What to do in Minnesota in the winter?
Minnesota is not noted for its pleasant weather, particularly its winter weather. Why would anyone want to live in such a place? In my case the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) area in Minnesota had been the source of the best offer after graduating from South Dakota State College in 1958 with a degree in electrical engineering. That is why I ended up in Minnesota. I would have gone to Texas for the right offer.
Since I had grown up in South Dakota, Minnesota weather didn’t surprise me. Minnesota winters were, if anything, gentler than what I had been used to in part because the Twin Cities didn’t have the persistent Dakota wind.
My wife and I had started a family soon after moving to Minnesota and as the children grew up we started looking for things to do with them, particularly outdoors in the winter. Snow itself presents outdoor opportunities for children such as: snowball ball fights, making snowmen, building forts, snow tunnels. Children are very good at finding uses for snow. There were other opportunities. Most parks in the Twin Cities and suburbs maintained recreational and hockey rinks for skating. Hills with a good run out became sliding hills in the winter. By the sixties a number of the best hills in the Twin Cities area had been developed for downhill skiing and snowmaking had become common so good skiing conditions could be guaranteed for the winter months for that activity. For adults ice boat sailing on the numerous lakes in the area and ice fishing were options. Snowmobiles became popular in the sixties and they were everywhere until the local municipalities banned them because of the noise and because they were making trails through people’s back yards. They remain popular but have been confined to the many miles of snowmobile trails away from populated areas.
We bought skates which were put to good use and every kid in the neighborhood had some kind of device for sliding down nearby hills. We bought a family size toboggan and occasionally the whole family would spend an afternoon using it on a big hill on a river bluff. That is until we hit a tree and our older son got a minor concussion. We put the toboggan away and never used it again. Although our family did take advantage of a number of winter outdoor activities, we hadn’t focused on any one activity that we would devote a great deal of time to. This changed at the end of the sixties.
A large number of Scandinavians had settled in Minnesota and the upper Midwest during the Nineteenth Century. Despite this, Nordic Skiing, commonly called cross country skiing in Minnesota, had not been widely practiced or popular when we moved to the state in 1958. This had begun to change in the Twin Cities by the end of the sixties. In December of 1969 we saw a notice that a North Star Ski Club would be demonstrating and giving Nordic Skiing lessons on a Sunday afternoon. My wife and I decided to try it.
We rented Madshus skis with lignostone edges and three pin bindings along with boots and poles. The North Star Ski Club notice had attracted a large number of interested potential skiers and they were divided into three groups. We were instructed on how to hold and use the poles and given a few instructions on the technique of Nordic classical skiing. They then had us ski around a large circle while the instructors critiqued our style. After that they had us ski a short trail which included a small hill to climb and ski down.
Christmas was approaching and we took advantage of a discount we could get to buy the ski equipment we had rented and bought ski equipment for the two oldest children. The youngest boy wouldn’t turn two for a couple of months and wasn’t quite ready for skies. From that time until I reached my mid-eighties skiing became my winter obsession. Our family winter vacations became skiing vacations. My daughter skied races as part of a club team and with her high school. During the off season I stayed in condition running and biking to be in shape for winter skiing. I became involved in citizen ski racing and skied in several races during the winter with the American Birkebeiner and Minnesota Mora Vasaloppet being the season highlights. I skied whenever there was snow. Snow was the only required condition. Things like temperature, air or wind chill were not a factors. The winters were too short. The winters couldn’t start soon enough and ended too soon. January thaws were not appreciated. I have slowed down because of age and I am a caregiver for my wife of fifty nine years but still ski occasionally.
Nordic skiing went through a surge in popularity in Minnesota and throughout the United States snow states during the seventies. There were significant enhancements in skies, poles, boots, and clothing during that same period. During the early development of composition materials in the seventies to replace wood in skis, changes were coming so fast and improvements were so significant that like smart phones, the skies had to be replaced often if you wanted to keep up with the technology. During the early eighties, Bill Koch an American elite skier, introduced the ski skating technique to Nordic racing and blew away the competition. Of course the competition also began skating and the technique quickly spread through the Nordic skiing community. Eventually the races were separated and designated either for the skating or classic technique as the sport evolved. There had been a lot of controversy during introduction of skating between the traditionalist and the people skating who ruined the trails groomed for the classic Nordic technique. Now many ski trails are groomed for both classic and skating techniques.
Before the seventies there were only a few trails devoted to Nordic cross country skiing in the Twin Cities. Now there are hundreds of miles of designated cross country ski trails in the Twin Cities metro area and probably thousands of miles in the whole state of Minnesota. There are now three parks in the Twin Cities that make snow for Nordic skiing. Sky racing seems to be a natural outcome of the sport and citizen races can be found somewhere in Minnesota and western Wisconsin during any weekend during January and February. This includes the internationally known fifty kilometer American Birkebeiner, which is the largest North American marathon ski race attended by elite skiers and citizens skiers from around the world. The race has been held in Hayward Wisconsin every year since 1973.
Finishing the Birkebeiner many years ago
There are many memories from those years. My wife and I have skied cross country in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, California, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska and Switzerland and we found that some of the best cross country skiing anywhere was about two miles from where we lived. We have easy access, ideal weather, and terrain and infrastructure right here in a major urban area with a great skiing community. Who needs Florida; they have lousy Nordic skiing conditions.
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