This is a hard season for anyone who spends much time outside. Regardless of what climate you're in and what your tolerance to cold is, winter is the time when plans can be cut short by a sunset at 3:30pm and you find yourself spending more time in the dark (or worse- inside) than what you'd like. Maybe that's why celebrating the solstice is so important.
For this year's winter solstice, a friend of mine invited me to come volunteer with Habitat 2030 to do some major woods cleanup. The woods in question were 40 miles away but very close to the end of the North Branch Trail, which meant I could throw my work gear (and breakfast) into a bar bag and get in a nice, fast-paced bike ride before getting my hands dirty. I've done countless rides on this trail, and it's super-windy route can be fun if not at times crowded. For added adventure, I recommend ducking off onto any of the small dirt and gravel trails that often serve as short (and sometimes not-so-short) cuts. Be careful that you're not actually riding on the equestrian path that goes along for part of the trail- it should be obvious given how bumpy it is and how often the dirt turns, uh, greenish-brown. No one wants to deal with a spooked horse.
Chicago has had such incredibly low snowfall that forest service has had a wealth of opportunities to cut down invasive trees (which have such large canopies they prevent native trees along with their accompanying shrubs and tall grasses from growing) and do controlled burns (to replenish nutrients in the soil), but volunteer stewardship organizations like Habitat 2030 are vital in providing the people power needed that the forest service just can't afford to employ. They're also kind enough to bring food to share for a large meal around the requisite brush pile fire after the work is done.
This week, though, Somme Woods hosted a solstice fire that was huge in comparison to any brush fire. While other volunteers packed up their tools and clothes to go watch, a few of us stuck around the smaller fire to practice our Caber Tosses and talk about everything and nothing. People started cheering in the distance, and through the woods we could see the fire burning. What looked like 100 people showed up to watch the fire, share drinks, and admire the pets in attendance both typical and slightly more unusual. I wasn't really equipped light-wise for a night ride back through the woods into the city, so I pedaled with my friends the few blocks over to the Metra (Chicago's suburban commuter train) to catch a train back into the city. Jaunts like this are great and I love that even though the city lacks so much in nature, you can still get to it fairly easily by train, bike, or both.
I couldn't have spent spent a Sunday in the dead of winter in any better way than this kind of solstice celebration. It wasn't to celebrate the shortest day of the year, of course, but to celebrate that every coming day would be longer. Even if it's only a few extra minutes right now, soon enough the sun will be setting well after 8pm. Until then, days like this are a pleasant reminder that there's still plenty to do and enjoy now.