Ah, snow. As it keeps whitening the world, I remember the week I spent one February in northern Wisconsin with a group of other outdoor enthusiasts from the Cleveland Metroparks, an urban park system that offers winter fun.
This trip almost didn’t happen. The bus was to leave from park district headquarters at 5:30 a.m., but my alarm balked. It did not go off. When my phone rang at 6 a.m., I picked it up groggily. “Are you still coming?” the trip leader said. He said the van was loaded and waiting.
I leaped out of bed, slipped into fleece pants, a heavy sweater, boots and my fleece jacket, grabbed a Pop-Tart and dashed out the door. I had a snowy hour-long drive (it always snows in Cleveland) but I got there and scrambled into the bus. They all cheered, and away we went.
That bus hurried 13 hours through whining February weather. It was 10:30 p.m. when we pulled up to a little outdoor adventure lodge under tall, tall pines standing like sentries. It was below zero. The sky was clear as glass. Stars glittered in the cold air. After I unpacked, I went back outside and drank in the still, frozen beauty of that stark winter night.
We slept in bunk beds in a cozy two-floor dormitory and ate in the bright dining hall. The next morning, after a welcome from park staff, we were let loose outside into winter like frisky puppies freed from the pound.
We strapped on snowshoes and began an invigorating hike through three feet of snow. We traipsed around the edges of a slumbering lake and found wee prints of rabbits and mice in the snow.
The next day, we went to a Nordic ski park to go cross-country skiing. Under hemlock and white pines, we kicked and glided for miles. As I moved under those Goliath-high trees on that snowy trail, I could hear every breath, every whisper, every far-away holler from another skier in the glassy-clear winter air.
One afternoon we headed out onto the ice. The bus drove right out on the frozen lake, where people had drilled holes into the ice and relaxed on lawn chairs clutching fishing poles. It was bitter cold. The frail sun struggled to christen us with a bit of warmth. Most fishermen had set up little sheds on the ice to retreat to for warmth.
Another day we drove for an hour to enjoy a hearty expedition through a preserved primeval forest. Every night, after supper, we’d go out in the frosty night, stand still and listen. Far away, we heard wolves howling. Our last night, we built a big bonfire and roasted marshmallows. Some of us grabbed trays from the dining hall and sledded down out onto a frozen pond.
All too soon, it was time to head back home. The bus pulled away very early on Saturday morning. As we passed snowmobile trails lining the highway like bike paths, I was sorry to go.
There are a few others in Kearney who love winter, too. I have a friend here who grew up in Fredonia, N.Y., not far from Buffalo. He recalls when Fredonia would get 80 inches of snow in one weekend. He’s not lying. Snow would come in off Lake Erie and pile up like dollops of whipped cream.
Another Kearney friend is a native of northern Minnesota. He told me Thursday that it’s finally cold enough for ice fishing. He reminisced about driving his car out onto a frozen lake back home and spending the night in a little hut there. When a fish bit, a little bell would tinkle and wake him up. “We’d reel the fish in, toss it in the cooler and go back to sleep,” he said.
Heading out Friday morning, I stopped to stare at the snow-glistening tree branches. At last, finally, the winter I know has come to Kearney.