Time spent in the outdoors is a shared narrative among Minnesotans. Maybe now more widely shared than in a lifetime as people see a place where safety from the coronavirus feels a breath away.
What follows are words from some of those people, for whom the outdoors is a place of action and vocation and, given the times, a place of even higher worth. Who can’t relate?
Alumni of the Outdoors Weekend feature Currents were asked several questions:
How have you spent your time outdoors this autumn?
What’s been meaningful?
And has the pandemic changed any of it?
Their answers have been edited for length and clarity:
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“This year has been layer upon layer of challenges. I lost my job in June to the financial impacts of COVID-19. I feel fortunate to have outdoor spaces to turn to as a respite from the anchor of computer screens. Public lands have been my outdoor classrooms, and I can’t say enough about how precious these spaces are. As soon as my shoes hit the trail I feel a wash of relief. I can just be right where I am.
Autumn is such an exciting time with millions of birds migrating through Minnesota to their winter grounds, where many spend most of their lives. Birds are practically everywhere we look, and they’ve been my constant companions on my hikes and trail runs. I’ve had a lot of fun creating outdoor learning activities for teachers and parents who are struggling to keep kids engaged. Phenology scavenger hunts and DIY bird feeders have been big hits.
I have been studying up on native plants and foraging, bringing locally sourced ingredients into my kitchen. I’ve always loved to cook, but the pandemic challenged me to plan meals further out and use ingredients that stored longer. I’m particularly excited to use the staghorn sumac berries I harvested as a cooking spice.”
KATIE BURNS, former outreach coordinator at Audubon Minnesota
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Since March I’ve never invested so much time in Minnesota’s great outdoors. Some call it a birthright. Some call it public land. I call it a gift like no other.
As we continue to navigate the path of a pandemic in central Minnesota, my personal and professional time outdoors this autumn involved assisting in building Cruser’s Kettle — a new, 7-mile mountain bike trail in my hometown of Cuyuna. I assisted with project management and fundraising. We also watched additional mountain bike trails get built in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area.
Then about two weeks ago, autumn prime entered in all its full-color glory. Believe it or not, I put down the bike and picked up walking.
I began focusing on each individual leaf and the beauty of nature. The enjoyment of being outdoors without an objective opened a point of view that I had been missing. I renewed one of my original passions, photography. I was blessed with the right time and the perfect lighting to capture August prime in a way that only Minnesota can deliver. And in that moment, there was peace, joy and beauty. This now becomes something to hold on to as we move ahead toward the wonders of winter.
AARON HAUTALA, former president of Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew
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I love playing with my family in the remnant slice of Big Woods found at Wolsfeld Woods in Long Lake. It’s my favorite scientific and natural area in the metro, and while the mature maple, basswood, and oak trees are impressive year-round, they are especially spectacular in their autumn colors. The fall foliage has been dazzling this year.
We just got back from an overnight bikepacking trip to Carver Park Reserve in Waconia. I have this setup made by Kids Ride Shotgun that allows me to put a seat for my daughter on the top tube of my mountain bike, and she has her own little handlebars positioned on top of mine for better grip. I hesitate to use words like “epic” to describe an overnight trip from home, but for her it must have been. As a family we rode 10 miles of the new Monarch single-track at Carver, she got to see an owl out hunting shortly after sunset, and all in all she rode for 70 miles in two days.
Mountain biking and isolation can go hand in hand easily, as long as you plan and practice proper trail etiquette. We took a few short trips this year: a day of riding at Tioga Recreation Area, two days at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, an anniversary camping trip up to Copper Harbor, Mich. In August, I mountain biked 84.6 miles in one day across the Duluth Traverse and adjoining single-track as an adventure fundraiser. All donations, directed to The Cairn Project, will then be granted to community organizations creating space for girls of color in the outdoors.
I still was able to mentor with Little Bellas, a mountain bike program for girls, but sessions had a distanced flair this year: Participants were limited to keep groups small, masks were worn whenever we weren’t riding, and there were safety protocols in place to keep the girls safe. It was the highlight of an otherwise quiet and reclusive summer.
EMMA SCHULTZ, community forest project specialist, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
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Like for all of us, my daily life has changed significantly. I am normally on the road over a hundred days a year. There has been more positives than negatives in both the Vincent family and the Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever family. The pandemic has created more quality time, including with my first grandchild, who was born Feb. 29. Organizationally we’ve been negatively affected at Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, but we’ve have also learned new ways to communicate more efficiently and not only carry on the mission but grow it.
I have had the opportunity to hunt this fall, albeit with small groups and in a socially responsible way. One hunt allowed me to complete my hunter mentor pledge. Introducing someone to hunting for the first time is incredibly rewarding, and having the honor with an Army veteran who had done his tour of duty in Afghanistan was humbling. He also brought along his 10-year-old son for his first introduction to hunting and shooting. This was definitely the highlight of my hunting this year.
HOWARD VINCENT, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever chief executive and president
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I’ve spent more time fishing for walleyes and lake trout in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness this fall than in the previous five autumns combined. Along with a recent waterfowl hunting trip there, too, the outings have produced some excellent audio for our WTIP Boundary Waters Podcast. Though each has been successful with regard to harvest, the trips in recent weeks are about more than netting fish or bagging birds. The pandemic made us thirst to travel deeper, to portage farther, to paddle harder. In that sense, the pandemic and its many challenges made us stronger as we put away our canoes for the season and prepare for winter.
JOE FRIEDRICHS, WTIP broadcaster and host of “Boundary Waters Podcast”
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Six of us managed (with detailed COVID planning) to get out on a fall canoe trip into the BWCA. The canoes gave us adequate social distancing (17 feet) along with individual tents. Wind and rain helped clean the air. It was a way for friends to connect safely, engage in needed conversations other then with self :), and get a boost of meaning from nature.
LONNIE DUPRE, adventurer and explorer
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It’s been a wonderful fall. I’ve been loving the color and weather and have spent a lot of time this season on the Superior Hiking Trail. I’ve re-hiked some favorite sections closer to home but also set out on some new sections. My younger daughter, Maria, and I walked the 7 ½-mile segment from Hwy. 1 near Silver Bay to Little Marais. We expected great vistas and color, and the trail didn’t disappoint. But as we approached Sawmill Dome we passed through a ridgeline maple forest and kicked through nearly a mile of sweet-smelling, ripe leaves piled a half-foot deep on the forest floor. Low, yellow sunlight shot through the trees. It was heaven. I haven’t kicked through that many leaves since I was a kid.
The following week I checked out the Temperance River and Carlton Peak and saw two mourning cloak butterflies that day (Oct. 8), quite late in the season.
A few weeks back I joined a small group of amateur astronomers for my first virtual star party. We streamed it with an iPhone and laptop. Illuminated by red flashlights we talked about what was up in the sky that night and shared views of the moon and Jupiter.
BOB KING, author and skywatcher
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I am spending time every day — sometimes hours, sometimes just a few minutes — wandering the North Woods. Specifically, the 80 acres where my family lives (north of Duluth). The daily changes in color, smell (my favorite — that sweet smell of fallen leaves in the early stages of decay), and sound have added up to a new experience of this place for me. It’s a touchstone that our busy lives of commuting to work, school and activities really didn’t accommodate. I’ve always spent regular time in the woods, but now it’s my daily routine.
My own Currents feature came out the day/week that Minnesota closed down — just before sheltering in place. So everything is different! My spouse and I had just been to a Wilco concert in Duluth (hand sanitizer was available everywhere, but the concert took place as planned for a packed-together and unmasked crowd) and then had a getaway weekend in Minneapolis — where the theater, music and museums had mostly closed but we still enjoyed many great meals out on the town. And now it’s hard to imagine a time when we’ll be doing any of those things again. And so we head outdoors to the woods.
MEREDITH CORNETT, regional conservation science director, The Nature Conservancy
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Perhaps of little surprise, I have spent much of my waking time since March on the bike. With competition schedules canceled, the trails deemed lower risk situations, and parents needing something for their kids to do, it was easy to spend 14-plus hours a day, most days of the week, on the bike with small groups of kids.
This has carried over to the fall, though with most learning taking up the conventional hours, I have had more time to get some riding in of my own.
We have facilitated school-based programs, home-school groups, seasonal sessions, weeklong camps, and clinics. All the while we have been growing a youth employment base, hiring older accomplished riders, trained and certified, to mentor younger riders.
What’s different is really a shift in emphasis and urgency. I feel like the people around me have taken the opportunity to slow down, take stock in what we have available to us to get us through this uncertain time, and use our endurance mind-set to sustain us.
I am grateful we have the bike to bring us together, even if we aren’t physically getting together. There is a vibrant, positive and inspiring community out there on social media, and trailheads are still a place where you can see your friends. It’s just that you have to communicate with them from across the parking lot!
BRUCE MARTENS, Loppet Cycle Works director
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We are trying to make the best out of this time. I love my runs around the Twin Cities. I love going for bike rides with my husband and kids. I love how the neighbors have been out on their lawns more and, since my work and travel has slowed a lot, I have finally gotten to know them — like really know them. It has been a really nice thing out of a really tough situation.
CARRIE TOLLEFSON, former Olympic middle distance runner and running celebrity
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I have continued my trail running for the BWCA project, using trail running as an advocacy tool to “Save the Boundary Waters” from sulfide-ore copper mining. This year I planned to link the Border Route and Kekekabic trails together for one 110-mile journey through the heart of the wilderness. COVID disrupted the run: I was going to need support from many people along the way in the form of paddle-in aid stations, given Minnesota’s lockdown on top of wanting to ensure safety of friends and family. Instead, I decided to solo-run all the major Boundary Waters trails: Sioux Hustler, Powwow, three different loops around Snowbank Lake, Kekekabic and the Border Route. I’ve finished all of them except the Kek, on hold due to the early winter Up North. I finished the Border Route Trail in just under 24 hours for a new Fastest Known Time. Highlights this year? Getting chased by territorial ruffed grouse, taking in the fall colors of the palisades over Rose Lake along the Border Route, and meeting trail crews rehabbing the Powwow Trail after the Pagami Creek Fire burned more than 95 % of it in 2011.
ALEX FALCONER, trail runner and staff member at Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters