Exploring Town & Country via running snowshoes

  • Article by: SARAH BARKER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 26, 2014 - 8:16 PM

Not one for following groomed trails, our correspondent heads to the picturesque and hilly terrain of St. Paul’s Town & Country Club for some unfettered exploration on snowshoes.

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At Town & Country Club, the hilly terrain treats trekkers to views of the Minneapolis skyline and more. The site was once considered for the State Capitol.

I asked for running snowshoes for Christmas to, you know, make winter more fun. Here’s what I’ve discovered so far — golf courses! I’ve even identified my favorite golf course, Town & Country, on the bluffs of the Mississippi at Marshall Avenue in St. Paul.

I don’t golf, nor do I belong to private Town & Country Club, so it’s a special treat (Read: It’s legal and management-condoned) to drink in the 30-mile vistas, to gambol over undulating snow-rounded contours and disappear into the course’s hidden glen with spring-fed stream during the winter. It’s like a nature sanctuary, right here in the neighborhood.

No, really. Town & Country is a Certified Audubon Sanctuary, managed as much for native flora and fauna as for people who enjoy whacking a little white ball. I learned that and all the following interesting facts from Town & Country’s Certified Golf Course Superintendent Bill Larson. The more obvious stuff, not to mention the panting, is all me as I strap on my snowshoes and head out on a multifaceted tour, workout and mind-clearing meditation.

Here’s what I like about snowshoeing: I don’t have to follow the holes from one to 18, nor the groomed cross-country ski trails that loop this 100-acre course. Liberating! I start with a bang, upward from the Otis Street entrance until my pulse is both visible and audible 20 feet away. One of the Twin Cities’ most popular sledding hills is vacant on this weekday. Turning around at the top, it’s apparent why this was once considered a potential site for the State Capitol: Panoramic views of the skyline of downtown Minneapolis, the old Sears tower in south Minneapolis and far-off office buildings in Bloomington are tied together by the line of trees that edge the Mississippi and the various bridges that cross it — Ford, Lake Street, railroad, Franklin.

The inspiring views and scenic riverfront location midway between St. Paul and Minneapolis figured large into Town & Country Club’s purchase of the parcel in 1890. The land had been four farms. Member William Peet and his acquaintance George McCree, a Scot who brought his love of golf, used some practice shots and a lawn mower to lay out five holes, marking them with soup cans and fishing pole flags. That was in 1893. I’m wheezing atop the first golf course in Minnesota, among the first five in the country.

Golf gained popularity at Town & Country over the next four or five years, so $2,000 was budgeted to lay out nine holes with proper tees and greens. The minimal recontouring was accomplished with literal horse power. Since this had been farmland, there were very few trees. The towering cottonwoods along Marshall Avenue may be 160 years old, but most of the carefully inventoried linden, silver maple, oak, Kentucky coffee and spruce were more recently planted by greenskeepers.

Onward, soft-serve snow formations invite me farther into the course. And what’s this? A deep vale, not visible from the perimeter, with a spring-fed pool at the bottom that flows year-round, meandering through a wooded glen until it disappears underground and empties into the Mississippi. It’s quiet here, out of the wind. I follow along the banks looking for the trout Larson says are in residence. Bat and wood duck houses and a mallard nesting basket are built along the stream. Partway up the steep, brushy hillside, I find a fox den with fresh footprints. I can’t tell if they were made by the fox or curious dogs following the scents of this surprisingly rich microcosm.

But enough of this still idyll. Let the lung shredding begin. As I head toward the far side of the course, a skate park of parabolas presents. Momentum gained on the downslope helps me up the other side. Down and up, down aaannnndd up. This is the least trammeled part of T&C, which is nice because I don’t need an audience for my slightly unusual trips through the half-pipe.

Shuffling now, I investigate an impressively constructed igloo on yet another high point. From here, I can see the roof of the tree-hidden maintenance building. What appear to be hay bales are, upon further inspection — hay bales, put there to protect the bee hives. Town & Country works with the University of Minnesota Bee Squad on this, one of many sustainability initiatives.

The raison d’être for Town & Country is hills, so I try to hit every one. Movement catches my eye as I puff through a group of spruce. A dog? I look for the attendant dog owners, see none and realize this dog has the purposeful trot of a coyote. We pause, size each other up — a large coyote and a quickly tiring snowshoer/snack — and go our separate ways, mine with renewed energy. Under a massive spreading oak, its dark branches etched against the bright blue sky, I follow a ridge that, thankfully, leads downward to the main entrance. As I take off the snowshoes, a red-tailed hawk circles silently overhead, a serene send-off to my hourlong run and respite.

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