For most indoor folks life takes a decidedly sedentary turn once the holidays come to an end. With nothing to buy, nowhere to go and no great demands on time and finances it’s almost a pleasure to sit back with a good book and watch the winter days go by.
Those whose inner spirit is stimulated by outdoor activity, fresh air and sunshine invariably leave the most mundane indoor pursuits to the hours of darkness. These first days of January are short on daylight but long on options, as any avid Maine sportsman will tell you. Possibilities range from predator hunting to ice-fishing, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Those with sturdy backs and shoulders can try sledding, skating or long-distance snowmobiling, activities which can also be enjoyed at night. To be sure, there is more to do in Maine in winter than there is time to spend on it. Using the cold, snow or wind as an excuse to defer is not going to fly considering that we are going to endure such conditions for at least the next three months, maybe four. Sooner or later you’re going to have to get outside and do something other than watch the icicles melt.
Experienced winter Mainers know that it is possible to enjoy these and other diversions if you plan ahead and are prepared for the existing weather conditions. Clothing options range from old-fashioned wool to the most modern artificial fabrics, so finding the right combination of wicking warmth and layers should not be a problem. My old-school winter outfit still serves me well – long johns, wool pants, chamois shirt and a wool hooded sweatshirt keep me warm no matter how cold it gets as long as I keep moving. A windbreaker over the top keeps the wind out and a pocket full of chemical hand warmers will take care of my perennially cold fingers.
I have ventured out on snowshoes, skis, sleds, snowmobiles and on foot dressed in old-school basics and never feel the cold. In fact, once I get out there and start chugging along on a snowmobile trail or on snowshoes I often get too warm and am forced to shed a layer or two. Truth be told, I don’t get that hot while sitting next to the wood stove!
According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, many of the smaller lakes and ponds in our area are frozen over and safe enough for foot travel and ice-fishing. A few of the largest lakes may still have thin ice or even open water in areas, so it’s important for any winter traveler to monitor current conditions and err on the side of caution when it comes to crossing vast expanses of ice, especially when riding any sort of vehicle. Lake ice does not freeze uniformly at a constant depth; in fact, there will be pockets of thin ice or even open water all across a particular body of water simply because there are warm springs, hotspots and other variations in underwater temperature that keep the ice from forming at a continuous, uniform pace. Add a few ice-fishing holes, seasonal thaws and relentless under-ice currents and there is room for doubt on any body of water, particular this early in the winter. Use caution, be safe and give yourself the benefit of the doubt when venturing onto newly formed ice this month. If cold and snow prevails most of our most popular waters will be safe enough for ice-fishing, ATV or snowmobile riding. Some will even allow the use of larger vehicles. Check with the district game warden or sheriff’s office and believe what they tell you. Otherwise, they will be the ones who’ll be risking their own lives to rescue you from a harrowing situation.
During periods of iffy ice conditions I just play it safe and stick to the woods paths, snowmobile trails and old logging roads where the worst I could face is an embarrassing face plant when my snowshoe catches on an errant root or blow down. By now most of the area is covered with sufficient snow to make walking in the woods an enjoyable alternative to huddling over a heater grate with a bowl of oatmeal. If you get out now and establish your own little trail system you should enjoy some great snowshoeing (and cross-country skiing) over the remainder of the winter. My trails remain solid and walkable well into late March when there is sufficient snow and cold weather to keep them in shape. I can actually navigate on the packed snow without snowshoes during the tail end of the winter, but I make it a point to attach ice creepers to my boots before heading out. Modern creepers are easy to attach and provide solid footing even on black ice, which is a blessing when every other step is over frozen snow, rotten ice or black ice.
Another thing to keep in mind when considering a January jaunt in the woods is that no matter how bad it may seem out there it can be quite comfortable once you get out and get moving. I am not a big fan of cold winter breezes but a good windbreaker can thwart even the most frigid of gusts. By the time I get into the (generally warmer) woods 15 minutes from the house I’m ready to start peeling off layers. As long as I keep up a brisk pace and don’t stop for long periods along the way I have found that even the coldest, windiest days of winter are actually quite pleasant.
It is important to stay away from open water or questionable ice, even woodland puddles and swampy areas where there may be open water lurking under the ice. Go around, turn around or otherwise avoid such places. A good soaking with icy water is the last thing you need when hiking a mile or more back in the woods. I’ve fallen through the ice a few times over the years and can say from experience that it’s not as much fun as you might think!