At age 16 I was living in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and my exposure to the outdoors during winter was very limited.
I figure skated a few times on an outdoor rink that spent the rest of the year as a basketball court at the park next to the elementary school. Usually I skated at an indoor rink.
Rising up out of that otherwise very flat park there was also a man-made hill that was used for sledding. Another sled was still sitting at the bottom of the hill the time I sat at the front of our toboggan. I ended up with 13 stitches in my knee.
I didn't know a soul who played hockey or went ice fishing. I had a few friends who went downhill skiing in Wisconsin or Michigan. That was all I knew about winter.
When I was 16, I made a winter visit to my friend Amy in Richfield, Minn. On New Year's Day, we had nothing to do. When Amy discovered I'd never been to my family's cabin in the winter, she talked her big brother into driving us up for the day.
In the 1970s, Amy's family members used our Crosslake cabin in the winter when they went snowmobiling. I didn't know anyone else who owned a snowmobile at that time, so it was a rather mysterious outdoor activity to me. I'm not sure if they even had one anymore in 1981, but we were going north just to see what things were like.
When we got to the lake, we parked at the top of the hill because the driveway wasn't plowed and the snow was deep. It was so strange to see the lake covered with snow and the cabins quiet and vacant. No green trees or clear water. No sound of motor boats nearby or off in the distance. And no children were playing in the water.
It was a sunny but bitter day, and we went into the cabin to "warm up" out of the wind. Later Amy suggested we walk across the lake. I'd never walked on a frozen lake before, so it seemed quite an adventure at the time.
We started where our homemade wood dock stood. We didn't remove the dock in the fall in those days, and amazingly it lasted many, many years before it was shredded to pieces from the force of the ice breaking up in the spring.
We trudged through the snow and slip-slided on the ice below until we reached the neighbor's dock across the small bay. We made a few ice angels and were ready to go back in.
When we were hungry we packed up and headed into Crosslake. Of course it was a holiday, but we were amazed at how many businesses were closed. We finally found an open door at the Riverside Inn.
Living in northern Minnesota now, I can hardly avoid the winter anymore. Winter walks in the woods have opened my eyes to a whole new side of nature and wildlife. I've also found not-so-crowded places for sledding.
I've met lots of people who ice fish. I watched my brother-in-law sit on a campstool on the lake waiting for a fish to find his line. It looked like a miserable way to spend time until I tried it in a large fish house last year. Eight or 10 of us were quite comfortable for a few hours in the house with bunk beds, gas heat and a gas cook stove.
Saturday, though, brought another winter adventure at the Mid-Minnesota 150 Sled Dog Race in Remer. I've seen Susan Butcher and others on TV as they crossed many miles of frozen ground with a sled full of supplies led by a team of eager dogs. But standing at the finish line as the recreational class teams ended their 35-mile run from Outing was a different experience altogether.
The sleds came in ones or twos with the musher encouraging the dogs to "go on by" the gathered crowd. Some of the mushers pushed off on the snowy ground with one foot to help keep things moving toward the finish line. The crowd greeted the teams of one human and six or eight dogs with enthusiastic applause as the event's volunteers checked the drivers in.
As they came to a stop, the lean dogs panted heavily, and their ribs were visible with each quick breath. Some reached down for a cooling lick of snow or ice. Some threw themselves on their backs to roll and twist in the refreshing snow.
There was a bonfire near the finish line to warm the waiting spectators between arriving teams. The other watchers were friendly and willing to chat between incoming mushers, making the time go quickly and pleasantly.
The sled dog races certainly sit at the top of my fun-to-do-in-winter list of activities. I tried cross country skiing once years ago and have yet to try snowmobiling and snowshoeing. There's still so much more to look forward to.
(Diane McCormack is a correspondent for The Brainerd Dispatch and a freelance writer living in north central Minnesota. Send comments or feedback to email@example.com.)
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