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Let’s give Minnesota some affirmative action for winter

Courtesy of Ann Markusen
Ann Markusen and Joana Campolina on White Sky Rock summit above Caribou Lake.

Some years ago, at a yoga retreat in northern California, a woman asked me where I was from. I said “northern Minnesota.” “Oh!” she responded, “I feel so sorry for you.” “Why?!” I asked. She launched into a string of negative presumptions about how terrible our winters must be. I laughed. And told her the truth.

Ann Markusen

For me, winter was a major reason I came home after 35 years of living elsewhere —  Washington, D.C.; Lansing, Michigan; Colorado’s front range; the Bay Area; Chicago;  central New Jersey. I missed the snow. The sun sparkling on the snow. Those winter nights when I’m drawn out of the house to dance with the northern lights. The snow sports: ice skating, cross-country and downhill skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing.

For years after returning, almost every morning from November through April, I bore up under my favorite newscaster’s predictable disparaging of our state’s weather. I wonder if news anchors in Phoenix use groaning adjectives to describe their 110-degree summer days or forecast your air conditioning bill! Or in Florida, when they report sky-high humidity, do they complain that it smells bad as well as makes you wilt? I don’t think so. Is it some Minnesota character fault that makes us advertise our self-pity and create bad press for our winter businesses?

It’s a matter of individual taste. But the months I find challenging in Minnesota are November, March and April. My brother Steve warned me when I moved home: November is a stormy, wet and unpredictable monthly. March through April, we’re often disappointed by persistent cold and damp. But … the waterfowl are returning, and that’s a considerable consolation!

It's not that hard to adapt

We aren’t putting our best foot forward to encourage people to stay or move here. Or return after school or work. Or to forgo “snowbirding.” It’s not that hard to adapt to Minnesota winters. Driving can be challenging. But winters in D.C. or central New Jersey are worse: terrible ice on the roads, almost no investment in snow-removal equipment. It’s accident heaven. My secretary used to call mornings after the slightest snowfall and say, “I can’t make it in.” I argued that it’s not that hard to learn to drive in these conditions. She simply retorted, “Well I could, but all those other people won’t, so I’m not coming in!” She was terrific, so I put up with it.

A few years ago, a young Brazilian friend wrote that she had two weeks between college and graduate school, and she’d like to visit us. Her two weeks were in January! I thought about it and proposed that we spend one week going up the North Shore in the true winter, followed by week in southern Arizona. I knew she’d never seen the great American deserts.

After Joana disembarked from the plane, we bought her a thick snow jacket at a Twin Cities sports shop. We drove up a magical Highway 61, stopping to gaze at icefalls where rivers plunge over the edge of the escarpments – the Baptism River, Gooseberry Falls. Where storms have graced evergreens with ice sculptures. In the snow, we climbed White Sky Rock, above Caribou Lake. We drove up the Gunflint Trail to welcome dogsled racers coming cross the frozen lake to the finish line. We had a ball!

We're talking layers

It is all about clothing. People laugh when I demonstrate what my friend June and I wear on our morning 2.3 mile walk six days a week. Two pairs of socks. Longies and legwarmers. A pair of blue jeans over these, and snowpants as well. A cami, a turtleneck, a wool sweater, snow jacket, and a frightful orange and yellow vest to alert hunters and drivers. Wool gloves engulfed in big snow mitts covering nearly to my elbows. And the frosting: ear band, thick wool hat, woolen scarf. Mine is secondhand cashmere bought at a used clothing store in New York City 20 years ago. When you breathe moisture into it, it stays warm! Goggles if windy. It’s not rocket science. And we walk briskly.

Studying the Minnesota economy a decade ago, I was surprised to learn that Minnesota had fewer doctors and health care practitioners per capita compared to rest of the U.S. I wondered if this resulted from an exodus of older, more vulnerable folks to warmer climates. But no, we have the same proportion of people over 65 as countrywide. Maybe the hardier ones stay? And that could be true for all ages. I don’t know, just speculating.

Anyway, for the sake of our winter sports entrepreneurs and hospitality sectors, why not put our best winter foot forward? Why not a campaign by our Minnesota State tourism bureau that says, “We’re wintery and we know how to play in it?” I recommend outing groups like the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club and the Northstar Ski Touring Club. Both offer affordable options, all year round, to ski, bike, hike, and more. Best yet, just walk out your back door. Or take a walk in your neighborhood. It’s never as bad as you imagine! And it might be a winter wonderland.

Economist Ann Markusen is an emerita professor from the University of Minnesota and lives with her husband, Rod Walli, in Red Clover Township, Carlton County.


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Comments (9)

Promoting Minnesota

Just look to your northern neighbors in Quebec City as the best example of promoting the joys of winter weather. They revel in the cold and snow with festivals and parades to take full advantage of the fun and enjoyment you can have in what some would call the bitterest of weather. It's simply a mindset to bring out the brave virtue we all harbor. It's connecting with the real elements of nature and enjoying the challenge rather than sitting in your warm comfortable living room watching the super bowl. It's being a participant in life rather than a spectator.

Go East, Young Man

Quebec City is not a northern neighbor to Minnesota. It lies between Duluth and Two Harbors. Quebec City is a fine eastern neighbor to us.

I won't get into the fun I had telling people Mrs. Phelan and I were heading "down to Toronto" for our honeymoon.

And Winnepeg ...

....has an urban ice skating trail! And a rink on the Red River of the North!

Cold is an opinion...

Agreed. I moved back from Portland, OR, for the winters… and was reminded of how wide open our skies are!

Thurs-Fri of winter break, I brought two 12-yr old boys camping in an unheated tent. It got to -11 that night and everyone had a great time.

I inform kids about fake news, that ‘cold’ is an opinion and ‘colder’ is a fact, which makes weather forecasters the greatest purveyors of fake news as they often tell us it will be ‘cold’ tomorrow. I have received reports back that some of these kids have corrected their elementary school teachers on this topic… satisfaction.

Seems like a nice

Seems like a nice article--re-print in June.

Finally someone who shares my perspective

I like winter and get so tired of all the people complaining about it all the time. Especially in this climate change era when winter is disappearing, I treasure even our below zero days more than ever. It feels to me like quality time with a loved one slowly dying of cancer. Sweet, sad, and (yes) cold.

It's All Good Under the Right Conditions

I'm glad you're fully ambulatory so that you can enjoy the winter weather, the slippery snow when it's just under 32F or above it (single digit ˚F snow is not slippery) and so on. I am not, and for that reason I tend to despise winter. I've also become old, which makes a difference. When you're old, you perhaps will understand a little better. Once upon a time I embraced winter, even ran downhill on a ski system, and enjoyed the weather. I skied more than once in -12F windy air or colder and stayed warm the whole time, until I blew a knee doing something completely different.

I do not like layers because for less ambulatory persons the layers strongly inhibit range of motion and there's not enough range as it is. But I still like the cold when it doesn't bring snow along with it.

There is a true story told by a relative of mine of someone from elsewhere who had seen Grumpy Old Men and was asking whether Minnesotans really do sit on inverted buckets trying to catch fish. My friend said yes, that was true, which was followed by a pause and then the question if we kept doing it all year. My relative lives well north of Duluth, and loves to tell the tale. It is true that non-Minnesotans think we're cold all year long; some even bring coats in the summer, and pack long-sleeved items.

In the Twin Cities urban areas where I live, I run into several people dismayed or skeptical that their new job took them to Minnesota. Many are reluctant to come for fear of the winters and the assumed lack of anything to do. Then they learn there are many things to do in the winter -- outdoors, even -- and they're fun. Like you, they are ambulatory and they often tell me that although they were skeptical at first, they have learned to love all of the seasons in Minnesota and no longer want to leave after a couple of years living here. They have reasons beyond winter acclimation, but winter won't send them away.

Thanks for this!

Stan, appreciate these insights. I am 71 years old and still ice skating and cross-country skiing. Someday I won't be. Thanks for reminding us of the challenge of winter for those who are less ambulatory or reliant on wheelchairs or sim. Love the Grumpy Old Men story!

Outdoor adventure

MN tourism board should use that video of skaters in duluth on the frozen mtn biking / hiking trails. And the luminary loppet. Arrowhead 135. Etc. Winter is what you make of it.