Need ideas for new activities? Here are suggestions for things to do in the parks, in the woods and on the water, ranging from vigorous to indolent.
In the parks
If the paved bike trails are too crowded, maybe it’s time to give mountain biking a try. There are more than a dozen mountain bike trails in the Twin Cities metro area managed by the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists organization (morcmtb.org).
That’s more than 100 miles of “single-track,” or dirt trails just wide enough for one bike at a time. The trails are set up to go in one direction, so unless you’re passing or getting passed, you often won’t encounter other cyclists except at the trailhead. A mountain bike or fat-tire bike works best, but trails are available for all levels of expertise. Some people are even using electric-assist bikes designed for off-road use.
If organized sports have to be canceled this summer, that means a lot of fields won’t be occupied by soccer or softball games. Why not put them to use by flying a kite?
An ideal place to set a kite aloft is a wide open park field without many people or trees around. You can also try flying one from the shore over a lake, suggests Dave Herzig, board member of the Minnesota Kite Society. Watching a kite dancing in the wind is calming, Herzig says. “There seems to be something reassuring about it.”
For beginners or someone who hasn’t flown a kite since childhood, Herzig recommends getting a delta-style kite made of ripstop nylon, which can be found online or at a local kite store. And never attempt kite-flying near a power line or when there’s a chance of lightning.
You just need a couple of stout trees and you could be gently rocking in the breeze, reading a book, taking a nap or watching the clouds drift by thanks to a new generation of lightweight, portable and compact nylon hammocks used by everyone from backpackers to urban hipsters.
These hammocks, sold by outdoor retailers like REI, can be set up in minutes with adjustable straps that can be attached to any pair of trees a suitable distance apart. They’ve been so popular that many park systems in the state have websites devoted to hammock etiquette and best practices for slinging your hammock so it won’t damage the trees. Use straps at least an inch wide, and attach to tree trunks at least 12 inches in diameter, suggests the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
In the woods
Interest in buying bird seed and watching birds took off after 9/11, according to Sharon “Birdchick” Stiteler. The Minnesota-based birding expert and national park ranger expects something similar to happen in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. “It is the original socially distancing sport,” Stiteler says.
Bird-watchers traditionally used binoculars and a field guide to spot and identify the birds they’ve seen. But now there are online tools like Merlin, a free phone app developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that will help identify the bird you’ve seen by answering a few questions or by using a photograph you’ve taken. The website eBird.org, also run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has a clearinghouse of reports of sightings and birding hot spots.
Stiteler says beginners can spot something interesting at the edge of a woods, near lakes, wetlands, rivers or streams, or even in their own backyards. Early mornings or late afternoons or evenings are the best time to watch birds, Stiteler says. And one place where she says there’s often lots of good birds but few people: cemeteries.
Smartphone apps like SkyView or Star Walk also have made it easier to figure out what you’re looking at in the night sky. Just point your device at the sky and it will tell you what you’re looking at.
Mike Shaw, a St. Paul astrophotographer, also recommends the Minnesota Astronomical Society website (mnastro.org) to help plan your night viewing, or the book “Night Sky With the Naked Eye: How to Find Planets, Constellations, Satellites and Other Night Sky Wonders Without a Telescope,” by Minnesota author Bob King.
Shaw, a delegate to the International Dark-Sky Association, says gazing at the night sky is something that can be done anywhere. “It just helps make a connection to the natural world,” he says.
“Foraging and mushroom hunting are the consummate social distancing activity,” according to Tim Clemens, a Twin Cities foraging instructor and president of the Minnesota Mycological Society, a group devoted to the study of mushrooms and fungi. Clemens says you can hunt for edible mushrooms, berries and nuts in many state parks and wildlife management areas and even in your own backyard.
To learn how, Clemens is planning to offer workshops and instruction, by online videoconferencing if necessary, through his business, Ironwood Foraging Co. (ironwood foraging.com). Clemens also recommends a couple of books, “The Forager’s Harvest,” a guide to edible wild plants by Samuel Thayer, and “Mushrooms of the Midwest,” a fungi field guide by Michael Kuo and Andrew Methven.
On the water
If you don’t own a canoe, it’s not too late to buy, borrow or rent one to get on the water, suggests Emily Broderson, president of the Minnesota Canoe Association.
Programs like the Mississippi River Paddle Share (paddleshare.org) rents kayaks at five Twin Cities locations using a bike-sharing model in which the boats, paddles and life vests are checked out of lockers and cleaned between users. Broderson says you can learn paddling basics by looking at instructional videos on YouTube. But always wear a life jacket and go with a friend, she says.
The Minneapolis Sailing Center (sailmpls.org) is planning to hold learn-to-sail classes this summer at Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis, according to sailing center executive director Ted Salzman.
Typical offerings include instruction for kids, adults and parent/child classes. If you already know how to sail but don’t own a boat, purchasing a $350 yearlong membership to the sailing center will get you access to the organization’s fleet of boats, which range from single-person Lasers to Ensign keelboats.
If you’ve been missing doing laps in your gym’s pool, try jumping in a local lake. Some parks have restrictions on open-water swimming or may have closed the beaches, but many of the state’s lakes are good venues for exercise swimming, according to Dave Cameron, a swim coach at the YWCA in Minneapolis who swam across the English Channel twice.
Cameron suggests that people new to lake swimming stay in designated swim areas or near shore. When you’re ready to venture farther out into the lake, always swim with another person or a group, wear a brightly colored swim cap and tow a swim buoy to increase your visibility to boaters. The buoys also typically feature a watertight container where you can store your keys or phone.
A wet suit or neoprene shorts can help with warmth and add buoyancy. Ear plugs and nose clips can help prevent allergic reaction to pollen that gathers on the water’s surface. Never swim when there’s a chance of lightning.