Embrace the Season with a New Winter Sport

By Erica Wacker

Minnesota is known for its winters, and those who venture here when the snow is falling embrace the season with open, down coat-covered arms. Rather than hibernating or escaping to a tropical locale, discover the beauty of this time of year in a new way: from the back of a dogsled, on skis or snowshoes, or in the comfort of an ice fishing house.

Dogsledding: Fun for the Whole Family

Ely area sled dog outfitting tripsThere aren’t many experiences like driving or riding behind a team of huskies through a winter wonderland. The town of Ely is a dogsledding hub thanks to its proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is only accessible in winter via dogsleds, skis or snowshoes.

Trip options range from a few hours to a few days depending on the outfitter. Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips in Ely offers morning, afternoon and full-day excursions, starting with orientation and plenty of time to interact with the dogs before taking the reins of your own six-dog sled team. All ages are welcome; those not driving can ride in the sleeping bag-lined sled.

For the ultimate adventure, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge leads multiday trips complete with equipment, guides, meals and lodging (cabins and/or tent camping in the Boundary Waters). The outfitter recommends wearing “the three Ws” to stay comfortable: one for wind, one for warmth and one for wicking.

Dogsledding is even offered near the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. HHH Ranch brings its sleds to Lake Byllesby Regional Park in Cannon Falls, where novice mushers can take the team around a 2.5-mile loop. Moonlit rides and classes are also available.

Find a full list of Minnesota dogsledding outfitters here.

Cross-Country Skiing & Snowshoeing: Great Winter Workouts

Cross country skiing on the Gunflint TrailNo matter where you are in Minnesota, a cross-country ski or snowshoe trail is never far away. Numerous state and national parks and forests have dedicated trails for both activities. Regional and city parks, golf courses and resorts are also popular; click here to find resorts that offer groomed trails and equipment rentals.

Ryan Alford, founder of Snowshoe Magazine, says the sport “really is as simple as walking,” but if done at a steady pace, can burn as many as 700 calories an hour. For first-timers, he recommends renting snowshoes to get a feel for the sport; trekking poles are optional. Many state and regional parks offer snowshoe rentals, as do ski areas and retailers like REI.

Another great workout, cross-country skiing will make you sweat no matter the weather. Afton State Park near Hastings and Itasca near Park Rapids are among the top destinations thanks to frequent trail grooming and maintenance. There are also several groomed trails in Voyageurs National Park.

A ski pass is required in all state parks; a handful of them, including Flandrau in New Ulm and Buffalo River east of Moorhead, offer equipment rentals.

On Jan. 11, anyone can participate in the national Winter Trails Day and try skiing or snowshoeing for free. Minnesota sites include Spirit Mountain Nordic Center in Duluth and Fort Snelling State Park in St. Paul. Find more information at snowlink.com.

Ice Fishing: A Minnesota Tradition

northwest leech lake ice fishingWhen a foot or more of ice covers the lake, it means ice fishing season has arrived. This longstanding tradition is often passed down through families, as was the case for Ross Hedin of Ramsey. He learned the sport from his dad and grandpa, and now takes his son to their fish house on Mille Lacs Lake.

“Even though I’m more successful in the summertime, I have more fun [fishing] in the wintertime,” he says. “I do it with my son and buddies, so it’s more of a social gathering.” Like many ice houses, his has bunk beds, a stove and is fully heated. “It’s kind of like you’re in a cabin out on the ice.”

For those without their own ice house, numerous resorts and fishing guides offer rentals complete with predrilled holes and bait (find a full list here). Popular areas for ice fishing include Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods, Upper Red Lake, Gull Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish. A Minnesota fishing license is required for residents and nonresidents.