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This was our weekend to become an outdoor family, surrounded by nature in southeast Minnesota, and here we were inside. My husband and youngest son were stretched on the floor playing Battleship.
"Who wants to go for a walk?" I ask. Silence. "Hel-lo," I emphasize. "We're supposed to be outside."
"Let me finish this chapter," mumbles my oldest, in his sleeping bag on the top bunk in our bare-bones dorm room. That's his code for "in five minutes."
The sun sinks further on the horizon as Jordan and I set out, sliding down an icy hill and up a boot-pocked trail to a snow-covered bluff. Two deer cross our path. And we talk. About fourth grade and the upcoming play he was going to be in.
And we're quiet, the crunch of our boots on the crusty snow the only sound that seems appropriate. The tall prairie grass dotting the landscape turns golden in the setting sun. The sky, which had been a striking blue all day, fades to a frosty pink.
Since we moved back to Minnesota five years ago after nearly two decades in cities such as Seattle, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., winter has been something I've survived more than anything else. I go out when I have to, and stay inside a lot. Neighbors seem to disappear for months. Winter vacations are to warmth.
Last year I decided to move beyond survival mode. I was going to embrace winter.
I bought my husband, Eric, cross-country skis to replace his 20-plus-year-old ones, and on the day after Christmas, while visiting his mom in Albert Lea, we skied at a nearby state park. Time alone, outside, no arguing kids. I could get used to this, I thought. Days later we headed north to go downhill skiing, but after one good day on the slopes, it rained for a day before freezing into a hill of ice.
The cornerstone of my plan, though, was a weekend retreat called "Becoming an Outdoors Family." Organized through the Department of Natural Resources, and held at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in Lanesboro, the winter weekend offers classes in everything from ice fishing to star gazing (though that's, ironically enough, inside in a big inflatable planetarium they call StarLab). Maybe with a few pointers I won't be the slowest cross-country skier on every course I've tried.
The kids complained at first, until they learned that classes include air guns and archery. I signed us up.
With no Florida escape planned, anticipation for the family weekend helped bridge the long weeks of January and February. I found myself watching the forecast, hoping for more snow in February. The week before we went, though, temperatures rose into the 40s, then 50s. In February. In Minnesota.
As we neared Eagle Bluff early on a Saturday morning, the impact of the warm week was evident: brown patches of ground peeked out from mounds of gray snow.
Checking in, we learned that certain classes have been canceled: cross-country skiing and ice fishing. Embracing winter doesn't always mean it will cooperate.
The environmental center sits on a bluff overlooking the Root River Valley. The dorm rooms are clean and sparse with a full bathroom and bunk beds for eight people. The kids put on their new family weekend T-shirts, and we headed off to our first class: snowshoeing.
The instructor, Moses Ong, offered some basics about the history and the different kinds of snowshoes. After a quick stop in the equipment room, neatly lined with racks of snowshoes and cross-country ski equipment, we were on our way.
Who knew snowshoeing was just walking on snow? The seven members of our group trudged about a quarter-mile to a cabin that illustrates how pioneers lived. Ong taught us how to light fire with flint. The kids, all boys, wanted to try. None could do it alone.
We tramped back. Some didn't even have their snowshoes on.
I felt slightly ripped off, but we could keep the snowshoes for a while, so Ryan and I decided to explore the woods. We walked through deep snow -- snow I would have been sinking in otherwise -- and climbed over fallen trees. Ryan, 7 years old, scooped up handfuls of snow, his favorite winter snack. At least out here, I assured myself, it's not as gray as city snow.
Lunch, included in the $300 family package, was delicious. Homemade chicken noodle soup, pulled pork sandwiches, a salad bar and heart-shaped cookies for dessert. A chalkboard told us where local ingredients were sourced.
The air-gun class was held inside. We got a lecture on safety rules and learned how to load the guns. I learned that I'm left-eye dominant even though I'm right-handed. "That's why I've been a lousy shot all my life," I thought to myself.
So I set myself up to shoot left-handed. My first shot hit the inner circle on the target, 15 feet away. So did the second. Virtually my whole round was clustered in the center ring. My kids, who have learned to ignore my anti-gun rants -- even about the plastic Nerf guns taking over the block -- were in awe.
After a break, we headed to the indoor bubble of a planetarium. More than 30 of us crawled in and lay down to see the night sky in late afternoon. The kids liked it, but I should have taken off my long johns. I fell asleep.
In the meantime, Mother Nature played havoc with the weekend yet again. A storm that had been threatening for days was shaping up to be worse than expected: freezing rain turning to snow with accumulations up to 2 feet.
Organizers decided to put on a full roster of evening classes, then kick us all out before the storm's expected arrival.
Everyone was given a choice between the ropes course or archery and rock climbing. The center is noted for its ropes courses (it has three), and my husband and Jordan were excited about walking across cables 30 feet in the air -- in snow boots, no less. Ryan and I, not so much. I can get nervous on bridges with six lanes of traffic. I wasn't feeling the need to walk tightropes.
Ryan decided to try it.
More than 20 of us trudged out to the west ropes course, where we got suited up to hang from cables, whether or not we were planning to go.
The course started easy, with rope climbs and wood planks to walk on. But the obstacles got more difficult, the planks reduced to a single cable. My family powered through the first few legs.
About halfway through, Ryan got scared. He reached the platform where there's nowhere to go but onward. And that's the point.
"Ryan, you're a rock star," I yelled, as he cried that he wanted to get down. Eric hung from the cable to show Ryan it was safe. Ryan's sobs subsided, and he kept going.
But as he finished each portion and saw that the next one was only harder, he cried some more. Finally, after what seemed to me like guilt-ridden hours on the ground cheering him on, he finished. The last leg, a zip line down, he had been looking forward to.
Once he was safe on the ground, a small crowd gathered round to congratulate him. The relief on his face changed before us to pride. (Weeks later, he would watch "Man on a Wire," still on his Top 10 movie list.)
We'll come back next year, I mused, as we walked the moonlit path back to the dorm to pack for the trip home. I still have never ice-fished, I'm still the slowest cross-country skier around and I only have a couple more years for a weekend like this with my quickly growing boys. Some lessons take more than a weekend -- or a winter -- to learn.
Karen Lundegaard • 612-673-4151