This first month of 2021 has reminded me of an important reason that sports and wild nature have been lifelong passions—or at least since my boyhood days, while growing up along the edge of rural Connecticut.
I’ll begin with sports. For more than half a century, I regularly played sports. My favorite was basketball (something of an irony, I suppose, given that I’m a short and rather slow white guy who can’t jump worth a darn; but I played with passion and earned a reputation as a “gym rat”). I stopped playing in my early 60s for a variety of reasons, the chief one being that my hard-driving style got hard on my body.
I’m a longtime sports fan, too, starting with my late-1950s love affair with the New York Yankees and their star-crossed star, Mickey Mantle, my first and greatest sports hero. Now in my early seventies, I’m not the sports fanatic I once was and that’s probably healthy. For one thing I don’t spend nearly as much time in front of the TV. Still, I follow certain sports rather religiously, including pro football.
My favorite NFL team this season has been the Kansas City Chiefs, in large part because of the team’s young, talented and enthusiastic quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. He’s an exciting and excitable athlete, arguably the best QB in the world right now. And he’s surrounded by an abundance of other talented athletes and is coached by a guy, Andy Reid, who’s both something of a football genius and is willing to take risks.
In short, Kansas City is both talented and fun to watch. This past Sunday, the team was leading Cleveland 19-10 in the third quarter when Mahomes was knocked out of the divisional round playoff game with a concussion, giving the Browns a chance to upset the strongly favored Chiefs.
Mahomes’ replacement, a guy named Chad Henne, is a classic “journeyman” QB, talented enough to stay in the league 13 years, but never a star. And until this game, he’d never played in the postseason. With Henne in the game, the Browns closed to within 22-17. But with time running out, he made two key plays that helped KC hold onto the ball and its lead. The last and most amazing play—one dreamed up by Reid—involved a pass play on fourth and inches near the 50-yard line, with more than a minute to play—plenty of time for Cleveland to score if the play failed. But it didn’t. And along with broadcasters Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, I went wild when Henne completed the pass to Tyreek Hill for a first down. Essentially that was the game.
“There’s no way,” screamed Romo, a former star quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and now a celebrated TV analyst. “He shocked everybody. I mean that is impossible, I’ve never seen it.”
I think Romo’s over-the-top excitement fed my own, but the jubilation I felt was clearly and authentically my own. For a few moments—well, maybe minutes—I experienced a kind of euphoria. I even texted Jan, “Amazing end to Chiefs-Browns game.” (That Jan embraces my passion for sports is a story in itself, making her a rarity in my experience with sweethearts, one of the many reasons I love having her in my life. But only one.)
I think I had many such euphoric moments as a young boy, but over time I learned to “stuff” my excitement. Happily, as an older guy I’ve rediscovered it’s okay to occasionally express my sporting jubilation. I can become an excited kid again, my physical-emotional self filled to overflowing with exhilaration. Passion. And ain’t that a great thing?
I suppose that’s one reason—a crucial one—that sports are so important to so many people. They briefly come fully alive in a way they don’t in much, and perhaps most, of their lives.
There’s considerably more that I could write about the central, life-enriching role that sports has played in my life and some day I shall. Here I’ll simply mention that there was a time, back in my teens and early twenties, when sports helped get me through some exceedingly dark times.
And now I’ll turn to that other lifelong passion, wild nature.
As with sports, nature brought me great joy—and wonder—as a boy. Though I never lost my love for the wild world we inhabit (and which for many years I simply called “the outdoors”) I did go through an extended stretch in which I lost close touch with both that larger wildness and my own wild nature. Things began to shift again when I came north to Alaska and a major (re)turning point occurred in my middle years.
Nowadays, as regular readers of this City Wilds column (and my closest friends and family) well know, I make a daily conscious effort to connect—or commune, if you prefer—with nature, even on my neighborhood strolls with Denali or short forays into the yard. Today, for example, while taking a break from this column, I was stopped in my tracks when hundreds upon hundreds of bohemian waxwings swept through my neighborhood, a marvelous thing.
Among my many rituals (though some might label it an obsession) is this: every month of the year, I look for the spiders and insects that inhabit Anchorage’s wild places. As I shared with City Wilds readers two years ago, also in a January column:
If I see even one live spider or insect roaming the local landscape over the next few weeks, I’ll continue my streak (which began in February 2012) of 83 consecutive months with at least one outdoor “bug” sighting in the Anchorage area, a rather remarkable streak, considering it includes the depths of seven winters. Of course those depths aren’t as nearly as deep as they once were, as Anchorage and the rest of Alaska continue to warm substantially.
Still, it seems amazing to me that such tiny, ectothermic, invertebrate creatures are actively moving about even during our coldest, darkest, harshest season, sometimes when temperatures have fallen below freezing.
Documenting the year-round outdoor activity of the spiders, midges, and other “bugs” that move among us is simply one small part of my larger effort to learn more about the nature of Anchorage and the neighboring Chugach Front Range. And it seems a more worthwhile—and yes, fun—way to spend my time than getting bleary-eyed in front of assorted screens. (I admittedly still do far too much of the latter, as I was reminded this past weekend while watching the full slate of four NFL playoff games, and reading emails and sharing text messages on my iPhone.)
I’m happy to report here that my streak of consecutive months with an outdoors “bug” sighting has reached 108 months. Even better, I spotted my first January 2021 bug on my birthday, with temperatures hovering in the teens. The teens!
Imagine my surprise—and yes, my excitement—to spot a “snow spider” on the ground, during a walk with Denali through Kincaid Park. The spider wasn’t moving. So to be sure it was alive, I removed my mitten and picked the spider up, a delicate maneuver. Once placed upon my bare skin, the spider was sufficiently warmed by my body heat to begin stretching its limbs and walking slowly across my hand. (I have both a photograph and video as evidence).
In those moments, too, I felt a kind of elation. Not only to find the spider, but to be enthralled by the wonder of its presence upon the snow in temperatures well below freezing. (Jan, I’ll mention here, has not only accepted this quirk of mine, but now she too looks for winter bugs. Wow.)
There’s a reason spiders and some insects can survive the cold. As Alaska science writer Ned Rozell once explained (in a 2000 column), insects and spiders use two mechanisms to survive winter’s cold, even in much more frigid Interior Alaska. One is “freeze tolerance,” the other “supercooling.” (Rozell in turn learned this from a biologist named Steve MacLean, whom he called “an expert on small, creepy things.”)
Rozell attributed the survival of a spider he encountered to the freeze tolerance technique. “To pull off this trick,” he wrote, “insects or their larvae must remove much of the water from within their cells and keep ice organized to remain outside cell membranes. They also add sugar and alcohols to their bodies to counter the effects of freeze-drying.”
While such techniques help insects and spiders survive winter in a frozen state, it turns out that in more moderate winter climates, like those in the Anchorage area, spiders and insects may use a process called “cold hardening” to make it through winter in a dormant but not frozen state. According to Wisconsin biology professor Mike Draney (his explanation found online. in a Wisconsin Public Radio posting), “When it gets cold but doesn’t freeze, it sort of tells their bodies to start producing, actually, antifreeze compounds. They’re very similar to the kind we put in our car, and they build these up in their tissues and it lowers the temperature at which they can freeze.”
And sometimes, when the temperature falls below freezing but isn’t too awfully cold, the spiders (or insects) are able to function, to move about the landscape, albeit slowly.
It’s likely, I’ve learned, that spiders I find on snow likely dropped from trees. There’s more to this story, I know, and some day I’ll learn more to share it in this column. But for now I’m most interested in sharing the excitement, the liveliness, I feel when I find a spider or midge or other “bug” moving around in the mid-winter chill.
It is an amazing thing, when you think about it, to see a spider crawling across the snow (as it did, very slowly, when I set it back down), especially for that to happen on one’s birthday, with temperatures down in the teens—the coldest, I think, that I’ve ever found a spider moving around. What a birthday gift from nature. And what a gift, for a 71-year-old guy to somehow still get excited about spiders crawling on the snow—or to watch a backup QB, sufficiently trusted by his genius coach, to pull off a crazy, game-saving play.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.