By Bev Bachel
More happiness. Less anxiety. Increased feelings of calm. Lower blood pressure. Greater capacity for concentration. Reduced loneliness. Less irritability. Better short-term memory.
According to Chris Heeter, founder of The Wild Institute, these are some of the benefits of spending time outdoors, benefits that can go a long way toward our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing as we transition from full-time jobs to retirement.
Heeter ought to know. She’s spent three-plus decades leading wilderness trips—sometimes in the summer with canoes and paddles, sometimes in the winter with sleds and Alaskan huskies that she has helped breed, raise and train. She also takes what she’s learned outdoors and brings it indoors as a professional speaker, extolling the virtues of nature and encouraging all of us to bring more wild into our daily lives, no matter the season.
That’s exactly what Tami Spry and Barry Scanlan are doing in retirement…but not quite the way you might expect.
From the country to the city
Unlike many retirees who opt to move away from larger metropolitan areas where they worked and raised their families to smaller, more rural communities, Spry and Scanlan did just the opposite.
“We raised our son on 10 acres on the Rum River in a rural community about 60 miles north of the Twin Cities,” explains Spry. “We landscaped our property, built an outdoor oven and a dock, cleared walking and snowshoe paths through our woods and felled our own Christmas trees.”
They loved every minute of that life, yet moved from “The Land,” which is how they always refer to it, to the Twin Cities, Minnesota’s largest metropolitan area with 3.5 million. Yet they still manage to keep the wild in their lives. “It’s our therapy,” says Scanlon. “We need it, and we enjoy it!”
“We didn’t want to be isolated in retirement, which is why we moved, says Spry. “But even living in the city, we still consider our land and the land around us a member of our family, and we get outside as often as we can.”
Scanlan agrees. “Even when it’s 20 below, it’s surprising what you see when you take the time to look. The other day we saw a coyote crossing the street, and we often see otters, ducks and swans on our neighborhood lakes and rivers, as well as juncos, robins and woodpeckers in our yard.” And there will be even more animals and birds in their yard in the years ahead as Spry and Scanlan have added trees, birdhouses and a butterfly-friendly garden.
Spry, who is writing a book about her relationship with the natural world, pays attention to them all, especially in winter. She offers this advice: “Having a relationship with nature involves letting go of your expectations of what ‘nature’ is and instead developing your own relationship with it. The tree in your backyard is as grand and life-giving as a tree in the Boundary Waters or Muir Woods, but much more accessible.”
Tips for enjoying the outdoors…in the winter
Of course, it’s easier to get outside to enjoy the outdoors when the weather is warm, but as Heeter, Spry and Scanlan all live in Minnesota, a state known for long, bone-chilling winters, I reached out to them for their tips on how to enjoy more outdoor time during winter’s coldest months. Here’s what they had to say:
Tip No. 1: Dress for the weather. Getting—and staying!—outside on below-zero days requires the right gear. According to Heeter, warm mittens are a must, as are warm boots with plenty of wiggle room for your toes, even when they’re encased in two pairs of wool socks. Also dress in layers. And to make it easy to get outside, keep all your gear together in one easy-to-access spot such as a laundry hamper or wicker basket.
Tip No. 2: Remember that comfort isn’t everything. “The cold can sometimes take your breath away,” says Heeter. “But take a few deep breaths, drop your shoulders, relax your muscles and get moving, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you warm up.”
Tip No. 3: Keep it local. Some people think the only way to spend time in nature is by camping in the wilderness, which can require hours of driving just to set foot outdoors. Heeter doesn’t agree. Instead, she suggests you drive (or better yet, walk!) to the nearest park where you’ll find plenty of birds, rabbits, deer and other animals to get excited about. That’s exactly what Spry and Scanlan do while walking a route that takes them past many of their neighbors’ gardens to the Mississippi River which is only a few blocks away.
Tip No. 4: Tune into the sights and sounds of nature. Resist the temptation to listen to music or podcasts while walking. Instead, tune in to nature. “When we turn our ears and eyes to the natural world, we see so much more,” says Heeter. “And we begin to feel as if we belong.” Scanlan agrees, which is one reason why he keeps a journal of the outdoors—the wildlife he sees, the amount of snow in the season’s first blizzard, the spring’s first sighting of a bluebird and more.
Tip No. 5: Play! Go off trail, make a snow angel, build a snowperson, start a snowball fight. Let yourself be a kid again—and spread the joy by inviting others to join in. One way Spry and Scanlan do so is by building a fire in their backyard firepit. Sometimes they enjoy it on their own, other times they invite friends and neighbors to join in. That’s also what Heeter does with the monthly poems she publishes on her website, all of which are intended to inspire us to begin or rekindle our relationship with the wild. Here’s a recent one I found particularly enjoyable and hope you will too: A Winter Walk.
Bev Bachel is a Twin Cities freelance writer who enjoys spending time outdoors, even during Minnesota winters.