If you’re not from Michigan, you’re double checking your calendar and thinking that you’re pretty sure winter doesn’t start until December 22nd. You wonder what about fall?
Fall is glorious here. Our landscape turns shades of red, orange and yellow only seen in Technicolor films from the past. Days are mild, with soft sunlight taking the chill out of the crisp air. Orchards overflow with ripe fruit. Homemade doughnuts and apple cider line farm market shelves. But fall weather only lasts about six weeks, and half of it happens in September when it’s still summer according to the calendar.
In 2001 I remember snow flurries flying in the air in West Michigan on October 6th. Last year it snowed on our jack-o-lanterns on Halloween. Some places farther north had fall colors peaking out from piles of wet, clingy snow. Two years in a row we had our first significant snowfall in mid-November, when it was still officially fall.
So Up North, we start getting ready for winter in September. We put all our campers, boats and sand toys in storage. Then we start tuning up our snowblowers and plows. We make sure the ice scrapers are in our cars. You have to have everything properly staged. If not, you might wake up to three feet of snow one morning and have to use your broom to clean off the car. We have our kids try on last year’s winter coats and boots to see if they’ve outgrown them. They’ll probably need to wear them under their Halloween costumes to keep from getting hypothermia while trick-or-treating.
Winter wear is already widely available at stores in my hometown. When we go back-to-school shopping in August, it’s 85 degrees outside. But instead of shorts and t-shirts, we stock up on jeans and flannel. Kids will need a warm jacket in the morning just about two weeks after school starts. If you want to work up a sweat, try on turtlenecks on a hot, late summer afternoon.
I begged my son to play basketball, because it’s an indoor sport. He chose soccer instead. They started practice this week. It’s warm now, but by the end of the season all the parents will be huddled up on the sidelines, wearing mittens and tearing apart the bleachers to make a bonfire.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining. Winter is beautiful here. There’s nothing quite like that first snowfall, when you wake up to a silent world that looks like it’s been washed in marshmallow fluff. In fact, the last snowfall is nothing like the first. By then the snow feels like a thick blanket, trying to smother you.
Winter survival really does build character. The sharp, cold air makes you feel alive. I’ve never been more aware of my humanity as I am after I’ve shoveled snow for two hours. The constant, dull ache in your back reminds you of just how alive you are.
Once you’ve driven through a blinding snowstorm at rush hour on U.S.131, without going in ditch or getting crunched by a white-knuckled tourist from Tennessee, you know you can probably survive anything. Spending six snow days with a weekend in between, trapped in your home with your kids in February, builds the kind of mental toughness they train Navy Seals to have. Finding ways to enjoy the five feet of snow and freezing temperatures, like snowmobiling, skiing and ice fishing, is the living definition of optimism in the face of adversity.
Our six months of winter also cause us to really appreciate the two months of summer we do get up here. We make the most of it with beach days, camping weekends, boat rides and watching the 10pm summer sunsets. We’re headed to the beach one last time this Labor Day weekend. We’ll swim and bar-b-que and play in the sand. The memories will get us through those dark winter evenings when the sun sets at 5pm.
It won’t be long before we’re scraping ice off our windshields in the morning and hiking out to a frozen Lake Michigan to see the lighthouses encased in ice. It’s a beautiful, other-worldly sight.
That reminds me, I need a new pair of snow boots.