Winter on the North Shore
The Barns of Ottawa County
The rural landscape around where I grew up, in Ottawa County, Michigan, never seemed exceptional or particularly noteworthy. The real sites, for me, always laid at the coast, along the sandy wooded shores of Lake Michigan. Only recently, after spending much time away from my hometown, has the rural heritage of my landscape gripped me in a way it hadn’t before. The agricultural scenes that once seemed commonplace and went blithely unnoticed by me now stood out in a conspicuous fashion. I became captivated by my once overlooked surroundings.
Barns, as a subject matter, have long drawn me to capture their images in photography. Now I have felt compelled to turn the cameras towards the barns that I may have seen regularly since childhood, but now notice again with fresh eyes. Winter adds an extra element of beauty to them, lying dormant, coated in a thick veneer of white. They come in many different styles, sizes, and colors. Gambrel roofs, lean-to’s, reds, whites and weathered wood. Some are still working barns, others long since abandoned to the elements. Though common, their ruggedness and utilitarian aesthetic provide an unnoticed kind of beauty.
It’s %$@&£! Cold Up Here!
“There is no such thing as bad weather…only bad preparation.”
* Outdoors Proverb *
It’s %$@&£! cold up here in northern Minnesota in January.
But really, it’s not that bad.
The secret, of course, is preparation. With a healthy dose of realistic expectations. It’s no beach holiday up here.
Winter is not winter the same everywhere. Even though I grew up in the northern tier of states, west Michigan’s persistent 30*F winter temps and perpetually falling wet humid snow is no analog for the -20*F clear sunny days here in northern Minnesota.
The cold here is unparalleled in most of the lower 48 states. Characteristically clear skies during the day sparkle light and shadow brilliantly across the landscape. The Minnesota sun, however, is an illusion; though shining bright, it provides almost no warmth to the day. Clear skies at night open up a fantastic theater for star viewing, yet with no cloud cover, what little daytime heat accumulated readily escapes into the upper atmosphere. Temperatures plunge easily to 30*F below.
With the proper equipment and preparation, these polar temperatures can become a comfortable winter playground. With clothing, layering is key. Long underwear, pants, snowpants, sweaters, fleeces, jackets, coats, liner gloves, outer gloves, waterproof boots. All layered one on top of another, overlapping, in a style known as “shingling.” Exposed skin is a recipe for heat loss, especially at the juncture of clothing…not to mention the possibility of getting errant snow down your shirt or in your boots. Even with all these layers of clothes on, the frigid cold still seeps in quickly once you step outside. It’s best to keep moving. Stay active and have your body generate its own heat. When I’m dressed up in all these layers and trudging through a foot of powder snow, I feel like a storm-trooper marching to battle. Bracing for winter is preparing for a war with the cold.
But don’t expect everything to be easy in the cold. Low temperatures have their own way of letting you know they’re around. Frost readily forms on your hair and beard. Your eyelashes start to freeze together. An unprotected water bottle freezes shut. Batteries drain. Lighter flames grow weak and disappear. Knowledge of the extreme cold and its effects goes a long way in prolonging your own survival in these circumstances.
So even though it’s cold outside, go out and enjoy the day. A beautiful winter wonderland awaits for those who are prepared.
The land is quiet. The world is asleep. All around is still. No sound is heard save the lightly landing snow.
These are the short days of winter. Today is the darkest hour. The solstice is upon us; astrological winter has begun.
The world already knows the changes that have come. Plants lie dormant in the fields. Skeletons of last year’s growth remain as wind-battered sentinels above the white covering, an indicator of what species grew here in the warmer months. The animals, too, are hidden away; no tracks can be seen in the freshly fallen powder. Even the humans do not frequent these parts. The lone explorer presses along on skis, leaving behind an incriminating trail.
The winter sun vies for even a brief appearance through the clouds from its home low on the horizon. At these latitudes, it does not promise to linger long, if it even comes at all. Nevertheless, the fresh blanket of white reflects what little sunshine penetrates through the overcast skies. Beneath a firmament of gray, the land shines brilliantly bright. Such brilliance comes at the cost of the absorption of solar energy; the positive feedback cycle of winter cold is nearing its zenith, not to be broken until the sun shines more directly overhead once again.
Today the air is frigid. The illimitable cold turns the flakes falling from the sky light and airy. Super-frozen, they land delicately on the ground in a cottony pile. The lightest motion stirs up the powder like a coating of fine dust. Pick some up in your hand; you can blow the crystals of frozen water cleanly away. Taste some of the snowflakes; they melt instantly in your mouth.
Everywhere, the snow piles up. On tree branches, the fresh flakes land on top of one another in an acrobatic perch. The mere gravitational weight of the snowflakes causes them to deform, slowly melding the flakes together into a structural form. The smooth coating of white on everything makes the world look soft and inviting—comically rotund, perhaps—and radiantly white. How long has it been since movement disturbed these branches?
Though it is well below freezing, the small stream in the field remains unfrozen. The energy inherent in the motion of the water keeps the stream from solidifying, though snow flows in the water and ice nips at the edges. This creeping ice foreshadows the inevitable reach of the cold. It too, wants to cover over the stream, to cease even the motion of the water. For now, the water still flows. Water, in every state, is still flowing.
Nearby a chickadee flits around in the bushes. Now clothed in tones of dull gray, this year-round inhabitant matches the pale hue of the surrounding woods. The chickadee braces for the cold dark days of winter. It must vigilantly search for the stashes of seeds it has cached in the summer. Inactivity can quickly lead to a songbird’s demise.
The chickadee flies away just as quickly as it came. The world is once again still. No moving dares disrupt the hushed world. It is a time of waiting. Winter is here.
Photographs taken in Zeeland, Michigan
Barn Raising on the River
What’s a ship to do when its river freezes in the winter?
While some boats transit to milder climes and others get pulled into dry-dock, there remain some ships that stick out the winter in the river.
The sloop Clearwater is one of those boats that remains in the water. Her winter home is on Rondout Creek in Kingston, New York, just a stone’s throw from the Rondout’s confluence with the Hudson River. The Rondout—once the bustling terminus of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, a thriving commercial shipyard, and a port of call for daily steamer traffic—is much quieter in today’s age, though it still well knows the hum of water traffic.
The sailing season for Clearwater ended October 31 with nothing short of a Halloween-themed sail and a crew dressed up as Peter Pan and the lost boys. The final sail—a sunset cruise—was pleasant and mild. It seemed a shame to put the boat to bed for winter with such a slew of nice days in the forecast. But as the temperature inevitably falls with the autumn leaves, the onslaught of cold wind and occasional snow flurries signals the forlorn truth that the end is nigh.
To prepare our boat for winter, we, the crew, must begin to disassemble the ship that has been our work and our home for the past summer. The process is called downrigging—taking off all the equipment on a boat that makes it sail. Anything that can come off the boat and be securely stored out of the winter elements will come in—sails, ropes, blocks, rigging, etc. We take the wind out of Clearwater’s sails—the 4,300 square-foot mainsail (the third largest in America) gets tightly rolled and unlashed from the rigging. It takes a full crew to finagle the hefty fabric sail into the loft of the storage barn. The boom, coming in at 65 feet long and weighing over 1,000 pounds, is removed from the main mast and dropped onto shore using the rigging that once raised the sails. Even the 30-foot tall top mast, from its perch high atop the main mast, comes down and reduces the height of the Clearwater to a squat 80 feet. On the deck, storage boxes and even the tiller disappear into the barn. The good sloop Clearwater, no longer a sailboat per se, is reduced to a shell of herself.
Clearwater’s naked deck and down-rigged mast don’t stand exposed for long. While the weather remains favorable there is much work to be done in preparation for winter. The shed—a barn-like structure—must be raised on the ship. Framed like a long, squat shanty house, the modular shed quickly gets pieced together. Like barn-raisings of yore, this step requires the community effort of the sloop crew to raise the rafters before the structure holds itself in place. In just a matter of days, the sloop transforms from sailboat to floating house.
This framed package of a ship does not stay open either. A thick white plastic becomes its skin and gives the barn on a ship its façade. Huge rolls of heavy plastic are strung over the rafters. Using a flamethrower (on a wooden boat of all places), the crew heats the plastic covering to tidily shrink-wrap the ship for winter. From the outside, the Clearwater stands as a neatly-wrapped package waiting to be opened once spring arrives. Inside the cover there lies a furnace that keeps the ship’s bilges heated to a low temperature just above freezing. After all, it’s not good to turn the bilge water in a wooden boat into popsicles.
Out on the Rondout, cold waters continually flow back and forth with the tides. Ice will soon cover the creek higher up in the watershed, but giant logs placed around the hull will form a protective barrier from flowing ice, and bubblers will aerate the surrounding water to keep it from freezing. A skeleton winter crew will stand guard over the ship all winter, protecting her from the elements while they mend sailing-season wear and tear. Through the depths of winter, Clearwater will sit quietly, awaiting the arrival of spring.