The Keys to a Successful Hibernation

You know that point when the trees have lost their leaves and you’ve got Thanksgiving pumpkin pie and warm scarves on the mind? That magical time when the first snow fall is something to be waited for with bated breath? Yup, well that period came and went. Here in Minnesota we’re in the midst of the stay-inside-snuggled-up-with-hot-cocoa weather, and I’m about ready to explode. For the last three days it has been sub-zero, with the coldest temps dipping down to a frigid -16 degrees Fahrenheit. And that isn’t taking wind chill into account.

On top of my own pent up frustration is our 80 lb puppy’s excess of energy. She tore her CCL (equivalent to a human’s ACL) over Christmas vacation, and now at least one month of bed rest has been thrust upon her. That means no stairs, no gazelle-like leaping through field and stream, no jumping on any sorry sap who gets close enough… And let me tell you, snuggling up by a fire and sipping cocoa has NEVER sounded appealing to Chara. (One, she’s constantly hot. Two, depending on how gourmet our hot chocolate was, it could kill her). So in addition to my own cabin fever, I have to contend with that of my dog’s.

How do we keep ourselves entertained? Good question. If you have a dog, half your battle with winter boredom has already been won. If not, you may have to try a little harder to stop yourself from getting sucked into a world of television, sleep and darkness, but it can be done.

So, my tips for defeating cabin fever are as follows:

1. Make time to connect with the natural world one way or another.

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Hoar frost on the windowsill is a beautiful winter treat.

It may sound near impossible when time-till-frostbite is only like 20 minutes, but it can be done–even from inside. One of the best remedies I’ve found for the winter blues is getting up to watch the sunrise. Find a window in your house that faces East, turn off all the lights, and give yourself time to sip coffee and watch the sun come up. You can even turn it into a special occasion by getting up extra early to make a tasty breakfast and then lighting candles to eat it by.

On days when it’s warm enough to bundle up and sit out for a bit, find a spot in your area where you have a nice view. I did it every day for three months my Senior year of college, sometimes watching the sun come up over the lake out of the window of our house, and other times traipsing down to the dock with my dog so that we could immerse ourselves in dawn pastels. I began to be able to predict when there would be a particularly good sunrises, learned the best time to begin watching, and nearly leapt out of bed every morning to get that first peek out my window. And not only is it peaceful and beautiful, but during times when daylight hours are short, that daily dose of sun can help tide you over until spring.

There are other easy ways to connect with the natural world. Get involved in a winter sport, like snow shoeing or some variety of skiing. I often find that even one day a week where I spend a solid few hours in the woods can fend off feelings of depression and boredom. Snowshoeing in particular has become a winter solace for me and my boyfriend–slipping out the door at midnight for a moonlit trek both takes advantage of the long night and lets us see the woods in a different way.

If you have a dog, don’t skive off going for walks when the weather takes a turn for the worst. Instead bundle yourself up (depending on the temperatures, your pup might want to don boots and a jacket as well) and make sure you get a daily dose of fresh air. Even with Chara’s injury we go on three 10 minute long walks a day. That collective 30 minutes helps both of us release a little of the built up steam from sitting inside for so long.

2. Keep yourself busy

Make sure you have lots of different projects to engage yourself in during the long, dark nights. Not because it’s difficult to find entertainment–in the age of the internet, it’s incredibly easy to entertain yourself for hours on end. But a night spent sitting on Facebook or watching your favorite TV series or even reading dumb blog posts like this one about how to be successful at something, is unlikely to leave you feeling accomplished and good about yourself. Instead of letting the screen take over your life, set aside time to do other things. Learn how to knit and make yourself a blanket. Write a short story or novel. Practice that instrument you got for Christmas a few years back and haven’t picked up since. Learn a new language! One of me and Jordan’s favorite ways to spend long winter nights is to cook things together, and to listen to an audiobook while we do it. (We finished the Book Thief over dinner the other night and oh the tear-smudged smiles we shared…)

In my case, keeping myself busy also has a lot to do with keeping Chara busy. In order to successfully rehabilitate her, we have to keep her from bouncing off the walls. To do this, we play a variety of different games. One of my favorites is to “shape” different behaviors using clicker training. By using the sound of a click as a marker, I can pinpoint exactly what I like about her behavior and encourage her to replicate it, until she’ll do it on cue. The favorite of late is “tongue,” where you say it and she sticks it out. I’ll also take the time to work on her manners–doing activities like brushing her teeth, trimming her nails, and handling various parts of her body and rewarding her for good behavior.

We also do lots of scent games. Chara has an incredible nose, and absolutely adores getting to use it. Since we’d one day like to train her to be a search and rescue dog, we use this as time to fine tune strategy. We started her scent training by playing hide-and-seek with ourselves (you ask your dog to stay and then go hide in another room; once you’re hidden, release the pup so she can come find you), and with items like socks and treats. Once she had that down, we tried doing hide-and-go-seek around our entire apartment complex, traversing different surfaces (like concrete, grass and mulch) and hiding as far as a ten minute hunt away. Most dogs can’t jump straight to this level of tracking–it takes a lot more ground work before they understand the concept. But Chara appears to be a natural. So far she’s successfully located the subject in every one of our practice sessions. Now that long, outdoor searches are no longer possible, we are working on giving her the skills she’ll need to one day become a S&R dog, like indicating when she’s found the scent with a “woof” or other gesture, and teaching her to double back when she’s lost the scent. We’re also working on teaching her discrimination between scents, so that she understands which scent she should be following if another interesting one comes along. Much of Chara’s success with tracking comes from her desire to find the subject, which means meeting them first (because with this pup, once she’s met you, she loves you forever). It would be much more difficult to ask her to find a subject she had never met using a scent article to guide her, and will likely take much more training.

Scent training ramblings aside, pick your projects and stick to them! Whether it be training your dog to find people and things or writing a story, do what makes you feel good about yourself and do it regularly.

3. Give yourself things to look forward to

This one is key. Many people, myself included, feel that post-holiday gloom settle in once they get back from their travels and settle back into work. Defeat that gloom by making sure you have little things to set your sights on. Even if it’s something small–like a dinner out at a new place, a really great new recipe you want to try, or a movie night with all the works, having things on the calendar that you aren’t dreading is a great way to keep positive.

For me and Jordan, living in a small town in Minnesota can be pretty isolating. Our families both live a 20 hour drive away, and most of our friends are scattered across the East coast. It feels especially lonely when it isn’t nice enough for weekend trips out into the woods. We’ve gotten around that isolation by opening our door to any and every visitor we can get. So instead of dwelling on the long spans of time in which it’s just the two of us and the dog, we swindle and guilt-trip our families into visiting as best we can. And when you hook someone into coming, the pay off is potential months of having something to look forward to. My parents are going to come up in March, and the weekend I know we’ll spend with them shines like a beacon of hope in the depths of wintry despair.

The people around you can also help distract you from the weather outside. Our social circle here in Madelia consists of two people (both young women and Jordan’s coworkers). One, who happens to be our neighbor, noticed that our Christmas tree didn’t have a lot of ornaments. She suggested that we make some, and then pioneered Project Tree Decoration. We had a blast cutting, baking, and painting the ornaments, and we came away with a bunch of wonderful keepsakes to remember our fun by. Even small interactions, like getting to know the bartender at the local bar, or being recognized by the guy who owns the hardware store while grocery shopping, can makes the winter seem a little less cold.

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Chara races a sun dog–rainbowy spots that create a halo around the sun due to crystallization of the atmosphere on frigid days. This day was -18 degrees F.

The moral of the story? Winter can be a hard time, particularly when you live in a frigid wasteland of snow and cows, like we do. But if you’re careful to incorporate variety into your routine, work on things you care about, and keep up a positive attitude, you can come out of your winter hibernation with new skills, a clearer head, and better friendships than you started it with.

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