By Andrew Nelson, Hante & Outdoor Programs Manager
A couple of years ago, I spent New Year’s Eve camped with a couple of friends on the slopes of Blood Mountain in the Blue Ridge of North Georgia. We had grandiose ideas of welcoming 2020 with a warm campfire, cheery conversation, and maybe the sound of fireworks popping off in the nearby mountain towns. Well, some wet weather, a fierce 15 degree wind chill, and numb hands doused our chances of even a wet wood fire. Sorry, Nathan Roark—I’m still working on it. Wrapped in all layers and sleeping bags in our camp chairs, we were determined to celebrate the new year and each other in one of our favorite places and pressed on with stories from the past and ideas for the future. Around midnight, the popping of fireworks began (huzzah!), which quickly led to the sight of the colorful blasts over the dark valley directly in front of us. Amazed at our vantage point and good fortune, awareness of the cold turned to that of a truly magical moment.
The turning of the seasons affects all life; trees shed leaves, birds migrate, annuals die back, and many animals hibernate—humans too, in their own way. It’s a survival instinct to seek warmth and cozy naps to wait out the shorter days, though scientists are still debating the evolutionary roots of craving chai tea lattes. Regardless, we are uniquely adapted to experience the natural world in its sleepy state, from our ancient ability to (sometimes) build a fire to the modern marvel of the puffy jacket. I see this ability as an incredible opportunity for so many things. While many others bundle up indoors, trails are less crowded and more conducive to a serene walk through bare forests. The foliage that hides a view from the summit is now gone. If you look hard enough, you can find waterfalls that are iced over, as if frozen in time. And if you’re lucky enough to find snow, there’s something meditative about the sound of your own crunching footsteps beneath you.
Small moments aside, time spent in the cold outdoors truly offers endless benefits. I hope that it’s now household knowledge that it can be a boon for mental health, which can take a hit this time of year. The quiet solitude afforded by a hike can provide calm clarity on its own, and challenging yourself to climb a mountain or pick up a new winter sport can render a sense of accomplishment that lasts a very long time. Exploring and learning about the changes in the natural world can be equally rewarding, such as winter tree ID. Even playing games outdoors wins you some exercise while also fighting off the cold. Speaking of play—how about building a snow castle or sweat lodge for the whole family?
It’s also a hectic time of year for many, so below is a list of ideas for outdoor pursuits that includes some things that don’t require a trip away from home, but still offer all the same benefits. If you tick everything off the list, you can also go ahead and start planning spring or summer adventures. This may get you motivated to start preparing early.
- Winter tree ID
- Recommend: iNaturalist app
- Campfire or wet wood fire building
- Make a list of mountains you’d like to climb this season
- Register for a trail or road race
- Research what waterfalls may be nearby
- Go skiing! (This one is directed at me. I’m terrified.)
- Organize a neighborhood beautification project
- Volunteer with a local conservancy
- Camp in the backyard!
- Do a daily snow dance
- Picnic at a local park
Good luck this winter, and feel free to share your games and pursuits with Eagle’s Nest. Sometimes we need the inspiration to, too!