Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Making the most of winter

Late winter’s crust and ice means the traveling is fast and easy

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 3/28/18

For those who have failed to recognize the potential of late winter’s crust, we’re undoubtedly in the midst of the cruel season. What could be worse than the hope for spring while Mother Nature …

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Making the most of winter

Late winter’s crust and ice means the traveling is fast and easy

Posted

For those who have failed to recognize the potential of late winter’s crust, we’re undoubtedly in the midst of the cruel season. What could be worse than the hope for spring while Mother Nature continues to dish out week after week of chilly temperatures?

Sure, it’s not January, but it’s a far cry from visions of daffodils.

I hear the moping all the time. “I wish it would just melt, already,” is the most common sentiment in the North Country this time of year.

I just nod. I figure they don’t need to know I’m hoping the snow sticks around until May.

It’s all a question of attitude and the right gear to let you take advantage of whatever late winter conditions the North Country throws at us.

I know lots of folks who’ve already put their cross-country skis away for the winter. For all but a few, the snow machines are parked back in the garage for the season, as the late March sun has eaten away much of the snow cover on the trails.

Most seasons, I don’t even bother to take my cross-country skis out until March. For me, it’s all about the crust. Classical skiing is just too slow, so I gave it up years ago. I skate ski, and there are no better conditions than a hard, early April crust. Whether on lakes, rivers, or across open expanses of swamp, it doesn’t really matter, so long as it’s hard and fast.

Of course, I’ve learned that such conditions can be ephemeral. It takes the right conditions to make a good hard crust, the kind you can walk or ski over. And by late afternoon, with the strengthening sun beating down, the crust can quickly thaw, turning a heavenly ski into a hellish slog.

Thankfully, there’s a toy for every condition. A couple years ago, I bought a fat tire bike, which is just the thing to explore the snowmobile trails after all the sleds have been put away. They’re hard and fast, and I have them all to myself. On a 16-mile long bike on the Arrowhead Trail last weekend, I didn’t see a soul.

I haven’t sprung the big bucks for studded tires for this bad boy yet, so I know the conditions on the trails will soon be too icy for me. But that’s okay, because the skate-skiing is very close to peak out on the lakes.

Eventually, as the snow starts to disappear even from lake surfaces, it will be too icy for skate-skiing as well.

But that’s when the Nordic skates come out. These skates are essentially a pair of 18-inch blades with a binding on top that connects to the bottom of your skate-skiing boot. Put these on and be prepared for some excitement. Most Nordic skaters, myself included, use their regular cross-country ski poles while skating and the motion is identical to skate-skiing. There’s just one difference… you go three times as fast.

I like speed, but with a wind on your back, on decent ice, it can get downright scary fast, and I recommend a helmet just to be sure you don’t splatter brain matter across the ice if you happen to go down hard.

I know this kind of recreation might not be for everyone. But how do you know it’s not for you until you’ve tried it? Besides, you’ve put the snow machine to bed, the fish house is back on land, and March Madness is done for another year. You’ve got nothing but April to look forward to. While most folks figure April is our cruelest month, with the right gear and the willingness to try something new, it could be peak play time for you, too.

Sure beats sitting on the couch!

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