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