On thin ice: Hooray for the snow

Kai Hagen

February 21, 2003

At the risk of upsetting snow-weary friends and neighbors this week, I have to confess that I really, really love snow.

I always have.

As a boy, I could spend hours watching the snow through the upstairs window. At night, I would sit in the dark and watch the snow fall through the streetlights and sycamore trees. In a good snow, I would even go out from time to time to wipe off part of the hood of the car, so I could see how fast the snow was accumulating. And, no matter how much it snowed, I was always disappointed when it stopped.

Friends have only half-jokingly said I might have a disorder of some sort. Others have wondered if it is genetic, suggesting I just can't help it. Some simply find my enthusiasm irritating, as if rooting for snow, and then more snow, was like being a fan of floods and fires and earthquakes. I prefer to think of it as a harmless obsession.

Of course, kids love snow. And while a cynic might suggest that's because a good snow means a day or two off from school, I remember snow days as outdoor days. Days full of sledding, snowmen, snow forts and snowball fights. And hot chocolate when it was all over.

That was before cable television and home video games. But the scenes at local hills and parks around Frederick County this week make it clear that snow hasn't lost its magic...for kids, anyway.

There is no denying, however, that snow loses much of its appeal for most people as they get older. That might have something to do with having to shovel the snow or scrape snow and ice off the car or commute to work in the snow. It might be because of cancelled events or delayed flights. Could be as simple as negotiating slushy curbsides and slippery sidewalks.

Snow can definitely be inconvenient.

A lot of people who would just as soon keep snow confined to a dusting on Christmas morning, paintings of winter wonderlands, and what they shake up in snow globes.

I'm not one of them.

Rather than diminishing with age, my enthusiasm for snow has grown.

Perhaps I would feel differently if I'd grown up in Vermont or lived in Buffalo. But I grew up down the road in Washington, where snow wasn't frequent enough to be boring, and didn't stick around long enough to get old. From Thanksgiving to the end of February, I wanted it to snow. Winter rains were depressing because they were just wasted chances to have more snow.

It is said you should be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. And that is pretty much what happened when I went off to Minnesota! The manufacturers of car batteries used to go there to test batteries and it was the ideal place to test my affection for winter and snow. It hardly seemed a coincidence when my first northern winter turned out to be the coldest in decades.

That record-breaking January, when the temperature reached thirty-five degrees below zero and everyone went about their normal routine, I realized I was in for a genuine adventure.

In the end, I experienced thirteen Minnesota winters without losing my enthusiasm for all things snow. Quite the contrary, actually. Like a botanist moving to the rainforest, or a marine biologist moving to the Great Barrier Reef, I learned there was a lot more variety to it than I had imagined. A real winter wasn't just a somewhat colder and longer version of what I already knew.

More than just a passing season, winter in Minnesota was a place. It was a place with its own special beauty.

It was also a place where softball fields became hockey rinks and hiking trails become groomed cross country ski trails. Where blue lakes dotted with sailboats became white and windswept villages of ice fishing cabins.

I used to think people in Scandinavia and Canada and Minnesota were outdoors people because northern summers are short. That warm days were too precious to waste. There might be some truth to that, but there is more to it.

Winter in Minnesota was simply too long to wait it out inside, as one might here, and too intense to ignore. Instead, winter was celebrated with January parades and outdoor festivals and winter sports. Except for the fact that I'd never put on skis and considered skating a success if I didn't hurt myself, I fit right in.

Nevertheless, even most Minnesotans will admit that winter can be too long, that you can have too much of a good thing. The day after a mid-April blizzard would not be a good time to wax poetic about snow there. I hope I am not on thin ice waxing nostalgic about winter after a mid-February
snowstorm here.

I don't want to have Minnesota winters here. When March arrives, I'll be ready for spring. I'm looking forward to emerging wildflowers and blossoming trees. I'll be thrilled to hear the first wood frogs and spring peepers and songbirds. But the alternative to snow in February is cold rain and bare trees, not short sleeves and picnics.

I like living in a place with four roughly equal seasons. I just want to get my fair share of winter out of the winter season. Not surprisingly, I was happy to see the snow falling last weekend.

But I'll admit I was even more pleased to get so much snow. Snow is nice. But a lot of snow is more than just a lot of snow. It changes everything for a few days. A big snow alters the landscape. It forces us out of our routines. It insists we take a break. It's an adventure.

Most of us can go about our daily lives through heat waves and cold snaps and droughts and almost any other weather. But a big snow or blizzard is like a thunderstorm that doesn't go away as soon as the sun comes out.

We can't change it and we can't ignore it.

So we might as well enjoy it.

Like kids.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at