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Column: A youthful perspective of winter

“Let me ride, I got to feel free inside,” – Kevin Cronin

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MARQUETTE — On days like this, when I was growing up, with the whole countryside so soft and white, us kids rushed to get outside as soon as we could.

It never mattered how cold, wet or snowy it was, nobody wanted to go in the house, even when called for dinner. Unless you literally had frozen a body part, “going in” was certainly frowned upon.

More than once, I can remember being late back to grammar school after recess because “we didn’t hear the bell.”

At home, we’d play “King of the Hill” on the big snowbanks the city trucks had piled up on the corners of the little tree-lined intersections in our neighborhood. We’d play football and hockey on the street.

And we loved to ride “skimmers,” those plastic red toboggans with a pull rope at the front end. Of course, we knew where all the big hills were in our well-traveled part of this cold, little mining town.

Sometimes we’d whip downhill over ice-slicked sidewalks, making jumps over snow piles at the bottom. When we were younger, we’d be out off the side of the house back where dad had pushed all the snow from digging out the old car.

The hill wasn’t very steep, but after we “panked” it down with shovels, and by riding over it, we could go far enough to have plenty of fun.

Those earlier days remain some of the clearest times of childhood in my mind.

Through a frosty pane of sagging window glass, I see the neighbor kid sucking the wetness out of the end of his knitted mitten. There’s another boy biting and crunching the sharp end of an icicle that was picked, pristine from the edge of a low roof.

There’s someone else eating fresh snow off an outstretched, gloved hand, and me making snowballs of building an ice fort.

We were always warned by parents about the risk of being killed by the icicles falling from the second-story roof. Instead of getting out from underneath, we’d throw up snowballs at the icicles, trying to make them fall to the ground.

When one of those tremendous ice daggers – so thick, wide and long – would fall silently toward the earth, one of two things usually happened.

Either the icicle would pierce through the snow like a surgical knife coming to rest with only its broken tooth roots left exposed, or the icicle would shatter into dozens of pieces when it hit the ground.

That was the best.

That was what we wanted.

That was the coolest.

In those wintry days of yore, like today, it got dark at about 5 o’clock. But we never cared about that. We loved being outside in the dark. There was always light available from the streetlamps or a backyard light somebody’s parent had switched on.

I remember wiping out in my skimmer, laying in the cold snow looking up at the twinkling stars, feeling such peace in my heart and soul. We were little kids, just coming up in life, one baby snow-booted step at a time.

Recently, I was reading some old newspaper items about Christmastimes of the past. Some of those things reminded me of these winter times I’ve been writing about here.

In 1832, there was an advertisement in the Democratic Free Press of Detroit describing the “great variety of articles, suitable for Christmas presents, prepared by the ladies of St. Paul’s Church, to be sold at the Mansion House on Friday evening, the 21st instant.”

The sale was to begin at “early candlelight.” How cool and weird at the same time – no streetlights, not until two years after that.

In 1837, a Jefferson Avenue confectioner in Detriot advertised “sugar and other toys in great variety, suitable for Christmas and New Year children’s presents.”

Bagg, Barns & Co. described its gifts that year as a “large assortment of fancy articles … also China inkstands and sand boxes and drawing instruments.”

In retrospect, those days seem incredibly simple and sane.

Even during the “war to end all wars,” simplicity seemed readily available.

On Dec. 20, 1917, the State Journal in Keene, New Hampshire reported on the demise of a rat.

“James Hart purchased a toy armored car for his son’s Christmas tree and took it into the cellar, away from prying eyes, to try it out,” the paper reported. “He wound it up and it whizzed across the floor, crashing into and braining a large rat which was just emerging from a hole along the floor.”

I was making my rounds out in the yard not long ago when I discovered the tracks of a weasel just off the door to the old chicken coop. Like snowshoe hares, the fur of weasels turns white in the winter, except for a black spot at the tip of their tails, which is a defense mechanism.

If a predator dives for the black tip of the bobbing tail in the snow, it will likely miss the weasel’s body and the animal can escape.

I remembered that years ago I fed a woodpile weasel Thanksgiving turkey scraps when I lived in a house out along the big lake. I hope to set out some turkey for this new little visitor too.

Birdwatchers have begun taking part in the many Christmas bird counts conducted each year throughout North America. I wonder what the birds think when they encounter these curious humans with their huge binoculared eyes.

Do the birds know they are being counted, watched or at least observed? And if so, does it bother them, or do they welcome the attention?

The snows are so powdery soft, but deep, for the yearling deer who are often buried up to their necks as they’re headed for the apple trees. Woodpeckers are tapping out telegraphed messages across the flocked evergreens of the forest.

Wintertime limits the extent of places I can drive to but broadens the places I can see across the landscape and reach with the aid of snowshoes. It’s such a fabulous feeling to walk over the deep snow and not sink.

I never had snowshoes as a kid. I sank a lot back then.

I never had skis, a snowmobile or an ice-fishing shack.

But I had a backyard, a round, aluminum “flying saucer” and my beloved skimmer.

We had warm clothes and a warm house to go into at the end of the night and, often, warm cookies mom had baked. Knowing what I know now about how the world turns – and the haves and have nots – we were rich beyond our understanding.

Best of all, I had my imagination and a handful of neighborhood kids to play with, which was more than enough to sustain me over all those ice-box winters in the shadow of the old mine shafts, a block off the rim of the lake, five or six blocks up from downtown.

As I sit here thinking about all these things, the snow continues to drift down slowly past my window, the magic of Christmastime shimmering and reflecting out there in the blue ether, like tinsel or glitter.

Something tells me I have yet to take my last skimmer ride.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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