Setting off through the winter woods, I am wrapped like a Christmas package with seven layers of insulation between myself and the day. I'm wearing mittens an astronaut on the surface of the moon would envy. This is one of those ice-box cold, double-digit below-zero days and the snow has that super cold squeak.
The air is just absolutely metal cold, but the cool part is that it is radiantly sunny outside and windless, so there’s this blue sky and sun just cutting through these trees. I ski on and amazingly the winter woods aren’t entirely still.
Crossing a bridge over a mountain river, I can hear the stream rumble, down below blankets of snow and ice. And I’m not alone out here. While skiing across a frozen lake, I hear other voices.
A community in the frozen North Woods
"We’re just happy out here and we like being away from the crowds," Michelle says. "If it’s colder, it’s harder, it’s more brutal, we want to do it."
"It’s just what we do," Campbell agrees. "We like being out here. We like challenging ourselves a little bit and it’s beautiful on these cold days."
Here’s a thing I love. On days like this in the backcountry, there’s a lot of solitude, but there’s also a kind of community.
"I also have homemade chia coconut energy bars, you have to try it," says Helena Grant. It turns out she’s also visiting from Connecticut. This is her first time skiing a wilderness trail. I ask her if she was daunted to try it with the thermometer stuck at double-digits below zero.
"Oh I said 'hell yes' and actually this is something I’ve been hoping to do," Helena says. "My grandfather was in the 10th Mountain Division. He used to climb up Marcy for breakfast. I feel like I’m in my element, I just never had gotten here before."
What's the appeal? Hard to put into words
Her ski partner is Brantley Beach from Keene. He’s also grinning through a thick crust of ice in his beard. "It’s actually warmer once it all kind of freezes over, there’s this layer of warm air between the ice and my face," he says.
I know that sounds miserable, spending a day with ice plastered on your face. So I ask Helena to try to explain why this kind of outing appeals.
"This is bliss, you’re beyond all the cares of the world. And it almost brings tears to the eyes. And the sun. I mean you don’t feel like you’re in, what is it, I don’t even know what the temperature is. Negative twelve?"
"Probably around negative fifteen or twenty up in here," Brantley says.
"It doesn’t feel like," Helena says. "There’s no wind. There are little flecks of snow coming off the trees. I can’t even describe it it’s so beautiful."
A bath of sun and cold shadow
We go our separate ways and soon I’m back in solitude, skiing high in a mountain pass. It’s just this narrow fairy tale forest, thick with snow, the trees heavily laden.
Then the birch and hemlock give way, opening to one of the most dramatic views in the eastern U.S. Avalanche Lake, its surface frozen white, towering mountain walls on both sides.
The cliffs on both sides are locked in ice, with big long sheets of ice across the brown and black rock. The sun is just perched on the edge of the rock. I’m in a bath of sun but just a few feet to my left there’s cold shadow. I feel like I've found the heart of winter right here.