I know – when you think of Winona you think of all our historic buildings, our hip arts offerings, our big beautiful frozen river, and how gorgeous this place is in the summer and fall. Well here’s a little secret for you: We have an awful lot of snow too, the kind that’s perfect for all you winter sports nuts (and I mean nuts in a kind way, not a ‘why are you into freezing outside?’ way).
Winona has some of the most stunning cross country skiing trails in Minnesota, miles and miles of them even. Trails snake up and down the bluffs behind Holzinger Lodge in Winona for more intermediate level skiers, and hug the bluffs behind Saint Mary’s University for skiing that ranges from novice to expert.
I have to confess, my few ventures with cross country skiing have all ended rather badly – usually with me face down somewhere with poles and skis tangled up underneath me. It’s one of those things I’m just not sure if I’m meant to do. But when I take my kids sledding out at the wonderful hill at Saint Mary’s I see people breeze by on the trail and I admire them – like how they can stand up and everything. To the south of Winona are the trails at Great River Bluffs State Park, and between the three spots you just won’t find a better assortment of trails or more beautiful scenery around them.
The thing about cross country skiing that seems so magical to me is gliding through a frozen landscape where the only sound is your breath and perhaps an indignant squirrel here or there. I’ve never skied those trails but I’ve walked them plenty during the spring, summer and fall, and if you’re quiet you run across all kinds of things. I’ve spooked up more deer than I can count, spotted eagles and hawks and fox — it’s like wild kingdom out there and you’re about two minutes from downtown Winona.
Having grown up in Northern Minnesota, I have to say I would much rather wander through the woods down here given the choice. I like wildlife and I think it’s cool to happen upon them in their environment, unless we’re talking about scary things like wolves and black bears. Yeah, yeah, they are supposedly more afraid of us than we are of them, right? Well you know what? I don’t want to find out, so I’ll take my blissfully safe walks down here in these parts.
The City of Winona makes Winona a little more fun in the winter by clearing and smoothing a big patch of Lake Winona and making a good old fashioned ice skating rink out of it. From high up on Garvin Heights you can look down and see tiny figures swirling about on the rink, behind them a warming building with hot chocolate and lots of heat for frosty toeses and noses. It looks like a Norman Rockwell poster, and it makes me wish I liked ice skating. Okay, it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s that I have a low tolerance for hurting myself over and over.
For another few weeks or so East Lake Winona will also be dotted with a little village of sorts – ice fishing shacks of every color, shape and size. To be honest, I’m not sure what kind of fish they are pulling out of the lake, I’m guessing pan fish, bass and maybe walleyes, but from what I understand the fishing is actually a very small part of being in the impromptu community that ice fishing houses create each winter.
In a couple of weeks the city is going to cut a big hole in the ice and a bunch of people are going to jump in. I will not be one of them. In fact, you’d have to point a gun at me to make me do it, but these souls much braver than I will be participating in the Goose Bump Jump to benefit local park and recreation programs.
Soon it will be March, and all this white, fluffy snow will give way to bright green buds. When it comes to Winona’s winter wonderland, you need to get while the getting’s good, and that, my friends, is right now.