Snowboarding Fun in the Midwest

This weekend is the Frozen Chosen (FC) Midwest Tour’s final snowboard stop at Ski Gull in Brainerd, a high-energy competition—the last one before the finals, and the First Annual Freestyle Throwdown on Spirit Mountain in Duluth. I wish I could figure out a way to clone myself and be in two places at once.

I am by no means a “shredder,” but I do have a special place in my heart for snowboarding and snowboarding competitions. (The only time I’ll sit down and actually watch the Winter X Games.)

My best friend Tonya and I learned to snowboard on Mount Hood when we lived together out in Portland, Ore. 10 years ago. We took lessons at Mt. Hood Meadows before working up enough courage to tackle the more challenging runs. With enough practice, I got really good.

At falling, that is.

I fell getting off the chairlift. I fell going down the hill. I fell a lot. I was determined, though, to learn. If you don’t succeed at first, fall, fall again.

The next time I went snowboarding, I invested in a helmet, wrist guards, knee pads, and butt pads. I may have looked like a dork, but I’d rather look dorky than risk busting my head open (or wrists, or knees).

Snowboarding became our roommate bonding time, a great way to take in the beautiful scenery of the Pacific Northwest. It became a way for two Minnesota girls to fit right in out West (we sure didn’t fit in when we talked. I don’t know how many times I was asked to say “Minnesota” or “boat” or “yeah, you bet’cha” when I lived out there).

At some point, I stopped collecting bruises and started “getting it.” Unless I wanted to catch an edge and wipe out (and I did not want to do that), I had to completely focus. My train of thought normally goes something like this: “What should we have for dinner? I should check out Midwest Home‘s Pinterest boards. I need to make a dentist appointment. I think we’re almost out of toilet paper. When are the Academy Awards on? This weekend? My leg itches. What is that sticky blob on my keyboard? I wonder if there are any good sales at Macy’s. What’s the temperature now? Squirrel!”

When I snowboard, my train of thought goes like this: “Heel side, toe side, heel side.” That’s it. So uncomplicated. So simple. I even kind of understand the whole zen-like thinking, when you become one with your board. (I still fall sometimes getting off the lifts, though. Will someone please tell me the secret to staying upright?!) 

While I was learning to snowboard out West with Tonya, my boyfriend Aaron was learning to snowboard here in Minnesota at Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area. I wondered what his learning curve was like compared to mine. Was it more difficult to learn in Minnesota? Did it hurt more to fall? How were the runs? I had the advantage of the mountains; he had the advantage of a better teacher, our friend Jeremy.

A few months later, we met up for a snowboarding adventure at Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia (it might sound familiar because it was the official alpine skiing venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics). As it turns out, Minnesota had been the perfect place to learn. Aaron was faster, more fluid, more confident on his board. I was envious.

Snowboarding at Lutsen Mountains

Lutsen Mountains
photo by Jeremy Nelson

A few months after I returned to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Aaron and I went to Afton Alps—our first time snowboarding together in Minnesota. Since I had only snowboarded down mountains, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was happily surprised at the quality of the snow (not icy, like I had feared), the variety of runs, the reasonably-priced lift tickets, the efficient chairlifts, the friendly, helpful staff. Snowboarding became even more relevant in my life a few hours later, when Aaron suddenly veered off to a cluster of trees at the side of the trail and motioned for me to follow. I assumed he was thirsty or hurt or maybe he dropped something. I had no idea what was on the horizon. He unstrapped his bindings, got down on one knee, and proposed right there. It was magical, red cheeks, runny noses, helmet-heads, and all.

Since then, snowboarding has become our “thing.” We have snowboarded locally at not only Afton Alps, but Trollhaugen and Wild Mountain. We have been to Spirit Mountain in Duluth (in a word—amazing), and my favorite destination—Lutsen Mountains, where a group of us stayed at the beautiful Caribou Highlands Lodge with convenient ski-in/ski-out access. Lutsen Mountains, a 4.5 hour drive from the Twin Cities in the North Shore’s Lutsen/Tofte area, isn’t nicknamed “The Vail of the Midwest” for nothing—they offer the most ski acreage in the state, with 92 sweeping runs and 1,000 feet of vertical drop, plus the only gondola in Mid-America.

The great thing about living in the Midwest is that there are so many great snowboarding areas yet to discover, areas that are close to home, family-friendly (we’re thinking of introducing our kids to the sport next winter), and affordable. Areas that offer some really great snow conditions and challenging terrain—Buck Hill in Burnsville, Welch Village in Welch, Ski Gull in the Brainerd Lakes area, Buena Vista in Bemidji, Powder Ridge in Kimball, Andes Tower Hills in Kensington, Giants Ridge in Biwabik, Coffee Mill Ski Area in Wabasha, Mount Kato in Mankato, Granite Peak Ski Area in Wausau, Wis., Indianhead and Blackjack Mountain out in Michigan … the list goes on.

Exploring them all should keep us busy for at least the next two decades. Yeah, you bet’cha.