Northern Exposure

Hockey and skiing are iconic Minnesota pastimes—but they’re not always easy for newcomers to access

Experiencing a polar plunge in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Photo By Alex Potter

When the year’s first big snowstorm hits, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning as I rush to the window with enthusiasm once reserved for discovering what Santa had dropped into my stocking. Every time, I’m amazed by the scene that’s revealed: a sparkling white, pristine wonderland. There’s something about a fresh snowfall’s untouched, whipped-cream smoothness that practically begs to be disturbed. It beckons us to mount the slopes and shovel the ponds so we can carve through powder and glide across ice.

Editor in Chief of Minnesota Monthly Rachel HuttonFor many of us who grew up in Minnesota, learning to ice skate was a rite of passage as common as riding a bike. (And if your parents were skiers, they probably had you doing pizza wedges down the bunny hill before your training wheels came off.) Cold-weather recreation is such a part of Minnesota culture that longtime residents often don’t recognize the numerous barriers to taking up a winter sport. If we’re going to promote our cultural pride in playing in the  snow, we need to work harder to make these activities more inclusive of Minnesotans whose ancestors weren’t born with two pine boards strapped to their feet.

Compared to, say, cross-country running or basketball, most winter sports require far more gear (and practice) to get started. Take it from someone who has  sent the lift operator reaching for the “stop” button more than once, it’s a lot easier to learn the basics of putting one sneaker in front of the other or tossing a ball through a hoop than disembarking a chair lift while strapped to a snowboard. There’s also the expense of the warm jacket and the ski pass, or the hockey sticks, pucks, and pads. Not to mention the cold, hard fact that merely being outdoors in frigid temps can threaten one’s life if things don’t go as planned.

All this is why we need more partnerships like the one depicted in “Breaking the Ice” between Ka Joog and Wilderness Inquiry, two nonprofits dedicated to Somali youth advocacy and outdoor accessibility, respectively. Last winter, writer Alex Baumhardt and photographer Alex Potter joined a group of 11 Somali-Minnesotan boys to document their first-ever expedition to the Boundary Waters. Before the trip, most of the boys had never left the Twin Cities. They had to borrow waterproof boots, hats, and gloves—and had certainly never been on skis. And yet, within a few days, the boys embraced the north woods in a way that most multigenerational Minnesotan’s haven’t, by jumping through an ice-covered lake for a brief, soul-shocking bath.

If you were instilled with a love of outdoor winter activities, the most Minnesotan thing you can do is spread this joy to those newly embracing a cold-climate lifestyle. Share your layering tips and hot chocolate recipes, lift a shovel, and lend your jumper cables. Better yet, teach someone to skate, ski, or kiteboard. (The polar plunging is optional.)


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