What It’s Like to Live in a City With a Real Winter

Find out how homeowners have learned to live with -- and love -- their wintry cities.

Along with the fun side, living in a place with a harsh winter comes with its fair share of challenges. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live in a place where shoveling snow, weatherproofing your home and playing winter sports are all in a day’s work, read on for stories from these four residents of cities with real winters.

For some, chilly weather and a heavy snowfall are a welcome treat once -- maybe twice -- a year. School is cancelled, down jackets and scarves are excavated from the backs of closets, snowmen are built, and hot chocolate is sipped by the warmth of a fire. The snow melts, and life goes on.

For others, below-zero temperatures and several feet of snow on the ground are the norm for many months of the year. Members of the former group might ask the latter: How do you survive?

“I think the answer is simple: It’s what we know as normal,” says Steven R. Buck, city manager of Caribou, Maine, the most northeastern city in the United States. During the winter of 2007-2008, the city received a whopping 198 inches of snow.

Not only have residents of cold-climate cities learned to adapt to their wintry weather, some have even come to embrace it.

“We refer to our winter as one of our biggest celebrities,” says David Holder, president of the Syracuse, N.Y. Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Come February, we’re going to be on the Weather Channel at least once.”

In International Falls, Minn., often listed as the coldest city in the contiguous United States, Mayor Shawn Mason says residents fondly refer to their city as the “Icebox of the Nation” -- a title they had to fight for when Fraser, Colo. challenged the trademark in 2007. The Minnesota city officially won the title in 2008.

Thanks to Fargo, the 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, some people think Fargo, N.D. experiences winter 12 months a year, says Cole Carley, President/CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau (even though none of the scenes in the movie were actually filmed in the North Dakota city). Despite promoting a not-entirely-accurate perception of Fargo, Carley says the movie brought a lot of welcomed publicity to the city. “I wish they had made a sequel,” he says. “We had a lot of fun with that. We used to give copies of the movie away to meeting planners.”

Getting Around

In some cities, a few inches of snow on the ground result in a "snow day," where residents can take the day off of school or work and stay in, seeing as the roads are way too icy and dangerous to drive on. Let’s hope you stocked up on food before the snow hit, because you’re not going anywhere.

In cities with real winters, the story is a little different.

“When there’s a prediction of snow anywhere in the southeast, things start shutting down,” Holder says. “When there’s a prediction of snow in Syracuse, nothing changes. People start getting braced for it, but life goes on.”

A native of North Carolina, Holder has witnessed this difference first-hand. Unlike southern cities, where a major snowfall might come once in a blue moon, cities like Syracuse, which receives an average of 115 inches of snowfall annually, are well-equipped to handle several feet of snow. This difference stems from the huge, local-level investment these cities put into snow removal. After getting three feet of snow in one day, within hours you’d never know it had snowed just by looking at the roads, Holder says. The snow plows have come through, removed the snow, salted the roads and made it possible for people to go about their business as usual. School and work are rarely cancelled, except for when there are very dangerous blizzard conditions.

“I think there is this viewpoint that that much snow is just going to shut down everything, and it rarely shuts down anything,” Holder says.

Efficient snow removal services take care of half the battle when it comes to transportation. Cold is the other half. Below-zero temperatures can make getting around a challenge, but residents of chilly cities find ways to cope.

“I always tell people, 'If God hadn’t wanted us to live up here, he wouldn’t have given us down jackets and AstroStart,'” Carley says.

In case you don’t know, AstroStart is a maker of remote car starters, devices that let you start your car from up to 2,000 feet away -- even from inside -- so it’s nice and warm by the time you need to drive. These gadgets, along with block heaters, battery warmers and heated engine blankets, are staples for residents of cities with frigid winters.

Owning a Home

If you live in city with a real winter, you don’t have to worry too much about snow on the roads -- the city’s got that covered. But snow on your own property? That’s all you. Snow is a big home maintenance consideration for residents of these cities -- a fact that Holder learned when trying to get his front-wheel-drive mini-van up his home’s hilly driveway.

“If there’s snow on the driveway, you can’t get that mini-van up the driveway,” Holder says. “We’d even back up into the driveway across the street and get a running start to go up our driveway, and it just didn’t work.”

So, Holder and his family began exploring their snow removal options.

“You either have to be really good with a snow shovel, which is incredible exercise, or you get a snow blower, or you hire the services of a snow plow,” Holder says. He went with the latter option and hired a snow plow to come through anytime there’s three inches of snow or more on the ground. He says the service costs around $350 for the year.

“It’s not a whole lot in the whole scheme of things,” Holder says. “Having a snow blower would certainly be less than that, but then we’d have to go out and use it.”

Besides snow removal, home maintenance in the winter is all about keeping warm air in and cold air out. Homes in cities with harsh winters are often equipped with fireplaces, plenty of insulation and energy-efficient windows. In Fargo, Carley says some homeowners, if they have the option, will face their driveways away from the wind.

“There are not too many more concessions other than that -- maybe a few more coat hooks,” Carley says.

Finding Fun

One thing’s for sure: when temperatures drop, these cities come alive as playgrounds for winter sports enthusiasts. Whether your passion is skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, ice skating or snow shoeing, you can find all that and more in these wintry cities. Caribou is centrally located within 1,600 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in Aroostook County, making it a popular destination for snowmobilers.

“At many establishments in town, you will see more snowmobiles parked out front than vehicles,” Buck says.

Ice fishing is huge around the lakes of Minnesota. In some areas, fish houses are grouped together on lakes to form driving lanes, creating what appear to be fish house “cities.”

“Some of the ice fishing houses are tricked out rather nicely with heaters, televisions, microwave ovens and bars. Some of these guys will sit out there for days and cut a hole in the ice, and actually, I think they get less fishing than drinking done,” Carley says.

For those who are more into watching sports than playing them, many of these cities have a lot to offer for sports fans. The Syracuse Crunch, the city’s minor league hockey team, has a huge following, says Holder. And in International Falls, the basketball and hockey teams play no matter how cold it is, Mason says.

At school in International Falls, children have outdoor recess until the temperature is 20 below zero. If it drops any further, the principal declares recess indoors and the children spend their break in the library or the gymnasium.

And, of course, art galleries, shopping, museums and dining are always an option if you want to have fun away from the cold. In Syracuse, Holder says the Rosamond Gifford Zoo is a great place to visit in the winter because it takes on a completely different persona than in any other season.

“There’s an indoor component to it if you want to stay out of the weather, but the outdoor exhibits feature animals that are extremely active during the wintertime,” Holder says. “You can actually see wolves playing with each other, or the Siberian tigers walking around doing things, instead of just sleeping like they sometimes do.”

Overall, finding fun in a city with a real winter isn’t much different than any other city.

“Life goes on pretty normally,” Carley says. “You’ve still got basketball games and concerts, and people are still out shopping and go out to dinner. It’s just like anywhere else; you just have to dress a little warmer.”

Tallying the Cost of Living

These days, “living green” is a priority for many people. But in a colder climate, it’s practically a necessity. The high cost of energy -- an issue that affects nearly everyone in the United States -- can be especially taxing for people living in cities with harsh winters.

In Caribou, for instance, Buck says an average family can easily spend between $2,000 and $4,000 heating their home over the winter months -- and that excludes the cost of electricity for lighting a home. Residents of these cities have to take extra measures to alleviate the high costs associated with winter.

“Our homes are insulated well, people keep their heating systems well maintained and backup systems are a must,” Buck says.

Older homes can be especially problematic when it comes to energy costs. In International Falls, Mason lives in a 3,300-square-foot home built in the early 1930s -- one of the oldest homes in the community. Because of the high cost of heating a home, the previous owner had to make several energy-saving modifications, including new siding, new windows and an efficient natural gas heating system.

Major home updates certainly make a big difference when it comes to saving money on energy, but residents of International Falls have also learned that small details matter too. Mason says many homeowners keep their heating costs down by choosing window treatments designed to keep their homes warm, or by covering their windows with plastic film to keep drafts out. “You use a blow dryer to make it really smooth so it looks like glass, and sometimes people don’t even notice that it’s covering your windows,” she says.

“I also know quite a few people who just keep the thermostat at 65 degees, all the time, they don’t touch it,” Mason says. “And you just wear a sweatshirt over your long-sleeved shirt and stay warm that way.”

Besides energy costs, a harsh winter doesn’t have a huge effect on cost of living. Other than heating costs, the only additional expenses Holder has encountered since he moved from North Carolina to Syracuse are snow removal services and a pair of snow tires for his van.

“The way I look at it is there’s a lot of balance there. What we spend extra in heating costs, we save in air conditioning costs,” he says.

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