My little fishing boat has been parked next to the driveway since ice-out last spring. It required extra attention to keep from banging into it when backing out of the driveway, but it was worth it to have it right there ready to hitch to the truck whenever a few hours became available to go fishing or hunting. Initial ice-up came early this year, but I held on as long as I could, hoping that a few more warm days might thaw things enough for another outing or two. I have finally given up hope and hauled the boat to a friend’s barn to store for the winter. Possibly significant snow is forecast by early next week as I write on this sunny Thanksgiving morning.
There are still lots of great outdoor things to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead. The cold season can be lots of fun as long as one is properly prepared. Keeping warm is always an issue for winter outdoor activities. The best advice for strenuous outdoor activity is to dress in layers so that clothing can be adjusted to maintain comfort. Exertion leads to sweat even in winter, and sweat leads to dampness. Dampness and cold temperatures are a bad combination that will lead to a far less enjoyable outdoor experience, or even outright danger from hypothermia. Staying dry is one of the primary keys to staying warm. Cotton is the worst fabric you can wear when it comes to dampness. It holds moisture and is very slow to dry. Underwear made from synthetic fabrics like polypropylene or even silk wick moisture away from the skin and help keep you dry. Wool provides insulation even when wet where cotton does not. A water-repellent, breathable, but windproof outer layer is another key to staying warm and dry. It’s been said that if you’re cold, put on a hat. There’s some truth in that because we lose heat more quickly from the head than most other areas of the body. Gloves, even bulky ones, may be better for manipulating things, but mittens are always warmer. Consider wearing them if your planned tasks don’t require gloves.
Early ice can be tempting for those who love to ice fish or skate, but it’s also some of the riskiest ice. Ice thickness can be highly variable, with some areas of a newly frozen lake or pond offering several inches of ice, while others are still open or barely skimmed over. Tile lines are running strongly this fall and their warmer water will keep ice from forming near where it enters a lake. Streams are flowing strongly, too, and moving water is much slower to freeze. New, clear ice is the strongest ice. Ice full of bubbles or frozen slush isn’t nearly as strong. It’s difficult to estimate ice thickness just by looking at it. Be prepared to drill holes often to test ice thickness as you venture out. Consider wearing a life jacket on early ice, just in case something bad happens. Don’t venture out alone, but don’t stay close together either. There’s no benefit to the buddy system if you both fall through the same hole. Watch for at least three inches of solid new ice before starting on-ice activities, and that’s only for people on foot. Snowmobiles need six inches and cars should have twelve.
Even those of you who don’t pursue outdoor activities still need to be prepared for the season. Every driver should be on the lookout for deer. I recently had to stop completely just after sundown while nearly 20 deer crossed the road ahead of me. If you see one, expect that others are nearby and may jump into your path. Christmas comes early for auto body shops because many drivers don’t pay enough attention and hit deer. Deer are most active at dawn and dusk, but be ready for them at any time. Bucks are suffering from a severe case of “testosterone poisoning” right now as they chase does around the clock. They may not pay any attention to an approaching vehicle. Shotgun deer season hunters will be stirring them up for the first half of December, too. If you see orange-clad hunters, be ready to brake for running deer. Many serious accidents happen as drivers try to miss hitting deer. If a deer collision appears unavoidable, don’t try to swerve and miss them. Apply brakes to slow as much as possible, hit them square, and concentrate on maintaining control.
The approaching winter can be full of wonders and fun — as long as you respect the limits the season imposes and are prepared for whatever you plan to do in our great outdoors.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.