A small ice rink, created by flooding a flat piece of ground in front of the elementary school that was just two blocks from my home when I was a child, never failed to lure me outside on cold, Wisconsin winter nights. After dinner, at about 7:00 p.m., I loved bundling up in my padded and puffy winter coat, wool hat, two layers of wool socks, knit gloves under wool mittens and three-times-around-my-neck, wool scarf. Then, after tying the laces of my ice skates loosely together, I’d sling the blades over my shoulder and walk to the ice rink under a midnight-blue sky, dotted with sparkling stars in the clear air.
Once there, I’d sit on the rink-side bench, remove my rubber boots and lace up my white ice skates. Until about 11:00 p.m. (parents were far less likely to worry about children off on their own in those days!), I’d glide around on the ice in clockwise bliss. Sometimes, toward the end of the evening, I’d be the only one there; other times, impromptu ice-hockey games would last even longer into the night.
I don’t know if that was the start of my love for cold adventures or not. But I do know that I’m still seeking them. If you’re a bit hesitant about traveling to the cold, I hope I can convince you to try it, too.
Traveling to cold places does require a certain amount of forethought and consideration, of course, just as traveling to hot places, such as those on the equator, do. On a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park in the fall, for example, I packed a midweight fleece jacket, glove liners and a headband to cover my ears against the cold. It was September; how cold could it be, I thought, for someone used to Wisconsin winters? The answer I got wasn’t the one I expected: it can get very cold—astoundingly cold, in fact.
One morning in the park’s West Thumb Geyser Basin, our travel group went out in the early morning hours to photograph the cones, hot springs and wildlife. I became captivated by an elk that was wandering near the shore of Yellowstone Lake, partially obfuscated by the steam. I lingered behind a bit, trying to capture that mesmerizing image.
Ten minutes later, when I realized I had overstayed my time, I discovered that I had lost all feeling in my fingers. Glove liners weren’t enough against that kind of cold. That afternoon, when we stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs, I made a quick stop at the general store and purchased some thick, wool mittens and a knit hat. Failing to plan for cold weather can definitely result in some painful moments. The right clothing can make all the difference.
The ultimate cold adventures, of course, are found in the Arctic and Antarctica. And for those who love the poles, as I do, their challenges are part of their appeal.
Crossing the Drake Passage—described as having the roughest seas in the world—was one of the hardest travel hurdles I ever faced, but the rewards of reaching the Antarctic Peninsula were more than worth the tumultuous stomach and mattress-tossing waves. While at first you might be discouraged by ice-choked waterways and the seeming lack of wildlife other than penguins, be patient. On glistening ice floes, you may spot a Weddell seal. From dark, moody waters, a humpback whale may emerge. And in crystalline skies, a snow petrel may soar. Here, you glimpse life at its most wild and tenacious.
We’re extremely lucky today. Our travels to the cold places are likely to be comfortable—maybe even luxurious. I went to Antarctica by small cruise ship; and all the time I was there, I felt I needed to send silent apologies to Ernest Shackleton. My onboard, bountiful meals seemed like the illusions of a sorcerer: crisp salads, racks of lamb, mushroom-and-spinach gnocchi, excellent wines and death-by-chocolate parties.
Elk and elements
Down the road, perhaps I’ll find cold adventures too taxing. The fear of frostbite or falling might override the joy of elk and elements, silence and solitude. But for now, I’ll stay in this heavenly limbo: not as bold as my ice-skating, 12-year-old self; but not as sensible as we’re all bound to be, eventually. It’s not a bad place to be, between oblivious and wary. I like to think I’m enjoying the soon-to-be-gone cold on a heightened level: the wisdom, now, to see its present gifts and the perspective to appreciate the good memories it created.
For now, I’m looking forward to having another cold adventure sometime in 2020, for the romance of cold travel still holds for me. The cold places may be the last ones we have yet to modify.
I encourage you, too, to put your fears of the cold on ice. There is nothing so clean as a white, infinite landscape and nothing so deliciously desolate. The cold places are where the feeling of the world’s otherness—and something soon to be lost—is as intense as the bite of a West Thumb wind.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,