One subfreezing morning this winter in Downeast Maine, I awoke an hour before sunrise to ready myself for a morning spent ice fishing on a frozen pond. We filled thermoses, packed hot breakfast sandwiches to go, and layered up. I am a pretty small and thin person, so I need to be quite intentional when dressing for a relatively sedentary day outside in cold weather. I pulled on knee-high thick wool socks, thick wool long johns (top and bottom), thick wool pants, a thick wool sweater, a thick wool hat, thick wool mittens with leather, wind and water-resistant chopper mitts, the puffiest hooded down-filled coat I could find, rain pants, and waterproof boots rated to -40F.”Thick” is the operative word in a practical winter outfit.

Looking like a weeble-wobble with no dexterity and limited range of motion, I was ready. We hiked a slow mile to a pond hidden from major trails at the base of a mountain, surrounded by woods, carefully unzipping layers to regulate our body temperatures so as not to sweat–a danger in winter as excess salt on your skin hangs onto moisture longer and makes you cold faster.

We began to settle ourselves a respectful distance from a group of four other ice fishermen (yes, they were all men–I felt like the only woman for miles), in a small cove encompassed by ice-covered cliffs. We set up the tip-ups, manipulating metal hardware and plunging our bare fingers underwater through holes in the ice.

When I get cold, I get grumpy and immobile. I ball up and feel incapable of addressing my situation. It takes prodding and considerable mental effort to get me to move. There are two solutions when you have all your layers on and you’re this cold: 1) create some metabolic heat by running, jumping, or otherwise moving around, or 2) make a fire. I tried a combination of these strategies on this particular morning when I inevitably began to experience my classic ice fishing cold: I gathered firewood (quickly), then built a fire. Suddenly, I was cheerful and warm.

I’ll be honest, I don’t like ice fishing. But what I do like about it is that it always makes me incredibly cold and reminds me of my mortality, something easy to forget in our quite luxurious 21st Century lifestyles where so many of us can get warm with the flip of a switch.

How many people on this planet have experienced real, nosehair-freezing cold? Probably fewer than I’d expect. Experiencing real cold is something, in addition to living in a place where other species might eat you, is humbling in all the right ways. Before winter escapes us, try it out; you’ll learn something. And when you come back inside, you can’t help but feel grateful and alive.

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