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COLUMNIST: Winter sports weekend

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This is my second winter in Minnesota. Though my first winter here was, by many accounts, the worst (the longest, the coldest, the most depressing) in 30 years, I did not earn full credibility for experiencing a true Minnesota winter because it was missing one of the most important parts: outdoor winter activities. This was not due to my lack of interest, or a lack of equipment. In fact, one year ago this month I received a pair of cross-country skis for my birthday. However, they remained freshly wrapped in plastic until this past weekend. You see, last winter I was still suffering from the results of a torn ligament in my right knee, an injury I had acquired in the summer of 2007. My orthopedist insisted that I was not to risk further injury until the pain and swelling had gone down, even though I sported a metal knee brace so bulky and menacing that it looked like I could go into a kick-boxing match with it and never feel a thing. It has taken a full year and a half for my ligament to recover sufficiently to risk skiing. This past weekend, I was thrilled to break out my still-new skis and take to the trails in Black's Grove Park off Highway 10.

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My husband volunteered to teach me the rudiments of the sport: Put your weight on one ski while pushing off with the opposite pole. On a downhill slope, remember to lean forward and push with both poles from your waist. Going uphill, keep your poles behind you to prevent you from slipping. If you start slipping backwards down a hill, spread your skis out into a V and waddle up the hill like a mother duck. Finally, and most importantly, if it looks like you are about to ski into a tree, fall.

I took to the sport like a baby duck to water. The sky was blue. The sun was shining. The air was a temperate twenty degrees. [I never thought that twenty degrees would feel temperate to me until experiencing negative forty degree wind chills last winter.] I bumbled through two tentative loops in the entry area to the park, and then braved the trails. A skier passed by in the opposite direction noting that some of the hills were icy. I had a fleeting thought that I might end up alone in the middle of the woods with broken legs and twisted ankles, suffering from hypothermia and exposure. I looked to the woods, and the trees and quiet trails beckoned. I was willing to risk it, overjoyed to be outside in the winter wonderland.

I fell on my first serious uphill slope, and happily discovered that falling isn't automatically painful. One moment my arms were flailing and I was struggling against the pull of gravity, the next moment I was face down on the snow with my two skis twisted around me. It took an instant to realize what had happened, then I laughed so hard it took me a few minutes to recover from the laughing fit. My second fall had me on my back so that I was lying on a soft bed of flakes, staring up through empty branches to the bright blue sky. It was such a satisfying experience to lie on a bed of snow in the midst of a quiet forest on a beautiful winter day that I decided to use each fall as an excuse to take a horizontal break, generally enjoying a good laugh at the same time. My adventure ended with a gnarly double downhill double curve combination. I managed to stay upright and on the trail until my skis leaped off the track near the bottom of the last hill, and I saw a large evergreen coming towards me at high speed. I leaned off to the left to avoid the behemoth, and found myself skidding down the remainder of the hill like a snow plow with my face as the shovel. I had snow in my teeth and inside my jacket, and my skis were wrapped around each other and me. I laughed harder than I had all journey and then managed to organize my skis enough so that I could get back up onto them. In the end believe I skied about 3km and never had to remove my skis from my boots the entire time.

My winter sport adventures did not end there. On Saturday, I was invited to partake in two other sacred Minnesota rituals: snowmobiling and ice fishing.

I was initiated into snowmobiling as a passenger behind an experienced snowmobiler. The snow on Big Pine Lake had hardened into gulleys and molehills after a thaw and refreeze the day before. I learned that that kind of terrain causes a snowmobile to jump and go bumpily, and I was not quite prepared for the physical effort required to hold on for such a ride. After a 10 minute ride as passenger, my host offered me the opportunity to take over as driver. I was surprised at the power of the vehicle once I had pushed the throttle passed its motion threshold, and I quickly grabbed at the brake when I found myself going faster than I was comfortable with. After driving for a minute or two, I had had my share. I was also conscious that my host might prefer to have a more experienced driver handling his valuable machine, so I slid off, and got a bit of exercise by walking through the snow the few additional yards to the ice fishing house.

The fishhouse was a typical vintage from the outside. Roughly rectangular and boxy, made out of metal with some randomly shaped windows cut out on three sides. I opened the door to find a small, carpeted room with five chairs, a table, and six holes in the floor on the perimeter of the room lined with buckets. The table was the center of activity. It was graced with beer bottles, some full and some empty, and well-sampled bags of snack chips. I was surprised at how warm the small house was and saw that there was a propane heater pumping heat into the small room. I had to look around to find evidence of fishing, the so-called purpose of the fish-house. I drew my attention to the six bucketed holes surrounding the room. Each one had a line descending into it from a pulley-like contraption attached to the wall near the ceiling. Anytime a fish pulled at the line, the pulley contraption would jingle, or at least that's what I was told, and the fishermen would rush to it to see if they could pull up a walleye. I did hear a jingle once during my afternoon's visit to the fish-house, but there was ultimately no fish at the end of the line. Clearly, the lack of fish did not diminish the point of the activity.

Ice-fishing has always sounded to me like it was an activity far more charming in concept than in practice. The very term "ice-fishing" suggests long sojourns of tedious monotony in icy temperatures with wet and frozen fingers and toes in order to catch much-needed supper for one's family. I was surprised to discover that ice-fishing today is barely a sport, is accomplished in warm rooms, and requires little forebearance, save the patience to tolerate long games of cards, DVD-watching, television, and amiable conversations accompanied by beer drinking and snacks. It seems to be a way to do exactly what one might want to do in one's house on a weekend, without the nagging of chores, phones, spouses, kids, or anything else that can be left at home. It's really an escape, which, so I'm told, occasionally produces something to eat.

I now feel like I have caught up on the winter activities I missed out on last year. There is one activity left that I'd like to do: ice-skating. I am happy to report that I received a set of ice skates for Christmas. As soon as I am able, you'll see me out there falling on the ice. Since ice is less forgiving than the snow, you'll be able to recognize me by the mounds of padding I have stuffed into my winter coat and pants.

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