Reclaiming the joy of winter

I’ve always been nourished by winter and welcomed it as a contrast to the frenetic energy of summer. There’s nothing quite like the stark beauty of a landscape in stillness or looking out at a familiar scene transformed overnight into something out of a storybook. The way the world seems to stop, if even just for a moment, and the look of the woods in winter are pure bliss. In that deep, deep quiet, the faintest movement or noise stands out with such contrast, and the boldness of any dash of color in a berry or woodpecker or the blue sky is a beauty to be heralded.

Where summer is the season of bounty and delicious abundance, winter to me is about relishing in the small miracles that can so often go unnoticed. Indoors, winter is time to slow down, to dive inward, to process the progress of the year and make plans for the next, to tackle projects cast aside in the long days of summer and try out new recipes with friends and family.

Leah Hurley grew up in Maine, but after years away, it took a while to get reacquainted with Maine winters. Now she celebrates the stillness, the afternoon sledding, and how winter brings out the child in her more than any other season. Courtesy photo

This love of winter, and perhaps romanticizing the entire package of it, was a big piece of what drew me back to Maine five years ago. After years in New York City, my approach to winter had been a kind of lean-in mentality: cozy up and relish in the chance to slow down and just be. But even though I grew up in Maine, I didn’t remember the way the darkness and cold can eat away at your spirit. I forgot what it felt like to be in total darkness at 4 p.m., or to try to walk to the store or to work and find the sidewalk an impassable sheet of ice. Winter in Maine was a completely different animal, one that can sink its claws in deep.

By my first January in Portland I was feeling the cabin fever coming on strong. I felt run down and the things I loved about winter started to become oppressive and burdensome. A wise friend counseled me on the need our bodies have to be outside in the elements, regardless of the season, and I made a commitment to myself that by hook or by crook I would do something outside at least once a day. Some days this just took the form of bundling up for the mile or so walk to my co-working space in the morning and then home again. Other days it meant taking my workout outside or meeting a friend for a long walk.

“There is a jolt of joy that enters my system during a Maine winter that is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.”

It was a simple change but quickly, things started to shift. I began to notice the incredible warmth of the sun on my face on those bitter cold days. I learned that, to my runner’s delight, beaches stay clear of snow and ice at low tide almost all winter long. But most importantly, I felt my head start to clear, my energy levels increase, and found myself excitedly thinking of new places to explore or things to do outside in winter mode, some that were only possible to explore in this way in the winter.

As I started to make outdoor time a more intentional part of my winter experience, I started, not surprisingly, to connect with people who were doing the same thing. I found myself going for sunrise walks at Willard Beach, carpooling to 6 a.m. hot yoga classes to remind my body what warmth felt like, buying my first pair of microspikes and venturing out into the mountains for winter hikes with friends.

As a natural introvert in a new city, it was not always easy to find people I wanted to adventure out with in the cold, so I did a lot of things on my own, too. In that time I found such a renewed love for the gentle resilience of the season, the feelings of strength and possibility that come with a solo winter hike or a ferry ride out to explore off season one of the islands in Casco Bay. It was not easy (or fun) all the time, but I was learning to truly enjoy my own company, and I was reminded that we are part of something much bigger than us and to appreciate the joy in the simple pleasure of warm hands or a cup of hot coffee.

Courtesy photo

And then there was the winter I met my partner, a man who lives for the season and in July starts counting down the days to snowmaking. He helps me take this love to another level, letting myself go more and more into the joyful, vibrant side of winter—sledding and yelping like a little kid, skating hand in hand on a frozen pond, or pushing through that stomach drop at the top of a big hill on cross country skis. I am even known to alpine ski after a hiatus of 20-plus years; it isn’t pretty, but it sure is fun.

This new way of experiencing winter brings out the child in me more than any other season. There is a jolt of joy that enters my system during a Maine winter that is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced, and I am so grateful to call Maine home.

Leah Hurley is an entrepreneur with a focus on messaging, communication strategy and social innovation through her agency Craft ( She grew up in Belfast, lives in Portland and loves Maine in all four seasons.

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