Embrace the Winter Blues… Traverse City Style

We got hit with around 18 more inches of snow in Traverse City last week, and winter storms battered the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions of the country over the weekend. After a slow start to the snowy season, winter is on everyone’s mind.

When we decided to move to Northern Michigan we knew that winter was going to become a more prominent and more present part of our lives. When we announced our move in the summer, second only to “What the hell?” was the question “What about all the snow?” I have to admit, while I was excited about the easy access to winter sports, I was still a bit apprehensive about the rough winters Up North.

The dark and cold months have taken more of a toll as I’ve grown older, and I’ve become more susceptible to the winter doldrums. The dark in particular. It’s hard to get up in the dark, then close the laptop for the day and…dark.

As a family, we really wanted to thrive, not just survive, during the winter months in Northern Michigan. I took it as a good sign that we all started getting antsy around Christmas when there wasn’t a speck of snow on the ground. We were ready to start using the new gear – snowshoes, new coats, snow pants, etc. – that we had spent a small fortune on. We didn’t have to wait long, however, as the snow started coming after the New Year, and has barely stopped.

And then everyone came out to play.

Traverse City residents do not let a little white stuff (okay, a lot) slow them down. This is not Washington, D.C. which snarled to a stop due to one inch of snowfall early last week, and has been in full-on panic mode since Saturday’s huge storm. In fact, many people in Traverse City seem to embrace winter as much as summer, and take the extreme weather in stride. The town heats up as the temps cool down.

The Psychology of Scandinavian Happiness

This phenomenon is not unique to Traverse City, of course. There are other “winter wonderland” towns around the world that remain active and vibrant in the snowy season. But why? What makes these towns get up and out while the rest of the world hunkers down?

Kari Leibowitz, a PhD student at Stanford University, visited a small city in Norway during winter to study the mental health of residents and found that their seasonal rates of depression were below average. She attributed their upbeat winter attitudes to three primary factors:

  • First, they get outside despite the cold. They snap on their skis, lace up their skates, and have fun.
  • Second, they avoid isolation and join together at community festivals and winter activities.
  • Third, they appreciate the majestic beauty of winter.

Jamie Kurtz, psychology professor at James Madison University, explains in this article that the Danish word “hygge” is critical to understanding Scandinavian happiness during winter.

There’s no direct English translation for hygge, but the word evokes both coziness and togetherness. “It’s not just cozy with a blanket and glass of wine,” …. “It’s also interpersonally cozy, so having a few friends with you talking about issues and things you care deeply about. Having some candles lit, maybe a nice warm drink in your hand. Feeling safe and content.”

Mindset, more than anything, is the key to Scandinavian’s happiness during winter. It’s no surprise, then, that so many Scandinavian countries rank so highly on the World Happiness Report. Instead of dreading winter, as many Americans do, they look forward to it. The sky may be dark and gloomy, but their moods and minds stay bright.

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.” – Edith Stillwell

This same perspective is pervasive in Traverse City, where winter is met with hopeful anticipation, not groans and grumbles.

Bundle Up and Get Out

Humor columnist Dave Barry once said, “The problem with winter sports is that – follow me closely here – they generally take place in winter.” I think we can all identify with that sentiment to some extent. Sure, it’s easy to curl up on the couch and binge on Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” for hours on end when it’s cold out. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s the right approach. That’s because a big part of beating the winter blues is getting outside and being active regardless of the weather.

There’s an old Scandinavian saying of uncertain origin that “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” With that in mind, our closets are starting to bulge with North Face and Arc’teryx gear. If you can keep your fingers and toes warm during winter, all else seems right in the world.

After a recent heavy Sunday snowfall I headed out to snowshoe at Hickory Meadows, one of the many beautiful trail systems on the outskirts of downtown. I was met by people of all ages on the trails cruising on fat tire bikes, gliding smoothly on cross country skis, and hiking with dogs in tow. Local ski hills buzz with skiers and snowboarders and ice rinks are filled with winter revelers.

This past Saturday – a beautiful, sunny day – Heather and I ventured out for the first time to the VASA Pathway for an afternoon hike. It features a number of groomed loops of varying distances (3K, 5K, 10K and 25K). It’s one of the most popular cross country skiing spots in town, evidenced by the nearly full parking lot that greeted us upon our arrival.

Even the lakefront path is busy with runners before sunrise on frigid mornings. There’s nothing like the crunch of snow underfoot and a jarring blast of arctic air to clear the head and set the mood for the day. Outdoor exercise is also one of the best ways to battle Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that affects 11 million Americans. Exercise, coupled with exposure to sunlight, is one of the best ways to overcome SAD during the winter.

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” – John Steinbeck

There’s no doubt that it’s hard to bundle up and head out in the frigid weather, especially if you’re trying to strap gear onto squirming kids as well. But it’s effort well-spent. There’s rarely regret from a winter adventure, and the heap of snow pants, boots and mittens in the mudroom after a couple of hours outside serves as a satisfying reminder that you’ve taken on winter and won.

Now go turn on Netflix and enjoy that IPA. You’ve earned it.

A Community that Celebrates Together, Stays Warm Together

Traverse City knows how to have a good time in the winter. One of the highlights of the season is the upcoming Microbrew and Music Festival, which will be held on February 13 in downtown Traverse City. It’s a daylong celebration of great beer and bands.

One of our favorite events is the Traverse City Winter Comedy Arts Festival. In the last couple of years we’ve seen hilarious stand-up comedy by Judd Apatow, Jeff Garlin and Susie Essman. Last year Bill Maher came to town. This year the Comedy Festival was pushed back to April 8-9. While that’s after Major League Baseball’s opening day, that doesn’t mean it’s spring everywhere. As event organizer Michael Moore notes, “After all, winter doesn’t end here until Memorial Day.”

There are also countless outdoor races, often combining two local favorite pastimes: winter sports and drinking. One of the biggest and most popular is the North American VASA Festival of Races taking place on February 12-14, featuring cross country ski and fat tire bike races, as well as Short’s Beer on tap and Cherry Republic snacks.

It’s easy to hibernate during winter and eat more, sleep more and interact with digital devices more than actual human beings. These are classic cabin fever symptoms. But in Traverse City, and other towns that embrace winter, spirits remain high in large part because members of the community come together and socialize, even when the winter weather gets rough. Whether it’s a snowshoe race through the forest, or a craft beer festival right downtown, there’s a camaraderie and kinship that is unmistakable when people brave the elements together.

The Majestic Beauty of Winter

There is a quiet beauty to winter in Traverse City. Even persistently grey skies produce soft, pastel-colored sunrises and sunsets. And there are few things as magical as when the sun breaks through after a winter storm to bring out the sparkle of a fresh coat of powder.

The dormant winter landscape is different, barren of the lush green of summer and rich hues of fall, but still majestic. It is calm, serene, unspoiled.

The absence of leaves makes birds, such as the woodpecker the kids and I observed while sledding a few weeks back, more visible. Tiny footprints reveal the presence of small animals who continue to scurry and forage above ground before seeking refuge burrowed deep in the relative warmth of a blanket of snow.

Winter is beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that it can make you forget it’s winter altogether.

From Norway to Northern Michigan, there seems to be a simple formula for flourishing during winter – stay active, stay social, and appreciate the beauty of the season. In other words, the cold, gloomy, dark days of winter are no match for a positive attitude and a six-pack of Dubious shared with friends after a day on the slopes. That’s how you take on winter and win…Traverse City style.


AdventuresJay Harrington