Written by Lee Hoedl; LAKESTYLE magazine - Winter 2006 Issue

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The final report is filed and the very last voicemail returned. Saturday morning is so close, you can literally smell the hot chocolate and the crackling fireplace. Now just top it off with the ideal novel you’ve put aside to read and the weekend will be complete… Well, you best add a large Caribou Coffee Mint Condition (260 calories) and a warmed raspberry scone (440 calories) to be on the safe side. And while you’re at it, it might be wise to follow that up with a few healthy breakfast choices of orange juice (110 calories), waffles (246 calories) and hash browns (372 calories). Perfect. Now it’s back to that novel you’ve put aside.

Come to think of it, it is a good idea that you’ve chosen to read that novel throughout the entire weekend, because it will take you 21 hours of reclining and reading just to burn off just those early morning calories… and it’s not even lunch time yet. But there is another option.

While the six-month season of a Minnesota winter can bring out the strongest hibernating instinct, it can also spark the flame for outdoor adventure. Whether you are a novice or seasoned master of the cross-country ski or snowshoe, there’s nothing better to burn off those 390 calories of chicken strips you’re having for lunch than to travel

To hill and back

The perennial richness of the Minnesota winter and the four centuries of evolutionary advancement in cross-country ski and snowshoe equipment and technique combine to provide a wonderful orchestration for some of the most scenic and memorable trail exploration in the upper Midwest. The final factor in prying you from that cozy chesterfield near the fireplace may very well be simply choosing which of the more than 200 trails you will journey on this weekend. To begin your shortlist of desired locations, consider this writer’s 2006 selections for Minnesota trails to explore with cross-country skis and/or snowshoes this winter season.

Two Trails Diverged In A Wood: Cross Country Skiing

Maplelag Resort (Northwest): Located in the center of 660 acres of maple forest, Maplelag Resort services approximately 45 km of track-set and 15 km of skate-ski trails. The Maplelag staff also provides optional lessons and equipment rental for a fee. After working up an appetite on the wonderfully groomed and scenic trails, treat yourself to one of Maplelag’s family style, all-you-can-eat dinners in the lodge dining room. It’s not only a wonderful locale for cross country skiing, but also an ideal location for a weekend getaway. Snowshoeing is also available.

Directions: 20 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes (visit the website for more specific driving directions). Information Contact: 218-375-4466, 800-654-7711. Website: www.maplelag.com

Voyageurs National Park (North): Should you be looking for a skiing location that will get you “away from it all,” then Voyageurs, the only national park in Minnesota, is your destination. No Minnesota ski pass is required to ski any of the 25 kilometers of groomed trails, dominated by aspens and pines. 15 of these kilometers are accessible near the Rainy Lake Visitor Center. There are also marked and tracked snowshoeing trails available. The park itself is located on the border of the United States and Canada and is the home of the eastern timber wolf. Since these wolves are shy, secretive and pose virtually no threat to humans, it likely the only sighting you will have is just their tracks in the snow. For an added bonus, ski Voyageurs in mid-February and then attend International Fall’s Blast on the Border Winter Festival, complete with frozen turkey bowling, snow sculpting, smoosh races, and snowshoeing.

Directions: 11 miles east of International Falls on Highway 11. Information Contact: 3131 Highway 53, International Falls, Minnesota 56649; 218-283-9821. Website: www.nps.gov/voya

Cannon Valley Trail (South): Connecting the cities of Red Wing, Welch and Cannon Falls in southern Minnesota, the 30 kilometers of cross-country skiing along Cannon Valley trail will take you on a relaxing and leveled journey along the Cannon River terrace. Trails lead skiers through hardwood forests, prairies and along river ridges. And whether you are beginning or ending your day of adventure in Cannon Falls, treat yourself to a cup of homemade soup and ambience at the Stone Mill Coffeehouse and Eatery.

Directions: Approximately 25 miles south of St. Paul (visit website for more specific driving directions to each of the three main trailheads). Information Contact: 507-263-0508. Website: www.cannonvalleytrail.com

Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley State Trails (Southeast): Nestled in the corners of Fillmore and Houston Counties, this 90-plus km trail system is one of the most extensive in Minnesota. The northern two-thirds of the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail pass through scenic Watson Creek, Root River and rich wooded areas. The final one-third of the trail is accentuated with rolling hills and reflective views of Root River. Regardless of the length of skiing, the experience will rejuvenate the soul.

Directions: 45 miles southeast of Rochester. Information Contact: DNR Trails and Waterways, 507-285-7176. Website: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_trails (Minnesota DNR State Trails homepage)

Afton State Park (Metro): Located southeast of St. Paul along the St. Croix River, Afton State Park easily transforms its lively summer and fall hiking trails into well groomed winter cross country skiing trails. These trails are ideal for both cross-country skiers and hikers alike as they weave their way through 28 kilometers of prairie, wooded stands and bluffs overlooking the serene St. Croix River. The beginner’s loop is 4 kilometers long, while the rest of the trails are intermediate or advanced.

Directions: Located 20 miles southeast of St. Paul - Drive 9 miles east on I-94, 7 miles south on Highway 95 and then 3 miles east on County Road 20. Information Contact: 6959 Peller Ave. South Hastings, MN 55033; 651-436-5391. Website: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/afton

Honorable Mentions: And if the above mentioned choices are just enough to whet your appetite for winter activity, explore the following honorable mentions:

Chippewa National Forest (North): Trails: 200 km on 19 groomed trails. Directions: 14 miles north of Grand Rapids off State Highway 38. Information Contact: 218-246-2123. Website: www.visitgrandrapids.com, www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/chippewa.

Andes Tower Hills (Central): Trails: 15 km. Directions: 15 miles west of Alexandria. Information Contact: 320-965-2455. Website: www.andestowerhills.com.

Lake Maria State Park (Metro): Trails: 23 km. Directions: Northwest of the Twin Cities. The park can be reached by exiting off of Interstate 94 at Monticello, west on Highway 39 and then north on Highway 8. Information Contact: 11411 Clementa Avenue Northwest, Monticello, Minnesota 55362; (763) 878-2325. Website: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/lake_maria.

Breaking Trail Through Minnesota: Snowshoeing

The use of snowshoes began over 3,000 years ago out of a basic need explore new territories and to find food in the wintertime. Into the 21st century, snowshoeing continues to be an ideal way to explore the winter wonderland of Minnesota, but also as a way to find one’s youthfulness again.

Unlike cross-country skiing, snowshoeing is permitted throughout the state parks and trails except on groomed trails or where posted. So venture out on to this writer’s 2006 selections for Minnesota trails to explore with snowshoes this winter season.

George H. Crosby-Manitou State Park (Northeast): Located just off the North Shore Drive of Highway 61, the George H. Crosby-Manitou State Park offers both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing opportunities. The park hosts 39 kilometers on which to break new trail while traveling along the peaceful Manitou River and its cascades; onward through forested areas and views of Lake Superior. As a reward for your effort, enjoy a well deserved meal at the Blue Fin Grille, overlooking Lake Superior, in nearby Tofte. Then finish off a memorable afternoon with an espresso and homemade pastry at the Coho Café & Bakery.

Directions: Located on the North Shore. Drive north on Highway 61. From Highway 61 at Illgen City, go north on MN 1 7 miles to Co. Rd. 7, then northeast 7 miles. Information Contact: Tettegouche State Park, 5702 Highway 61, Silver Bay, MN 55614; (218) 226-6365. Website: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/george_crosby_manitou.

Itasca State Park (Northwest): Home of the Mississippi headwaters, Itasca State Park is situated in the snow belt of northern Minnesota. With annual snowfalls averaging over 30 inches, this park is home to excellent snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Again, snowshoeing is permitted throughout the state parks and trails except on groomed trails or where posted, so enjoy the over 80 kilometers of trails available to you. Snowshoe rental is available – contact the Itasca State Park Visitor Center for more information on this service. And if you should find yourself a little more adventurous, visit Itasca State Park in late January and participate in Bemidji’s Polar Daze. Cap it all off with the best burger north of St. Cloud at Slim’s Bar & Grill on Anne St. in north Bemidji.

Directions: The park’s entrance to the park is 21 miles north of Park rapids on U.S. Highway 71. Information Contact: 36750 Main Park Drive, Park Rapids, Minnesota 56470; (218) 266-2100. Website: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/itasca.

Sibley State Park (South): Teeming with wildlife and steeped in oak, red cedar and ash, Sibley State Park provides 29 kilometers of trail for snowshoeing and 16 kilometers for cross-country skiing enthusiasts. Framed by Games, Norway, Middle and Andrew Lake, the park allows you a scenic view of oak savannas, farmland, and prairie knolls. Take the challenge and finish off your trekking with a climb of Mount Tom, one of several high points in a 50-mile radius.

Directions: From St. Cloud, take State Hwy 23 to New London, then State Hwy 9 west to US Hwy 71. Go one mile south on 71 to park entrance. Information Contact: 800 Sibley Park Road NE, New London, Minnesota 56273-9664; (320) 354-2055. Website: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/sibley.

Honorable Mentions: Again, should the above choices only begin to satisfy your adventurous spirit, consider the following honorable mentions:

Afton State Park (Metro): In addition to its well groomed cross-country ski trails, the park also maintains six kilometers of groomed snowshoe trailers. Visitors on snowshoes may also trek anywhere in the park except on groomed ski trails. There are also two miles of winter hiking trails and a sliding hill for young children. Directions: Located 20 miles southeast of St. Paul - Drive 9 miles east on I-94, 7 miles south on Highway 95 and then 3 miles east on County Road 20. Information Contact: 6959 Peller Ave. South Hastings, MN 55033; 651-436-5391. Website: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/afton.

Gunflint Trail (North): In similar fashion to Voyageuers National Park, the Gunflint Trail is for the hardiest of snowshoers and cross-country skiers. For snowshoers, the Gunflint Trail is a winter haven. Explore the snowy trails and woods, or go into the backcountry and explore the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (day permits are easily accessible and required). As well, cross-country skiers will enjoy nearly 200 km of groomed and tracked trails. Skate skiing is offered over much of the system, and lighted trails for night skiing are here, as well. Treat yourself to a meal, and even a weekend getaway, at Bearskin Lodge on the shores of beautiful East Bearskin Lake. Directions: From the village of Grand Marais on Lake Superior's north shore, the Gunflint Trail (County Road 12) winds north and west to Saganaga Lake at the Canadian border. Information Contact: The Gunflint Trail Association, P.O. Box 205, Grand Marais, MN 55604; 800-338-6932 or the Gunflint Trail Information Center, 1-218-387-3191. Website: http://www.gunflint-trail.com.

Bundle Up: Attire and Access

Selecting your clothing attire is just as important as selecting your specific trail and skiing/shoeing equipment. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing rank as some of the most aerobic activities that one can participate in, so be sure to consider the following suggestions:

• Be prepared to get quite warm while out trekking and also be prepared to cool off quickly when you stop for a break. A system of layering is the best way to deal with the temperature fluctuations of activity and rest out on the trail system. A combination of wool and wicking material is one of the most effective ways to conserve your body heat and ward off any Minnesota chill.
• Be sure to wear a hat/stocking cap as almost 60% of your body is lost through an exposed head.
• Whether skiing or snowshoeing, select a shoe that is warm and comfortable and will keep your feet dry. Socks, such as Smartwool, are a smart choice as they wick away wetness from your skin and allow your feet to remain relatively dry.
• Gaiters, whether skiing or snowshoeing, are also very helpful in keeping the snow out of your shoes. Consider the investment.
• Review the Winter Tips and Recommendations below as there are items that you will want to carry in a fanny pack or backpack, as well as having handy in your vehicle.
• It is always a smart choice to also bring along the following items while on the trail: first aid kit, ample food and water (one quart per person per hour), compass and trail map, pair of binoculars and a whistle.
• Top all of this off with a warm pair of gloves (and a back-up pair of heavy mittens) and an effective pair of sunglasses or goggles. There is nothing worse than shortening your trail run due to cold hands or snow blindness.

Should you find yourself venturing out with skis strapped to your boots, it is important to know that all cross-country skiers on public ski trails who are aged 16 and above must have a Minnesota Ski Pass. You must sign your ski pass and carry it with you when skiing. This particular ski pass fee helps support Minnesota's cross-country ski trail system.

You can purchase licenses by phone: 1-888-665-4236 (1-MN-LICENse). Call any time of day or night, seven days a week. This toll-free call provides immediate licensing by way of a license identification number, which will be issued at the time of the call. The license identification number is valid until you receive an actual license in the mail. All purchases must be made by credit card. There is $3.50 convenience fee per transaction.

You will be able to purchase a daily pass in person at all parks except Carley, Crosby Manitou, Monson, or Schoolcraft state parks.

The ski pass rates for 2005 were as follows: $5 for a daily ski pass; $15 for a one-season ski pass; $40 for a three-season ski pass. Visit the Minnesota DNR homepage for updated pricing for the 2006-07 seasons.

And regardless of whether you are venturing out with snowshoes or skis, remember that all vehicles entering the state parks must display a valid Minnesota State Park vehicle permit. Permits can be purchased in person at any state park or at the DNR headquarters in St. Paul (500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul). Permits can also be purchased by phone by calling (651) 296-6157 (Twin Cities metro area) or toll free 1-888-MINNDNR (646-6367). 2006 Daily ($7) and annual permits ($25) are available at the state parks. Again, visit the Minnesota DNR homepage for updated pricing and information.

Braving the Cold: Winter Tips and Recommendations

Finally, regardless of where your skis or shoes may take you in the land of 10,000 lakes, it is imperative that you prepare for all circumstances during the winter months. Before you set out to explore nature’s beauty, consider these general tips and recommendations:

• Before you start out to ski or shoe, check the local weather service as conditions can change abruptly.
• Eat regularly and drink enough fluids to avoid dehydration.
• Be sure to notify family and friends as to your travel/adventure plans – at least one person should know where you will be skiing or snowshoeing and the time of your expected return.
• Pay attention to the environment in which you find yourself. Respect your surroundings and “pack out what you pack in.”
• When snowshoeing or cross-country skiing with a group, be sure that everyone in your group is capable of maintaining the pace and demands of the trail. When it’s your turn to “break trail,” be sure that everyone is able to maintain the pace that you are about to set.
• Know your limits and do not extend yourself beyond your abilities. Too many individuals have met their demise due to their tendency to overestimate their abilities and underestimate their environment.
• Be conscious of signs of frostbite. These include loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance in extremities such as fingers, toes, ear lobes, and the tip of the nose. If any of these symptoms are detected, exit the trail as soon as possible and seek medical aid.
• Be aware of signs of hypothermia. These include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion. If symptoms of hypothermia are detected, get to a warm location, remove any wet clothing, warm the center of your body first, and fill yourself with warm, non-alcoholic beverages. As well, get medial aid as soon as possible.

As well, please consider these winter survival tips, following your outdoor adventure, should you find yourself trapped in your vehicle during a blizzard/whiteout:

• Pull off the highway (if necessary), turn on your hazard lights and hang a bright distress flag or ribbon from your radio antenna or driver’s window.
• Remain in your vehicle where rescuers are most likely to find you. DO NOT set out on foot unless you are clearly able to see a building very close by where you can take shelter. Call 911 to let them know your location and situation and then stay put.
• Be sure to store an survival kit in your vehicle throughout winter with the following supplies:

  • Additional warm socks, hats and mittens
  • Winter underwear
  • Fleece or wool sweater or pants
  • Multipurpose tool/knife
  • Bright distress flag/ribbon (for antenna or driver’s window)
  • Ski or snow pants and jacket
  • 1 or 2 sleeping bag and blankets
  • Additional snow boots
  • At least one gallon of water and a coffee can or pot (to melt snow in)
  • 25 – 50 feet of nylon cord
  • Large stainless steel camp cup
  • Windshield de-icer and scraper
  • Tool kit with screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, etc.
  • Hand warmers
  • Dried fruit, nuts, granola, tea, hot chocolate, etc.
  • Camp heat sterno (to melt snow and heat water)
  • First aid kit
  • Ski goggles
  • Compass
  • Road map
  • Cell phone (and car charger)
  • Vehicle emergency kit with tire changing tools, duct tape, electrical tape, fuses, jumper cables, tow chain, flares, large bag of sand, winter shovel, etc.
  • Flashlights and batteries
  • 1 or 2 backpacking freeze-dried meals and spoons
  • Matches or lighter
  • Emergency candles
  • Some interesting reading material and playing cards
  • Assorted hard candies and chocolate
  • Toilet paper

• Do not leave your car engine running (due to the threat of carbon monoxide), but run the engine and heater about 10 minutes each hour to keep warm. When the engine is running, open an upwind window slightly (the side away from the wind or blowing snow) for ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide buildup. Should you find yourself in low visibility, tie the nylon cord (listed above) to your car’s door handle or steering column as a lifeline, and then use it while periodically clearing snow from the car’s tailpipe as needed. Visibility can be as little as 12 inches and individuals have been unable to find their car when they’ve only been a few feet away.
• Exercise to maintain body heat, but avoid overexertion. In extreme cold, use road maps, seat covers, and floor mats for insulation. Huddle with passengers and use your coat for a blanket.
• If with others, take turns sleeping; one person should be awake at all times to look for rescue crews.
• Be careful not to waste battery power. Balance electrical energy needs – lights, heat and radio – with yoru supply.
• Turn on inside light at night so rescuers can see the vehicle.
• Before leaving on any long-distance trip or adventure, be sure to transfer your winter survival kit and clothing from the car’s trunk to the passenger side or back seat. Having your kit and clothing handy is much safer than attempting to secure them from the trunk while in a snow-covered ditch.
• Be sure to eat your snacks and drink the water – it’s important to keep your energy and hydration level up during the time you are stranded in your vehicle. Use the bottled water to drink and if you need to eat warm food, fill the coffee can, pot or pan with snow/water and light a camp heat sterno (with caution), while placed on the floor mat, to near boiling. Open one of the backpack meals, add water and eat.

Destination and preparation are beneficial to any enjoyable and successful winter journey, so be sure to pack your gear, your car and your excitement and hit the trails! For as the popular commercial touts:

  • Cross country ski / snowshoe rental: $20
  • Hours spent on the Minnesota trails on a Saturday or Sunday: 3
  • Calories burned on the trail: 1088
  • Regaining your spirit and vitality: PRICELESS

Photography by Lee Hoedl

Copyright 2006

Copyright 2006, Lee Hoedl, leehoedl@yahoo.com