Below zero


Winter in the North Country can be bitterly cold, but it is also a season of great beauty, a source of aesthetic nourishment for the mind and soul.

Below zero

Winter in the North Country is a season of wonder and enchantment. And cold. Bitter cold.

After a gloomy December that was the warmest, wettest, and most overcast in the 150-plus years of weather records we had begun to think this would be remembered as the “winter of mud and fog,” but a Christmas week blizzard dropped 10 inches of snow on our farm, dressing the fields and woodlands in the winter clothes they are supposed to wear. Even my curmudgeon spirits were lifted.

The grandkids loved sledding on the steep hillside north of the house and going on a winter walk along the old logging road. The next morning I put on snow shoes and hiked across the snow-covered landscape with the dogs until my legs and back were weary and their toes were clogged with ice balls. Back in the farmhouse, they slept by the roaring woodstove while I watched songbirds flock to the feeders in the south yard, counting 11 different species.

This was the winter weather for which my heart and soul hungered. I was happy, content, at peace, and with a goodly supply of firewood, a couple dozen left-over Christmas cookies, and five pounds of coffee I was ready for my season of semi-hibernation.

Then the first Arctic front of this winter dropped down from Canada and reminded me of a harsh and bitter truth: winter in the North Country is cold.

In less than 24 hours the temperature dropped from a balmy 30 degrees to 8 below zero. Fortunately there was no moisture-laden air mass hanging over the North Country when the frigid winds came whistling down across Lake Superior, so only a couple inches of snow fell atop the foot or so of accumulation already on the ground.

The next morning’s attempt to snowshoe through the hard-frozen woods was cut short. We walked only about two-tenths of a mile, according to the odometer, before the 20 mile-per-hour north wind persuaded me to return to the warmth of the kitchen. My face felt as though it had been scoured with 80 grit sandpaper.

So I have made the transition from a curmudgeon complaining about the insufferably warm December (weather that was obviously a portent of the looming climate change that will destroy civilization) to an even grumpier curmudgeon complaining about the insufferably cold January (weather that is obviously arrival of the extremes of climate change that will not only destroy civilization but also aggravate my arthritis).

But this mood is temporary – transitional. A week of this weather has awakened my realization that winter in the North Country is a season of great beauty, a source of aesthetic nourishment for the mind and soul. When the sun rises on a clear morning the trees sparkle in their sequined coats of ice and frost, with drapes of powdery snow atop the largest branches to add a touch of sophistication to these gaudy ladies. The crunch of snow under boots or snowshoes feels both rough and sensual, a tactile message explaining the dichotomy of all winter pleasures. To breathe deep of the sharp scent of Arctic air will frostbite your nose; to stare too long into the glow and glare of winter sun on snow-covered fields will burn your eyes; to touch the frozen shower of icicles hanging from the rock ledge will numb your fingers.

Those of us who live in the North Country – winter has shaped us, affected our way of looking at life and the world, hardened us in some ways but made us more receptive and reflective in others. And certainly more steadfast and resilient.

The purpose of everyday life, it sometimes seems, is getting oneself ready for winter, preparing not just to weather the storms of our hard times but to accept them as a natural part of life, the seasons of life. We have learned not just to endure winter but to embrace it in the same way we welcome spring and summer.

Yes, winter in the North Country will try, at least once or twice each year, to kill you. Sub-zero temperatures and Arctic blizzards do not suffer the foolish or reckless or naive. But respect the season and it gives you fair exchange: reward for those who labor, beauty for the venturesome, self-confidence for the daring, repose for the weary.

I have tried escaping winter, going to southern climes for January and February, but for me it was a hollow victory. When spring arrived I felt cheated, deceived, bereft. To be whole and complete, a year must have its winter. For me, a North Country winter.


More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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