A lesson from Alaska

It is winter here in Williamstown, and nestled into the purple mountains, amid drifting piles of snow, the svelte naked trees rearing up on the hillsides, the wind blowing gently, I am glad to be at a school in the Northeast. This sentiment, however, does not seem to be a popular one. Or so it would seem given the loud litany of complaints I hear daily.

Variously, it is too cold, too slippery, or too snowy to make the “trek” from building to building, whether that means going home to go to bed, going to dinner, going to another party, going to get a car or going to a basketball game. People seem trapped by this season I find so beautiful.

This evasion, to me, seems self-defeating. As an Alaskan returning to Williamstown from a sub-zero cold snap, many will disregard my opinion off the bat. However, I am struck by the fact that those complaining seem the least likely to go outside. One obvious rebuttal would be that those who like the cold go out and enjoy it and that those who don’t stay in to avoid it. However, this circular reasoning does not effectively defeat the argument that if those complaining spent some time outside, their attitude about winter might be improved.

This phenomenon brings to mind phobia, a fascinating psychological disorder. Often, when people start to develop an aversion or fear – of cats, for example – they avoid the feared object. Because the feline-phobic constantly avoids cats, her unnatural fear cannot be mitigated by mundane experience. This, in turn, can increase the fear to a life-disrupting level. Were the cat-phobic to face her fear by first entering a room with a cat in it, then holding a kitten, then touching a cat, perhaps she would come to realize that cats will not harm her. This “exposure” therapy is widely used for specific phobias, and I think it could work for the less-than-enthusiastic-about-the-winter Williams student.

This is a playful comparison, of course. It is not abnormal to feel a natural aversion to weather that could kill you were you not properly dressed. However, it is truly unfortunate not to try to adapt oneself to the winter situation, especially here in Williamstown, where there are so many opportunities to enjoy the season.

Williams, with its youthful, energetic population, is the perfect place for the great social activities of winter, and if you come from a place without snow, you should not pass up these golden opportunities. Enhance the landscape by building a snowman or a snow sculpture. Go sledding with friends. Both Stone Hill, above the Clark, and Sheep Hill, between Bee Hill Road and Route 2, offer some intense yet relatively safe hills, and students can check out sleds from the Williams Outing Club (WOC) for the cost of a $10 membership. Challenge your friends or a rival entry or house to a snowball fight. Hold an outdoor fire and roast marshmallows and hot dogs. Upon returning indoors, you will appreciate the warmth of central heating all the more.

As a Nordic skier, however, my first winter impulse is to get out on the trails for a ski. The golf course is groomed for Nordic skiing, and skiers have broken trail in Hopkins Forest. Those interested in downhill skiing, telemark skiing or snowboarding can rent gear and hit the lifts at discounted student rates at Jiminy Peak or Mount Snow.

Many summer activities are also simple to do in the winter. The roads are fine for running (and it’s okay to wear more than the cross-country runners!) Also, many find walks and hikes are enjoyable in the quieter, more simplified winter landscape. The more adventurous can check out snowshoes from WOC and go on a backcountry exploration in Hopkins Forest.

By now, hopefully some of you are thinking, “This sounds fun.” However, that lingering question, “But what about the cold?” still remains. Despite my cold-climate homeland, I am rather reptilian in my thermoregulation, so I can relate to this concern. Here are the three simple tips that have kept me warm over the years, even in 20 below: dress warmly, keep moving and eat something.

Dressing warmly cannot be overemphasized. Avoid cotton when possible and wear lots of layers. Wear good winter footwear. Don’t hesitate to put on a headband and a hat. Always wear mittens or gloves. If it is windy, shield your face with a scarf. Also, keep moving. I was taught from a young age to jump up and down or do a dance if I was getting cold. Walking, running, skiing and moving large quantities of snow will all do the trick. Adjust your layers accordingly, as sweating will cool you off perhaps more than you wish it to. Finally, eat something. If you have an empty stomach, your body will have a harder time keeping you warm. Change once you get back inside, and kick back with some warm tea or hot chocolate.

I think that winter in the Berkshires is a magical time, but it would be hard to appreciate it simply by walking between buildings through the wind (this is often when I am the coldest). Get out, and enjoy it while it lasts!

Fiona Worcester ’09 is an art and psychology major from Anchorage, Alaska.