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The happy hibernators

Published Aug. 27, 2005

It starts with the first chill of winter, said Miriam Hyams of Heritage Hills, a community in northern Westchester County, N.Y., where many of the residents are retirees. The clay sculpture class and square-dancing lessons at the activity center thin out, the fitness center next door is emptier, and there's a noticeable drop in traffic along Heritage Hills Drive.

Indeed, by some estimates, as many as a third of Hyams' nearly 3,700 neighbors flee the winter's cold for warmer climes where frigid temperatures, hazardous roads and relentless snowstorms are little more than newspaper headlines and bad dreams. Florida alone experiences "an infusion of over a million so-called snowbirds," according to Tom Flanigan, spokesman for Visit Florida, the state's official tourism and marketing corporation.

But for Hyams and her husband, Ira, a semiretired lawyer, the notion of joining the southern migration leaves them _ shall we say _ cold. "Florida holds no thrill for me," she said. "We don't like the humidity, and we enjoy staying home."

As it turns out, for some in the snowbird demographic, winter is an enticement all its own. They savor sleeping under the weight of multiple blankets, toes cocooned in woolen socks. They enjoy the foods they associate with the season: mulled cider, hot chocolate, pot roast. They appreciate the beauty of sun glinting on icicles and the rare stillness of a world engulfed by snow. Then there is the joy of driving through a winter in the Northeast _ really.

"Good snow driving is an art," said Muriel Ten Dyke, who still likes to take her Toyota Camry for a spin on a snowy day. (But then she and her husband, Richard, did grow up in Minnesota, before moving to Westchester County in 1960.) "Snow is no mystery to us." Indeed, Richard Ten Dyke recalled taking his daughter for a driving lesson in Bedford, N.Y., in the middle of a snowstorm when she was 16. "I told her, "Today you're going to learn to drive on ice.' "

For Richard Ten Dyke, the season has many attractions, beginning with the outdoors. "Our property borders the reservation," he said, referring to the 4,700-acre Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, the county's largest park, and gesturing toward a row of windows that frame a seemingly endless stretch of bare-branched trees. An avid hiker, Ten Dyke walks in the reservation each morning for about an hour, rarely crossing paths with other people during winter months. "I'm in there every day year-round, unless the snow is too deep. Last winter I saw the tracks of three bobcats playing together in the snow," he said. "It's like being in paradise."

Sometimes, the advantages of being an antisnowbird are more tangible. Within Heritage Hills, business drops 10 percent in the winter months at Luke's Hair Design, said owner Luke Mignano, making it easier to get a hair appointment, and tables clear out at the Pinnacle Restaurant, where on Thursday night the usual big group of golfers in for the prix fixe drops by half, to about 30. And for some people, even being trapped inside during a blizzard can be a treat. "I do paperwork or work on the crossword puzzle," says Samuel Rosmarin, a retired child psychiatrist who lives with his wife, Muriel, in Pleasantville, also in north Westchester.

Of course, not everyone who stays in the winter is an ardent fan of the season. Some worry about leaving houses unoccupied for extended periods, vulnerable to vandalism or frozen pipes. Others are put off by crowded airports, especially when weather is unpredictable. Those with health concerns feel anxious about being away from their doctors. And there are those who prefer to remain close to friends and family regardless of the temperature.

"I don't like the cold," Muriel Rosmarin said, "but I don't like Florida either." On a visit there several years ago, "first we watched the sunset, and then we ate dinner. It was boring."

Samuel Rosmarin said, "For us, life is much more than our physical surroundings. It is about family and friends," including their children and grandchildren who live nearby.

And Pearl Brody has spent the last 43 years, including many winters, in Norwalk, Conn., with her husband, Albert Shansky, a chemist who is now semiretired. She finds the humidity of Florida "oppressive" and the snowbird lifestyle unappealing. Further, she said, "our lives here are very satisfying, snow notwithstanding."

The Ten Dykes, for their part, "would never go south for the winter," said Muriel Ten Dyke, who sat opposite her husband in their living room on a recent chilly afternoon, a fire in the well-used fireplace.

"People ask me where I'm going to move when I retire," Richard Ten Dyke said. "I tell them I've been retired almost 15 years and even in winter I'm still here."