I don't know about you, but when temperatures dipped to 26 below the other day, my first thought was not, "Hey, let's go camping!" Yet that's exactly what a group of students from Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis thought, and they were serious. They signed up to spend an entire day and night outside at Fort Snelling State Park, sleeping under the stars (and the 747s from the nearby airport roaring overheard). Lucky for them, temperatures soared into the 20s just in time for their trip, so the campers didn't even get cold — or so they said.
These students are part of the school's Outdoor Club, which aims to pull kids from their studies (and yes, from their screens) for some classic Minnesota activities in the parks. So far this winter, the group has gone ice skating, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and many of the kids who took part were trying these activities for the first time. No one, including the teacher guide, had slept outside in January before.
"Winter camping is the edgiest activity we do, so I admit I was a little worried that the kids would get cold. But no one did," said John Strand, an English teacher at Edison and Outdoor Club leader. That's in large part due to the assistance of Wilderness Inquiry, an organization that helps introduce people to the joys and occasional physical challenges of outdoor recreation in Minnesota. Wilderness Inquiry is best known for its work with people with disabilities; you may have seen their giant green canoes on the Mississippi. They also work with at-risk youths and with kids who simply don't have the family tradition of playing in the snow.
"We call it the 'opportunity gap,' when kids come from families who just don't know how to enjoy the outdoors, due to culture, ethnicity, income or lifestyle," said Greg Lais, executive director with Wilderness Inquiry. "Just getting them out into the parks opens up a whole new world to them. When they realize how much fun they can have, they want to do it again. And that creates the next generations of Minnesotans who know how to play or hunt or fish and take care of our outdoors heritage."
Saturday morning, the kids gathered at the Wilderness Inquiry offices in Dinkytown with their best winter wear. Those clothes, for the most part, weren't good enough for this particular adventure, so the staff helped fill in the gaps from its gear library, fitting campers with technical essentials like moisture-wicking long underwear, expedition-weight fleece pants, good wind-blocking jackets and heavy snow gauntlets with leather palms and cuffs that laced high up the kids' arms.
The geared-up group then boarded a bus, along with a couple of experienced guides from Wilderness Inquiry, and headed to Fort Snelling State Park, which just happened to be hosting National Winter Trails Day. Across the park, hundreds of people were trying out various winter games and sports, including skiing, skijoring, snowshoeing and ice fishing, so the Edison students weren't alone in their quest to learn how to make the most of a Minnesota winter.
George Vang, an Edison junior, recently tried cross-country skiing and took to it like a natural. Camping seemed like a good next step. "I just thought it would be fun to try something new. I like everything I've done in the Outdoors Club, so why not?" He wasn't as worried about the cold as he was about the fact that he'd never walked on a frozen lake before. Would it hold? Was it safe? It was somewhat reassuring that dozens of other people were doing the same thing and staying on top of the water.
These winter activities are strange rituals, to be sure. To supply the ice needed for the ice sculpture demos, volunteers had spent the night sawing through ice on Snelling Lake and pulling out monolithic cubes. The Edison crew volunteered to slide the ice blocks across the lake and then spent some time rolling around in the snow like puppies, making snow angels (face down and face up) and tossing the white stuff around. Everyone forgot about their cellphones.
The group spent the rest of the day either working or playing in the snow, beginning with the construction of their camp, a collection of quinzee huts, or snow caves. Volunteers had heaped up piles of snow the day before, giving it just enough time to settle. When the campers arrived, they excavated the center of the snow piles, using foot-long sticks to measure the ideal depth for the walls. Too thick and the "room" in the hut would be claustrophobic for the two or three campers inside. Too thin and the ceiling might collapse. Twelve inches is just right. At night, as the campers slept, their breath melted the surface inside the hut, which then hardened to a tough, insulating ice skin.
That evening, after all the Trails Day crowds went home, the Edison campers ate a well-earned dinner of chicken burritos, watched a group of deer on the edge of the woods, took a night hike and saw a few stars emerge from the urban light haze. They sat for a long time around a roaring bonfire, just as summer campers love to do. Then everyone grabbed their sleeping bags and tucked into their quinzees for a long winter's rest.
Everyone was warm enough and everyone slept well, Strand reported. In fact, when morning came and it was time to break camp, a few kids protested because they wanted to sleep in. Imagine that.
Amy Goetzman is a Twin Cities writer.