For committed walkers in Whatcom County, the weather is just a sidebar - at best, something that adds warmth to their activity; at worst, a challenge that pelts them with rain and sometimes snow but doesn't interfere with their determination to get out and do what they love.
Some began their outdoor exercise with one goal in mind and ended up with unexpectedly rich friendships and a social network that inspires and encourages them to continue. That's been true for Peggy Vander Yacht, 64, who joined a walking group led by Cindy Paffumi three years ago.
"At first it was hard to stay motivated, but the payoffs were so great," says the retired school teacher from Bellingham.
Vander Yacht initially had trouble keeping up with the rest of the group, mostly women around the age of 50.
"If I could just see the backs of the people in front of me in the distance, I was happy," she says with a laugh.
The changes in her health and fitness after she joined the group were remarkable. Vander Yacht dropped 25 pounds and noticed a major difference in her endurance, particularly in her ability to walk uphill.
"I just felt better because walking is great exercise, physically and mentally," she says. "On top of that, I made some really good friends in the walking group. We get together for breakfast and coffee and do a lot of visiting and sharing. It's much cheaper than counseling."
For the past six years Paffumi has been leading a walking group coordinated by Fairhaven Runners and Walkers. An average of 15 to 20 walkers meets Saturday mornings to walk five to seven miles "at a pretty good clip," Paffumi says.
"Some use a race-walking technique and others don't, but it's very social," she says. "It's been a great place for people who are new to the community and want to make friends, network, or try to find jobs or companionship."
The fastest among them, Paffumi is a competitive race walker who used to coach for the Special Olympics. In 2006, she started training walkers for a 15-kilometer waterfront walk. When the race ended, her group of walkers was determined to continue - with her in the lead.
"I started an email list that grew from a core group of eight people to what it is now about 100," she says.
As Paffumi monitors the group on each walk, she overhears conversations about food, work, travel and books.
"I love the fact that people have created these wonderful friendships and are learning through this activity," she says.
The group walks rain or shine; the only time Paffumi will cancel a walk is if there's ice on the trail.
"That's very unusual," she says. "Even when the weather is lousy we get a good showing of walkers, and people wear the right gear, such as rain gear and hats in nasty weather. We reward ourselves by going for a coffee afterward."
Most of the time the group enjoys the weather and experiences the seasons close up, taking time to appreciate the natural environment.
"We've had some full winter walks, when the leaves have fallen and you're walking in the crunch," Paffumi says. "In the winter you don't look your best, you have snot coming out of your nose and it's not a pretty sight, but we still get out there and do it."
In fact, there have been few truly awful weather days for the group.
"In February this year I had 10 walkers show up in a big downpour," Paffumi recalls. "We thought it would stop raining, but we were wrong; it came down harder. The wind was blowing and the temperatures were dropping but we did our first loop around the lake, and when I asked everyone if they wanted to quit, to my surprise they opted to do a second loop! The weather never let up on that walk, and we were all too soaked and cold to enjoy a coffee together after that one."
But there's something meditative about being outside in bad weather, she says.
"Having the raindrops pumping on my hood, the swishing of the rain jacket, and my breath visible in the cold air becomes a very spiritual, meditative, invigorating experience. Runners talk about a 'runners' high,' but walkers can get that, too."
Paffumi also heads out with a group of female walking friends weekly in the evenings through the winter. Their favorite route is Bellwether Way to Zuanich Point Park, a Squalicum Harbor path that's well-lit and nicely paved.
"We're quite the sight, with our furry hats, felt mittens and several layers of clothing," she says. "Much different than the svelte runners we see on the trail."
When it comes to walking or running in the dark of winter, safety trumps fashion. Steve Roguski, co-owner owner of Fairhaven Runners, says smart planning can reduce the risk of injuries and accidents.
"Pick safe places such as well-lit tracks, run toward traffic and wear reflective gear," he advises. "Head out with others, as it increases your visibility and overall safety."
Runners and walkers should carry identification and an emergency contact number, he says, and be mindful of bikers and motorists.
"Keep your mind alert," Roguski says. "Don't assume that cars and people on bikes see you or plan on braking for you."
WINTER WALK ADVICE
Dress for the weather: Cindy Paffumi recommends that walkers purchase running shoes, wool socks, Gore-Tex jackets and sport or athletic pants. She wears a Polartec vest to stay warm.
Other useful accoutrements include mittens (gloves don't keep fingers warm enough), a hat with a bill to keep your ears warm and to protect eyewear from the rain, and reflective gear and a headlamp for walks in the dark.
Ease into it: Novices should try to walk every day. "Even if it means you're just going out for five or 10 minutes, plan a walk into your day," Paffumi says. "As soon as you get home from work, change into your workout clothes and get walking."
Walk with a friend: Having a walking buddy can be a powerful motivator, especially if you struggle to walk alone. "Find someone who will make that commitment with you at a certain time of day. The minute you've got someone out there who will show up, there's a better chance you'll show up, too."
Set a goal: Committing to a race - whether a 10K, 15K or half-marathon - can help keep you motivated to walk every day.
Bring your pooch: Paffumi welcomes new walkers and encourages them to bring their dogs. "Recently I had 25 people and five dogs," she says.
Participate: To join a group walk, email Paffumi at email@example.com or visit fairhavenrunners.com.
Lauren Kramer is a Bellingham freelance writer. Read her work online at laurenblogshere.com.