The sun will soon rise into a beautiful partly cloudy sky as I sit down to write on this late January morning. This winter has been one of contrasts so far. It has brought bitter cold, but last night stayed well above freezing. It’s a day to get outdoors, and I plan to be there as soon as this little weekly task is done!
The deep cold of early January with little snow cover allowed ice on area lakes to thicken quite rapidly. There was well more than a foot of ice on the portions of Hickory Grove Lake and a nearby farm pond that I visited recently in hope of catching a few bluegills. The sun on my back as I sat patiently on my bucket felt good. The fish must have been sun bathing somewhere else, though. I finally had a little nibble just at sundown on the second day, and I didn’t hook that fish. Runoff from recent rainfall has no doubt created a few areas where lake ice has begun to thin, and people should stay well away from any open water created by aeration systems or waterfowl use. Local streams have already lost most of their ice and more days like today could lead to an early ice-out on lakes, as well. I’d still love to fish some other ponds and lakes as long as ice conditions remain reasonably safe, but how long we’ll have fishable ice depends on future temperature and precipitation patterns.
Outdoor activities, even on relatively warm winter days, require special attention regarding the clothing we wear. I was very comfortable wearing only a dark sweatshirt when I first sat down on my ice fishing bucket. I had warmed up even more with the exertion of drilling several holes through thick ice. I was sitting still and temperatures were dropping as the sun neared the horizon, though. I had on a winter coat, wool stocking cap, and gloves by the time I left the lake.
Cotton is the most common fabric that many of us wear. It’s comfortable and even warm for low exertion activity, but it’s not a good choice for cold weather outdoor activities, particularly if you will be working hard or might get wet. Once dampened even by our own perspiration, it tends to stay wet for a long time. Dampness is our enemy when it’s cold. Wool, on the other hand, wicks moisture away from the skin, where it can more easily evaporate. Down coats and vests are wonderful for warmth if they’re dry, but are difficult to dry out and nearly worthless when wet. Silk is very comfortable next to the skin, is a good insulator and also wicks moisture safely away. Several modern synthetic fabrics, like polypropylene, also have good wicking properties and low moisture retention. A layer of GORE-TEX or other modern moisture barrier layers in outerwear keeps liquid water out, but allows water vapor to escape. Less expensive rubber or plastic-coated outerwear and footwear will keep liquid water out alright, but they keep it in, too. Perspiration that can’t escape, builds up and dampens inner layers. That can leave you colder than ever.
The word “COLD” can help us remember how to better face cold conditions. “C” stands for clean. Clean fabrics hold more insulating air than dirty ones. “O” stands for overheating, and is something that should be avoided. It leads to more perspiration, and that causes more rapid cool-down when you finally stop to rest. “L” stands for several lighter layers. Layers trap more insulating air. You should open up or take layers off as you warm up when exerting so that moisture can vent away. You can add them again as you cool down. “D” stands for dry. Staying dry is a big part of staying warm. Consider using foot powder if your feet tend to sweat. Extremities cool more quickly than the rest of the body, so good quality hats, gloves (mittens are warmer) and boots are important.
We could still face some challenging cold and even winter storms well into April. Attention to how we dress can help us enjoy the rest of the winter in comfort.
Steve Lewka is a former director of Story County Conservation.