How to Beat Cabin Fever:
New England Bracer
Words & Photos by Tricia Cronin
Winslow Homer survived harsh Maine winters by concocting a daily alcoholic beverage he called a New England Bracer. My non-alcoholic version is a mixture of mindset, activities, and community.
Sometimes our picturesque New England towns are difficult to enjoy through the dull gray filter of January, February, and March. This is especially true during warmer winters when we don’t have exciting storm clouds and sunlight bouncing off snow. To counteract those lustreless days I have trained myself to appreciate sunlight when we do have it. A winter sunrise can be pink and clear and I absorb that light and appreciate it. For years I’ve trained myself to notice the winter light because it is both beautiful and finite. Cultivating and practicing this mindset of enjoying winter light has carried me through some very unpleasant winter moments. One morning I awoke to dripping in my bedroom and knew an ice dam needed to be cleared. I waited until dawn to go outside and climb the ladder and, much to my surprise, I was smiling. I was on the top rung of a ladder in single degree weather, physically and mentally exhausted from the second blizzard and all its problems, and yet I was happy. I was experiencing great joy from the colors in the sky and the silence in the neighborhood — this was an exquisite sunrise and I was grateful to experience it from a rooftop!
I have found that the key to surviving winters in New England is simple: get outside. I first learned how to manage winter when I was in high school and my older brothers, restless from a long college break, would often insist I join them on their hikes. We left our parents’ driveway and headed up the road. About a half-mile away, we passed a farm with a three-legged dog and a horse with one eye. This is where we entered the trail to what we thought of as our own version of Walden Pond. We journeyed through a beautiful stand of old pine trees and walked another mile or so down to our favorite rock. Our conversations always intensified the further we hiked — moving from mundane problems to more overarching life questions as we journeyed deeper into the woods. When we arrived at our rock overlooking the frozen pond we would become silent. We’d reach into our pockets and remove our simple picnic of two clementines and Hershey’s Kisses. We’d talk a bit more, toss a stone across the ice and listen until we grew too chilly from sitting on the cold rock. These walks, once something my brothers pressured me to do, transformed my winter days and became a ritual that I continue to practice today.
Now, my husband and I often take our two kids on hikes in the woods. In the snow we have great fun identifying animal tracks — one time we saw a hibernating frog in a frozen puddle — and we always take it slow and notice how the sunlight and clouds look so different in the forest. We get out of the house and walk regardless of the temperature, rain or snow. But it’s been a process. On more than one occasion when our daughter was younger she would insist on wearing fancy party shoes when setting out for a hike. We would leave the house anyway, only to turn around a quarter of the way into the walk because, not surprisingly, she was too cold to continue. Our son too sometimes slows us down extensively as he must investigate every stick in the entire forest. They have become better hikers with age and we’ve made it deeper into the conservation land near our house. During winter break this year we enjoyed several walks. One day when we arrived at a pond our daughter asked if we could sit down on a rock for a picnic. I responded that it was a great idea but I hadn’t brought any food and she smirked then put her hands in her pockets and pulled out clementines and Hershey’s Kisses. She’s on her way to flourishing in New England winters!
Learning a new winter sport, or revisiting a childhood favorite, might just transform your winter so much that you dread the arrival of spring! Two years ago I learned to cross country ski and it changed my daily relationship with snow. Ski trips sustained me through my twenties and thirties but family life took over and suddenly a long car ride to an expensive mountain became significantly less desirable. As a result, my relationship to snow became all work and no play. The winter I tried cross country skiing I found renewed joy in snow! After I dropped my son off at preschool I would head out to some nearby conservation land and ski, following other people’s tracks. Being outside in adulthood winters usually means shoveling or deicing and now I was actually enjoying the snow and getting a workout! Instead of deciding if I should shovel or roof rake I got to ask myself: should I follow the cow path or the one of the other trails. Cross country skiing is interesting in that each time I do it, even on the same trails, it feels like a new experience because of the different conditions. Sports like cross country skiing and ice skating are great to try as they have a low commitment level. You can pick up equipment at a used sports store, both sports have lots of public access points and neither require expensive lessons or specific athletic prowess. I’m often awed by the number of senior citizens I see on the trails, grinning broadly, as they head straight into winter winds. I’m even sometimes frustrated when I can’t keep up with skiers who are in their seventies or eighties! This winter I picked up some used skis for my kids and we’ve been enjoying games of cross country ski tag in the yard. Even when we don’t have much snow we can ski in the yard on just a few inches. We’re able to pop on the skis and enjoy the best before and after school activity in our own yard!
Meeting up with people is a key component to the New England Bracer. But for many of us it’s also the most difficult thing to do. After all, there are so many reasons to just stay at home. Not wanting to go out when it’s cold and slippery is very logical. Also, so many of us, despite our best efforts, succumb to the winter blues. The true hero of New England winters is the social planner. If you’re very lucky you’ve got one in your group of friends. For years, a college friend planned an annual ski trip for the first weekend in March. March is for me the hardest of all winter months, when snow sports are less likely, and your life experience in New England reminds you to NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT spring yet. That annual trip got us all together and refreshed our spirits so we could make it through until spring actually arrived! I’ve also been fortunate to have a dear friend who, when she first moved to Massachusetts, suffered through a long snowy winter in which she declared, “No one seems to get out of the house here in winter!” Each winter thereafter she made it a mission to call us persistently until we’d agree to leave our houses and meet for coffee. We’d gather in her kitchen and jockey for space around her warm Aga stove while making each other laugh-cry with our stories. I am grateful for these social planners who force me to socialize in winter! I’ve even started to adopt their strategies and I’m constantly inviting friends and acquaintances to join me for winter hikes or cross country skiing.
Winslow Homer was prepared for the elements and his New England Bracer carried him through many long Maine winters. I’m so fortunate to have concocted my own version so that I am able not only to survive winters but to actually enjoy them!