Nature's Notebook – Tim Abbott
January, 27, 2011
This morning the outdoor thermometer on the north side of my house registered minus 16 degrees. The sensors in the sputtering car in the driveway held firm at minus 6. The unheated enclosed back porch made it to 10 above, and I woke up with my head beneath the blankets and a strong desire for a hot breakfast. In this I was more fortunate than the birds that mobbed our feeders, with even the ground-dwelling juncos jostling for a roost in the face of the bitter cold.
The coldest air temperature I can recall with precision was a Christmas morning in Dutchess County, where I grew up. It was 32 below zero. That was legendary cold, the sort that breaks records in this part of the world, at least those that have been kept since the end of “The Little Ice Age” in the 1800s. Before that, all bets are off.
We celebrated Christmas that day late in the morning, only after ensuring that my sister’s pony was warm enough in the stable and my rabbit had been moved inside from his icy hutch.
I have experienced wind chill temperatures colder than this once or twice in my youthful days of winter mountaineering. I was literally blown off the flanks of Mount Washington in January 1994 when I attempted to summit in hurricane force winds. The wind took hold and it seemed to bore right through me. Yet I remained impervious enough to create resistance, and try hard as I did I could make little headway.
It was so cold I could barely think, but I realized somewhere in my freezing core that I had nothing to prove and everything to lose by persisting in the face of the unrelenting elements. I bid goodbye to my two climbing partners and withdrew to our camp below treeline, and I have never once regretted that decision.
I also made a rather foolish decision to go scuba diving one time in mid-November off Massachusetts, sharing half a wetsuit with my diving buddy. I believe he took the hood and farmer johns, and I the gloves and wetsuit top, and my head simply screamed with cold the moment I submerged. I think I went about 50 feet from shore when once again that primal urge for self preservation overtook any intimations of immortality.
I do not take such risks today. My children covered up and got a ride to school today instead of their usual 5-minute walk. I bend my knees when I shovel snow and know enough to come out of the rain, or the brutal deep freeze.
It is beautiful, with the open water of the freezing river simply boiling with steam, but it is a perilous beauty. As a Clint Eastwood character once said under a different set of life-threatening circumstances, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.