I was living in Iowa during the Halloween Blizzard of 1991, but I already had plans of moving to Minnesota the following spring. I remember watching the TV news with a mix of fascination and horror as the snow fell and blanketed my soon-to-be home. It was more snow than I’d seen in a lifetime.
On some level, I believed watching the storm unfold on live television would prepare me for the reality of Minnesota winters. But, of course, I was wrong.
I’ve now lived through 24 Minnesota winters. I understand how bitter cold and eternally gray skies make the season seem brutal and never-ending.
And I’ve learned the key to Minnesota winter survival: It’s going outside and embracing the weather, literally immersing yourself in the cold and the snow.
During my first few years here, I grew to appreciate long winter walks by the Mississippi River. I came to love the way the snow glitters in even the dimmest of winter sunlight. I took an interest in the ice dangling from branches. I noticed how ice clinging to a lakeshore can look like pure glass.
Minnesota winters taught me to look for and cherish color in seemingly barren landscapes. A cardinal on a snow-covered branch. A forgotten berry on a stem peeking from a mound of snow.
I picked up cross-country skiing, finding exhilaration and calm while breaking trail through the woods, surrounded by the voices of friends and the swish of our skis through the snow.
After having kids, I found joy in careening down the hills of Powderhorn Park with my kids tucked into my lap as they screamed and laughed. We built snowmen in the backyard and we lifted toddlers up to place carrot noses.
Neither my partner nor I am from Minnesota, but our children are. They learned to ice skate soon after they could walk. We spent days on the frozen pond at Powderhorn watching as the kids hobbled along awkwardly on their skates, unfazed whenever they fell.
As they got older, we’d race in circles around the pond and then practice our full stops in a spray of ice.
Winters were fun for the whole family in a way that connects adults to their more playful pasts. There were white Christmases, snowmen, piles of skates in the foyer and sleds propped up on the stoop. We drank steaming mugs of hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows while mittens, hats and snow pants warmed and dried on the radiators.
This year, on New Year’s Eve, we went to our friends’ cabin to ring in the new year, just as we’ve done for dozens of years. Time at the cabin is usually spent cross-country skiing and shoveling snow off the lake to make ice rinks — a process that is, perhaps, equally enjoyable to the skating that follows.
Now that our kids are tweens and teens, they like to strike out on their own and walk across the lake to the island where they can walk in the woods, talk openly and laugh loudly while their parents sit by a fire, lost in books or a puzzle.
We arrived in the evening. While everyone claimed their beds in the cabin, I walked down to the lake to see the sunset.
It was beautiful — a deep, burnt orange with yellow highlights, dipping below the white and gray horizon. I took a couple of photos and then stepped onto the lake to frame the picture differently.
And then I fell through the ice.
I was close enough to shore that the water came only to my knees. I was able to climb out and slog my way to the cabin in my waterlogged boots and wet jeans. I was lucky. And relieved that it happened to me and not one of the kids.
In all our winter weekends at the cabin, there has never been another time we couldn’t walk safely on the lake. There was no skiing or skating this year, either. None of us knew what to do with ourselves.
Beautiful, elusive snow
Like a lot of Minnesotans, I love talking about the weather. But this year, whenever I remarked upon the “nice” weather or the mild temperatures, one of the kids would shoot back: “It’s because of climate change, Mom. It’s not supposed to be like this.”
I know they’re right.
Opportunities to go sledding and skating were rare this year. The kids built their only snowman during winter break, and nothing remains of it but a small patch of ice that grows smaller by the day as it melts and refreezes. Our front yard is all grass, as are the sledding hills of Powderhorn Park.
When news came of a possible winter storm last week, the kids got excited for all the possibilities — especially a possible snow day — but the snow missed our Minneapolis neighborhood, proving, once again, that snow is elusive this year.
And the surest sign of winter’s demise? We still have plenty of hot chocolate in the pantry.
I’ve come to understand something I didn’t in 1991 as I watched the Minnesota blizzard from my warm Iowa apartment: Snow isn’t the worst part of winter — it’s the best.
Without snow, we’re left with gray skies and little to do. Without snow and those hard freezes that let us walk on water, we can’t do the things we’ve grown to love.
Without these hallmarks of Minnesota winters, we all feel just a little less Minnesotan.
Vikki Reich is a writer, editor and consultant for writers. Her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Autostraddle, BuzzFeed, Brain, Child Magazine and Us Magazine. She is a frequent speaker at blogging and social media conferences and has taught social media at the Loft Literary Center. Her writing was published in the book, “Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now” (Putnam 2015) and she won first place in the 2016 Erma Bombeck Competition. Find her online at VikkiReich.com.