (even ordinary winter lobster mitts should be okay at this temperature) or Pogies. Maybe switch to boots if you don’t have lined shoe covers. Same jacket. Wool or fleece long sleeve jersey, or consider adding down vest over work shirt. Warmer pants (moleskin, corduroy, wool – not jeans or chinos) or windfront tights. 10s: Thin balaclava under hat (one that covers cheeks). Be sure your forehead is covered. Mittens. Boots. Add the down vest. Rain pants over regular pants, or windfront fleece tights.
0s: Balaclava that covers nose (maybe mouth) under hat. Warm mittens (maybe liner gloves – having your fingers touch each other helps conserve warmth, but sometime extra insulation is needed. If they made lobster liner mitts, that would be ideal) or warm gloves inside Pogies. Jacket, vest, wool or fleece jersey vs jacket, vest, work shirt – you can also add arm warmers to work clothes. Multiple layers on legs (rain pants over windfront tights or over pants and maybe long underwear – silk, fleece, or wool, not cotton). If you don’t want to take long underwear off, you can wear leg warmers under work pants and slide them off without removing pants. (You will have to remove shoes and socks.) You can also slide arm warmers out from under a shirt. If you have old, stretched-out arm warmers, you can wear them over shirt sleeves. -10s: Add goggles. Liners under warm mitts or warm mitts in Pogies. Warm socks. Silk long underwear under jersey or shirt. Long underwear bottoms (or leg warmers) vs two layers of tights. -20s: What ever you’ve got! Your warmest balaclava under hat, or silk balaclava under warmer one. Covering your mouth will prewarm air to prevent chilling your lungs. Your exhalations will warm your chest as the balaclava guides air downward. Definitely wear goggles. Some people will breathe through a snorkel to provide some warming to the air and avoid fogging goggles. (I’ve never tried it.) Two (or three if you have very thin liners, regular gloves and warm mitts or Pogies) layers on hands and never remove the under-layer. Consider chemical handwarmers between layers. Silk liner socks under heavy wool or neoprene socks. Consider chemical foot warmers. Silk longjohns under fleece ones. Flannel-lined pants, maybe even over tights. Your knees and fronts of thighs will get coldest.
If it gets much colder than that, maybe stay home and read “To Build a Fire” by Jack London; or test this: “He knew that at 50 below zero water from the mouth made a noise when it hit the snow. But this had done that in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than 50 below.” (From “To Build a Fire” by Jack London)
In short, there’s no such thing as bad weather to ride; just bad clothes. If you have the right clothes and the right bike, you can ride in almost any weather. I’d probably stay out of hurricanes and tornadoes. When I find weather that is unrideable, I’ll let you know. (Okay, there have been a few days when it was snowing hard enough that I skied to work, but that could have been overcome with a fat bike.)
P.S. This is not an endorsement of the song in the title. P.P.S. I’ve written on winter bike clothes a few times before – this post combines them all into one. P.P.P.S. Between writing and posting, the temperature has gone up 40 degrees.