For our final batch of staff stories on getting through the winter… It’s still technically winter. And yet, things are changing. The weather is easing up. The days are getting longer. Even as winter lingers, its grip loosens. In these last hours of winter we turn to our local experts–Matthaei-Nichols staff–for their tips and tricks for transcending the season.
Collected and edited by Katie Stannard
What Iceland taught me
We went to Iceland because of an airfare sale–why else would we go to Iceland in January?! But there was so much to do in the winter season. It snowed every single day, it was cold and windy every single day. We realized that at home, we don’t go outside for extended periods of time, but we did when traveling–we learned it’s totally possible to do things outdoors in the winter. But you have to prepare so it’s not an uncomfortable experience, and accept that you’re going to be cold and that it won’t be forever and that you’ll warm up. We realized that we were going to be spending time in this very harsh landscape, this landscape that wanted to kill you, how were you going to do this? We’d go into a coffee shop and warm up, sit by the fire, chat with locals–experience hygge.
The unique thing about being so far north–only 4 hours of daylight!–we learned to appreciate how people did go about their lives. People would put up twinkle lights and leave them up throughout the whole winter; in homes people had plenty of lights on and candles lit and fires set–seeing how people deal with the limited daylight was a great lesson. We also didn’t feel bad about when it got dark and we were tired so we slept. I know that’s not feasible every day, but it was something we’ve kept with us–that it’s important to find those rhythms and follow them–like staying up late in summer or cozying up in the winter. Some have trouble in the winter with less light–our trip was a reminder that life doesn’t stop just because it’s winter–that we don’t have to be inside, that we can go outside and explore and experience. We’re going to go back every couple of years.
We stayed in Reykjavik during the trip and went up onto one of the major glaciers. We went snowmobiling, ice caving, on a night hike, and hiked the glacier. It felt like you were in the North Pole. There was only a half-mile visibility on the glacier, providing the sense that this expansive glacier would never end.
—Meredith Olson, director of development
Iceland vista by dconvertini; red-winged blackbird photo by John Metzler.
The dog must walk
Need a push to get outside in the winter? Adopt a husky mix who demands walks despite the chilly weather–the colder the better for her! Molly makes it easy for us to get outside in the winter because she truly requires daily walks to burn off her energy. Overall, it’s good for her and for us and we enjoy it once we bundle up. Whether it’s a walk around the neighborhood or to a local nature area–such as Nichols Arboretum–we enjoy the different sights that winter brings to the outdoors.
Note: Leashed dogs are welcome at Nichols Arboretum. Please stay on trails. No dogs at Matthaei except on main drive. Thank you!
—Christine Chessler-Stull, volunteer & membership coordinator
Photo by Susanne Nilsson.
Read our stories posted prior to March 5, 2021:
A lot of times when we go for a walk in the winter we can hear a great horned owl—very cool. We have a number of bird feeders and there’s a lot of activity on them in the winter. We’ve had two screech owl nest boxes for 10 years and quite often will see a screech owl in the dark—right at dusk they poke their heads out. During the lockdown last March, almost every day we saw the screech owl looking out, sunning itself. We do a lot of birding and keep track of what’s around at certain times of the year. When migrating birds go south, more northern birds appear that don’t show up until winter; then lots of spring migrating birds.
Good gear and 4-legged friends
When you grow up and have to shovel and make the commute in the snow—it’s not quite as magical and more of a nuisance! But my No. 1 thing about getting outdoors is having the right gear, testing things out and deciding what works best for your needs. Really having the right gear helps motivate you to get out there. I’ve settled on comfortable hiking boots and skiing mittens to keep my hands warm. To be honest, my dogs are my main motivation to get out in every type of adverse weather and they’re well-suited to the elements! Labradors have a double coat: a downy undercoat and water-resistant top coat. They’ll wander around for a while but I need to keep moving!
Just try 10 minutes
When I was a kid I explored the icebergs on Lake Michigan, went winter camping in college, and did a lot of snowshoeing, skiing, and snowmobiling. When a big blizzard was coming in, I would go with friends, put on goggles, and feel the power of the storm at the beach. It’s just about an attitude is really how it starts. It’s that feeling like everyone’s had about being on the edge of a pool or diving board—to jump in. Once you have that and the eagerness and desire, then you can find the right gear. Saying something like “I’m just gonna get myself bundled up and be outside for 10 minutes” will do it. Americans are sometimes kind of over the top; just to go for a bike ride doesn’t have to be like preparing for the Tour de France!
—Jeff Plakke, Field Services Manager
The reward of being alive
I thought about this concept when I was a personal trainer: with regard to exercise, it’s almost like people thought of it as a kind of punishment they had to endure to get to the results they wanted. I want to encourage people to change their attitude about this. It’s a gift that you have a healthy body and enjoy it, not punishing yourself for the sins of eating too much or whatever. Think of outdoor exercise as not just something you have to do but part of the reward of being alive and being a healthy living being: you can lift a weight or run down a trail–and not everyone can do that. Once people get past that attitude part it’s so much easier to enjoy nature.
—Jeff Plakke, Field Services Manager
The sounds and smells of winter
Take a few moments outside to notice the small sensory details of winter. The smell of winter is like the taste of a great glass of spring water, pure, clean, fresh, a kind of absence, almost. The sound of winter is often beautiful silence, especially after a snow. No birds singing, and every so often the sound of a plow or a plane overhead or a car punctuates the air. It’s the kind of silence we sometimes wish for after a busy day of meetings and talking to people, or the never-ending internal conversations in our heads.
—Joe Mooney, Marketing & Communications Lead
Just a few minutes
Don’t overthink it, doesn’t have to be a long distance or for a long hike, just a few minutes outside counts. It’s easy to get stuck in the downward spiral of “it’s too cold, it’s too cloudy,” but a few minutes of being outside is so worth it.
—Doug Conley, Garden Coordinator
The biggest thing in my opinion besides hat, gloves, coat and footwear that helps you stay dry is just to move. Outdoor activities in the winter are best done with movement, walking or something that keeps you moving. Unless you have built a fire outdoors, it’s hard to do that with congregating and being still! Walk, hike, sled–do something that has movement and allows you to explore and be curious.
—Jeremy Moghtader, Campus Farm Manager
Walking in winter
I like walking outside on gray misty days, or walking on a treadmill, or sneaking outside with our aging dogs to go for a walk! But it also helps to have good gear of course. And sunshine. I don’t mind cold temps if the sun is out
—Catriona Mortell-Windecker, University Services Outreach and Interpretation
There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes
That old adage reminds me of when I was a kid in Minnesota. We would go out for recess on even the coldest, snowiest days. Of course, if you forgot your snowsuit, you had to sit in the library and write a paper. I had recently moved from Virginia and it took a bit before my mom saved up enough money to buy my sister and I secondhand snowsuits. I wrote a lot of papers, haha. One huge difference between Michigan and Minnesota is that good-quality warm clothes are harder to come by here. In Minnesota, they’re everywhere and widely available secondhand.
—Alexis Ford, Events Coordinator
Ski, hike, walk
I like going skiing–cross-country or downhill–I really love downhill skiing! Though It’s not as accessible to everyone as cross country skiing is, I like that it’s a great workout. You can also hike–there are trails at lots of places. I just love the snow–it’s so beautiful to be walking in it. Bunny hills are generally cheap at ski resorts!
—Kayla Wanous, Horticulture Technician
I like to walk the trails more during the winter when they’re covered in snow–because the crunching on the snow is always good! With a hat, gloves, boots–just getting out and doing it. It always feels good to come back inside!
—Michele Walthall, Rentals Coordinator
Anytime is a great time to be outside
Layers are a necessity in the winter! I love wick-away material–doesn’t just keep you cool in summer but it draws moisture away so you’re not feeling as cold. When you’re outside working, you find that you get warmed up anyway. If you’re outside exploring, hiking, or simply and you’re interested enough in what you are doing, the cold is ok. It’s kind of like when you stick your toe in water, it just takes the adjustment. Anytime is a great time to be outside. Cover your ears and wear socks!
Winter pruning is great!
I also like to work on pruning. Pruning trees provides structure: looking at the shape of the tree, removing or not removing the branch, looking at its structure and form in the landscape. When I see an oak or maple tree without leaves and can look at the shape of the tree, or when spotting a white pine–I enjoy seeing those things, getting fresh air and keep moving.
Walking Helps You Notice New Things
Just get out there and try it! When going outside for walks I’ve found that the cold air is always exhilarating. There are trails in the woods near our house, and my daughter and I have been walking them for the last nine months, noticing things that we didn’t notice on the previous walk. Sometimes the offbeat times are the best for spotting new things. I’ll sneak outside at different times and try to see a sunset one day or a sunrise another day.
—Michele Walthall, Rental Coordinator
We’re Outside Animals
Sometimes I try to remind myself that people are outside animals. Yes, as humans we’ve always taken shelter from the outdoors, but we really are supposed to be outside. That sometimes motivates me to go out. I listened to a podcast which talked about the chemicals that trees release which boost your mood–so if being in the woods for 20 minutes means I can get this, I’ll do it. It’s also simply a natural thing for people to be outside and we should honor that.
It also helps to have a task to motivate me to get outside. Having a 7-year-old helps—I have to go outside. I don’t like putting on layers but I do feel better after going outside, so it’s worth it. I don’t think you need expensive gear, but a coat that covers you and boots—whatever you have that you can layer on—it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re warm. Quilted overalls are great if you can afford them; they’re so warm.
—Carmen Leskoviansky, Collections Specialist
Winter sunset by Michael Mueller.
More than Shoveling
My recommendation is to do something fun outside in the winter instead of just shoveling snow. Build a fort, build a snowman, find ways to explore and have fun!
—-Andy Traugh, Visitor Engagement Manager
Need to Be Outdoors
For me, a big part of going outside in the winter is coming to recognize my need for outdoor activity. Shoveling is rewarding to me because it’s sort of a form of weeding. Walks get cleared, it’s physical, and meditative. We sometimes get stuck in this notion of having to use time to be uber-productive. But I might sometimes shovel a walk that doesn’t need it as much, just for the experience of doing that one concrete task.
—Doug Conley, Garden Manager
Snowman photo by Maggie Stephens.
A Few of Our Favorite Winter Things
What do I need in the winter? Merino wool socks! I also love having a task to do to get me outside and I’ve also been taking vitamin D the last several winters. We’ve chosen to live in walkable areas, so we try to walk to all of our entertainment in the winter–but still have to psych up! Winter walking in the snow is beautiful–at night it’s bright, light, glowing. Other favorite winter things: bonfires, quilted overalls, snow pants, “winter beverages,” leggings—the legging industry has transformed the opportunities to be outside!
I remember when growing up–we didn’t have fancy gear but used bread bags and newspaper bags over our socks inside our boots!
—Lee Smith Bravender, Visitor Engagement, Gaffield Children’s Garden
Winter bonfire photo by mthoodterritory.com.