Russ Allen: Tips For Surviving Winter

Many Cape Codders say there is no spring season here. Others complain about the crowds and traffic during the summer. Autumn often ends up too hectic with holiday season activities. For me, the hardest of all is winter, especially the three months of January, February, and March.

Like many retirees, I knew little about winter on Cape Cod, having spent most of my visits enjoying summer or fall vacations. A few years before moving here permanently in 2006, the Cape had so much snow that it was an item on the news in Connecticut; yet my first year here barely a flake hit the ground. Little did I know what future winters would bring.

Full disclosure: Much of Cape Cod, at least east of Dennis, closes down for the winter. Especially facilities focused on tourist/vacation housing, meals, recreation and entertainment. However, I was not fully aware of that reality until one January when I “treated” my wife for her birthday to a day in Provincetown, only to find one store open on Commercial Street.

Further, since so many houses in Harwich are either vacation or second homes, a large number of them are empty during the winter. Add to that the residences abandoned by Snow Birds for points south, and one need no longer worry about the huge crowds or traffic jams of summer. One year before we retired my wife and I came to the Cape for Valentine’s Weekend. As we drove down normally busy Main Street in Chatham we were surprised to find it virtually abandoned except for the few cars near the Squire.

However, the aspect of winter on Cape Cod that most makes it a difficult season is its darkness. After all the house, store, and building lights that brighten the holiday season are turned off and removed, it seems as if Harwich is cast into darkness until, toward late March, the days become longer and the world brighter.

In the past, rather than heading for warmer climates in the winter, my wife and I went north to Jackson, N.H., to cross-country ski. While limited opportunities for that sport are available in Harwich, the Cape’s winter weather is an iffy matter. Over the past 11 years, we have seen virtually no snow to what amounted to a six-week intermittent storm. The natural beauty of the Lower Cape can be emphasized by the snow on trees following a storm, but travel can also be hazardous due to intersections blocked by snow banks. When we lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, winter weather was predictable – the first snow of October was still on the ground in May. On the Cape it is at best unpredictable.

Residents who have the regular routine of school or employment may have an advantage over retirees in dealing with the Cape’s winter. Summer recreational and other activities are unavailable, and winter ones are limited. Occasional day or weekend trips off-Cape to Boston, Providence, the casinos, or New York City can offer escapes from the cabin fever of winter, as do participation in the limited educational and cultural resources that do continue when so much else is closed.

Both my wife and I are active with organizations and groups that meet all year and focus on topics of interest to us, in my wife’s case flowers and embroidery and for me journalism, advocacy and activism. They get us out of the house on a regular basis and keep us connected with others with similar interests. Nevertheless, at times I have a need to ask: “How do I enjoy winter on Cape Cod?”

By choosing a project on which I can work on from time to time, especially after dark or during storms when I am homebound, such as developing my family tree.

By setting up on the family dining room table a multi-piece jigsaw puzzle, one that is challenging yet in the end solvable.

As a writer, by devoting time each day to work on my historical fiction novel.

Especially toward late February or early March, by making plans for the changes and improvements my wife and I want to make to our gardens in the spring.

It is understandable, and sad, that so much of Cape Cod closes down during the winter and so many of its residents leave their communities. It is cold here. There can be snowstorms that make it hard to get around. Many activities associated with a summer resort area such as the Cape are not available or viable in the winter. However, frozen ponds are usable for ice skating, the Cape Cod Rail Trail can become a cross-country ski venue, many beaches and other areas are still open for hiking, sporting, cultural and educational events are regularly held, and the Cape has a unique beauty even in winter.

Spending all year in residence on Cape Cod can give its residents a stronger tie with and commitment to the town in which he or she lives, and a heightened sense of responsibility for the care and well-being of this very special place.