A Cold Sweat
In the winter, believe it or not, some folks stay outdoors while the rest crawl back inside. There’s the surfer who paddles through ice cream headaches to ride empty waves. The runner who primes her lungs for the Boston Marathon while ice thaws under her feet. The fisherman who finds massive fish in frozen ponds. Sure, they wear thicker layers and more of them, but to these three Cape Codders, cold is just a four-letter word.
The calendar might say winter starts on December 21, but for Janet Kelly, it’s more like mid-November. That’s when the mittens come out—the mittens that she wears for the first 20 minutes of her run, then longer as the season digs in, to fight off the biting winds. The wool hat can wait until December. The mittens always come first.
Twenty years ago, Kelly quit smoking and took up running. Now, at 63 years old, Kelly is a member of the Cape Cod Athletic Club Hall of Fame with 16 Boston Marathon appearances and countless half marathons on her athletic resume. Spending her winters running on a treadmill is out of the question, she says. “On a treadmill, you either see nothing, or a TV set. I just like being outside in the wind and the sun and the elements.”
Instead, she logs up to 40 miles each week running around her Orleans neighborhood. Four or five days a week, Kelly dons Brooks Adrenaline sneakers, tights, a lightweight turtleneck sweater and turtleneck shirt, wool hat, plastic sandwich bags over her socks if it’s really cold, and—of course—mittens, and heads out her door. Among her favorite routes is the “sea-to-shining-sea” run from her home near Skaket Beach to Nauset Beach, detouring down the side roads that can boost her distance above 11 miles. And on Tuesday nights, she heads south to meet up with a group of runners who trace the same route as the Chatham 10K. “When it’s over, we stand around in the parking lot hot and sweaty, and it’s like, ‘Boy, did you feel the wind over on Shore Road?’ It just always makes you feel good [to know] that you were out there and other people are sitting at home doing nothing.”
Running through the winter is license to eat without restriction, to enjoy holiday feasts without the hangover of a New Year’s diet. Piling up mileage in January and February is also a requirement as Kelly prepares for her next Boston Marathon in April. But more than that, running is a routine that the elements can’t vanquish, whether it’s the hottest day of the year or the coldest. Running in inclement weather can actually be an attraction—“It’s kind of like it’s my badge of honor,” Kelly says. She recalls trotting through a torrent of sleet in Chatham once, when a car pulled alongside and a passenger rolled down the window. The passenger asked Kelly if she was sorry she had come out. To Kelly, there’s no place she would have rather been.
How do you know whether a patch of ice on a pond is thick enough to walk across? If you’re Andy Nabreski, first you tie a giant rope around your body. “I’m a big guy, so I’ll be the anchorman,” says Nabreski, a Falmouth resident, design manager at On The Water Magazine, and a lifelong fisherman. Next, you tether the other end to the skinniest friend you can find, give him a power auger, and have him chisel a hole into the frozen edge of the pond. Then he goes out a little further. Four inches of solid ice and it’s okay to drag out a sled full of gear, set up camp, and start ice fishing in the stillness of dawn.
Cape Cod has tremendous diversity in its fishing, but it’s a special time of year when the temperature drops and freshwater ponds become spider webs of ice. Once the Cape hits the doldrums of winter, its fish typically haven’t seen a lure in a long time, which is good news for fishermen. “Across the board, whether it’s trout, salmon, bass, pickerel, perch—you see a lot of the biggest fish of the year come through the ice,” Nabreski says.
In a good year, ice-fishing season can stretch through the end of March. When it does come, it requires an arsenal of specialized gear. After boring through the ice, each fishermen drops up to five tip-ups, devices that are more fishing traps than fishing rods, which trigger flags at the surface to alert anglers to the biting fish on the other end of the line. If things get slow, a fisherman might remove one of the tip-ups and drop in a jigging rod.
Ice fishing isn’t exactly a draw for tourists, but there are more than enough spots on Cod Cod to keep local fishermen sated through springtime. “There’s got to be 500 places on the Cape where you could feasibly ice fish,” he says. Nabreski’s favorite? He won’t name names, but he says smaller bodies of water reputed as good summer fishing spots are usually good bets.
Nabreski loves introducing people to ice fishing, either with the children’s clinics he presents through the Falmouth Rod and Gun Club or just taking friends out for their first excursion. Hauling up the line is only part of the allure of ice fishing: It’s also a social gathering, Nabreski says, one in which fishermen share grills, beers, and stories with folks they might only see on one brisk winter weekend each year. “It’s almost like tailgating at a Patriots game. It’s getting together with your buddies, away from your wives, having some fun, telling some jokes—and the fishing’s usually pretty good, too.”
Last February, Eric Dranginis and two of his friends stood atop a dune in Eastham and looked down at the nameless beach below. A storm had washed away the face of the bluff, spread a thin sheet of ice over the sand, and left picture-perfect surf in the water. That was where they wanted to be—provided they didn’t plummet to an early grave first.
During their descent, the three surfers took a vertical drop down the dune, dinging their boards and bodies in the process. Hours later, too far from a public access, they climbed back up in bloated wet suits. “It was like trying to climb an ice face, which is pretty much impossible with boots and gloves and a surfboard,” he says. They used their boards as ice axes and held on to exposed roots, tying their leashes around trees when they met the woods up above. “Usually in surfing, you’re not dealing with life and death before and after,” Dranginis says.
But in between was the fruit of the effort: waves rolling in head high or bigger, punctuated with small barrels. And the trio didn’t have to share the waves with anyone else.
At their best, winter nor’easters can bring some of the biggest rideable waves anywhere—clean, double-overhead sets that are worth the paddle out. But this requires a life tailored to finding them: constantly monitoring the winds and tides for the best conditions, calling friends to keep apprised of the best spots, and even then, it can take an hour of driving to find a good break. And because storms build and destroy sandbars, the process doesn’t get any simpler the next time.
Dranginis picked up surfing long before he made the move to Orleans in 2005. Now, the 29-year-old is a surf instructor at Cape Cod Surf Camp in the high season, then he picks up landscaping work, odd jobs, and gigs working within the surf industry to round out the rest of the year. The work flexibility gives him the chance to cut out and catch waves at a moment’s notice, a huge benefit during Cape Cod winters. “It can change in an hour, and go from world-class to complete garbage in a matter of minutes,” Dranginis says.
The near-empty breaks might indicate otherwise, but winter surfing is more popular than ever before, Dranginis says. Today’s six-millimeter-thick neoprene wetsuits are more flexible and functional than their forebears. Sport-specific boots, gloves, and hoods are part of the uniform—only the face is exposed to the water. With temperatures that can dip into the high 30s, numbness is normal. Dranginis says he know its time to call it a day when he can’t fold his fingers into a fist.
But in the face of perfect waves, it’s all worth it—the stinging paddle-outs, the fickle forecasts, the fall from the precipice and the climb back up. Surfing, Dranginis says, is basically an addiction. “Once you get to the point where it’s part of your life, you’re definitely not going to let cold water get in the way.”
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