Embracing Winter: The Cold Club

Editor’s Note: I caught myself looking rather bleakly at the snow yesterday and decided I needed a timely reminder about embracing winter, so I re-read Paul MacDougall’s 25 November 2020 piece on coping with the cold and I thought you might like to too.


There is probably as much to do in Cape Breton in winter as there is in summer and fall, and this winter, what with COVID-19 and all, may be a great time to try out spending some time in our own great outdoors; you can do it without getting cold and even if you do get cold, you can learn to relish that feeling.


Sydney, NS boardwalk.

Walking the Sydney boardwalk in Winter. (Spectator photo)


Simple steps
Go for short walks and don’t let the temperature stop you. The solution is layers, scarves, mitts and toques. Wear what you have, you don’t need to have a closet full of expensive “winter outerwear.” Put on two shirts and a sweater, or two sweaters and a shirt and tee-shirt. A coat and scarf or two scarves (one inside, one wrapped around your neck outside your coat). Never leave home without a toque or two. I pretty well wear two all winter long, a smaller one with a larger one on top. If it gets warm, put one in your pocket. A jacket or coat with multiple pockets is ideal. People always say to me, “You have two hats on.” I reply, “Yeah, it keeps me warm.” If you have a dog, all the better, what dog doesn’t want to get outside even for a short period of time?

The sun makes a difference. Check the weather, if you have internet check the Marion Bridge weather radar. If it says sunny in the afternoon and you are free then, wait and walk in the sun. If it’s cloudy or snowy all day, walk anytime. Over time make your walks longer.


Where to walk
Try out your front door and down the street, walk in different neighborhoods, through downtowns, check out parks, green spaces, churchyards, graveyards (read a few tombstones), boardwalks, inner city trails (CBRM has plenty, Baille Ard Trail in Sydney, Renwick Brook in Glace Bay, etc). Walk to stores and shops, for coffee, to the library, bookstores and church and anywhere else you go. Make winter walking part of your routine. If you are walking around town at night remember to look up. There could be some celestial activity going on. The night sky in winter is often quite clear.


Birding on walks

Some birds hang around Cape Breton in the winter. Look for them on your walks. You don’t even need to know what they are. Just enjoy seeing and hearing them. You can get a simple Birds of Nova Scotia book and learn to identify some rather easily. if along the shoreline check for waterbirds. Carry small binoculars if you have them. If you notice something you think is interesting call in Dave and Dave the first Monday of every month on CBC information morning and tell them. Formac’s Field Guide to N.S. Birds is a nice and simple guidebook for many the novice birder. Ducks, gulls, various seabirds, chickadees, blue jays and Bohemian waxwings all make up winter’s rhapsody.

Northern Flickers

Northern Flickers in Nova Scotia. Photo by Wanda Donelle via Twitter (@WandaDonelle)


Wish for snow

Yes, many people love to be active in the snow. Downhill skiers need no convincing from me, but if you want to try it and can afford a couple of lessons at Ski Ben Eoin, go for it. Ski Cape Smokey will be offering lessons as well and things are moving ahead with their hill development under new ownership. Stay tuned for their winter activities.

If you have never tried cross country skiing, this could be the winter to do so. Borrow a pair or get those old ones out of the shed, barn or the basement rafters. Start simple. Go someplace where you won’t get lost in the woods. Try the Open Hearth Park in Sydney. Always take water and maybe something to snack on. Clementines are perfect, compact to carry, nutritious and contain water. Grapes also work. You will get warm quickly, even if new to it, so dress in layers and take off and put on clothes as necessary. If warm, take off sweater, wrap around your waist and put jacket back on. Put that extra toque in your pocket. Just be prepared. Have mitts or gloves. Mitts keep you warmer. Fingers love fingers in the winter.

Snowshoeing has become all the rage lately. Which is great. But snowshoes are most fun when there is a lot of snow. They are meant to keep you up and get through the snow. So find a pair, strap them on and go when a lot of fresh snow is on the ground. (Once it is hard packed down, you don’t need the snowshoes, you will make better distance and speed in your boots.) Walk slowly at first and you will get used to them. A nice, snow-covered wooded area you know well is a perfect place for snowshoeing.

Girl in snow

Sydney resident Maggie Campbell enjoying winter. (Spectator photo)

Cross-country versus snowshoeing. Try both. It is a matter of preference. Around Cape Breton, there is more opportunity to ski than snowshoe. So when the snow is new and deep, go snowshoeing, otherwise go skiing. Cross-country warms you up quicker, it is more like skating than walking and you stop less than when snowshoeing. Do both and see what you like. Golf courses are usually open for winter activities, so they are a good place to start (and continue). There is nice cross-country skiing in Rotary Park in Sydney. Last winter, friends of mine got in over 70 days of cross-country skiing. The CBRM and the Cape Breton Regional Library have been loaning out snowshoes for a few years now. Contact either to find out more.


When does a walk becomes a hike?

Usually a hike means you are walking in the woods. Cape Breton has dozens of wonderful trails that are often quite accessible in winter. Walk, ski or snowshoe them. Just be prepared. Know your route, tell someone where you are going and when. Go with a friend. Bring, water, snacks and dress for weather which will get colder as the sun starts to set. Timing is everything. There are 29 trails in the CBRM alone. See this map.


Make it all more fun

If you are ambling in the woods try and identify some trees in the winter. There are guidebooks for this. Also, check out the lichen on trees. Lichen is a beautiful symbiotic organism and pretty well stays the same all year long. Take photos and try to figure them out at home from online guides or take a guidebook with you, if you have one. Here is an excellent resource.

Skating, of course is a great outdoor activity. Make sure you are skating on safe, thick ice surfaces. Always heed warnings of thin ice and do wear a helmet. Whatever your reasons for not wearing a helmet while skating in the past, they just don’t cut it anymore. Outdoor hockey is great and all you need is a handful of players and sticks and a few rocks or broken branches for net posts. Hockey can — and should — be made simple.

Skating Pond, Two Rivers Wildlife Park

A bit bumpy, but fun — the skating pond at the Two Rivers Wildlife Park. (Spectator photo)

The other amazing thing to do on ice is fishing for smelts. Best way to get into this is find someone already into it. Someone with an auger to drill you a hole and lend you an ice-fishing rod. Most ice fishers have more than one. Holes drilled outside on a lake and six feet apart are pretty socially distanced, so ice-fishing may be a good COVID-19 winter activity for 2021.


Form a Cold Club
My friend Bill Bailey and I did this a number of years ago to extoll the virtues of winter. When the temperature would drop to -10C or lower, we would meet up and go for a walk around the neighborhood, or pick a destination and walk to it for a coffee, etc. What was cool about this (pardon the pun) was the weather dictated when we could have a Cold Club meeting (read: walk). Some winters a few years ago, it never hit -10C. So we never had the walk. We tried to get others involved but usually just got looked at askance with eyes rolled. If you want to start your own Cold Club, just compile a list of people interested and when the temperature hits -10, send everyone a “COLD CLUB meeting” notice. Set a meeting time and place and see who shows up. Then go for your walk. Walk apart, enjoy the cold and take a clementine or some grapes with you. Don’t let the cold keep you in.


Post-COVID group activities

There are a lot of organized winter activities around CBRM and beyond. Once these start up again, take them in. Many are free of charge.

Winter hikes organized by the province, CBRM, ACAP, etc.

Winter birding events. The local experts and birders of all stripes show up to these with binoculars, scopes etc. Great way to see birds you would otherwise miss.

Moonlight snowshoeing events. Usually well organized. Ski Ben Eoin often has them.

Cross country skiing loppets for all ages and skills. Much more about participating than racing.

Skating events. The one at the Fortress is always great.

Night sky events, if offered, are fun year round. Go and look up.

Music outside. Always great. Dress for it. CBRM needs more outdoor winter music.

Indoor cold recreation. Skating, hockey and of course curling. There are three curling clubs in the CBRM and kids programs are reasonably priced. They have everything there for you. You can walk indoors all winter long too at Membertou Sports and Wellness center on their lovely walking track up above the ice surface.

Girl in the snow

Jumping (literally) into winter. (Juliette Campbell photo by Tom Campbell)



Start thinking about outside winter coffee shops, craft markets, food trucks, etc. Charlotte street has a number of tucked-in alleyways that larger cities would have some artisan or crafter in for part of the day. Plug in a little heater, burn a log, it can be done and will work. People did it this past summer. Adapt for winter



The activities I have described to help people enjoy the winter and stay mentally and physically well all involve some degree of physical ability. Due to various challenges, winter, for many people, is not the best time. But there are ways they can enjoy the outdoors and winter activities. Some trails are winter accessible, visually impaired people can ski with guides or go curling (and win national championships) sledge hockey is now happening in the area, and tobogganing is always great fun and do-able for many, two to a sled. Think about helping someone who needs help to enjoy getting outside in winter.

I hope you think about winter a little differently now and maybe some day you will see a “COLD CLUB meeting” notice. Please come, there is no set agenda, no RSVP needed, just a dress code: layers. And be on time.

Moving keeps you warm.



Paul MacDougallPaul MacDougall is a Senior Instructor in Health Sciences at CBU, a writer and playwright and enjoys the outdoors, all seasons round. He can be found @franeymountain literally and virtually.