12 Ways to Own Winter
Skate in the city
Even the most romantic ice-skating outing can wear a little thin after a couple of laps around a pocket-size rink. But the curving quarter-mile track in Chicago’s Maggie Daley Park is, actually, a skate in the park. The ice of the elegantly named Skating Ribbon slides around corners and up and down slight rises, bringing various angles on the city’s skyline in and out of view as you loop the path near the Loop’s Millennium Park. Landscaped berms, evergreen trees, kids’ play areas, benches and vendors selling snacks and drinks round out the mood of a splendid family outing—or that scene from a rom-com you’ve always wanted to live out.
Book Across the Bay
The treadmill’s tyranny over winter fitness is fading, thanks to a big lineup of hot-chocolate runs and other cold-weather races. The most memorable monotony-buster may be northern Wisconsin’s Book Across the Bay. At sundown on February 18 (the 21st running of the event), 4,000 skiers and snowshoers will take off from Ashland and head across Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay ice, following the glow of 1,000 ice luminaria to a finish line (and heated party tent) 10 kilometers away in Washburn. If you prefer an on-ice adventure with a side of heat, play Ice Road Trucker by driving your car over the 2-mile track opened annually between nearby Bayfield and Madeline Island. Even if the snow’s a-blowin’, count on the lines of leftover Christmas trees to guide you home.
- Courtesy of Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau
Step through the desert’s door
If airfare to Tucson isn’t in the budget, a roadie to Omaha offers a quick substitute. The glass dome rising above the Missouri River covers an acre of desert laced with hiking trails and animal exhibits, all kept at a comfy 75 degrees by Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Exhibits re-create three desert ecosystems (including Arizona’s Sonora) with the handy addition of screens and glass between you, the bobcats and the Gila monsters. Under the desert, the Kingdoms of the Night exhibit puts winter further out of mind with boardwalks passing over steamy, dark, gator-filled bayou waters.
Get fat on a bike
These beefy bikes may look like a clown’s ride, but nobody’s laughing at the way they’ve swept the national biking scene. The bulbous tires’ giant 4-inch footprint lets cyclists float through snow (or sand, as Southwest riders have found) and keep cranking year-round. That means that when a winter sunrise sets the woods sparkling under a load of fresh powder, cross-country skiers and snowshoers no longer get to hog all the fun. Busting drifts with giant tires is a hoot, and even tipping over is just a chance to make extreme snow angels. The Midwest epicenter for fat biking is the college town of Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but you’ll find outfitters renting the bikes all over states like Minnesota and Wisconsin. (And we’ve spotted them for sale in suburban bike shops well south of that.)
- Photo courtesy of Crystal Mountain.
Ski under the lights
High school football isn’t the only sport that ramps up the drama when the lights go on. Hills across the Midwest stay open during prime time as night wraps the glowing scene like a darkened theater. The show is especially good at Michigan’s Crystal Mountain (pictured). In long-winter states up north, many parks light cross-country and snowshoe trails with torches or electric lights to keep people active outdoors even when workdays begin and end in the dark. One of our favorite quiet escapes: Kettle Moraine State Forest near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, where lights cover 1.2 miles of trail at the Greenbush area—and a warming hut waits at the trailhead.
Try a polar paddle
This one guarantees unique bragging rights when the selfies hit Facebook: a 90-minute raft trip in northern Michigan. In the dead of winter. Beyond the novelty factor, why go so radically out of season? For the raw beauty, among other things. During the float down the Sturgeon River with Big Bear Adventures, the pure air seems to sharply focus the river valley’s colors. Nature looks downright high-def this time of year, compared to summer’s hazy days. Your silent passage makes it easy to sneak up on deer, beavers and more. But it’s not only scenery recharging your psyche. Functioning—yes, having actual fun—while floating along in frigid weather delivers a shot of can-do gratification no self-help book can match. Buoyed above the icy flow and joining the kinetic effort that keeps the raft on course, you’re not just having an outing. You’re proving your self-reliance (let’s go ahead and ignore the guide for a moment).
Fly like a snowbird
Once snow flies, the massive pool party at Wisconsin Dells (self-styled “Waterpark Capital of the World”) moves under glass to the oases at numerous resorts. But for those with a taste for somewhat crisper air, the Vertical Illusions zipline sends high-flyers through snow-covered pine boughs in all temperatures. The aerial tour over pines and canyons includes 18 ziplines up to 1,000 feet long. For an extra 5 bucks, add snowshoe rental and spend the rest of the day trading the chickadee’s-eye view for a walk among the drifts. When the cold finally gets to you, miles of indoor lazy rivers are always on standby in town.
Trek to the ice caves
If Arctic exploration fires your imagination but the whole polar-bears-and- desolation thing hasn’t really clicked, you’ll find a satisfying stand-in waiting in northern Wisconsin. Prepared hikers can set out onto the Lake Superior ice for a walk to spectacular formations that drape caves at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. (The journey is 5-12 miles round- trip, depending on how far you go.) In perfect-storm years (like 2013–14), epic ice formations and walkable lake ice draw well over 100,000 people. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising, Michigan, also puts on a great icefall show, and if you know of waterfalls near you, it’s worth a hike to look for photo ops. Tip: When ice conditions are primo, go during the week and try to carpool. On peak weekend days, you may have to park on the road, adding a couple of miles to the trek.
See the show on a string
When 7,000 people gather on a frozen lake, they’re usually staring down at ice fishing lures. But each year (February 18, 2017) on northern Iowa’s Clear Lake, every gaze points up during the Color the Wind Kite Festival. (The Midwest’s largest of its kind, if you track such things.) The scene overhead is equal parts Macy’s parade, air show and psychedelic vision. Pods of enormous dolphins surf the air while stunt kites slice around them on the cold breeze like barracudas. Meanwhile, geometric creations turn lazily in the wind like kaleidoscopic tunnels in the sky.
Party like a fire god
The guest list gets exotic every winter (January 26– February 6, 2017) on the steps of a Minnesota library. On the culminating night of the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, Vulcanus Rex (the Fire King) and his minions make their annual assault on King Boreas at James J. Hill library before packed streets. Without fail, the Vulcans prevail, setting the stage for spring’s return. The 130-year-old plot may be full of spoilers, but that hasn’t stopped generations from coming for the battle, the parade and the glistening sculptures carved from ice. Madison, Wisconsin, throws its own Winter Festival (February 18–19, 2017), relocating from Capitol Square to Elver Park this year. Along with contests for snowshoers, fat bikers and snow sculptors, there are also competitions for skijoring (dogs pulling one skier) and Wisconsin’s high school Nordic ski sprint championship.
Sauna like a Scandinavian
The term sauna (for the record, it’s “SOW-na” not “SAW-na”) has been recklessly commoditized to mean any small, steamy room. But the overheated broom closet at your health club is a pale cousin of the true Scandinavian sauna appreciated by, well, your pale cousins throughout the upper Midwest. A sauna in places like Minnesota and Michigan’s UP offers not only an escape from the cold but also invigorating therapy. Steam up, dash out, dive into a snowbank. Repeat. It’s not always easy finding a reputable public sauna, but many northern resorts have them. And you can approximate the experience at spas and health clubs that include cold plunge pools next to their steam rooms. You’ll have to provide your own birch twigs for flogging your superheated skin in true Finnish style.