I was skating rhythmically on my cross-country skis, flying along a lighted trail in the woods, when an unusual noise stopped me in my tracks.
Howls from a pack of coyotes pierced the cold night.
Steam rose off my body as I listened, mesmerized at the rare encounter with nature in this suburban park. When the chorus ended, I sped on, hearing only the swish, swish, swish of my skis.
A dark affair, that’s what winter in Minnesota is. The short days mean the woods are black by dinner time. Fortunately, a proliferation of lighted ski trails over the years has extended winter recreation into the evening, unlocking an exhilarating experience for cross-country skiers, who no longer have to wait for the weekend to glide on groomed trails.
Skiers now have about 40 kilometers, or 24 miles, of lighted ski trails in the Twin Cities metro region, from Maple Grove to Prior Lake and from Bloomington to Lake Elmo. Other Minnesota cities, including Bemidji, Biwabik, Brainerd, Duluth, Grand Rapids, St. Cloud and Two Harbors, also offer lighted ski trails.
And they are attracting thousands, from recreational skiers to hard-core racers.
Many have discovered cross-country skiing at night is a thing of beauty, far different from a daylight ski on the same trails. At night, skiers glide through woods under the soft glow of lights, watching their shadows dance ahead of them.
There’s no need for sunglasses or sunscreen, and often the daytime crowds disappear — though when temperature and snow conditions combine for a perfect winter night, it’s not uncommon to share a trail with others.
Last week after work, Scott Sperl, 25, of Maple Grove strapped on skis at Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, which offers nearly 6 kilometers of lighted trails. Snow was falling, and the temperature was in the 30s — above zero — right before another Arctic blast hit the state.
“It’s nice to be out at night; it’s more peaceful,’’ Sperl said. “Especially a night like tonight. It’s balmy.’’
Like many nighttime skiers, Sperl works days. “It’s great to be able to come out here at night,’’ he said.
Also skiing under the lights at Elm Creek were Lisa Mullen, 54, of St. Cloud, who met her son, Ross, 24, of Bloomington, for a night ski.
“It’s awesome out there,’’ Lisa Mullen said after the two had finished 7.5 kilometers.
Ross Mullen lives near Hyland Lake Park Reserve and said he frequently skis the lighted trails there after work. Like some skiers, he also uses a headlamp to ski unlighted trails.
“I’ve run across deer at Hyland, especially with my headlamp. They’ll stop and stare, only 20 yards away.’’
“It’s just really nice,’’ he said. “It’s a little bit of wilderness in the city.’’
More lighted trails
Park officials say the lighted trails have been warmly received.
“Most people work until 5 p.m., and half the winter it’s dark by then,’’ said Allison Winter of Ramsey County Parks and Recreation, which has 4 kilometers of lighted ski trails at Battle Creek Regional Park. “It’s very popular. It really helps people who want to get out there and be active after work and not just limit their skiing to weekends.’’
Washington County spent $400,000 to add LED lights in 2011 at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, and now has 8.7 lighted kilometers, making it a major east metro cross-country ski destination.
“It’s been very successful,’’ said John Elholm, parks director. “We’ve got one of the longest lighted trail systems in the state.’’
Meanwhile, Three Rivers Park District has lighted ski trails at four of its 22 parks — Hyland, French, Elm Creek and Cleary. It all started 28 years ago when the district lighted 1 kilometer at Hyland in Bloomington as an experiment. The idea took off.
“All of our lighted trails get a lot of use,’’ said Tom McDowell, Three Rivers associate superintendent for recreation and education.
Despite their popularity, there are no current plans to add more lighted trails, he said. And they may not be needed. The district now allows people to stay in parks until 10 p.m., and some skiers, like Ross Mullen, are choosing to ski trails at night with their own high-powered headlamps.
“For some people that’s a better solution,’’ McDowell said.
No lights in state parks
Lighted trails have been limited primarily to park districts, local governments or private ski areas. None of Minnesota’s state parks or recreation areas have lighted ski trails. One reason, said Andrew Korsberg, DNR state trail program coordinator, is that most state parks are farther from population centers.
“They tend to be a place to go for the day, not a place to go after work,’’ he said. But there are some exceptions: William O’Brien, Jay Cooke and Fort Snelling state parks are all near population centers. There currently are no plans to add lights to any state park trails, he said, “but it’s something worth some discussion.’’
State parks do offer an alternative: skiing by candlelight. Each winter, the DNR offers candlelight ski (and hike) events at many state parks, with trails lit by lanterns or luminaries. Families especially enjoy the events, and upward of 1,000 people will attend some.
“It’s really magical … and a unique way to experience the woods or prairies in winter,’’ said Amy Barrett of DNR parks and trails.