This is one girl who understands the restorative power of a good nap.
When she awakens in a few months, the skies will be a gentle blue, the ground will be lush and green, and even the air will smell fresh and new.
Mother Nature is the girl of which we speak, and she loves her annual winter nap.
But for Fort Dodge area residents, winter can be a real chore and a real pain in a place that shall remain nameless.
Our bodies go hidden under a mass of boots and mittens, scarves and cozy thermals close to the skin. Just getting to and from the car chills us to the bone.
“We don’t even encourage people to go out on a day like this,” says Karen Hansen, naturalist for the Webster County Conservation Department.
From the cozy comfort of her office at Kennedy Park, Hansen was looking out on one of this winter’s most brutal days. The day’s high temperature barely eked above zero, and the wind chills slammed into the body feeling like about 25 below — for anyone who did have to go outside.
Looking for a little outdoor fun this time of year can seem to be a daunting task. For those old enough to remember sledding at the Country Club hill or, in a show of really poor judgment — ice skating on the river — even the traditional recreational opportunities of winter have been largely lacking in this bitter and barren winter of 2014.
Sledders and snowmobilers are still hoping for some fun to come their way, but others just want to get through the cold until spring finally arrives.
Fortunately, winter fun lovers are always optimists. Anyone who enjoys testing one’s self against the elements has to be. Hansen, who grew up in the lush areas of the Des Moines River Valley in the southeast portion of Webster County, understands well the wonders that winter has in store — at least when the temperatures are a little more cooperative.
A graduate of the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in Natural History Interpretation, Hansen has served the last 20 years as naturalist in Webster County and enjoys helping people discover the wonders of the world around them — even when the weather seems less than wonderful.
While she encourages people to stay in when winter is at its worst, she still does encourage people to find those rare days when the weather is mild and Mother Nature’s beauty awaits just beyond the open door.
“When it’s just an average winter day, we still encourage people, from young folks on up, to get outside and enjoy it,” she says. “Cabin fever is a real issue, and being stuck inside — not getting enough sunlight and fresh air — gets people a little depressed. I think just making yourself get outside and do something really helps with that.”
To that end, Webster County Conservation attempts to sponsor a variety of outdoor activities. While the lack of snow cover in January forced the cancellation of several skiing and snowshoeing events, additional days will be scheduled in February, as conditions allow. Equipment is available for rent for private outings as conditions permit.
Twilight skiing has been one of the most popular outdoor events in recent years, according to Hansen.
“We start a little before dark, and then it gets darker the longer you’re out there, and that’s been really kind of popular,” she says.
Along with the twilight skiing, moonlight hikes, snowshoeing, and open skiing are hosted at Kennedy Park, Dolliver State Park, and Brushy Creek State Park as conditions allow. But even with a lack of snow cover, it’s still possible to get one’s “nature fix” this time of year, Hansen notes.
“If the skiing isn’t good, I still like to get out and go hiking,” she says.
Just because nature is taking a long winter’s nap, that doesn’t mean people have to slumber as well.
“Nature is kind of in hibernation mode, but when you’re out in the wintertime, what I like about it is you’re able to see the lay of the land a little bit differently — and maybe a little bit better than when there is complete foliage on the trees,” says Hansen. “When you go hiking in wooded areas this time of year, you really get to see a different view of things. And even though you’ve been there many times, you might see things that you’ve never saw before. That’s what I think is neat about it.”
Hansen is quick to caution, however, that a winter hike requires a little more preparation than a simple hike in the warmer months.
Starting with the proper footwear is key. Even though there is little snow or visible ice, the terrain can be slippery in the cold, and small ice shards coating the dormant grass can nearly trip up an intrepid photographer out trying to do her job. (Not that this writer was a little concerned hiking back up that hill beside the frozen lake! What was she thinking?)
But Hansen stresses that one need not hike the hills to experience a different lay of the land in wintertime. The low land areas at Dolliver Park, for example, are a great place to hike because you’re more likely to be out of the wind than on some of the more open areas.
“If you’re in a wooded area, and there’s not really a vista, you can still see the contours of the land that you’ve never really seen before,” Hansen says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be an awesome high point that’s a great vista.”
A walking stick — either a real stick, a simple piece of wood, or even hiking sticks available for purchase at some sporting goods stores — can also help make a winter hike a little easier and safer.
Bundling up, which seems to go without saying, doesn’t always seem to go without saying anymore. Dressing in layers provides added protection from the cold. An old adage of some outdoorsmen is that “Cotton kills, Wool saves.” A layer of wool next to the skin will wick away moisture as one sweats and keep you dry, critical to staving off a winter cold. Cotton, as comfortable as it is, get wet and stays wet — one of the worst things to be in the cold.
And perhaps the best way to stay safe on a long winter hike is to make it a group activity. There’s safety in numbers, especially when the winter winds blow.
“Be safe and be prepared,” Hansen says.
In today’s technology-driven world, too many folks — especially kids — rely on a cell phone as their survival guide. But when one goes exploring, especially in hilly, wooded areas, cell phones may not always be reliable.
“With our technology, we feel like we can always count on our cell phones to get us out of situations. And I’m trying to instill in students, and people in general, we still need to be prepared and use common sense,” she says. “We need to know a little bit about survival just in case we’re in that situation. I think that’s important.”
For parents struggling with kids addicted to technology, Hansen says a good way to bridge technology and nature is through geocaching. This high-tech form of a good old fashion game of hide and seek can be a great way to get families outdoors together. Through the use of GPS, families trek through the outdoor world to find a cache. There are numerous ones scattered throughout Fort Dodge and Webster County, and more information is readily available online through a variety of geocaching sites.
Fishing is another popular family activity that is still possible in the wintertime. Even in these very cold days, a few hearty ice fisherman have been spotted trekking to their ice shacks on Badger Lake at Kennedy Park.
Knowing the safety rules of ice is critical to anyone interested in the sport of ice fishing. One of the best ways to learn is to make friends with an experienced ice fisherman. Webster County Conservation also offers ice fishing clinics from time to time, and the Iowa DNR has a wealth of information available about staying safe on the ice.
Regardless of what one does outside, the restorative powers of this season of hibernation can be enormous.
“You just have a different level of peacefulness in the wintertime,” Hansen says. “Not just because there are fewer people out there, but the background noise is also different. You’re not going to hear the motorcycles, but if you’re down in the river valley, instead, you might hear the snowmobiles,” she says.
Most of all, simply getting outside can make this long season of winter a little shorter — and a little brighter.
“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter… In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.”
— John Burroughs,
The Snow Walker