Earth crunched underfoot as I ran toward Lake Rebecca. My fiancé and I hopped over fissures in the icy crust and occasionally broke through shin-deep snow. The wintry terrain kept pitching us forward and breaking our rhythm. When we finally reached a muddy, rutted path, we paused on the lake’s edge. The water was still mostly frozen, but a small area of open water revealed the trumpeter swans for which the park is known. Even on a 12-degree day, the swans gracefully sailed across the lake, landing in the water with outstretched wings.
Both runners, my fiancé and I visited Lake Rebecca Park Reserve, near Rockford, nearly a month ahead of the park’s Trail Mix 25K and 50K events. The landscape was harshly beautiful that cold morning, peaceful because few living things chose to make their presence known. Each footfall was marked with a dull thud, muted and absorbed by the snow.
Come Saturday morning, however, Lake Rebecca will be a wholly different scene. The park will be teeming with nervous energy and prerace anticipation. Hundreds of restless runners will be crisscrossing the grass as they warm their muscles, wait in bathroom lines and double-check gear before gun time. Thanks to this week’s warm weather, there will be more mud than snow as many participants complete their first trail run of the season.
A new venue for Trail Mix
Even with the cold air stringing my lungs and a slurry of ice, snow and mud covering my shoes, I could see why race organizers opted to move the Trail Mix races to Lake Rebecca this year. Hyland Lake Park Reserve had been the event’s home for the past 22 years, attracting upward of 800 runners in 2013. But an uptick in making snow for Hyland’s popular cross-country ski trails made the footrace increasingly difficult to organize.
“Lake Rebecca was chosen because it is unique for its 12.5 kilometers of continuous, nonpaved surfaces, which is what Trail Mix is all about,” explained Megan Kelzenberg, the event’s race director. “That’s not to mention the great scenery, rolling hills, forests, prairies, wetlands and wildlife.”
Indeed, the local ecosystem tells a story of redemption that any off-road, nature-loving harrier can appreciate. The area around Lake Rebecca was once marked by a thick collection of oak woodland and maple-basswood forest, part of the enormous Big Woods region. When the early settlers arrived, however, they cleared the local land for agriculture, cutting down trees and draining wetlands. A small town even sprouted on the banks of Lake Rebecca, but it was abandoned by 1870 when the railroad was built through Rockford.
A little less than a century later, starting in 1960, the land was purchased over the course of the next decade by Hennepin County Park Reserve District, which later became Three Rivers Park District. Thus began the hard work of restoring the area to its natural splendor. More than five decades later, a landscape cleared for agriculture, once marked by a heavily polluted lake, is now in a state of renewal.
Reforestation aided by Three Rivers helped maple and basswood trees regain their foothold, re-establishing the Big Woods through the 2,577-acre park. Restoration efforts raised Lake Rebecca’s water quality from a “D” grade to a “B,” its healthiest in decades.
What’s more, after all native trumpeter swans were gone from the region by 1900, there now resides a sustainable population of more than 3,000 in Minnesota, some of which live year-round in the refuge on the west side of Lake Rebecca.
Trail running at its finest
Treating runners to a tour of this transformed park, the Trail Mix races will start and finish on the northern edge of the lake. Runners will follow a 4-foot wide, 12.5-kilometer loop, negotiating grass, dirt and gravel horse trails along the way.
“This is a little more technical course than at Hyland because the trail is less manicured since it’s further out from the metro and the trails aren’t used as much,” Kelzenberg said. “The course has a number of sections of steady rolling hills as it takes runners through various habitats.”
In addition to 50K and 25K solo races, there will be a four-person 50K team race. True to the ethos of trail running, event organizers won’t be hindered by weather.
“Rain, snow, mud or shine, the race is going to be going on,” Kelzenberg said. “It is often a good chance to earn some bragging rights.”
As I toured the park that cold morning, a subzero windchill sliced through my Gore-Tex layer, assuring me that conditions would only improve by race day.
As we finished our run, my fiancé and I looked across the lake to the sky where the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds. I could practically hear the land taking its first breath of the season. Soon the ducks will quack, the frogs will call. Lake Rebecca is a fine place to welcome spring.
Mackenzie Lobby is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and photographer with a master’s in kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. When she’s not writing, she’s out exploring the Twin Cities trails by foot and bike. Check out her website at www.mackenzielobby.com.