The winter that wasn’t and the year that could be

Katie Stokes

This year’s historically mild weather was a bizarre wake-up call. There was little snow or ice to contend with and for my little family that made it, crazy enough, a harder winter.

Why? No snow in the depths of winter means fewer opportunities to enjoy outdoor recreation.
Our cabin fever tipping point came in February during what I like to call “Worthless Winter Break.” This series of days off from school in the second-coldest month of the year seems like an inexplicably mean trick. There we were, like most middle-class American citizens, limping along, catching up from holiday frivolity and travel. We were finally getting back into our family routine. Then BAM! The crutch was kicked out from under us.

As an aside: Wouldn’t a break in mid-October make more sense? Hayrides! Leaf peeping! Pumpkin carving! Heck, at least then it’s a bit of a relief to spend time inside after a summer of running from barbecue to barbecue.

This wasn’t my first time around the winter break block. Diva went to a private pre-school two years before she started kindergarten. We’re not ones to lollygag around the house on weekdays, so, two weeks ahead of time, I tried to enroll Diva in a YMCA gymnastics class that turned out to be for older, more advanced gymnasts, then an art class, which never materialized. I bought a crazy plastic block-shaped contrivance from that makes snow bricks. I was determined to make an igloo sometime early in the week. Then we’d be able to play outside despite wind and frigid temps (it made sense at the time.) Santa even thought to bring us a little indoor trampoline for those especially crazy afternoons when the open area between our kitchen and living room becomes the runway in a game called “Couch Crash Landing!?”

I hoped for snow and sledding trips. I stocked up on hot cocoa, craft supplies and DVDs and hoped for the best.

As you probably know if you, too, have small children, the sun stayed tucked neatly behind miles of gray and brown clouds that week. It was warmer than normal but it was windy and rainy. Not ideal playground weather. And zero igloo-making opportunities.

I fantasized about what we could have done if I hadn’t spent all that money on now-forgotten holiday toys, which I shook repeatedly at the children – Look! Remember? Santa brought this and you love it! I even managed to excite them about the trampoline for approximately five minutes by nearly breaking my ankle with a wayward bounce while showing off my trampoline skills, apparently another youthful asset that has dissipated over the course of years.

If we could have afforded another trip so soon after Christmas in Oklahoma, would we have gone to the beach? To a show in New York City? Disney World? I was scouring Google and interrogating my friends over Facebook, trying to find an indoor space that was open when we needed it to be open (Hunk still naps) and that was clean enough that it didn’t cause my children’s palms to break out in weird pustules a week later.

It was around that time I learned the city of Watertown was looking for someone to lead their Parks and Recreation Department. The timing made me realize how strange it was that there wasn’t more for my kids to do in the winter – whether it was an event geared toward the thousands of kids at home that week, a community organization day camp ? whatever. There were a few things here and there, but it took some calling around on my part, hence the fancy new NNY Family Calendar feature I have now on my blog.

I’m not the only one around with small children; in fact I should keep my mouth shut about how much winter stunk because at least we have reliable heat and some extra spending money for craft supplies. This realization got the old hamster wheel turning in my head:

  • We live in a place where it can snow  between five and eight months out of the entire year.
  • There are thousands and thousands of kids in the Greater Watertown-Fort Drum area.
  • There are thousands of military moms out there whose husbands are gone on long deployments, so they’re dealing with those desperate feelings of entrapment all alone – and for much longer than a week.
  • There is a large group of kids who live below the poverty line and can’t afford “wants” like DVDs, or even “needs” like heat or warm clothing.

I’m not getting into the more specific statistical information that would surely get members of grant funding committees to raise their eyebrows – like rates of depression and mental health issues in certain local populations (mothers dealing with post-partum depression, adults with seasonal affective disorder, soldiers with post-traumatic stress), child abuse and domestic violence, teen drinking and drug use. To me, just the basics add up to something bigger than summer recreation programs and what the YMCA, the library, the zoo and other private businesses or publicly-funded organizations have been able to organize in this area.

Am I pinning all my hopes on Erin Gardner, the new Parks and Recreation Department director? Well, not all, but I do have high hopes that Ms. Gardner will be open to discussing the necessity of a more organized and comprehensive approach by the city, perhaps in collaboration with other organizations, to recreation in the darker months of winter.
I have lots of ideas – too many to go into here. I went so far as to take a grant writing course to see if there is funding out there for a few of them. There is. Lots.

But before I jump into choosing what programs I’d be interested in helping this community work toward, I want to see what gaps will naturally be filled when Ms. Gardner gets through the crazy summer season and can turn her focus on the year ahead that will, inevitably, kick this winter’s butt.

Katie Stokes is an Oklahoma native who has called Northern New York home for more than a decade. She is a freelance writer and blogger and the mother of two children. Click on the “Welcome” tab on her blog,, to read more about why she lives in NNY.