When it gets this cold--it's twelve degrees below zero right now, and dropping--the weather is in charge. It toys with you, it tricks you. It has plenty of weapons in its chilly arsenal.
The Duluth paper had a story on Wednesday morning about people who called 911 because they thought they saw someone walking out on the ice of Lake Superior.
The story was accompanied by a haunting photograph of the frozen lake enveloped in fog, and a dark figure in the distance. The Coast Guard, the Fire Department and the county Search and Rescue Squad responded, and they saw it, too--a figure visible through the ribbons of fog, open water between it and land. They called for a hovercraft.
It was not a person, though, but a large buoy, permanently anchored there to mark the existence of submerged ruins. The thick fog obscured it, and the way the fog moved made it appear as though the buoy itself was moving. "Not only did it appear to be going sideways, it looked like it was getting closer to us," one of the firemen said. "I see why people would call it in.”
Tricky. Very tricky.
Black ice. Another trick. Black ice is invisible. It forms when car exhaust freezes to the road bed. So you're driving along on what you think is a perfectly dry highway, you touch your brakes, and suddenly you're spinning toward the ditch.
You hear the announcers on the radio on frigid mornings, warning you; it sounds like they're saying, "Look out for the black guys on your way to work!," and you think, "Whoa! When did the DJs become racist?" But no; it's ice. Black ice.
Hypothermia is a famous winter trick. It tricks you into thinking you're hot when you are actually freezing to death; it tricks you into disrobing, kicking off your boots, unzipping your jacket, pulling off your sweater, as the cold paralyzes your fingers and slowly stops your heart. A man in Hayward, Wisconsin, died yesterday in his yard. He was sleep walking, and he got out of his warm bed, walked out of his house, and walked barefoot into the snow. It was the middle of the night, and 28 degrees below zero. He lay down in the snow, and died.
So we need to discover some tricks of our own, some tricks for thwarting winter. Here's one I discovered back when I lived in Duluth. It was January, and a heavy snow had fallen overnight. In the morning the clouds vanished and the temperature plummeted; when I took Toby out into the woods that day the sky was brilliant blue, the sun was shining, and it was twenty degrees below zero.
I dressed warmly: Carhartt coveralls, wool scarf, Sorel boots, a thick hat, mittens. No exposed skin. (This is crucial.)
We broke trail all the way up the street to the woods, and then we broke trail back in the woods. We got very warm, walking--or at least I did. With Toby you never knew. On a little ridge, I stopped. Turned my face to the sun and closed my eyes. The sunlight washed over me. In the distance, I heard humming.
But the sun, the sun had fooled me, gloriously. With my eyes closed, with no wind at all, with its heat on my face, for a moment I had not known if it was winter or summer. The best trick of all.