The Impulsive Traveler: Warming to the frozen fun of Minneapolis in winter

By Sadie Dingfelder
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 18, 2011; 12:18 PM

The flight to Minneapolis was half empty, and as the airplane descended through the clouds, I wondered whether I'd made a mistake. From 1,000 feet, a uniformly white landscape stretched to the horizon. Snow covered every surface - pitched roofs, rivers and all 10,000 lakes. Bathed in the golden afternoon light, the view was beautiful but none too inviting. Frankly, it looked cold.

With temperatures that rarely rise above freezing and routinely dip below zero, Minneapolis is hardly a popular winter vacation spot. Yet Minnesotans themselves seem to have mistaken their frosted tundra for a wintry playground. When the lakes freeze solid, they go ice fishing or play pond hockey. River a sheet of ice? Makes a great cross-country ski trail.

I'm a native Floridian, but recently, my best friend, Sybil, persuaded me to visit her in Minneapolis and join the frozen fun. "We'll go sledding," she said. "We'll go skiing."

Our first stop, however, was a bar. Tucked in the courtyard of a downtown hotel, the Ice Chamber is, as its name implies, a bar made entirely of the frozen stuff, which is kept chilly by a seemingly unnecessary air-conditioning unit. As cold air poured onto his fur-capped head, bartender Heath Magnuson explained the concept: "We're in Minneapolis; we do this because we can."

I ordered a mocha martini but was instantly jealous of my friend Steve, who ordered a vodka shot in a glass made of ice. He tossed back the alcohol and then rakishly threw the ice glass into the flames of the bar's black-glass fire pit. Along with the other patrons who had gathered to warm their feet by the flames, I watched the glass sizzle and melt.

The next morning, clad in "expedition weight" long underwear, Sybil and I headed to Wood Lake Nature Center to try snowshoeing. Though it's just a 15-minute drive from downtown, the 150-acre nature preserve feels like it's miles from civilization, especially with snow muffling the highway sounds. For $8, we rented snowshoes, strapped them on and took off down a snow-covered trail.

Well, Sybil took off. I moved like a walrus on an elliptical machine that's been partially submerged in quicksand.

"If you can walk, you can snowshoe," said the woman who'd rented us the darned things. She was lying - walking is much easier, at least in snow boots on the groomed trail. So I abandoned the overgrown flip-flops and hiked the three-mile loop, which winds through ponds, marshes and woods. Or so I was told. Only occasional tufts of cattails and the random ice-encased tree hinted at what might lie beneath the snow. It was a beautiful, otherworldly trek. We saw animal tracks, but the only creature that crossed our path was a cross-country skier. "You should try it, it's a hoot," she called out, encouraging us to take a crack at her sport as she glided effortlessly by.

After my snowshoe failure, I wasn't convinced.

I was, however, confident in my ability to obey the laws of gravity, so after a lunch of fresh pasta at D'Amico & Sons uptown,we headed to the tubing hill at Theodore Wirth Park. A fee of $12 bought us each a tow ticket, a red plastic tube and unlimited trips down a gentle hill. Desultory teens without proper winter coats hooked our tubes to the tow cable, which jerked us swiftly up the hill. Dismounting turned out to be the hardest part. Sybil tried stepping out of the moving tube and took a painful-looking fall. I opted for rolling out sideways - it wasn't dignified, but it worked.

After an hour of sledding, we headed to Punch Pizza for more carb loading. The snow heaps must have awakened my inner polar bear, which saw that we were in for a long winter and demanded calorie-dense pasta and bread. (I know that this theory is flawed, but my inner polar bear, like me, is a vegetarian.) I devoured my brick-oven fired pie, almost too quickly to appreciate the flavorful mozzarella and tomatoes, which the local chain imports directly from Italy. Despite my speed-eating, I could tell that the crust was special - springy, crunchy and delicious.

Even with so much to do outdoors, hardy Minnesotans need a little help getting through the bleak months between the winter holidays and the spring thaw. Some make up new holidays (such as Febgiving: Thanksgiving in February), others embrace odd sports (including broomball: ice hockey with brooms and sneakers in place of hockey sticks and skates). But perhaps the most effective tactic for keeping the winter blues at bay are the city's many winter festivals. I happened to be in town for the City of Lakes Loppet (pronounced low-pit), which is a Scandinavian word meaning "race." The City of Lakes Loppet includes several races, including one where people inadvisably harness themselves to household pets, strap on skis and fly across a frozen lake. I napped through the dog race, but woke up in time for the Luminary Loppet.

Remember the scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," where the children skate and sing together on a frozen lake? I wouldn't be surprised if Charles Schulz, who was born in Minneapolis, drew some inspiration from the Luminary Loppet. Starting at dusk, skiers and hikers follow a candlelit path over two frozen, snow-covered lakes. There's a wonderful sense of community, as people greet their neighbors and chase down wayward children and dogs. "It seems like the entire city is out here tonight," Sybil said.

We followed the trail on foot, making our way past fire dancers and a candlelit pyramid of ice. Near the race's end, we passed through a gantlet of snow sculptures - a scowling Odin, a smiling Yogi Bear on skis, a pineapple that, on closer inspection, turned out to be a bird. We didn't spend too long admiring them, because up ahead was a heated tent with cheese curds and beer.

All the happy skiers at the loppet finally convinced me to try cross-country skiing myself. So on Sunday morning, just a few hours before heading to the airport, I returned to the Wood Lake Nature Center and rented skis. At first, I minced more than glided. But after about a mile, I found myself moving swiftly and silently through the snow-covered woods, unbothered by the biting cold and at ease with a frozen landscape that I'd found intimidating only days before.

Then I hit a minor hill and fell spectacularly. Luckily for me, the snow was soft.

Dingfelder is a Washington writer.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company