Cold facts: You’ll be warmer if you relax rather than resist

  • Author: Christine Cunningham
  • Updated: January 30, 2018
  • Published January 30, 2018

Christine Cunningham surveys the view while Cogswell does the same. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

My first realization that there is a positive side to cold came in the back of a fishing boat one rainy August morning.

We were silver fishing that day and left the dock well before sunrise. The clouds and rain obliterated the moonlight and sealed in the effect of the weather. My neck sunk as far into the cradle of my shoulders and shirt collar as it could. The hood on my rain jacket flapped over my head like a loose tent vestibule. My eyes focused on the floorboards, and my fists clenched around soggy chemical warmers that gave no heat.

The temperature was 40 degrees. But my reaction was similar to what gun experts call "felt recoil." Individuals perceive recoil in different ways — the term "felt recoil" distinguishes between what a person feels and a formula that takes into account bullet weight, bullet velocity and gun weight.

It didn't matter what the thermometer said or if another person might describe the morning's rain as a light drizzle while I reacted as though it was a biblical deluge. What mattered was how distracted I was by "felt cold." If I didn't stop reminding myself of it, there was a chance I'd miss the best part of the day staring at the bottom of the boat.

I lifted my head to look at the others on board. Was everyone as miserably cold?

Two others were huddled in the back of the boat like me — hunches in balls,  jacket collars up, backs to the wind. So far, my feelings of cold were justified.

Then I turned my head toward Steve, who gazed at the shore, coffee cup in un-gloved hand. The boat's captain stood at the helm facing the rain with a look of bemusement as he squinted through the rain and wind. I knew I needed to toughen myself.

My shoulders relaxed and a feeling of vitality overwhelmed me as my body stopped resisting the cold. The result was instantaneous. The weather had not changed, but my focus shifted from rain avoidance to dancing in the rain — almost.

An eagle perched in the trees and scanned the area below as we passed beneath him. When he dropped from a branch, with talons back and wings swimming through the sea of wet morning air, I gasped at the beauty of it. It was a spectacle I would have missed from my earlier half-fetal position inside my jacket.

I didn't shiver the rest of the morning. Rain poured into my eyes and down my neck. The reel, rod and floorboards were slick and, as we fought silver salmon, it felt like fisherman and fish were all part of the same water world. The weather was an integral part of the day's adventure.

The lesson stayed with me, and now whenever I brace myself from cold I remember to relax my muscles and take a calm breath. This shift in perception — from fear to indifference — has kept me happier and warmer in the cold. Panic is dangerous even in small doses. Being in tune with nature provides the opposite effect.

Getting cold is part of life for those who love the outdoors. Even when the temperature is above freezing, a long stalk or sitting for hours in a duck blind or glassing in the fall or winter brings inevitable cold. Mornings and nights are cold, even around a fire.

Since my first experience with frostbite and a more harrowing experience with hypothermia on a remote river in the western part of Alaska, I was interested in how to avoid succumbing to cold in any way possible, including breathing exercises and cold immersion practiced in a safe environment. I figured out ways to exercise, eat and dress that would — hopefully — defy thermodynamics.

Chemical hand warmers were my favorite go-to cold weather item. I had found ways to pad myself with them — tucking them in hidden pockets, between layers of clothing, at the bottom of my sleeping bag. But they don't work as well at high altitudes or in wet conditions. Another downside is they contribute to plastic waste headed for a landfill.

A thermos of coffee is worth its weight in warmth. Hot water as well as thermogenic foods — foods that include ginger, cayenne or chili pepper — are said to produce heat in the body. Spicy duck pepperoni sticks are my favorite snack when I know I'll be stationary for extended periods of time.

In Alaska, where remote destinations increase the adventure as well as the risk of outdoor pursuits, it's perhaps more critical to dress for multiple weather conditions, including rain. My favorite layering system includes merino base layers, a pile fabric, one or two stash-able thin down vests for a mid-layer and something to block wind or rain either as a dual-action mid-layer or outer shell.

Over the years, I've learned tricks from others on how to dress for warmth — double-soled boots and thin gloves inside oversized beaver-lined mittens tied around my neck so I can bring my hands out easily if I need to use them.

Last weekend, we snowshoed into the mountains after a fresh snowfall. The cold wind above treeline at first shut me down to the day's potential. Then I remembered to lift my chin, allow my eyes to adjust to the bright light and take in the fields that sparkled with snow. I felt more alive than any day spent in the office.

When you're getting to the heart of real cold — the kind experienced in a remote setting that is equally beautiful and dangerous — there's a warming rush of vitality that comes when you realize it does no good to fight the cold. And yet it doesn't mean that cold can't win. Cold environments are best when met with equal amounts of respect and love for the gift of cold.

Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifelong Alaskan and avid hunter. On alternate weeks, she writes about Alaska hunting and fishing. Contact her at cunningham@yogaforduckhunters.com.