Christmas



Winter? Bah Humbug!

That’s what I used to think when I was living and working in the Midwest. Then, winter meant donning layers upon layers of outer clothing, shoveling snow, starting and warming a cold car, and driving to work in heavy traffic, fearing for my life on icy roads—all work and no play. Even after Gunter and I retired and purchased Northern Bliss, our lake home in Wisconsin, I never dreamed of going there in the winters. It was our daughter-in-law Sabine who missed Christmas snow and suggested that we spend every other Christmas there. We consented because family trumps frigid weather. 

Frosted Evergreen

Wisconsin farmhouse

Holidays in the Snow

This past holiday season was our third, and best, Holidays-in-the-Snow event. Three of our four children and their families attended. We planned to spend as much time as possible outdoors. 

Amazingly, the weather cooperated. It was just cold enough to snow, but warm enough for winter fun, such as sliding, making snowmen, ice fishing, taking walks on the lake, and photographing the geese and trumpeter swans swimming on the open waters of the Apple River. 

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Winter fun in Northwest Wisconsin.

Mike, our son-in-law, brought corn to lure deer from the nearby woods over to our yard. At first, they were shy, but as we spread the corn closer to our home, they followed, and by the end of our three-week stay, came right up to our patio where we could watch through the sliding glass door!  

Deer

Feeding Deer

Feeding Deer

Deer outside window

One deer peers through the window of our house.

For Christmas, I presented Gunter with an edible birdhouse. We placed it on the birdbath near a pine tree. Eventually, winter birds found it and began to eat its sunflower roof and birdseed walls. Our pair of pileated woodpeckers appreciated the suet we hung at the feeder on the lake bank. They weren’t as skittish as they had been last summer.

Deer by edible birdhouse

Curious deer at edible birdhouse.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker at lake feeder.

With plenty of helping hands, even work was enjoyable. The men shoveled snow and kept the outdoor furnace stoked. Inside, the women baked cinnamon rolls and candy-cane coffee cakes and prepared scrumptious, steaming-hot meals.

Shoveling snow

Grandson Brett shovels the driveway.

Outdoor furnace

My son Jeff loads wood into the outdoor furnace that will heat the entire two-story home.

Rime Ice and Hoarfrost.

As if to refute my derogatory comments about past winters, nature put on a spectacular show that frosted our holiday cake! It’s not that often that this happens—fog and snow and hoarfrost all at once. During this special season, however, we were blessed with many days of this winter miracle.

Hoary is an Old-English word that means “getting on in age.” But hoarfrost brought out the poet in me. One day, I awakened to a calm, cold morning and looked out to see the entire world draped with lacy, feathery crystals that glinted in the low morning sun. A magical fairyland! I knew that this ephemeral, enchanting world would disappear as the sun rose high, so I jumped into my SORELs, threw on my Lands’ End parka, and grabbed my iPhone. Outside, hoarfrost trimmed the porch rails in dainty bridal lace. Woolen gowns clothed frozen flower heads, left in place for “winter interest.” Gleaming ice crystals snuggled barren tree branches. As I walked down the snowy driveway, I met a wonderland of pure white, a pearly blanket spread across the landscape. The earth exhaled and hoarfrost crystals formed on her breath. Dancing and sparkling, hoarfrost grabbed the sunlight and threw it about like a thousand diamonds. Hoarfrost turned our tall spruce, heavy with flocking, into delightful Christmas trees with delicate, blinking ornaments. A low fog, softer than breath, had turned our icy footbridge into an enticing path I dared not enter. Out there. Alone with Jack Frost.

Snow covered woods with sun

I returned to an animated household fueled by caffeine and full of laughter. A few of us crammed into vehicles to see more of this day that Jack Frost had built. We drove past idyllic scenes of farms covered in quilts of down, with only their red barns and pastel houses coming up for air. We passed an old, converted church hiding behind a massive snow-laden evergreen. And we stopped repeatedly to photograph each new scene—many of them monochromatic—in black and white and shades of gray.

Farm in snow

 

Converted church

Forest Road with hoarfrost

Later, my curiosity got the better of me. I heard a TV weatherman use the terms rime ice and hoarfrost and interchangeably, so I wanted to understand both terms. Here’s what I learned: Both produce exquisite ice deposits, but they form in different ways. Rime ice needs super-cold water vapor and wind. Liquid water in the air freezes into crystals on the windward sides of surfaces, such as trees and structures, building up and up in spongy, porous layers. Dramatic ice sculptures are formed from fog banks about 3000-7000-foot elevations under high winds. 

Rime ice can be dangerous. Ships can be disabled by freezing ocean spray. Planes flying at hundreds of miles per hour into a super-cooled, moisture-laden cloud can pick up ice that affects their lift. 

Hoarfrost is a direct deposition of atmospheric moisture in the form of ice crystals on objects like tree branches, plant stems, wires, and poles without the moisture ever passing through the liquid phase. It typically forms on calm, clear nights and gives objects their fairyland appearance, especially when illuminated by low-angle sunlight. “Hoar” is the frosty coating. Calm air conditions allow the complex, lacy layers to form. Hoarfrost requires a supersaturated column of cold air extending well above the surface of the ground. Moisture in the air condenses around nuclei, e.g., particles of dust. Once that starts, the moisture goes from a gas to a solid with ice crystals building up on everything. 

Lois and Fiona

Lois hangs out with Sabine’s dog, Fiona.

Family is everything. That’s our primary reason for our holidays-in-the snow event. This was the year, however, that I finally learned to love winter. Is it “the most wonderful time of the year” as the holiday tune claims? I wouldn’t go that far!  In a few months, I’ll be pining for spring and soothing that urge to dig in the dirt by planting my garden. 

Read more about Northern Bliss in Lois’s past blogs:

Tornado Disaster at Northern Bliss

Recovery from Natural Disasters

Returning to Northern Bliss: Fifty Shades of Green

Fiddlehead Ferns Unfurling: My spring garden explodes in 50 shades of green.

Wise Old Oak

The Miracle of Autumn

Wander Birds: Migrating North

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


During our world circumnavigation, Gunter and I loved Australia and the Aussies so much that we decided to spend another year in The Land Down Under. We stored our catamaran Pacific Bliss on the hard in Mackay, Queensland and took the tilt train south to Sydney. From there, we rented a drive-yourself caravan (camper) to tour inland through the Blue Mountains, Cowra, Canberra, and back to Sydney via the sea route. Although fall was turning to winter throughout the Northern Hemisphere, in Australia we were enjoying the spring-to-summer transition. My favorite holiday flowers for arranging are the red tropicals: ginger, anthurium, and proteas. Imagine my delight seeing fields of such flowers on display at nature preserves!

Field of proteas

Field of Proteas

Following are excerpts from my journal:  

Touring Australia’s Blue Mountains
September, 2004

Katuomba Falls Caravan Park.  Blackheath Caravan Park. Destinations roll off our tongues as the landscape passes by. We experience two days of dreary skies and depressing, intermittent rain, which makes our road trip anti-climactic after the sunny skies and excitement of Sydney. But on the third day, the weather clears and an ethereal, winter-pale sun peeks over the evergreened landscape before it descends below the foothills and treetops. It leaves a soft brush of amber on the clouds. It’s amazing how the van seems cozier, less claustrophobic, when there’s a hint of sun.  

Gorgeous, white parrot-like birds with yellow crests flit from tree to tree as we enjoy our sundowners. Ducks waddle toward the van while we throw out tidbits. I take a twilight walk up a hillside and stumble upon one lone rhododendron bush; the rest will bloom next month.  November 1 is the beginning of the Rhododendron Festival here in Blackheath. 

Called “Australia’s most accessible wilderness,” the heralded Blue Mountains looked like a collection of Sydney suburbs on a ridge of a cut-out valley—eroded highlands with valleys below. “These are certainly not mountains like our western Rockies,” Gunter grumbled.  But as we drove further, he changed his tune. Narrow river gorges wound through the lower mountains. As we rose in elevation, vistas opened to yawning canyons. Mountain streams tumbled over escarpments, falling to thick, tangled vegetation.

Eucalyptus against limestone

Eucalyptus against limestone

Blue Mountains Overlook

Blue Mountains Overlook

Sydneysiders are fortunate to have such a national treasure within a few hours’ drive. A brochure we’d picked up in Sydney stated: “What a better way to uplift the soul than a weekend of World Heritage Wilderness!” This heritage area, made up of eight nature reserves, was established in 2000. It contains 400 animal species, more than one-third of Australia’s bird species, 1,300 plant species, and 4,000 species of moths and butterflies.

For the first twenty-five years of European occupation, the Blue Mountains defied settlers’ quest to expand west of Sydney. Expeditions were turned back by impenetrable undergrowth, wandering gorges, and steep canyon walls. Finally in 1813, three men, Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth, and William Lawson, broke through after eighteen miserable days.  They were rewarded with a view from the top of Mount York never seen by Europeans. Grassy plains stretched as far as their eyes could see—plains, they believed, that could support a continent of millions.  During the next two years, the Great Western Highway was cut through these mountains and western migration began.  

Morning brings a bright sun and clear blue skies. We are eager to begin the trip to the top of the pass. From Blackheath, we’ll backtrack to Medlow Bath, then double back and proceed on to Bell, drive along the north canyon rim to Mount Tomah, then double back again to Lithgow, finally proceeding on to our reserved cabin near Lake Lyell.  It is a fine, crisp day for touring but the drive is long and tortuous. The two-lane route—the same one followed by those early explorers—is narrow with tight turns and sheer drops. In most places, the ridge is too narrow for turnouts, look-outs, and rest stops. 

Gunter is an experienced mountain driver; even so, this route requires intense focus. 

At Medlow Bath, we stop to see the Grand Hotel, a famous meeting place for world dignitaries. Melba, a famous Australian opera star, sung here. Other celebrities have taken advantage of the hotel’s hydra baths for more than a century. While we stroll through the old hotel, we note that the place still has a regal flair: a smart-suited and suitably aloof male receptionist hands us a typed information sheet about the hotel. We enjoy a cappuccino on the deck with a wonderful mountain view and then we’re off to the next stop: Govett’s Leap.

We joke about the sign saying 15-Minute Walk to Bridal Falls.  “It doesn’t say how long the return is!” I warn. “But let’s go anyway. We need a little pensioner’s walk.”  

We’re back at the parking area in one and quarter hours. We did take our time, though, past the stepping blocks over the river to the other side. The morning sun brightened the deep, verdant valley. The river was wonderful, cascading over rocks banked with yellow blooming acacia, rust-colored banksias (bottlebrush), and delicate yellow, white, and blue mountain flowers. Bridal Veil Falls, a tantalizing stream of water and fine mist overhanging a rock garden of moss and ferns, was well worth it. By the time we returned, huffing and puffing up all those steps, lazy sheep-clouds had drifted in. They stayed with us for the remainder of the day, providing cooling interludes.

Gunter on the path to Bridal Falls

Gunter on the path to Bridal Falls

Bottle Brush Plant

Bottle Brush Plant

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Our next stop is Evans Point. We amble over to a must-see lookout over pulpit rock. Afterwards, Gunter re-parks the van so the view from the rear window has the valley view. This is when driving a campervan pays off! We enjoy our smoko of chicken breast, dressing, and whole wheat bread.      

Our next stop is Mount Victoria. Gunter buys a few used paperbacks from a quaint, old shop attached to a house that has been in the owner’s family since the early 1900s.  Across the street stands the historic Victoria and Albert Guesthouse and Restaurant, where dining on the wooden, green-railed veranda has been a tradition for over 100 years. The street is lined with blooming pink and white ornamental and fruit trees. What a wonderful time of year to tour the Blue Mountains! 

From the GWH (Great Western Highway) the Darling Causeway links Mount Victoria to Bells Road, which takes us toward Mount Tomah. We continue on to the Mount Tomah Botanical Gardens (called Australia’s Coolest Botanic Gardens) developed by Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. Here, at 1000 meters above sea level, many plants not suited to Sydney’s climate can be grown successfully. 

I’ve fallen in love with these gardens—and especially with the collection of the largest proteas I’ve ever seen. Their wide-open pink blooms remind me of sunflowers backlit against a glowing sunset. The pond’s rock garden, with shimmering lime-colored reeds complementing its gray rocks, is the perfect setting for contemplation and meditation. The blue haze from the mountains turns this place into a heavenly delight.

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Other SailorsTales blogs about Australia are: 

Climbing the Coat Hanger

The Challenge of Writing about Australia

Pavlova from Heaven? No, Australia

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased for the holidays on Amazon.