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Much is made in the general press about the travails of North Country folks who suffer from the malady known as “cabin fever.” This is not joke or a myth, but a very real disturbance essentially caused by spending too much time indoors. Everyone in the Northeast suffers from the effects of not enough sunlight in one way or another (from occasional melancholy to overwhelming depression). I’ve known people who spent the entire dark time of the year curled up in a fetal position in front of the wood stove literally dying for spring to arrive.
People seek counseling, buy artificial lights or just burrow into a corner and wait for longer days to brighten their lives, but if there’s any advantage to being an outdoors person it’s that we don’t even know what cabin fever is. The secret is that we get out there, soak up what sun there is, and thereby keep our psyches charged and ready for whatever winter throws at us.
Back in the 1970s, we were hit with some tremendous snowstorms, often one right after the other with more than a foot of snow falling each time. It got to the point where I had tunnels dug out from the house to the cars, and I’d shoveled so much snow off the roof (waist deep after one windy blizzard) that we couldn’t see out the windows. Darkness prevailed, night and day, and it was all I could do to keep a positive outlook when all was in shadow and gloom.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but all that snow forced me to go outside and deal with it, and so I’d spend the few bright hours of the day digging through drifts and chopping ice off the eaves. I actually enjoyed the work and the challenge, and felt pretty good about what I’d accomplished during the day. My wife, on the other hand, huddled by the stove and stared balefully out the frosted windows at me, wondering how in the world I could stand to be outside with all that cold and snow.
Our winters don’t seem to be has harsh anymore (heck, we barely get enough ice to fish through these days), but the dark days remain. I would not be the one to recommend that you go outdoors and work – that’s enough to depress anyone who already puts in a full 6-day week on the job – but if you feel yourself weighted down by the short days and just want to hide under the covers till spring, there are things you can do that will keep you busy, burn some calories and inject you with the full benefits of the winter sun’s meager rays.
I often talk about ice-fishing, rabbit hunting or predator hunting as excuses to get outdoors, but planning a simple walk down a plowed country road or taking a snowshoe trek to the hill beyond the hill can work, too. If you dress properly and bring along a Thermos of chocolate or tea, you can plan a short hike that will ensure an infusion of healthy sunshine and brighten your mood at the same time.
What always surprises me about winter is that the first few steps out the door seem deathly cold and miserable, but, like children at recess, once you get out there doing something you almost don’t want to come back in. Get walking and you’ll warm up in a hurry, and once you start looking around and soaking up some of those healthful rays of sunshine, your mood will improve and your outlook will be as bright as the glittering snow.
The easiest way to beat cabin fever is plan a simple walk. “Make the loop” around your neighborhood, go down the road to the corner and back or maybe cut across country to a pond or stream you know about. Stop halfway for a little break, maybe have some tea or chocolate, and just observe the curiosities of the world around you. I’d all but guarantee that you’ll see chickadees, hare tracks and possibly the croak of a passing raven. You should see some downy or hairy woodpeckers working on a dead stuff or limb, and if you wander through a poplar grove you’re likely to flush a partridge or two.
These are small distractions to be sure, but they can save the day for someone whose emotional state is lower than the mud at the bottom of a pond. If you have any interest in nature at all (and you do or you have no business living in Maine), one sighting will lead to another and another, and soon your plan to be out for “just a few minutes” will turn into several hours or even all day. I have gone out planning to be gone long enough to check the mail, and ended up wandering through the alders or cedars to see where those big deer tracks might lead me. One winter I followed set of such tracks and, and hour or so later, came upon the carcass of a 12-point buck that had died it its sleep. The animal was gray and withered, its teeth worn down to nubs, but its rack was still thick and high – a real trophy that had eluded hunters for 7 or 8 years. I brought the sun-whitened antlers out of the woods and showed them to all the farmers and neighbors around me. No one had ever seen that deer, and he’d managed to live and die unscathed in the most heavily-hunted part of Maine.
I would not have found that deer if I hadn’t gotten myself off the sofa and into the woods for a winter hike. I’m sure I did not want to get up that day, and probably would have stayed indoors all weekend if some biological gyroscope hadn’t pulled me up and out of my doldrums. I could suffer the same ill effects of cabin fever as anyone else, but there’s something about the mysteries “out there” that force me to pull on my woollies and see what’s going on.
If you feel as if you have nothing to do, nothing sounds like fun and all you care about is the soft side of the sofa, you are on the verge of cabin fever and need to do something about it. Jump up, open the door and get outdoors right now – the cure is waiting out there for you, you can have all you want – and it’s free!
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