From snowshoes and a snow cave, to nature bingo, pond gliding, search-and-rescue dogs and a hot tent, Lake Maria State Park’s Winter Fun Day lived up to its name.
On a cool and sunny January Saturday, dozens of adults and children romped through the park’s rolling hills in Monticello. Kids curled up inside the quinzhee, a snow cave that was part of Lake Maria’s winter camping demonstration. Brothers Thomas, 4, and Carter, 9, Hansen and their father Seth, all of big Lake, checked out the quinzhee. “It’s fun,” Seth Hansen said, “Keeps ‘em busy and (it’s) better than being cooped up in the house.” The quinzhee was roomy enough for adults, too. Jennifer Strong of Bloomington and her 13-year-old nephew Jonah Blue of Shakopee laughed as they squirmed feet-first into the snow cave. “It’s a fun chance to get outside,” said Strong, who was making her third annual visit to the park’s Winter Fun Day.
Near the quinzhee, park ranger Hans Erdman showed off the hot tent, a modern canvas tent with a built-in stove that vented puffy plumes of white smoke outside. Erdman slept out in the tent the night before. “I slept like a rock until 3 AM, then the winds shifted,” he said. Erdman said the hot tents, made by Empire Tent of Duluth, have been used for years in cold spots like Denali.
About fifty people turned out to watch search and rescue dogs, perhaps the most popular part of the day’s fun. People squeezed into Lake Maria’s cozy Trail Center building to see Wendy Deane of the North Star Search and Rescue Dog Association and her 8-year-old search dog, Kyra. Another search dog, 7-year-old Mojo, demonstrated a few quick searches outside with his dog handler, Diane Stefanick. During the demonstrations, the dogs quickly sniffed out a missing glove and a hidden person. But Deane reminded the audience, “Dogs are not infallible. They’re just one of the tools” to help search and rescue operations.
Families got a chance to do their own searches at the park, playing Winter Nature Bingo. Gina Anderson of St. Joseph helped 7-year-old son, Lance, and 9-year-old daughter Lydia, fill out their bingo cards. ”We need an icicle or a blue jay for bingo!” The family had already found deer tracks in the snow, a squirrel’s nest and a turtle. Blanding’s turtles, a threatened species in Minnesota, live within Lake Maria and the park boasts a big bronze turtle statue.
Nesting eagles, osprey, owls, mink, skunks, and deer also roam the 1,580-acre park. Park intern Zach Bauer led a morning snowshoe hike, and encouraged visitors to keep an eye out for tracks. Eighteen people, including Cathy and Scott Weisenbeck’s family from Rochester, strapped on snowshoes and followed Bauer along packed trails and snowy woods. Like many of the hikers, the Weisenbecks were first time snowshoers. Nine-year-old John proclaimed, “I love my snowshoes. Quack quack.” Cathy Weisenbeck noted, “You guys look like big foot tracks.”
Scott Weisenbeck liked how the whole family could snowshoe. “It’s a great family thing, get some fresh air, get the blood moving.” But 7-year-old daughter, Reagan, wasn’t sold on snowshoeing. “I’m tired.”
Other kids seem to have endless energy, running up and down a short hill to body glide across a frozen pond. Ten-year-old Zach Jurkovski, and nine-year-old Natasha Simonson with her three-year-old sister Kate, were among the hardy band of kids sliding across the pond. Pond sliding wasn’t on the day’s official schedule, but it Zach declared it was “cold, but fun.” Park manager Mark Crawford appreciated the simple fun of pond gliding, “It works even if you don’t have skates,” he said.
Crawford, who’s been at the park twenty-one years, noted that Lake Maria is “really a winter park” and ranks among the state’s top ten snowshoe parks. On a sunny winter day, dozens of visitors found plenty of fun-- from snowshoes and a snow cave, to nature bingo, pond gliding, search-and-rescue dogs and a hot tent, amid Lake Maria’s woods and trails.
This year's Winter Fun Day will be held January 26th from 10 am to 4 pm with snowshoe hikes, ranger activities and crafts, search and rescue and a winter family trathlon.
Note: Kate Havelin likes to run, hike, ski, and kayak. She’s written two popular Adventure Publications trail guides, Best Hikes of the Twin Cities and Minnesota Running Trails: Dirt, Gravel, Rocks & Roots. Contact Kate at www.katehavelin.com