Brett Purcell’s two young daughters nicknamed his new fat-tire bike Hank.
“That’s because I say it’s a tank. That’s how it rides,” he said. “Even in a blizzard, I can put on my hat and pedal around and find a few minutes of sanity.”
Purcell is a freshly minted biking enthusiast. He bought a mountain bike in spring when the pandemic sent him from his office in downtown Minneapolis to working at his North Oaks home.
“Taking short rides in between Zoom calls was my outlet,” he said. “Six weeks ago, I thought, ‘How am I going to stay in shape this winter? I don’t want to be on a treadmill.’ So I sold the mountain bike and bought the fat-tire bike. I wanted to get it before it got crazy.”
Last spring, everything from bounce houses and kiddie pools to gardening supplies and upscaled grills were in short supply as Minnesotans scrambled to make their own fun amid the restrictions of the pandemic. This autumn, many Minnesotans are making preparations to stay active to thwart cabin fever, which is likely to be its own epidemic this winter.
Gear West, a ski and bike shop in Long Lake, has already been doing a brisk business. Before the first snowfall, families were coming in to try on snowshoes and check out cross-country ski gear.
“I’ve had this business for 29 years and I’ve never seen so much activity at this point in the season,” said store owner Jan Guenther. “People are already getting worried about getting cooped up.”
Guenther’s bicycle selection started running low in July. She suspects customers who are hoping to get outdoors in the cold took a lesson from the spring run on bike shops.
“They’re afraid the equipment will be gone and they want to be prepared before winter sets in,” she said. “We have the inventory and I don’t believe we will run out, but there may be a narrowed selection if it snows a lot on top of all this.”
Former triathlete and lifelong Alpine skier Anne Lee, 60, of Wayzata strapped on cross-country skis for the first time last winter.
“I always thought I’d save it until I’m older, thinking it might be boring, but it’s not. You can get as much of a workout as you want,” she said. “It’s peaceful and meditative being out in nature and I’m going to need that. Our winters are so beautiful.”
Concern about exposure to the coronavirus prompted Lee and her husband, Duncan, to cancel their gym memberships. Now she has convinced him to try cross-country skiing to accompany her on her winter workouts.
“Going into winter, it’s going to be trying. We can’t get out of the house and go to a play or a concert and everyone’s afraid to travel,” she said. “We’re going to keep our skis in the car so we’ll be ready to go. I’m thinking it will be nice to take off the mask and breathe fresh air.”
Heading to a park
Minnesota’s county, regional and state park systems are preparing to welcome a crush of winter visitors.
Even before winter enthusiasts show up to ice fish, sled, ski and hike to view frozen waterfalls, 2020 has proved to be a banner year for playing outside.
Despite a virus-mandated shutdown of facilities earlier in the year, the DNR sold 636,500 passes or permits between January and September, roughly a quarter-million more than in the same period in 2019. Occupancy at campsites and lodging facilities jumped by 12%.
Rachel Hopper, manager of visitor services for the Parks and Trails division of the DNR, said snow sports are well suited to COVID recreation.
“The majority of winter recreation activities are lower-density, with natural social distancing built in,” she said.
The DNR is preparing its network of trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. A half-dozen state parks will open miles of groomed single-track trails specifically for fat-tire cyclists.
“The silver lining to the pandemic is the hope that new users to our system will build a lifelong love of the outdoors,” Hopper said.
Many people who spent spring and summer entertaining on their porches, dining at outdoor patios and seeing friends on socially distanced walks are wondering how they will keep their balance as temperatures dip.
“As therapists, we know winter will bring tough times,” said Kyle Zrenchik, a licensed marriage and family therapist at All In in Minnetonka. “When it’s darker and people are indoors, they have difficulty maintaining their mental wellness.”
He’s been hearing from clients who are “actively worried” about keeping their sadness or anxiety at bay. That’s not unique to this winter, he said, but the restrictions caused by the pandemic are.
“This year we don’t have the concerts, sports and activities with friends to look forward to. Not having avenues and outlets for socializing and relaxing adds stress at an already difficult time.”
Zrenchik is reminding his clients that exercise and fresh air have been proven to help regulate mental health. That’s why he’s encouraging some of his clients to pick a winter activity to try.
“Working with couples, we talk about getting them to reconnect, going on a date and not talking about work or the kids,” he said. “This year that means going on a walk.”
Purcell feels good about his plan to stay active and in shape. He anticipates “a very family-focused winter,” with low-key activities around home instead of hanging out with other families or taking a vacation to a warm-weather destination.
“We can’t do what we always do,” he said. “We’ll figure it out day by day.”
He’s glad to have Hank the Tank at the ready in his garage.
“There’s a loop in the neighborhood that goes around a lake and it’ll be a heckuva workout,” he said. “People make fun of fat bikes and they do look funny but I don’t care. You can ride through anything on it and it gives you a sense of freedom.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.