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Keeping cool about keeping warm

December 28, 2012
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Well, we lucked out and had a White Christmas after all, for which I give a big shout-out and mazel tov to The Great Spirit Manitou for his snowy gift.

But it wasn't a sure thing. In fact, only a few days before Christmas there was barely a flake of snow to be seen anywhere. Which, until the snow finally started to fall, had me in a foul mood, I'm here to tell you.

Winter without cold and snow isn't winter, as far as I'm concerned. Ultimately, it's easier on your car, your heating bills, your nose, your toes, and darn near everything else. But if I wanted it easier in the winter, I'd be living a lot closer to the Tropic of Cancer than to Hudson Bay. Thing is, I don't want it easier, because I don't want it warmer.

As a native Adirondacker, I figure I've spent half my life - about 395 full months - in winter. And a lot of that was in the old days when winters were real winters, running from November to April, with maybe a week's thaw in February, just to raise hell with the ice palace and the guys working on it. The point is, I am defined by cold.

To clarify: I love the cold. I just hate being cold. There's a vital difference between the two, and no matter how cold it is, there's no reason to suffer it.

I'm lucky. I learned how to be comfortable in the cold - the most brutal cold, in fact - by studying the masters.

Who were they? you ask.

The Paul Smith's College foresters, that's who.

When I first joined the PSC faculty in the early '70s, almost everyone on campus either taught forestry, studied forestry, or looked like they did.

Since the forestry students had all-day outdoor labs - regardless of weather - they knew how to stay warm in it. I'm not sure, but I think there was even one workshop all foresters had to attend that was devoted solely to what to wear in the woods in the winter.

Of course, there's no secret to it. You wear layers of wool - sometimes so many layers you'll look like the Michelin Man. You also need cold-weather boots - Sorels were always the weapon of choice - and a decent hat and gloves. But that's it, pure and simple.

There are all kinds of "miracle" fibers today that weren't available back then, but ultimately, none of them outperform wool. Saying they do is like saying a face mask outperforms a beard, which it does only if you're going to rob a bank.

I didn't learn how to dress from the stumpies by osmosis - I studied them. And I did it because I needed to: I drove nothing but old VW Beetles which never had any heat, so I was as warm IN the car as I would've been strapped to the roof. My warm clothes didn't just get me to class on time - they kept me alive!


Falsehoods about frost

So that's the gig: You dress right for the Adirondack winter, and you can enjoy its splendors in perfect comfort. But there's something else about the Adirondack winter I wish people would do for MY comfort, and that is know what they're talking about when they soliloquize about cold weather.

All too often I hear complete fallacies about the cold weather stated as if they were timeless truths. The people who believe these absurdities are mostly flatlanders, so, generous lad that I am, I can forgive them their ignorance. And as an additional sign of my generosity, I'm devoting the rest of this column to clarifying some of these misconceptions.

Fallacy 1: Wearing a hat in cold weather is important because you lose 60 percent or 80 percent (or maybe it's 40 percent) of your body heat through your head.

First, because the estimates range wildly, it should be the first sign people don't know what they're talking about.

Second, if you just think about it, why would your head lose more heat than your torso, which is so much bigger and contains so much more blood and so many more vital organs?

And third, scientific studies have been done on this (as they have on everything, including digestive disturbances among the Botswana fruit bat). And the conclusion? You lose no more than 10 percent body heat through the old bean.

Fallacy 2: The Adirondacks are easier to deal with in the winter than most other areas, because even though the temperatures are cold, they're a DRY cold. In areas where it's damp, like Boston or Long Island or New York City, it's much more uncomfortable at warmer temperatures than it is here at colder ones. I've even heard people say because of our dry cold, it's easier to deal with minus 20 here than 20 above in New York City.

It's a great theory, but that's all it is. Generally, Saranac Lake has much higher humidity than New York City, Boston: Portland, Maine - all sorts of places. I don't know why that is - I've heard it's because of all the lakes, and the forests that hold in the moisture. But I do know it's true. No matter what anyone says, we have some very, very damp winter weather.

And if anyone thinks 20 above, anywhere, is easier to deal with then 20 below, they need to have their thermostats examined as well as their heads.

Fallacy 3: Once it hits minus 20, if it gets any colder you don't notice it.

I read an article that documented how, not only did it get worse below minus 20, but each degree got a lot worse than the one above it.

Of course I didn't need to read anything about it. The coldest I've been in is minus 30, and I can tell you unequivocally that while it didn't make minus 20 seem balmy, it did make me wish the mercury would suddenly rise those precious 10 degrees.

There's an old expression, "Fortune favors the bold." It's not just old - it's actually ancient, first noted in a second century B.C. Roman play. The "Fortune" referred to here is Fortuna, the goddess of luck.

It's great advice, I guess if you were an ancient Roman, clad in toga or tunic, with laurel wreath on head and sandals on feet, basking in the Mediterranean sunshine. But it's not something I'd tell anyone wintering over in the Adirondacks.

Uh-uh. To those peeps I'd say be smart, not bold: Before you venture into the Adirondack woods in winter, if you want to have a good time, be sure you have good gear - and enough of it.

And if she ever came here for Winter Carnival, it's the same thing I'd tell Fortuna, too.



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