Envy those who embrace winter - Keith Roulston editorial
As the snow floated down day after day last week, slowly accumulating to daunting depths, I had only the arrival of a flock of cardinals at the feeder for distraction and I began to envy all those people who really embrace outdoor winter activities.
News stories report a large number of Canadians want to escape the pandemic lockdown by becoming active in the outdoors. Apparently cross-country skis and snowshoes are as hard to find this winter as bicycles and kayaks were last summer. Even more impressive, given the vagaries of climate change and the expense involved, snowmobile dealers can’t keep up with demand. Apparently even cycling on the Goderich-to-Guelph Rail Trail (G2G) has remained active as people switch to fat-tire bicycles – which are also in high demand.
Sadly, I’m not among those in the rush to enjoy winter. I could use recent health issues as an excuse but that wouldn’t be honest. My outdoor activities have been declining for years.
A boyhood friend reminded me the other day that it wasn’t always so. When we were growing up we spent many long hours outside tobogganing down a big hill in our farm’s pasture field, skating on a pond in our meadow, tunneling in that era’s mammoth snow drifts or building snow forts – even though we lacked the sort of winter-friendly outer clothing that keeps people warm and dry today. That’s what kids did in those days before video games and hundreds of channels to choose from on TV.
Adults, not so much. A 1969 study commissioned by the National Advisory Council for Fitness and Amateur Sport found that the future of Canadian health was at risk from poor physical fitness and apathy on the part of Canadians. The study led to the founding of Participaction in 1971 to encourage adults to get active.
Guilt had been planted back in Centennial year, 1967, when ads on television compared Canadians’ lack of physical activity unfavourably to “Jackrabbit” Johannsen, a Norwegian immigrant who had introduced the idea of cross-country skiing to North Americans, and still skied miles each day at the age of 92.
Gradually the idea of being active filtered into the culture of the country over several decades. A good example is that in the 1970s, the idea of turning an old railway right-of-way or bridge into a trail like the G2G would have seemed to most people as something a bunch of hippies had dreamed up as they smoked pot around a campfire. Today, the trail attracts thousands to the area.
Not that we’re suddenly a fit nation. In 2019 nearly 36 per cent of Canadians over the age of 18 were overweight and nearly 28 per cent were obese. We rank well down the list of the 37 countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in terms of our fitness.
Look around and it’s easy to see the evidence. High-octane diets feed us lots of calories while inventors of new gadgets seem to aim at creating a world where we don’t even lift a finger, let alone get enough exercise to burn off the too-rich food we’ve eaten.
Things may get worse. Many kids shun the harsh conditions of outdoor games for the comfort of the couch and video games. There are still some kids who know the fun of winter games, as evidenced by pictures published nearly every week in The Citizen, but the lure of the zips and zaps of video games can make it hard for parents to get their kids to even try outdoor sports.
Climate change has played its part in discouraging winter sports. Earlier this year before winter made a late arrival, I heard of an unusually large number of families who tried to build backyard ice rinks but the temperatures weren’t consistently cold enough to maintain the ice. In recent years there have been some seasons when there wasn’t enough snow to keep snowmobile trails open.
Part of my own decline in winter activity can be chalked up to the changing weather patterns. I took up cross-country skiing after we moved to the country in the 1970s and kept it up for years whenever breaks in a busy schedule allowed. But in the last decade there would be long stretches when there wasn’t enough snow to cover the fields where I normally travelled and the skis collected dust in the basement. If we did get a late snowfall, it often seemed it wasn’t worth getting skis and boots out anymore.
But we need to celebrate those who make the effort, whether summer or winter, to get out and enjoy nature. That boyhood friend I mentioned ran marathons until he was into his 70s, before cutting back to cycling. He marked his 75th birthday last October by cycling 75 kilometres.
People like him and the hikers and bikers and skiers need to get our attention, and like “Jackrabbit” Johannsen, become examples for a new era of emphasis on fitness.