Embracing Winter: ‘Friluftsliv’

A couple of weeks ago, I reconnected (via Zoom) with an old friend in Brooklyn, NYC, and in between catching up and sharing gluten-free cinnamon bun recipes, we talked about our respective lives under COVID. She told me that she’d recently gone for drinks in her neighborhood with a small group of friends. They’d sat at a table on the sidewalk in front of a bar wearing warm coats (and covered in blankets) for two hours — at which point their feet started getting cold and they decided to call it a night.

This reminded me of a conversation I’d had with another friend who had spent a winter in France where, admittedly, it does not get as cold as Canada, but where she said that people were adamant about sitting outside as late into the season as possible (and this was pre-COVID). I assumed this involved outdoor heaters but she said no, it involved warm coats and Gallic stoicism in the face of falling temperatures.

Men sitting at a table on a snowy street in NYC

NYC Restauranteur Nello Balan having lunch outside his restaurant Nello with a friend in the middle of a snow storm in 2014, perhaps preparing for 2020?

This all got me researching living out-of-doors, which brought me very quickly to the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv (pronounced “free-loofts-liv”) which I immediately managed to work into a conversation with yet another friend (this one in Toronto), thinking to wow him with my knowledge of Scandinavian culture. But I’d barely got the word of my mouth when he said:

 Yes! The Norwegian love of doing things outdoors. BY YOURSELF.

Show-offs never win.

The word itself translates roughly as “open-air living” or “free-air living” — a Guardian article on the subject explained that it’s difficult to translate into English because “Norwegians love metonymy, or substituting a word for a concept.” It is traced to a poem by the Norwegian poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen about a farmer who trekked for a year in the wilderness before abandoning civilization entirely. Traditionally, it does seem to have been associated with solitary communing with nature but these days the definition can be stretched to include more sociable outdoor pursuits.

I started wondering what friluftsliv might look like during a Cape Breton winter and to get an idea, I turned to three people — one I know well, one I’m acquainted with and one I follow on social media — who seem to remain active year round. The first person I contacted was Paul MacDougall who responded to my request for comment by WRITING ME AN ENTIRE ARTICLE, at which point, “Embracing Winter” became a series.

So to pull my weight (and because I received responses from my other interviewees too) I’m going to explore a few other aspects of “embracing winter” — this week, friluftsliv (or a modified version of it) in a Cape Breton context and next week, drinking and dining outside in the cold.


I thought friluftsliv sounded like the opposite of the last Scandinavian concept to take the world by storm, the Danish hygge (prounced HEW-guh), which was all about indoor coziness and involved candles and hot beverages and woolen sweaters and roaring fires, but Leslie Anderson of the National Nordic Museum told Seattle Times reporter Megan Burbank that it’s more like a corollary:

While the two concepts are associated with different environments (hygge is internally focused) and different areas of Scandinavia, she said, “It’s about finding contentment … you can see a kind of shared fondness for both spaces and an approach to life where you have designated a space and a way of living with time to recharge.”

I am not Norwegian, nor have I ever been to Norway, so I’m approaching this subject with caution, as one should when reading a bunch of non-Norwegian accounts of a Norwegian phenomenon. (I’ve also been hesitant about comparing Canadians to Scandinavians since 1973, when that ParticipACTION ad said 30-year-old Canadians were “in about the same physical shape” as 60-year-old Swedes.)

I asked a relative, who has spent time in Norway, if he was familiar with the term friluftsliv and he said he wasn’t, but that it made sense of what he’d observed in Oslo:

I do remember finding it strange seeing so many runners during my midday jogs, or seeing people with skis on the metro during weekdays. I feel like outdoor activities are a lot more present in their culture.

But if you don’t fancy jogging or skiing at any time of day, let alone on your lunch hour, fear not, because as I noted above, the concept of friluftsliv, is much broader than simply that of “regular exercise.” As Lasse Heimdal, secretary general of Norsk Friluftsliv, explained to the National Geographic in September, friluftsliv:

…isn’t just for hard-core athletes and intrepid explorers. Friluftsliv can also mean long strolls with friends, picnics, a leisurely afternoon bike ride, or walking the dog on a chilly morning. There’s even a special word, utepils, for drinking a beer outdoors.

The key, according to literally every article I read preparatory to writing this, is to make a point of doing something outside regardless of the weather, and the key to that is apparently found in the old Norwegian saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Although as Andy Meyer, a lecturer in Scandinavian Studies in the University of Washington, points out, there is a “classist tinge” to the old Norwegian saying:

These days a good rain jacket is a couple hundred dollars. And so if I’ve got a bad rain jacket, I’ve got bad clothing, but I can’t afford the newest fancy Arc’teryx rain jacket or whatever you’re assuming that I’ll have access to and so there’s that complicated economic reality there.

But Paul MacDougall laid waste last week to the notion that you have to spend a fortune to dress warmly: layers are the secret to dressing for cold weather and they don’t have to be expensive. I found this detailed description of dressing for work in Antarctica on a budget, for example, that I’m thinking could be modified for winter dining in Cape Breton.

So, with all these things in mind, what would a Cape Breton version of  friluftsliv look like? I think it might look something like the approach to life of the second person I contacted for this story — James Forsey.


Forsey works as a probation officer on the Northside but I think of him as a photographer and outdoors-person because I know him only from his Twitter feed (@jimmy4c).

I called him a week ago Monday and no word of lie, after our talk, I put my on my jacket and hat and went for a walk around the block — his enthusiasm for all things outdoors is that infectious.

We focused first on the “solitary-communing-with-nature” aspect of friluftsliv. Forsey said he understood this, as getting outside for him can be a form a meditation — fly-fishing, he said, can get a person as close to Zen as sitting on a cushion in a yoga studio and the peace you experience when you’re ice-fishing on the Bras d’Or Lake (where “no one is going to mess with you”) must apparently be experienced to be believed. But he also likes to experience the out-of-doors in the company of his wife and kids (who are 2 and 5), and cold temperatures don’t stop them. Their motto in winter, says Forsey, is “The suck will cometh,” therefore, you might as well find a way to enjoy it.

Children in front of waterfall in Winter.

Forsey’s children enjoying winter.

Forsey’s winter activities include snowshoeing — especially on his favorite hiking trails:

Do you have to work harder? Yes. Do you have to wear heavier clothes and pack more food? Yes. But would you rather drink a cup of coffee looking at a fire or looking at a waterfall?

For Forsey, that’s a no-brainer — the answer is the waterfall.

He also enjoys snowshoeing at night, towing his children on a “big red plastic sled” (“the best 10 bucks I ever spent”), carrying a thermos of hot chocolate, everyone equipped with headlamps, heading out under the moon and stars around Dalem Lake.

He builds a rink in his backyard each winter (both his children learned to skate there) and hopes to do so again this year. He figures it’s probably a pretty COVID-safe activity — outdoors, kids skating, adults standing around at a suitable social distance, drinking coffee and talking.

The family also enjoys winter outings to the Two Rivers Wildlife Park, open winter hours — 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM — since November 1, you can visit the animals, snowshoe or ski or hike the trails, and generally enjoy the scenery.

Child on backyard ice rink.

The rink. (Photo by James Forsey)

But Forsey had lots of suggestions for winter activities with kids that are either low or no-cost — like, making a snowman, which he said they did once on the Baille Ard Trail only to come back the next day and find him decorated. (The Baille Ard Trail, located right in the CBRM proper, accessible by public transit, is one of his favorite winter destinations, with the added attraction these days of barred owls!) Making snow angels, he says, is also a cheap form of winter entertainment which children, he assures me, love.

He’s passed his love of the outdoors on to his children, who may not have heard the word friluftsliv but who clearly know what it means:

“When I get home from work,” says Forsey, “They already have their boots on, ready to go.”


My third interviewee was Corinne Cash (Dr. Corinne Cash, that is), a professor at the Coady Institute at St. FX. I’ve known her for years as an outdoor person, so I figured she would have some thoughts on embracing winter.

She said that while Scandinavians “truly embrace winter in ways that we do not,” this is true in lower European latitudes and some parts of Canada too:

[W]hen I remember my time living in Bonn, Germany, it was the same way. So many people walk and ride their bikes in all forms of weather. In Sweden it would be dark outside and minus whatever and everyone walks or rides their bikes. Even up North in Nunavut, people are always traveling by skidoo. Nature is simply a part of life for people. I think that we are more car obsessed here in the south of Canada. We drive everywhere.

Winter biker in Belgium

Winter biker in Belgium. (Photo by Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

(And I don’t think “Go for a drive in your car” would pass muster as friluftsliv even were the car a Volvo.)

Cash, whose specialty is urban planning, offered ideas to help the entire municipality embrace winter — beginning with making the place more bicycle friendly:

[There are] multiple ways of doing this, including developing transit systems that take people and their bikes from outer regions to city centers where they can ride their bikes from destination to destination.

Or at least get people and their snowshoes from outside Sydney to the Baille Ard Trail or from inside Sydney to the Coxheath Hills Trail. I’ve always thought a “Beach Bus” would be a good idea in summer but now I’m thinking it could do double-duty as a “Trail Bus” in winter. It’s not easy to access all the CBRM has to offer if you don’t have a car. Although you can be enterprising on your street, like these CBU students I found playing street cricket on Dolbin Street in Sydney in March 2018:

CBU students play street cricket on Dolbin Street, Sydney NS

CBU students play street cricket on Dolbin Street, Sydney NS, March 2018 (Spectator photo)

Having considered the possibilities for winter sports activities, Cash then pointed me in another direction entirely, turning from Norwegian “free-air living” to Japanese “forest-bathing” or shinrin-yoku (shinrin = forest; yoku=bath).

Explaining the concept in TIME magazine (pre-COVID, in 2018), Dr. Qing Li (author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness) wrote:

This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.

Li advises leaving your phone and camera behind, walking “aimlessly and slowly and experiencing the forest through your five senses. (I found a shinrin-yoku channel on YouTube but I have to say, I don’t really see the point of it — my eyes may be registering trees, but my ears are hearing the piles being driven at the site of the new Marconi and my nose is smelling my coffee, both of which I find more distracting than calming).

But I do like Li’s notion you can practice shinrin-yoku anywhere there are trees because it opens quite a few possibilities in the CBRM. (For the record, Li includes “Nordic walking” among the activities you can do while “forest-bathing,” so it is a cold weather activity.)

And that’s all I’ve got for you on friluftsliv and shinrin-yoku.

Tune in next week when we’ll discuss something much more indulgent: drinking and dining outdoors in cold weather.