"If you are the last person in the warming house, please turn down the heat and turn off the lights," the sign read.
My wife, Vicky, and I did both tasks and closed the door, then scanned the ski trails through the North Woods outside Park Rapids, Minn. They were immaculately groomed, but a combination of rain and freeze/thaw weather had glazed them over with ice. Skiing was out of the question, so we chose to hike the narrow, mile-long snowshoe trail. It wound through deep woods to an open marshland where chickadees and cedar waxwings browsed on winter berries, then through rolling woodlands back to the warming house. It wasn't skiing, but we were outside, in the woods, and moving.
Two weeks earlier, I declared that I had to get to a "winter wonderland." The Twin Cities metro area was brown except for a few kilometers of man-made ski trails, and I was desperate to experience winter. Itasca State Park looked good. We would head there — but the journey had to include our favorite class of ski trails: small systems, usually on county-owned land, and maintained by local ski clubs.
These trail systems are designed to give local Nordic enthusiasts a place to ski. They depend on volunteers for trail grooming and donations at the trailhead for supplies. Some have buildings at the trailhead, others just a parking lot. All of them have meticulously groomed trails, a source of pride for the grooming crews, and many morph into training centers for local kids.
They also have a laid-back vibe as demonstrated by the "last person in the warming house" sign. We found that at the Soaring Eagle ski trails off Hwy. 71, between Itasca State Park and Park Rapids (itascatur.org). The Itascatur Outdoor Activity Club cares for the trails, grooming them every Friday during ski season and after a snowfall of more than 2 inches. This winter, the warming house will be closed due to the coronavirus.
As much as I love what man-made snow has done for Nordic skiing in the metro, and for my mental health in Minnesota's off-and-on winters, those trails often feel like outdoor gyms. They are crowded with skiers.
The small club-maintained trails are different. Soaring Eagle gave us the chance to ditch the skis when conditions were poor and opt for a hike instead.
Wolf Lake, near Brainerd, Minn., with its classic groomed trails through hardwoods and mature pines, draws a mix of skiers, some in wool pants and fur hats, others gliding along with the latest in high-tech equipment (brainerdnordicskiclub.com/wolf-lake).
We stopped frequently on the Wolf Lake trails just to listen to birds or study animal tracks. Afterward we ate at Prairie Bay Restaurant in Baxter, Minn., where the menu includes wood-fired pizza, house-smoked brisket and a truffle butter-basted mushroom dish.
With all the stops to ski — or hike — it took us a couple of days to reach Itasca State Park, and by the time we arrived we were content just to get outside and see snow. The trails were icy, so we donned winter boots and hiked the shore of Mary Lake, in the southern third of the park. The day was bright and we chose the sunny side of the lake for our hike, so stopping to let the sun shine on our faces became the focus of the day. Later we visited the source of the Mississippi River and had it to ourselves.
More under-the-radar trails
We'll branch out again this year, especially because COVID-19 makes socializing in the crowded metro ski chalets off-limits.
If we have local snow, we'll return to Timberland Hills near Cumberland, Wis., with trails along ridges and through valleys. There's a beginner's loop on this trail system, but also challenging loops that have drawn Olympic gold medalist Jesse Diggins to the system. Signed posters in the warming house attest to her fondness for Timberland Hills (timberlandhills.com).
We'll also stop at the Balsam Branch trails in Amery, Wis. The trailhead is a parking lot with no building, and the trails are a little easier to navigate (co.polk.wi.us/trailcrosscountryskiing).
The trail system in Mora, Minn., with its two-story warming house and sauna, is also on our radar (moraskiclub.org). It is near our favorite stopping-off spot, Banning State Park, near Sandstone, Minn., where skiers can check out the historic quarry site, then glide through aspen-birch woodlands and tamarack wetlands (tinyurl.com/y6dkxwnq). Farther north, in Duluth, the Korkki Nordic trails also beckon.
Fueled by donations
We leave a donation at every trail system. For us, an afternoon of skiing is more valuable than a matinee movie, so our donations reflect that mind-set. We also chat up the local volunteers. They're more than happy to share their trails and fill you in on local events and dining options.
This year will be a different because of COVID-19. While Gov. Tim Walz's latest executive order will keep warming houses closed through Dec. 18, we don't know what other precautions local clubs will implement. (Check their websites before you go.)
We do know that state and federal guidelines consider skiing safe if we follow social-distancing guidelines. If our experience is any indication, these locally maintained ski trails will offer plenty of opportunities to get some exercise and enjoy nature in a safe setting.
Writer Doug Shidell lives in Minneapolis. His novel, "On His Own Terms," is available as an e-book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.