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Overcoming winter’s alienation

I long felt shut out of the season. Snowshoeing changed that.

Before I ever experienced winter, I wanted to love it. As a child in India, I watched Home Alone repeatedly, entranced by the images of the season: people sledding, gifts under a tree, crackling fireplaces. Just the idea of snow — something I’d never seen — was wondrous.

When I turned 10, we moved to Canada, and I finally got to experience winter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite what I’d imagined. Snow was beautiful, yes, but painful to touch, even using the cheap gloves we’d bought at Walmart. Our electric fireplace stopped working after the first couple of winters, and we couldn’t afford to get it fixed.

On weekends and holidays, my friends disappeared for skiing or snowboarding lessons. I didn’t bother asking my parents if I could do the same: I knew there was no money for the lessons, let alone the ski passes, skis, goggles or any of the other items I’d need for the slopes.

So I ended up staying inside most winters, watching TV, sinking into the couch and into a dull depression. This type of alienated winter — “hibernation,” I think — is unfortunately common for immigrants in North America. Our families generally earn less, making it harder for us to afford the lessons, passes and equipment required for most winter sports. And in a season that can be particularly challenging for those affected by depression, people of color — who are the majority of America’s immigrants — are also less likely to access appropriate mental health care.

Jia Sung/High Country News

Over time, I grew to resent winter, the white landscape making me, in my brown skin, feel more out of place than I did in any other season.

But one year, I experienced the healing effect of wintertime in the mountains. Unexpectedly, snowshoeing — then and now — has helped me to not only survive this time of year, but also to learn to value its quiet grandeur.

ONE BRIGHT FEBRUARY MORNING when I was 14, my father and I set off for Kananaskis Country, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, two hours from Calgary. Our rented snowshoes were in the backseat. His colleagues, who had organized the outing, were waiting for us at the start of the 9-mile Pocaterra Trail. We struggled with the unfamiliar gear, and they helped us then and throughout the day, every time we stumbled or when my new Camelbak started leaking. We must have slowed them down, but they didn’t seem to mind. I remember one woman, who kept closing her eyes and tilting her face to the sun, her chest rising as she swallowed the white-cold air. The same air turned my nose beet-red and fogged up my glasses. I tugged my hat lower over my frizzy hair, wishing I could disappear.

My father picked up the motions quickly, drawing on athletic instincts from playing cricket in India. But I could barely lift my leaden legs to put one snowshoe in front of the other. Within minutes, I was wheezing from the altitude and exertion. About an hour into the trail, the others traversed the side of a hill, extending their arms to maintain their balance on the slope. I followed their example but fell, tumbling onto the hard-packed snow. Slowly, my legs now damp, I struggled to my feet. By the time I maneuvered across the slope, no humans were in sight. There was, however, a very large, very dark moose.

We stared at each other, his breath rising in great, steamy huffs. Mine remained trapped in my throat. After some seconds, he looked away, dipping antlers as large as swan wings towards the few blades of grass poking through the snow. He chewed on the frozen grass in a leisurely way, his neck and flank bulging sleekly with muscle. He could have pulverized me.

Yet I was not scared. A kind of dreamy peace settled over me, as if I’d slipped into a trance, lulled by the sounds of his chewing and the contrast between his dark powerful body and the still white slopes.

Eventually, he raised his head to look at me again, a long look that I took to be full of meaning. Then he trotted off, disappearing into the pine trees. I don’t know how long I’d been standing there when I saw my father and his friends coming back, faces creased with worry. I didn’t tell them about the moose. I didn’t want to worry them, and I wanted to keep the moment for myself, like a dream that would dissolve as soon as I tried to grasp at it.

Read the rest of the essay here.

Raksha Vasudevan is an economist and writer based in Denver. Her work has appeared in LitHub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, NYLON and more.

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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.