What a world. What a time!

Two years into the COVID pandemic, we still don’t know how to respond to SARS-CoV-2 (as it is now named). When we think we’ve figured it out, a new variant comes along.

Now it’s Omicron, which is causing milder symptoms in many people but killing others. The most contagious strain yet, it’s coursing through schools, workplaces, even hospitals.

All of us are tired – whether we believe in the value of vaccines, the effectiveness of masks and the wisdom of avoiding crowded indoor spaces, or the greater value of freedom of choice.

No profound observations will be made here. Just a small suggestion that has proven safe from variant to variant, for vaxxed and unvaxxed alike, does not (usually) require a mask and reinforces everyone’s sense of freedom: During this winter season, go outdoors.

Fortunately it is starting to act like winter at just the right time, because quite a few interesting winter events are scheduled over the next couple of months.

These next couple of weekends feature the region’s two ice festivals in Somerset and Ligonier respectively. The events have been going on for decades and center around amazing ice carvings, retail-shop sales, a variety of outdoor activities for all ages, food trucks and free entertainment.

Somerset’s Fire & Ice Festival is this weekend, Jan.14-16, and offers a “Winter Carnival” theme (SomersetInc.org). Ligonier’s Ice Fest 2022 takes place on January 22-23 (Ligonier.com).

State parks have experienced increasing visitation and usage over the past couple of years, thanks to the pandemic. And parks’ staffs have gotten rather creative in their efforts to offer interesting programming.

Parks, for example, are packaging and offering a variety of free events and activities on given Saturdays to attract people of various ages and interests.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, Saturday, Jan. 15, Greenwood Furnace State Park is offering “Snowfest and Polar Plunge.” For the bold and hardy, there’s a five-mile foot race and an opportunity to splash in the lake to benefit a charity. Fat-bike demos, ice harvesting, live music, ice skating and broomball, a bonfire and winter camping also will be offered. (814) 667-1800.

Canoe Creek State Park has its Winter Games and Polar Plunge Feb. 5. While the brave souls, jumping into the lake for a good cause, will be the center of attention, there will be other scheduled winter activities and a “Plunge Town” with food, entertainment, vendors, and kids activities. FriendsOfCanoeCreek@gmail.com.

Prince Gallitzin State Park has several events scheduled: There’s a “FeederWatch” on Jan. 26, where binoculars and spotting scopes will be available; and a two-mile, guided nature walk on January 28.

An atypical nature program is the “Painting in the Park” event on January 29, when local nature artist Brian Ford will teach painters of all experience levels – including beginners – how to create works of art. The cost is $40 per person but all materials will be provided.

Then Prince Gallitzin will have its “Winter Blast” from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 12, featuring a variety of free activities such as sled riding, guided hikes, ice skating and broomball, cross country skiing, ice-fishing and snowmobile demonstrations. For information on all of the Prince Gallitzin events, call (814) 674-1000, extension 105.

Forbes State Forest, which wraps Laurel Ridge, has scheduled a 7 a.m. “Rise N’ Shine” snowshoe or hike (depending upon conditions) of 1.5 to 2 miles on Jan. 29, and a “Hygge Hike” at 10 a.m. Feb. 12. The latter is a two-mile hike that will demonstrate this Danish lifestyle, which embraces wellness, comfort and coziness. Call (724) 259-2201 for information on both.

Since COVID arrived, a lot of people have discovered or rediscovered the joys of spending time outdoors. Until this pandemic is behind us, it’s also one of the safest, healthiest places to be.

To respond to this column – or read other columns by Dave Hurst – visit www.hurstmediaworks.com.

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