No matter how lovely December was -- all that sunshine -- you knew it wasn't likely to last. Soon, wet winter days will have you wanting to do nothing more than curl up by the woodstove with a good book or your laptop, mug of hot chocolate by your side.
Just because the sun has faded into distant memory is no reason to avoid the beauty of the outdoors, muted and rain-soaked as it may be. The magnificence of the trees is no less. The drama of the ocean grows exponential as double-digit swells explode against the coastline. The mountains still strike awe into a hiker's heart. Besides the visual reward, being outdoors in the winter in Humboldt gives you a visceral thrill. Something about the elements elicits the sensation of being fully alive -- depth of feeling being relative to the extremes encountered as we move through the world.
Some activities don't work as well as the weather rolls in. Frisbee, for example, is simply not an option in gale force winds. Romping on the beach next to double-digit swells can lead to tragedy. Casual hiking turns a lot less so when daylight is minimal and temperatures drop. To ensure fun times -- and safety! -- one must adequately prepare.
For the skinny on just what that preparation entails, I contacted Kokatat's Adrien Pritchard. He's a known outdoors addict, spending his winter weekends in snow and rain when the rest of us are hunkered in front of the computer screen debating FunnyOrDie videos.
JS: Is it crazy to camp/hike in the winter?
AP: No, it's definitely not crazy to do any outdoor activities in the winter here on the North Coast, but it does require individuals to take a knowledgeable look at themselves. With the proper gear, attitude and physical abilities, anyone can have a good time anywhere -- although some people's thoughts of a "good time" vary greatly.
JS: Assuming it's not crazy, what does one need to bring?
AP: Basically you need to protect your body, and in colder and wetter climates that means wearing adequate insulation layers underneath some sort of waterproof and breathable (WPB) shell garments. Think of layering your clothing with the thought of moving sweat from your skin to let it evaporate on the outer surface of your outfit. Choose varying thicknesses of polyester or wool (thinner against skin and getting progressively thicker as needed for heat retention), possibly some polyester fleece or thicker wool or puffy insulation (down when dry and synthetic insulation when wet) over that, and then some sort of WPB rain jacket and pants. Obviously this is not all needed all the time. One thing everyone should know is that in a wet and cold environment, cotton is death!
JS: How does one prepare mentally?
AP: Knowledge is key. People need to know what they need for where they are going and what they'll be doing. Actually getting out and doing it will give them good and bad lessons along the way, and they can learn from those lessons -- unless the lesson is too great and becomes fatal. Before venturing out for the first time, it's always a good idea to go with people who actually know what they are doing, rather than going with a friend who has "gone out a few times and never had any problems." This could possibly save people from the opportunity of riding in a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter as they get rescued. Clubs, specialty outdoor retail stores and some clinics/events are all places one can learn how to turn a bad situation into a good one.
JS: Is camping in the rain and snow a good date activity?
AP: It all depends on people's expectations and their suffering threshold. You can plan as well as you want and have all the required/proper gear, but eventually things will get wet and cold. I've had great times taking people out for the first time in both conditions, and some of those people have had a good time and wanted more and some I never heard from again. No matter where it occurs, a bad date is a bad date -- but add some cold and some wet to that and it becomes an epically bad date.
JS: Any overlooked winter outings you'd recommend?
AP: Kayaking is a great foul weather activity, but again, if the person is properly prepared. Since you're already on the water, rain doesn't matter as much and the foul weather keeps most folks away, so the noise is less and it always seems more serene. Surfing in the winter is a terrible idea as the stronger ocean currents, larger swells and colder conditions overall can lead to very dangerous events that keep our local Coast Guard rescue swimmers busy.
JS: Anything else?
AP: Beer tastings at our local micro breweries are a great way to spend time planning and rehashing winter outdoor adventures. Everything is different in the winter -- hikes that seems mundane and boring in the summer can be filled with beauty and adventure in the sloppy months. Rivers that were idle and filled with wonderful swimming holes in the summer can be raging wicked frothing beasts in the rainy season. Always remember to be smart and live to have fun outdoors another day!
On that note -- the living to have fun another day note -- bicyclists who haven't already installed fenders and lights on their bikes need to do so now. Waterproof panniers and outer layers will keep you drier and happier, but safety becomes even more of an issue: Drivers are even less likely to notice you, and more likely to slide on the wet roads or drench you in spray as they roar through adjacent puddles. If you're commuting, consider less car-heavy routes such as Old Samoa Road instead of State Route 255. If you're riding for pleasure, the Hammond Trail and Arcata Bottoms remain lovely options.
Finally, surfing in Humboldt is miserable at best, what with the year-round cold water and constant danger of shark attacks. In winter, the dangers increase to include currents far more powerful than your pitiful paddling skills and waves the size of houses. For a bold few, that translates into fun. For most people, a misguided session will end with an up-close-and-personal encounter with a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. Heed this advice: Go to Crescent City. Or better yet, Baja.