The Wonder of Winter

When you live in a ski town, winter is a particularly celebrated time of the year. There are many universal reasons to enjoy winter – hot chocolate, skiing, sledding, building snowmen, snowshoeing, decorating for Christmas, and eggnog (with rum, or without). It seems that every person, regardless of their love for winter — or lack of it — can find one thing about this season that is special to them.

For many of us, there is a long list of cold weather pleasures. Certainly, few can deny its inherent beauty. After a fresh snowfall, a thick, velvety blanket covers the ground, silencing the earth’s vibration beneath it. The purity, before any footsteps or paw prints etch their way across the great expanse of white canvas, is breathtaking. But no matter how much we embrace winter, there are always parts of the season that we’d like to trade. Fresh, local fruits and vegetables are scarce. Going to work in the morning means defrosting your car and scraping ice. Roads can be treacherous. And heating bills rise. So, in addition to the winter activities that are most broadly revered, I like to take comfort in the actual preparations. Preparing for a long, cold winter can become a tradition as enjoyable as cutting down the Christmas tree or baking holiday cookies.

This time of year I like to spend a few dollars on comfort items like fuzzy knit socks. And, if you’re frugal, Vermont’s multitude of consignment shops have an amazing selection of funky, knit socks, hats, gloves and scarves to keep you warm and cozy all winter long. Another fun — and healthy — winter tradition is signing up for a winter Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). Here in Vermont we enjoy an abundance of wonderful programs. CSA’s allow members to buy shares in a community farm for a relatively small fee. Local food can often be more expensive than store bought items which originate from anywhere across the globe. But many CSA’s are very competitively priced. Every Wednesday, we pick up a bounty of fresh local vegetables and other local products. The vegetables are grown in greenhouses all winter long. Winter vegetable CSA’s are heavy on root vegetables, such as turnips and rutabagas, and they have gotten my family to start eating things like beets, kohlrabi, kale, and Pac Choi on a regular basis. These more exotic items, in addition to fresh local bread, cheese, raw honey, buttermilk flour, and fresh eggs, are a wonderful surprise each week. We never know what we’re getting until we pick up our share. Winter CSA’s are a wonderful tradition that promote healthy eating and encourage experimenting with recipes and lesser known foods.

In the winter, I also like to reflect on my ancestors — 100 years ago, even 200 years ago or more — contemplating the preparations that they had to make to get ready for winter. Today, comforts are so commonplace that it is nearly impossible to imagine what our ancestors had to go through — hunkering down, sealing the house, stacking wood, and canning food. Although we still engage in many of these activities, they are almost always by choice rather than the necessity of years past. Before television — even before radio — when restaurants were not on every corner and cars didn’t exist to take you to them, people spent virtually all their time inside or on their own land. They spent evenings tucked away inside their homes, talking and playing games by candlelight. The sense of family during these months was so much greater than at any other time.

All of this togetherness and tradition can still be a part of our lives today. Let winter be a time of year when we enjoy the obvious snowy weather pastimes like skiing and sledding. But let it also be a time when we focus on nurturing our family, slowing down our lives, and quieting our minds…as the fallen snow quiets the ground beneath our feet.

Let it Snow!

Winter in the Mad River Valley. Nothing exemplifies this area better. And winter up here isn’t as patient as in other parts of the country. By late October, white mountain peaks create a dramatic backdrop to a landscape still peppered with shades of red and gold. The snow capped mountains make us anxious to hear the mechanical hum of ski lifts, and feel the crisp, cold air on our cheeks as our bodies are kept warm in layers of knit socks, long underwear and thick, down coats. Eventually we’ll retire to a cozy spot in front of a blazing fire, with our hands soothed by the warmth of a mug of a hot chocolate or our favorite drink. The early snows cannot keep these thoughts from entering our minds, but no need to worry. With the slopes in Vermont opening soon (some as early as November 3rd) this winter wonderland is only days away.

Color!

By Peter Oliver

Vermont. Fall. Foliage. Those three words converge with such symbiotic unity that they essentially become a consuming definition of life in the state in late September and early October. For all of Vermont’s fame as a state renowned for skiing and its powerful skiing economy, the busiest period for tourism is late summer and fall. Inns fill, camera shutters snap, and restaurants do a brisk business.
Of course it is tourism in a very different form than what consumes the winter months. Foliage tourism activity isn’t concentrated at ski areas. There are no lift lines. Instead, visitors fan out broadly, through the Mad River Valley and the rest of the state, in search of the best view — perhaps the single most vibrantly hued tree — that can take a person’s breath away.

That’s the simple part of the story. More complex are answers to a few basic questions. What exactly happens to bring on this magical transformation in the leaves of trees? Why? When? Why are some years more colorful than others? There are a few reliable scientific explanations, but, despite what naturalists or veteran Vermonters might try to tell you, the answers can be summed up as follows: Nobody really knows for sure.

A quick bit if chemistry class, then. Chlorophyll, the chemical that makes leaves appear green most of the summer, basically turns sunlight into food that gives trees the sustenance they need to grow and thrive when the weather is warm. But when sunlight intensity ebbs in the fall, the production of chlorophyll correspondingly diminishes. With that, other pigments in leaves, produced by such chemicals as carotenoids and anthocyanins, start emerging as reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples.

All of that is inevitable chemical certainty. Thereafter, variability and the annual foliage guessing game take over. Will this be a good year for foliage? When will the peak time arrive? Obviously, climatic circumstances, varying from one year to the next, play a role in answering those questions. Less variable, perhaps, are soil conditions and the basic genetics of any particular tree or any particular tree species. Even so, the same tree living in the same soil through similar weather conditions can draw from an entirely different palette from one year to the next. Go figure.

A prevailing theory is that the seasonal combination of a warm and wet spring, a more-or-less average summer, and a fall in which temperatures cool at night but don’t go below freezing produces the best foliage. But again, who really knows for sure?

Birch and poplar trees, which turn almost exclusively yellow, are somewhat more predictable, but with maples, anything can happen. A big part of the marvel of fall foliage is that it can leave human rationality in the lurch – much of what happens is brought on by natural mysteries that surpass mortal understanding.

That said, what can you do to experience the Mad River Valley’s foliage display at its glorious best? Step One is timing. There is no shortage of information, through various means of reporting, to stay up-to-date on prevailing foliage conditions on an almost minute-by-minute basis. Weather outlets, like the Weather Channel, follow foliage conditions with the unstinting fervency with which they follow hurricane activity. At least two web sites, foliagenetwork.com and yankeefoliage.com, do nothing but report on foliage conditions. A rule of thumb is that peak foliage usually comes in the first week in October, but it varies from year to year. Plan your travels accordingly.

Step Two is finding a sweet viewing spot. Every Valley resident or visitor no doubt has a favorite tree. But for a few choice spots, here goes: Along the Sugarbush golf course, the colors and the lay of the land on the 10th hole usually produce a particularly vibrant display. For a broader panorama, the seventh tee is the place to be. Nearby, ancient maples that line Golf Course Road and West Hill Road can provide an inspiring backdrop to an easy walk, run, or bike ride.

Several points on the Mad River Path near the river can be great, especially in the morning when mist is often rising off the water. The combination of cooler air and humidity near the river tends to accelerate the color transformation. Both Sugarbush and Mad River Glen offer lift rides on weekends through the foliage season, although keep in mind that above about 2,400 feet you leave the hardwood trees like maples and birches and enter the conifer zone, consisting mostly of spruces and hemlocks, where greens and browns persists into winter.

And every year, some tree somewhere seems to decide to become a peacock, bursting with a multiplicity of colors that shames its neighbors. It happens without discernable or explicable reason. That’s Vermont foliage at its best, where nature’s beauty and its unfathomable mysteries merge to such inspiring effect.