Thursday, February 13, 2014

Notes From Twenty Below

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (California), I was a wee beardless freshman attending the Rose Bowl with the University of Wisconsin Marching Band.  For a time no less than my entire childhood, our beloved Badgers had been the laughing stock and cautionary tale of Big Ten football -- seasoned basement dwellers, perennial losers.  Then, through some fortuitous twist of fate, I arrived in Madison just as the Barry Alvarez era of football domination was really starting to pick up a head of steam.  There was a t-shirt in campus stores back then that read, "Wisconsin Football: Not Just A Great Band Anymore."

The football team hadn't been to a bowl game, had scarcely completed a winning fall campaign, since dirt was young.  Then my class of band-mates and I came along to ride the coattails of the football team to four consecutive bowl games.  Spectacularly foresighted family planning by our parents, I have to say.

We played a pep rally at Disneyland early one day leading up to the game, replete with cardinal and white cheerleaders suddenly vaulting toward the heavens, crimson Whack-A-Mole against the clear California sky from my vantage point buried in a tidal throng of revelers; and rousing choruses of On Wis, Badger, Bud -- jargon for the playing of "On Wisconsin," "If You Want to Be a Badger," and "You've Said it All" sequentially.

I remember the fans of our Bruin opponents in the upcoming game were in the habit of approaching and abruptly screaming a unison, "UCLA!" at any group of people wearing red.  As startling (and a little "on the nose" for my tastes, honestly) as this repeated staccato demonstration of fandom was, I didn't begrudge them their right to a few pre-game antics.  I rather enjoyed them in fact, being an unabashed and hopeless rah rah guy when it comes to Wisconsin sports myself.  I hear "On Wisconsin" (especially the Soft and Strong version) or Matt Lepay screaming his patented touchdown call out of the radio while driving home from a bird hunt in October, and I can still go immediately and downright verklempt -- a little gooey in the middle with my forearm hair standing on end.

Back at Disneyland, my ragtag dirty dozen or so took to quickly yelling four randomly selected letters back in strong reply to the UCLA fans, a sudden cacophony of Tourette-esque GSCA! and PJRD!, which often left the blue and gold fans to carry on satisfyingly befuddled.

As we stood in yet another interminable line for some ride, we struck up a conversation with a family of locals, the vociferous bellowing of random alphabet soup having been omitted.  When they inquired about the weather we'd left behind back home, one of the fellas casually replied, with that subtle touch of implied hometown bravado, that it had been "four below" when we left.

The coiffed and over-sparkly California soccer mom asked without pause, "Four below what?"

"Below zero."

"You can't live like that!"

Commence with the bulging eyes and dismayed expressions of  horror.  They always regard you with something between pity and amazement in that moment, and follow up with the landslide of clich├ęs concerning how they miss having seasons living in California, but would never trade it for a life below zero.

But you can live a life below zero, futbol mama, and we certainly have this year.  I'm hard pressed to recall a winter in which I've woken up to a negative number on the thermometer so many days in a row.  Honestly, I don't think I have -- at least when I've been of an age to competently balance the state of the woodpile against the severity of the forecast.

Swirling vortices of sub-arctic air always present some challenges in winter, as well as few high points.

Plastic breaks in the cold.  Over the years, I've been through three red plastic knobs on the Mr. Heater I use ice fishing.  You only really need it when the mercury is doing the limbo under the zero degree mark, and that is the precise point at which that plastic knob will shatter from nothing more than a startling glance directed its way.

The new squirrel guard comes with a five round clip, and turns them into stew.
More recently I rigged a homemade squirrel guard below the back bird feeder using a Frisbee, a pair of tin snips and a few squirts of flat black spray paint.  There is no doubt that it was ugly as a mud fence, but it was also effective.  I lubed it up with lard from the kitchen, and had more than one belly laugh at the squirrels beating feet like little machine guns trying to get up and over.  Until the temps remained well below zero for a week or more, and one intrepid tree rat attacked it with such vigor that it shattered in a half dozen pieces on the ground.

When the temp does plummet, though, the song birds are plentiful and voracious at the feeders.  By the dozens, they arrive in fleets to peck away at seeds and bob for suet, devouring birdseed collectively by the pound.  I'm looking at a red-bellied woodpecker and a handful of juncos right now.  I've seen both the tufted titmice (mouses?) and white-throated sparrows quite a bit this winter, though I don't recall them on the feeders of my youth.  Maybe I was just too busy ramming around like a nitwit to notice them among the more common players back then.

I especially enjoy watching a couple pairs of resident mourning doves sunning themselves at the base of the spruces and assorted evergreens at the back of the yard.  Twenty below zero, and there they sit all puffed up against the cold, looking nothing short of content.

There's a winter ritual around these parts and all over the north.  It takes place when entering a domicile or other familiar setting.  A person enters, and stomps the snow off a couple times, then sometimes gives a full body shake meant to ward off the following cold like a retriever coming out of the water, and says to anyone or no one in particular, "Damn it, it's cold out there!"  The leading expletive and any other intensifiers will vary from "golly gosh darn" to the other, more revelatory and satisfying end of the spectrum depending on circumstance, but I frankly find the entire rite a bit jarring and crass for some reason.  I prefer to aspire to the more serene and accepting state of the mourning dove, and skip the whole clomp and bitch routine.  Nansen and Amundsen didn't whine about the cold, at least not in my mind, and so neither will I.

Purple finches flit about like animated Christmas ornaments. Juncos hop and pace, almost never leaving the
ground. Doves remain stoic. They appeal most to my hereditary Scandahoovian winter serenity.

When you want to do nothing else outside, when the appeal of the woodstove and written word against the deep arctic stillness are almost irresistible, that's the time you should be out there splitting firewood.  Hunks of hardwood at temperatures above freezing, when driven with the maul or ax, often absorb the blow with spongy indifference.  Upon closer inspection, the area along the cheeks of the buried blade will sometimes reveal drops of water and sap being forced out by the intrusion of steel.

Make your very same swing below zero, however, and that piece of wood will likely clatter apart easily.  The open cleft will reveal an intricate and beautiful tat-work of icy crystals, and the smell -- at least if you're me -- will remind you of working next to Dad in flannel and sweat.

This is the time of the year when many of my cyber-friend fly fishing specialists (some known to me, others who remain yet faceless in our digital interactions) sometimes take to the ice for a little fishing to ward off the cabin fever.  You can only tie so many flies and watch so many fly fishing short films, even when most of them nowadays are exceptionally beautiful and well done.

Their skills on the ice, familiarity with the gear and tactics, and attitudes toward ice fishing itself vary vastly, from savvy pro to shivering newbie.  For my part, I was staring down a hole long before I ever picked up a fly rod, and still consider myself an ice fisherman converting to the way of the fly, even though I tie and cast much more often than I huddle over a Vexilar these days.  So I read and watch as they venture forth, and I try not to judge.  But if I'm completely honest, I do have to admit to experiencing a delectable sliver of schadenfreude here and there.  It happens while witnessing guys I admire and look up to in the fly fishing world, guides and fishers from the pinnacle of our sport, stumble through a day on the ice.  It's easier to remember they're just outdoorsy guys like me, in few ways deserving of my sometimes misplaced veneration, when you can watch them sort through stumpy bluegills and fall on their asses.  It's all just fishing, anyway.

I can clock my evening walk this time of year with the rise of Orion over the red pine at the end of the driveway.  I like to go out again and look at the stars before bed too, like how the air seems clearer somehow, the stars impossibly close.  Recently Jupiter was bright and clear up there, crowding in as close as it ever gets to the moon from our egocentric vantage point, and we did have a nice showing of the northern lights a while back before the clouds rolled in and cut the festivities short.  Last night was particularly clear and bright, the moon two days short of full.  We'd had a fresh bolus of powder in the afternoon, and it glinted and shone like fields of gems in the moonlight, the bare hickory and maple shadows gently brushing over but failing to erase their glimmering.

I stood fighting off the shivers (I somehow always think I can manage without a coat for the scant five-minute jaunt before bed), and tried to conjure some transcendent thought about our insignificance in the universe, but nothing came so I just stared at the moon.  The Great Horned Owls continued their sonorous nightly chorus.  The dog at my side snuffled deeply into a deer track, her protracted snoot and face buried up to her ears.

Then the fox that lives down by the creek started in with her strident bawling screech, and I remembered once again, beatitude cannot be forced.

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