Winter is Coming or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Snow

“Renewing one’s spirit through reading new books, taking up new hobbies, adopting new viewpoints, making new friends, traveling to new places; that is the art of adventure.”

-Wilferd Peterson

“Minnesota? Why?”

-Everyone else

So, last September, I up and moved from sunny Florida North of the Wall. (To be clear before anyone asks, this post’s title is a Dr. Strangelove ripoff and this ‘Wall’ is a fictional defensive stronghold from the fantasy/HBO/Tolkien-wannabe series Game of Thrones. It separates civilized land-developed Westeros from the snow-blanketed death, horror and ice-zombie-riddled barren wasteland North of it. No sane person ventures north of the Wall. I like to front-load these posts with nerdy references like these because, well, if you’re not on board with them you are going to hate everything that comes next and probably everything else on this blog. I’m really saving you time and energy. Onward!

A couple weeks ago when trying to brainstorm an interesting way to write about my first Winter in Minnesota ever, I thought it might be fun to detail all of the wintry things I did and compare them to something a Floridian would understand. I know plenty of people in Florida DO understand what a real Winter is like but I certainly didn’t, so I’m going to try to summarize the last seven plus months for myself, circa three years ago. Maybe then he/I could actually appreciate the Winter X-Games or Olympics or the first twenty minutes of Empire Strikes Back for once. Besides, some Winter activities are very obviously frozen versions of something familiar, like swapping Jet Skis for snowmobiles or building snowmen instead of sand castles. It seemed as good of an idea as any.

On a related note, I’ve been holding off on writing anything about my Winter exploits (let’s all just ignore and move past that I haven’t written on this blog for over a year) because the damn thing isn’t over yet. It snowed yesterday. It’s going to be in the ’30s for Cinco de Mayo.*** Depending on which hyperbolic local news telecast’s statistics you believe, this is the longest/soul-numbingest Minnesota Winter in 30 or 130 years. That wasn’t a joke; there was more snow in April this year where I just moved to than in any year dating nearly to the American Civil War. Everyone jokes it’s my fault, that I caused this, and that Minneapolis is either trying to tell me to go home or is thoroughly hazing me as some sort of Minnesota fraternity induction. Anyways, I was going to wait until Spring arrived but right now, this place is pulling some sort of Day After Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day voodoo and I’m not sure when that’s going to happen. So I’ll just write something now and hope it’s somehow so stupid it manages to drive the cold away (for a solid four months when it’s going to stroll right on back over).
***Editor’s Note: I wrote this paragraph two weeks ago (I get distracted and it takes me forever to write). It has since gotten much warmer and now the weather problems are flash floods and tornado watches complete with sirens going off. So let’s say it worked, I did it!

Some VERY loose rules: I tried to use activities exclusive to non-Snowbirds, the ones that take advantage of extreme weather. Nine degrees Minnesota Winter, 99 degrees Gulf Coast Summer. Also, I tried my best to toss out things you can do in both of those environments like kayaking (SNOWKAYAKINGAMAZING!!). That’s cheating. Lastly, an apology: some of these comparisons will be used in lieu of much more obvious choices and most if not all will be complete nonsense. Some will probably ignore/violate all of the rules I just laid out. That said, ladies and gentlemen, start your engines (and hope it actually started on the first try because it might somehow be -21 degrees outside and your steering wheel is like, whoa, ow!, totally stinging your hands and holy crap why isn’t the heat working faster and oh fun! I’m fishtailing through an intersecti . . . sorry).

***

SNOW TUBING

Front row, thumbs up.

Front row, thumbs up.

Snow tubing consisted of exactly what it sounds like it would consist of: renting a tough rubber inner tube and riding it down a hill. An important distinction between this and sledding: this costs money, the hill usually undulates on the way down to avoid gathering up too much speed and your route is usually divided into lanes to keep you from bowling-pin-obliterating slower tubers, seven-year-olds or yourself on a pine tree. Bummer, right? Tubing was a blast and was a hundred times more fun going down in a linked-up pack of people/tubes, which never held the straight-line formation you start with but more so resembled a flying downhill chemical compound. Going by yourself was soooooo slow and infinitely less hilarious, although if in a group, the couple people at the back of the chain did get covered in a shower of ice shavings leaving you looking a little bit like diamond-form Emma Frost. It’s simple, you ride down the hill, you walk up ride a long, thirty-degree-incline people mover to the top, you wait in a line a bit, rinse, repeat.
Florida Comparison: No-brainer: Water Slides. There are even shorter, flatter, safer lanes and taller, more daredevilish ones, complete with matching long lines.

***

SNOWBALL FIGHTS

Just as fun as they look in movies, you pack snow and you throw it at stuff. What I did not know is that only certain kinds of snow work for snowbalWAIT THERE’S DIFFERENT KINDS OF SNOW? Apparently there are different kinds of snow. It wasn’t in the brochure. The kind you don’t want for snowballs comes down when the weather’s the coldest and the snow is devoid of any melty moisture. It resembles powdered sugar falling from the sky and if you try to pick it up, the mere action of reaching for it will send it flying. The GOOD stuff comes down when it warms up a bit, maybe when the air temps are in the 30s or so, and this stuff comes down like wet beach sand is heavy to shovel and magnificent for the pummeling of faces. It packs into a ball like cookie dough and holds its lethal shape flawlessly. It is extremely unwise to throw a single snowball unless you wish to be immediately revenge attacked tenfold; a better decision is to quietly build up an arsenal of snowballs and then absolutely demolish an unsuspecting person so they are unable to retaliate. This is also secretly extremely exhausting and an awesome workout and reloading freaking sucks because you’re totally exposed. Beware the occasional hybrid snow/dirt/mud snowball, a weapon favored by ex-convicts, Yankees fans and general classless reprobates.
Florida Comparison: Since wartime rules for both activities are either nonexistent or immediately ignored by the participants, and just like the light v. heavy snow issue, using salt water in your gun will corrode it immediately, Super Soaker battles.

***

SNOWBOARDING

Turning left, good. Turning right, separated shoulder.

Turning left, good. Turning right, separated shoulder.

Easily the most insane and insanely difficult thing I did this Winter, I took a stab three stabs at snowboarding. Keep in mind, I have never gone water-skiing, surfing or even skateboarding, which was made embarrassing public knowledge immediately when the Buck Hill board rental guy asked if I ride”normal” or “goofy” and I stared blankly at him for a full six seconds (Fun Fact! ‘Board rental guy’? Venice High School, Venice, Florida, Class of 1996. Second Fun Fact!! He could not have cared less I went to Lemon Bay. He really couldn’t have).  Turns out it was “normal” and Kyler and I went out to our beginner snowboard class, progressing pathetically by our standards but Shaun White-ishly by judging our classmates attempts. Somehow, this came to me just a little bit intuitively? I wish I was joking but I’m not when I say I think playing snowboarding video games like 1080 and SSX actually kinda helped, as I started leaning into turns or dipping and rising for momentum. Speaking of momentum, it is so so so weird to be moving extremely fast when NONE of your muscles are moving at all. Eventually, our instructors cleared us to go up to the top of the smallest run at Buck Hill and do our damnedest to not die on the way down, which we failed at beautifully. Speaking for myself, I can lean back on my heels and turn left or stop with ease. Transitioning from that lean-back left-turn to then being on your toes to turn right or managing your speed at ALL while on your toes? A complete impossibility. You either get going insanely fast with no hope of slowing other than strategically sitting down or you get stuck on a flat part of the hill with no momentum and have to stupidly wiggle yourself to the closest sloped portion. At one point while going what felt like 100 miles an hour (reality: maybe 15), I fell so hard and the impact was so fast I was absolutely certain that everything connecting my right shoulder to every other part of my body had just snapped clean through like rubber bands you didn’t realize were old and dried up, just pain-free, POOF, everything cleanly disconnected, like that *snaps fingers*. Luckily that wasn’t the case, shoulder was just a little sore, moving on. Kyler, who was much better at this, was also cruising down with ease when he caught the back lip of his board instead of the toe edge and just . . . vanished. Picture following someone down the hill and then in a tenth of a second, all you see is the design on the bottom of their board flash like a dolphin fin and then both it and the rest of them are just absolutely nowhere. Now, picture boarding right past them down the hill unable to help since you can’t stop! Fun! He seemed fine at the time so we went out on that all-day lift ticket and went down the hill for like six hours (later, we’re both fairly certain he had a mild concussion). I got to try the same thing with my sister a few weeks later and gave it a shot at a bigger ski resort in Wisconsin with some coworkers a couple weeks after that. The highlights from that one, other than me finally giving up and just watching the professionals come flying down the hill, included me going 0 for 5 in dismounting off the chairlift (not a joke), with one instance resulting in me wiping out not just myself but both of my passengers as well. The 40 or 50 bros standing around at the summit cheered and laughed at my incompetence.
Florida Comparison: People want to say wakeboarding but wakeboarding is too flat and my sister adamantly denies that comparison (and she’s quite good at wakeboarding). Instead, let’s say Surfing. Both are gravity-operated and only last as long as the hill or wave lets it last. Both require patience to swim out to catch a wave/ride the chairlift to the top of the run. Both make you look insanely cool even if you suck at them.

***

SNOWSHOEING

Gratefully, snowshoeing was one of the things I enjoyed the most this Winter because I didn’t instantly suck at it while everyone else got a good laugh in at the adorably incompetent Floridian. Zero learning curve and instant exploration of parts unknown? Perfect. We actually snowshoed around Giant’s Ridge ski resort while the rest of our cabinmates happily carved up the slopes, something I’d about had my fill of for the year since the only things I had carved up were my checking account and both of my shins when I fell off the chairlift onto Brady’s snowboard. Snowshoes were not at all like I imagined: I stupidly thought snowshoes ingenious design kept you perched perfectly atop the snow without sinking in so much as in inch. That was very wrong, as they sink like crazy, most of the time just as helplessly into the powdery abyss as regular shoes, but the important thing being at least in these you can lift your foot and keep walking with some effort. We trudged across some very fresh snow, sinking hilariously, up some hills, through some wooded areas, followed some deer tracks at one point. If given the choice, I don’t recommend the poles they offer you. They just become a nuisance and you won’t need them. This takes the cake for peaceful, outdoor excellence. It was essentially prolonged sightseeing with incredible views and was awesome exercise without crossing the line into exhaustion. I’m going to have to buy a pair for next Winter.
Florida Comparison: You’re out there for an eye-opening, fun adventure exploring remote landscapes and you’re using technology and equipment to be in an environment humans really have no place being. This must be Scuba diving.

***

CROSS COUNTRY SKIING

Made sure to at least dress the part.

Made sure to at least dress the part.

This one I have regrets about and they’re mainly orchestrated around only having gotten to do it once. Similarly, this exact thing is what I’m clinging to whenever the prospect of this year’s Winter not being that many months off comes up; I look forward to doing this often and, don’t hold your breath, enough that I’m not abysmal at it. You’re outdoors. Stress is low. Nature high. It can be horribly taxing and then SUDDENLY EXHILARATING! I mostly sucked at it but could tell this is one of those things that’s worth sucking at for a while (things that are not worth sucking at for even a small while? First-person shooter video game, tolerating the two hottest wing flavors at Buffalo Wild Wings and the Insanity workout). As I’ve become someone who enjoys running quite a bit over the last couple years, this was both a dream and a nightmare and here’s why. It was a dream because it preserves all the extraneous benefits of running: minimal stress exercise that’s really just a disguised excuse to go watch animals do stuff and see plants that are awesome and sometimes find weird places you didn’t know existed. It was a complete and utter nightmare because I strapped my skis on and I wanted to run on them. And I kept stubbornly subconsciously trying to do exactly that, making life miserable for myself and hilarious for Steph and Marie, my comrades/instructors. This might be intuitive to people who skateboarded or ice skated with any regularity as kids but I never did. I just do not trust any kinetic movement unless my brain and my feet coordinated and approved it, one at a time, nice and slow and completely predictable. Snowboarding was terrifying, I barely rode a bike as a kid and people who get a running start on sidewalks and go sliding across ice make me think they’re insane. So that smooth, natural and necessary peaceful gliding motion is nowhere in my psyche; I was running on five foot long blades and falling on every available square foot of snow and that was just in the practice area. For like a half an hour. Eventually we mounted up and just hit the trails (it’s possible my guides lost patience watching me flounder around like a caught bass in the practice area and said screw it, it can’t get any worse. I wouldn’t blame them) and luckily, once your skis are set in the grooves that run the trails, it came to me much easier. I was still trying to run which was stupid and dysfunctional but now the walls of the trails kept your motion completely linear, forward and back only, like an elliptical. And then you zone out. Enjoy the sights of everyone out defying the cold or an awesome sunset like we lucked in to or you can try to push yourself to race around the course. Talk to fellow skiers if you want. The uphill portions you have to stagger your skis and kind of walk on the insides of your feet, using the blades to dig into the wall, which took me a while (it probably didn’t help I was clutching to trees as way points and slipping backwards in between), but the downhill portions were incredible. Some were fairly steep downhills where I pinched the front of my skis together in terror to slow down (aka “pizza-ing”) and some were long, easy slopes that let you coast down with your poles tucked and enjoy the ride. It had every mix of the good and the bad things I love of being outside, so here’s hoping I’m less terrible at it this Winter. Also, eNORmous thank you to Steph and Marie for putting up with my learning curve that day.
Florida Comparison: Golfing.  Subtly stressful while also peaceful. You cover long, tree-lined distances with repetitive strokes. One, you watch out for alligators and other players hitting in to you. The other, you watch out for deer and other people literally hitting in to you; when we were passing the Como Chalet, I awkwardly panic stopped as a small sledder went careening just in front of my skis. More proof the two are kindred spirits? The cross-country trails are laid out right on top of and along the snow-flooded and hibernating local courses.

***

SLEDDING

This would be the one on the list that everyone just read and thought, wait, what? Seriously? Yes, seriously. I know nothing of sledding. However, I have since learned many quirks, like, even small hills are super fun. Like that sleds don’t have to look like Rosebud; they can look like Clark Griswold’s metal saucer (duh, I’m an idiot) or plastic surfboards with edging. Like that you can go down the hill sitting, standing or laying face down like Superman. Lastly, like I mentioned before, if you want to and are kind of a jerk, you can totally try your hand at skeet shooting cross-country skiing passersby. I look forward to finding some bigger hills next Winter.
Florida Comparison: Sledding is something everyone does or has done a million times here and the fact that it might be foreign to someone else is completely baffling. It is repetitive and requires little to no effort; I will say this must be Looking for Shark’s Teeth. Another common trait? If you’re doing either one of these things there are very good odds you can see tons of people in your immediate vicinity doing way more exciting stuff.

***

ICE FISHING

Ice-fishing Jedi Master and Padawan.

Ice-fishing Jedi Master and Padawan.

This would assumedly be the activity requiring the least description. This time, Steph’s wonderful friends (thank you Sara and Tyler!) provided every conceivable piece of equipment as well as their hangout time to go spend some peaceful hours on Pebble Lake in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. I think my perception of ice fishing, right up to the point we rolled down the SUV’s windows down before driving out onto the lake (P.S, there are like sixteen wtfs in that sentence alone. This thing’s going ON the water!? And we’re rolling the windows down WHY!?!?) was something like this: sitting on something next to a hole in the ice with a line and only avoiding hypothermia by virtue of the just, gallons of alcohol coursing through your blood. And I’m sure some would prefer that but in reality, what actually happened was a scaled down version of this: organized ice houses and little portable tents each choosing a shiny spot and panning for slippery gold. I also can’t describe the seeming violation of nature and everything that makes sense to a coastal Floridian that is driving out on a lake. There are entire acreages of just, new land that doesn’t exist half of the year, like some parallel universe! And right now, as I type this? Gone. Once again a lake, impassable save for human ingenuity. And if you skip ahead a bit to once we’d folded up shop, I grabbed one of our lanterns and tore out across the untrodden expanse of snow with my best labrador impersonation, jumping and kicking and faceplanting and laughing. That is so exhilarating, but I digress. Anyways, when we pulled up to our spot, I shoveled a 6 x 12 plot of flat ice and we hand-drilled our fishing holes as Tyler’s gas auger had broken. Even though it took me ten minutes of cartoonish pushing, pulling and weird-noise-making, drilling that hole by hand was totally worth the completely exhausted arm muscles. You have to earn your first one, right? We unfolded our tent, dropped some stakes, set some lines, had electronic depth finders, warming coils and even a boiling pot of water for hot dogs to accompany the truckload of cookies Sara made (delicious). We didn’t get too many bites but Tyler’s mongoose reactions did pull us one walleye (which he fileted and cooked for us that Sunday. Delicious again). I really suppose it’s just an excuse for most to go be outside with good company in the months that normally relegate to your couch, grumpy and claustrophobic. I was extremely grateful for exactly that.
Florida Comparison: Ok, stick with me on this one: Playing sports video games, especially EA’s Tiger Woods series. Keeping in mind I’m sticking with January Minnesota and July Florida activities, both are something most people would prefer to be doing in very different circumstances (fishing off a boat, playing ACTUAL golf) but the extreme temperatures forced us to get creative in order to get our fix. Both are literally 100% sitting and I’m sure many would vote they’d prefer to do these versions than their more common counterparts. Also, just as video games have lovingly incorporated fishing for decades, those electronic depth finders I mentioned are called ice flashers and they would light up like a SONAR when fish were nearby so we could adjust the length of our lines. If this doesn’t look like a piece of rejected concept art for a video game console, I don’t know what is.

***

DOWNHILL ICECROSS, aka ‘CRASHED ICE’

An aerial view of the Saint Paul Cathedral with the course glowing blue.

An aerial view of the Saint Paul Cathedral with the course glowing blue.

OK, so, this is technically cheating since I didn’t participate but we did go watch the insanity. It is a massive international Olympics-style competition where heats of four lunatics take off down a huge ice cliff and then skate as fast as humanly possible through the ice obstacle course. They slip, they slide, they wipe out most heinously around hairpin turns. They go insanely fast, they beat the crap out of each other jockeying for position and then they all choose creative ways like baseball sliding to go careening across the finish line as fast as possible. It is completely insane. Also, for some reason Lil Jon was there, they played good music the whole night and a continuous light show played out on the cathedral facade which was awesome. It pleases me to no end that this exists, that it came to Saint Paul and that I got to watch it. If you want more, YouTube it. You won’t be disappointed.
Florida Comparison: Ummmmm, yeah. Absolutely none. This was complete lunacy, everyone should watch it in person sometime and when you are watching it, you can’t believe some wonderful psychopath even thought of such a thing . Hey, wait a minute . . . there is a comparison here! It must be THIS!

***

Well, I hope you got at least some enjoyment out of that; I certainly did. Thank you so so so much to all of the magnificent people who helped me do all these things or did them with me. I hope you’ll help me tolerate next Winter too when it arrives in like six weeks. And like I always do when finishing one of these, I will say I’ll write more but yeah . . . I can’t promise that. I get dumb ideas when I get dumb ideas . . . which is daily, so I have no idea what takes me so long. See you soon!

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One thought on “Winter is Coming or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Snow

  1. Steph says:

    Fun read. You officially survived a winter in Minnesota!! Congrats! Pat yourself on the back for that one. You’re a real Minnesotan. Now stop reading this comment and get your butt outside. These green leaves and fresh, new grass won’t be here for long…

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