A quick visit to Cleary Lake Regional Park offers winter recreation, wildlife watching and a buffer against the seasonal blues.
The second I stepped out of my truck and my feet hit the slippery, icy asphalt at Cleary Lake Regional Park in Prior Lake, my eyelashes began to freeze together and my lungs started to burn.
The parking lot, typically pulsing with activity, had the look and feel of a ghost town. And why not: The temperature was 6-below and the stiff northerly winds were frigid enough to freeze your freckles off. Why endure Old Man Winter’s surly ways when you could be home sipping a soothing libation in front of a roaring fireplace?
That thought crossed my mind more than once as I trudged deeper into one of Cleary’s groomed hiking trails recently, my shivering body moving in sloooow mooootion. I swear, the naked, towering hardwoods that surrounded me were shivering, too. Still, gratitude warms the heart, if not one’s extremities, and I was happy to be alone and shrouded in solitude, nature’s year-round blessing.
Cleary Lake is one of 23 parks in the Three Rivers Park District, which encompasses five metro counties and more than 27,000 acres, much of it managed for wildlife habitat. The parks are also hubs of year-round outdoor recreation and educational programming for adults and children alike. In winter, the park district dubs this “frozen fun.”
“The biggest thing for people to realize is that these parks are available, and available for any number of outdoor activities, and not just during the spring, summer or fall when it’s more comfortable outside,” said Alex McKinney, outdoor recreation supervisor for Three Rivers Park District. “We put a focus on natural resources, for people to step away from the city environment and experience nature, see wildlife and get some exercise. In Minnesota, you have to embrace winter for what it is. There are still benefits to going outside even when it’s bitterly cold.”
Located less than five minutes from my townhouse, Cleary Lake Regional Park is one of the more popular destinations for outdoor recreationists in the south metro. At 1,886 acres, the park is actually an ecosystem unto itself. Its large lake, expansive woods, grasslands, wetlands and other natural amenities act as a buffer to civilization’s constant rattle and hum. While Cleary’s woods and waters are professionally managed and monitored by full-time wildlife and habitat specialists, the park is also designed for public use.
Cleary’s winter activities are limited only by your imagination and tolerance for the cold. The park has 6 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, with an additional 4 miles reserved for snowshoeing and hiking. Winter camping is offered for groups, and fishing the lake’s hard water is always a possibility (the lake will be aerated after Jan. 1, so be mindful of unsafe ice).
During the past two winters, I’ve used Cleary as a quick escape to reboot my mind and body when I’d get restless and cabin-feverish working from home. When I’m there hiking or watching a sunrise bleed across the horizon, I feel a sense of gratitude that such a wild place exists so close to home.
For the last 25 years, Mark Gold, 60, of New Prague, has been cross-country skiing at Cleary Lake. Gold, whom I met recently at the park, said he appreciates “working up a sweat” in the peacefulness of a natural setting. “The trails are great and groomed well throughout the winter,” he said, noting some trails are even lit for nighttime skiing. “I typically ski there 10 times a winter, and I almost always see deer and other wildlife. It’s just a great park, in winter or summer.”
On my recent hike into Cleary, in search of a little peacefulness of my own, the winter woods felt like a meat locker in the extreme. The bright sunshine blindingly refracted off the snow and provided only the memory of warmth. Aside from the shrill and annoying cry of my boots squeaking on the snow with each step, all was quiet. Eerily quiet, in fact. Signs of life were few, save for the deer and coyote tracks that dimpled the snow.
I hiked for nearly a mile when I decided to stop and listen, hoping to blend into my natural environment just long enough to see something inspirational unfold. I sat atop a tree stump that overlooked a small clearing and was quickly rewarded for my patience. The wind soon began to whistle anew above the treetops. A squadron of small birds darted over my head and disappeared like ghosts before I could identify them. After 10 minutes I sat up to leave, and a gray squirrel startled me. The bushy-tailed critter vaulted from tree branch to tree branch like a seasoned gymnast. The impromptu high-wire act brought a wide smile across my ruddy face.
Frozen fun, indeed.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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