Out Our Back Door By Tom Baake
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The Art & Science of The Wintertime Picnic
By Tom Baake
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Picnickers make the best of a sunny winter day in Charleston.

Of all the elements that go into creating a successful wintertime picnic, the most important is flexibility.

It is, unfortunately, a luxury that eludes most folks, with their commitments to work, school, kids, and so on.

Yes, flexibility is a prized treasure.  It’s the opposite of most peoples’ busy days; it’s increasingly difficult in these highly-scheduled times. Still, in this season of relentless rainstorms, chronic flooding, even ice and snow, you have to be able to take advantage of a good day when it comes along. You must be ready to reprioritize. Take a personal day. Drag the kids away from their devices. If possible, put off errands and other tasks for tomorrow.

That’s because during this time of year we’re at the mercy of that most fickle of all elements – the weather. Yes, yes, I realize technological advances have made weather prognostication more reliable, but I’ve decided that while forecasters are good at predicting storms, they’re more cautious about calling for good weather. It still often seems like a wonderful unpredicted gift when a day dawns and you realize immediately that it’s one of those rare perfect days. A “day-day.”

If as noted you have the luxury to be flexible, it’s joyously easy to give in to inspiration and celebrate it with a spontaneous picnic. As off-the-top as this may seem, however, it’s helpful to have done some forehand thinking and be ready to decide on a direction, as it were, paring down your short-list of potential favorite places, taking into consideration the built-in restrictions of the season.

In an ideal world, you and your picnic partners will have previously identified some likely places, and agreed that if the going looks good, you’ll just up and go without worrying about justifying the whole thing. Life is short and the number of picnic days limited, so we must take advantage whenever possible, etc., etc.

Secondarily to the necessity of good weather is the amount and availability of light on these winter days. It almost goes without saying that getting a decent early start maximizes solar exposure, a key to maintaining enthusiasm for the outing. All’s well when the sun is shining but when it sets or goes behind clouds, interest quickly wanes. Thus your choice of winter picnic places should depend in large part on its solar exposure. You don’t want to be shivering in some shady spot that never dries out this chilly time of year.

Try to be out in the open. You’ll find lots of good choices at beaches, oceanfront headlands and the Oregon Dunes.

Since this is a picnic, a mention about food. It’d be nice to think you could be ready to whip together a picnic lunch on short notice, but to really speed things up consider picking something up on the way, since these days you’ll find ready-to-eat food at everyplace from corner grocery stores to supermarkets. I keep a picnic basket permanently packed with paper plates, utensils, napkins and other non-perishables – just add food and drinks, and away we go.

Remember to bring a cushion or piece of thick plastic to sit on as this time of year benches (and the ground!) are thoroughly soaked.

As with most picnics, it’s enjoyable to be in an interesting setting – either “people watching” or just surrounded by peaceful nature. Sometimes you can find the best of both worlds at places such as Sunset Bay State Park near Charleston, where there’s usually some sort of action to watch from the comfort of a sunny picnic table.

Finally, the ideal picnic also has potential additional activities or even a place to escape to in case the weather changes. For example, the folks in the accompanying photo have selected a picnic table overlooking the sportfishing basin in the Charleston harbor, where there’s always activity to watch. In this case, the “bail-out” place is the nearby Charleston Marine Life Center for a little diversion or to wait out the weather.

Museums, shopping centers, casinos, even little curio shops make for quick escapes if the weather suddenly un-invites you from your picnic.

So don’t be daunted by what the calendar says. This is the time of year when the South Coast usually has the best weather in the state – get out and enjoy if you can!

(Shopper columnist Tom Baake is author of regional guidebooks.) 
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