The Coolest Time of Year

Another year, another winter at Home for Life.As the country braces for another onslaught of cold and snow this week, it's business as usual at Home for Life. Our facility is spread out over several acres, so contending with winter weather has always been a fact of life at the sanctuary.  When we designed the sanctuary we wanted to give our animals, particularly our dogs, as much room as possible and the freedom to go in or out as they pleased. This sanctuary design  affords our animals the best quality of life possible, but makes winter a challenge for our staff who must spend a lot of time outside. Our buildings and townhouses are all heated but staff  must move among the buildings to feed and medicate the animals, to clean and to scoop the runs each day.     

There are positives about winter as we've noted in previous annual tributes to the season on our blog   here. One positive this year is that we're not located on the East coast, let alone Boston, where they're really getting walloped. Any year that we dodge that bullet and have a comparatively mild winter and a reasonable amount of snow is cause for relief and celebration.  Last year was our region's endless winter which commenced with a huge snow storm in early December, 2013 and continued, unabated with arctic temperatures and heavy snows until April, 2014.

 One memorable work day for me at Home for Life occurred in February: blizzard conditions were predicted and the staff on duty called in, nervous about the commute. I stepped up to cover the shift and found myself in the midst of a full on  ice storm, the snow propelled so strongly from the north that I couldn't see to move between the buildings and the townhouses. In no time, the drifts were nearly as high as my hips,  and  I kept sinking through the top of the snow cover to my waist. I was terrified I would miss one of our old or small dogs stuck outside and I couldn't see them in their runs because the snow was driven against the chain link creating a screen effect. Our brave overnight staff person made it to work and on time too. I asked her how the roads were; she told me I could  probably  make it home if I stayed on the main road. I decided to try to make it home. Mistake.  Just about the time I started off around 10 pm, the winds started up, blowing the snow that had fallen across the roads. I could not see 6 inches in front of me: the headlights on bright made it worse. Soon, the snow was blowing so fiercely, I realized I was in a full on blizzard, and the temperature started dropping. I crept along at about 20 miles an hour, and felt lucky to stay  on the road, which could barely be seen. In fact, I missed the exit for the interstate and ended up on a side road, and nearly stuck in a drift  and unable to see, surrounded by white whirling snow. That's the astounding thing about a blizzard- no headlights can penetrate it, and any person in the middle of it becomes completely disoriented in the white out, unable to establish any landmark( like the horizon- you're in the middle of a white snowball, unable to distinguish the ground from the sky)  or sense of direction to get out of it. I turned the car around and blasted out of the drift before the car was completely covered in snow, and although I wasn't sure of where I was, decided to retrace what I thought had been my route. Through the whirling snow I glimpsed the sign for 94 and found the exit- two tire tracks. The only other vehicles on the freeway were a couple of semis- also travelling about 20 mph. I somehow, finally made it home, my hair drenched with sweat from sheer terror and anxiety. I celebrated by watching the Men's Figure Skating Olympic Finals, relieved to be home and alive.

 The next morning, the company who plows Home for Life's roads had to shovel a path for our guard to get out because the snows were so high, up to her waist, that she couldn't get out of the building. We were  just grateful that all our animals were safe and warm, and that the worst thing we had to deal with was digging out of the heavy snows that had fallen. Here are some photos taken at the sanctuary the next morning after the blizzard: it's hard to believe it could look so beautiful after such a frightening night.

There's a beauty to winter that I wouldn't want to miss by fleeing to  a different region of the country, and it's exhilirating to bundle up and  to fearlessly get right out into it all instead  of  becoming like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," stir crazy from  six months of hibernation in an overheated house.  I've also learned that the cold is less intimidating  and hurts less if you're not afraid of it. Another story from the memorable winter of 2013/2014: working the pm shift( 4pm- 10 pm or later) I was running between the buildings, all of which are warmly heated to 70 degrees or higher for the animals' comfort. I had dressed for the cold with many layers, so it was warm for me in the buildings. and it felt refreshing to be outside to cool off. I didn't bother with a coat as I moved around, just had my fleece sweatshirt topper and a hat on. I  thought  it seemed a bit colder than "normal"  but didn't think much about it until I started my car so it could warm up before I left and the engine screamed in protest.  Puzzled. I  checked the car thermometer -and was shocked to see that it was - 26 below.This was the  air  temperature, not   the wind chill reading, which probably would have dropped it another 10 degrees at least. 


Whining doesn't make the winter go by any faster, and the great thing about the really cold or blustery winter days is the perspective they create: Oh, how we rejoice when it's above zero, let alone 20 or even  30 degrees! Winter is also a great way to cull employees and keep the riff raff out: do you love animals? Do you love them only in the summer when it's sunny and warm and you can wear shorts and work on your suntan? Or do you care about them enough to show up and  take care of them  even when it's - 10 and you have to be at work at 7 am to feed 100 dogs and scoop their runs or when it's sub zero degrees,  10 pm at night, and you have to do a final water check and run medications.  In the winter of 2014, I interviewed a candidate and figured: why sugarcoat it? So I had her out to Home for Life and walked her around. As I recall, that day was about 5 degrees. After showing her our facility, I asked her what she thought, and she said she loved it and hoped she could work there. What?! What about the cold and all the snow?, I asked. "Oh, this is nothing- I'm from Fargo," she stated.  HIRED!    

There's definitely a strategy to dressing for our winter weather. Executing the strategy successfully makes it possible to handle the conditions with aplomb, like a duck on the water- the weather literally just rolls right off. A hat, preferably with ear flaps, is a necessity and can actually make it seem 10- 15 degrees warmer. Dressing in layers, as mentioned above, is a huge help. I find thermal underwear, armour all or my downhill ski underwear is the forcefield that makes windchill something I can laugh off. Going into the warm buildings, our staff peel layers off to stay comfortable. On 30 degree days, having become conditioned to the cold and running between our heated buidlings and townhouses, the staff will often be only in turtle necks or t-shirts.  Waterproof, insulated boots  keep the wet and cold at bay- nothing is worse than cold feet and soaking wet socks. You can't possibly be warm at all if your feet are wet and cold. I don't wear a heavy winter coat  on any but  the very coldest days where the wind is really blowing- then a  coat that is like a heavy duty insulated windbreaker works the best, and some staff go for snow pants as well. Gloves are a matter of debate: I like to be able to work without anything on my hands if possible- it seems they just make it clumsy to handle leashes etc. If gloves or mittens must be used on the very coldest days I think thin woolen gloves are the best so I still have some dexterity with my hands to open gates, handle medications ,etc. I borrow a lot of ideas for dressing for work from skiing, and  a  snood or even a  balaclava (worn by troops on Himalayan mountain duty) does the trick, rolled up over the chin, nose and cheeks to take the edge off  on those days when the north wind is blowing so stongly that moving around in it causes pain similar to an " ice cream headache", that painful condition that occurs when you eat something cold too fast. 

  About this time of the year, winter has gone on so long it's difficult to remember the warmth  of summer, and that it will ever be green and sunny again.   And in the middle of summer, will we dread the advent of winter again or remember it's beauty and challenges and that as we made it through another year, we can do it again and wouldn't have it any other way. 

It's been wonderful to have the help of photographer Mark Luinenburg, who like our staff, doesn't fear winter, and is willing to come out and take photos year around. Below are his latest photos of Winter 2014 at Home for Life:  HERE