Find Your Own Joy Exploring the Outdoors This Winter


MOTHER NATURE CAN FEEL UNFORGIVING DURING THE BITTERLY COLD WINTER MONTHS IN LAKE COUNTRY. On these chilly, overcast days, you may want to curl up on the couch and stay indoors.

But winter isn’t just child’s play. There are many ways that adults can rediscover the joy of playing in the snow and ice during our long winter months.


Carl Schirmer rides the groomed single-track trails in Cuyuna. Photo courtesy of Chuck Carlson

When Chuck Carlson isn’t directing the band at Forestview Middle School in Baxter, you might find him out on his fat-tire bike. Fat biking has become wildly popular in Lake Country, especially after the mountain bike trails were developed at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Fat biking opened up a whole new year-round experience for Carlson. He got his fat bike four years ago.

“What I love most about fat biking is that they’re really a true adventure vehicle,” Carlson explains. “You can go over terrain you can’t go over with a regular bike. It really gives you the full use of winter.”

Fat bikes have wider, lower pressure tires designed to float over soft terrain, like snow, sand or mud. Small carbide studs on fat tires help to maintain traction on trails that become icy after warm winter days. Riders don’t need to wait for the right trail conditions.

Carlson says he couldn’t bike more than ten miles at a time before he started biking about five years ago with Carl Schirmer, a retired Brainerd elementary physical education teacher and lifelong athlete and cyclist. Last summer Carlson completed a 120-mile gravel bike ride. Having a biking partner can be a way to stay motivated and active. They try to ride about 100 miles a week year-round, usually splitting it up between two to three rides. They get in more miles during the summer.

The biking partners have logged over 7,000 miles a year for the last three to four years. Schirmer says there’s nothing like biking in winter. They use lights on their helmets and handlebars and go night riding in Cuyuna.

“In the winter, you can see so much more,” Schirmer explains. “Sometimes in those night rides with the lights, you feel you’re in a different world. It feels like you’re in
a submarine.”

Schirmer and Carlson don’t just stick to the mountain trails. They ride in Crow Wing State Park and along other lesser known trails around the Brainerd lakes area. There’s always something to see out in the woods. They have connected to the cycling community in the Brainerd lakes area and go on group rides. There are Facebook groups where beginners to advanced riders can find groups at their fitness level and abilities. Carlson joined the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew and serves on the board of directors as a way to give back to an outdoor sport he enjoys. He helps groom the twenty-seven miles of mountain bike trails.

“Cycling takes you further. You can cover twenty miles in a couple of hours of fat biking and see a lot of beautiful country,” says Carlson.


If Mary Shideler wakes up and spies the flickering Northern Lights outside, she’ll call her Grand Rapids neighbor Catherine McLynn — it doesn’t matter what time it is. They’ll head out on Crystal Lake for a winter walk, usually a 35-minute loop. The women walk around the lake all four seasons, at least four to five times a week.

“Catherine and I drag our butts out there year-round,” says Shideler. “Norwegians say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing. Get the right equipment and find a friend. Catherine will call up and say, ‘I’m leaving my house and heading to yours.’ We’ll go walking during the day or we’ve gone between midnight to dawn. Even though we’re very different people, we’re the best of friends.”

While Shideler has been a cross-country skier for the last fifty years — since she was 3 years old — her favorite winter activity is ice skating on the lake. When the ice is smooth as glass and free of snow, usually in late November or early December, she’ll skate for three to four hours at a time. She’s often joined on Crystal Lake by friends, neighbors and families.

Mary Shideler of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, skates with her neighbor, Bruce Robinson. Photo courtesy of Mary Shideler

“To skate inside on a rink is so artificial,” Shideler says. “But skating on the ice is so natural. On a lake you can go anywhere, the sky is the limit. You might be fortunate to see crawlies under the ice and you hear the booms. The exercise is wonderful. It takes me seven minutes to skate the perimeter of the lake.”


McLynn loves cross-country skiing and during the winter months she can often be found at Mount Itasca, where she serves as a board member and treasurer. She also coordinates the Mount Itasca Youth Ski League where 150 children learn to cross-country ski on Sunday afternoons at the ski hill trails.

If it’s above zero, McLynn, who is 68, is usually cross-country skiing. All twelve of her grandchildren learned to ski, skate, and bike with her.

“I’ve skied when it’s colder, but it isn’t as much fun,” says McLynn. “I just pick a trail and go for an hour or two. It’s a satisfying feeling to come back and say I skied six miles and I have some hot chocolate.”

McLynn says winter is the best time to be in the woods. No mosquitoes, no bears, no skunks.

“There are great stories in the snow and the terrain changes every day. You see deer, birds, owls, tracks of owl kills and even wolf kills. There’s always a surprise when you get out to see what’s out there,” says McLynn.


Teddy Schaefer has skied at Mount Ski Gull near Gull Lake for most of his life and raced through high school and college.

“That hill was like my babysitter,” Schaefer says with a laugh. “We’d get dropped off there in the morning and then get picked up in the evening. It’s cool as an old man (he’s 40) to see the next generation doing the same thing.”

Today he serves on the board of directors and volunteers twice a week to teach area sixth graders in Mount Ski Gull’s Learn to Ski program. On Sundays, he often joins friends on the ski hill for a couple of hours or he’ll participate in the Monday night adult race league, where adults of all skiing abilities can race for fun.

If learning to downhill ski seems intimidating, Carrie Wood-Grillo understands. Wood-Grillo, who serves as executive director/general manager at Mount Ski Gull, learned to ski four years ago so she could keep up with her husband and their 9-year-old daughter.

Mount Ski Gull offers free group ski lessons on Monday nights for women. On the last Monday night of each month, they offer a free group snowboard lesson. Lift tickets and rentals are additional costs. Wood-Grillo says it’s a way to get moms out on the slopes.

“We have a lot of moms who end up sitting in the chalet while their kids are out doing stuff and we’d love to get them skiing as well,” Wood-Grillo explains. Mount Ski Gull’s new magic carpet ski lift makes it even easier for children and adults to get up the hill.

Schaefer says advanced ski technology also makes it easier for adults to take up the sport.

“If it was tough when you tried it years ago in sixth grade, you can pick it up now in no time because the technology has changed,” he says. “Skis are designed to be more stable and want to turn.”