This piece is written by guest blogger, Alison Spencer, who joined students at Fort Snelling for a day of winter programming.
We pulled into one of Fort Snelling State Park’s many parking lots. The pavement’s relatively new coating of snow left us to invent dividing lines and as I switched off the ignition I could only assume I’d found a legitimate spot. To one side sat a shelter, under which a few fearless leaders waited. To the other, endless woods filled with a tree diversity similar to that of humans on earth. Everything found itself masked in winter.
Swinging open the door, and my feet out of the car, the environment previously seen through the window hit me full force. My first inhale coated my throat with a layer of ice. The air exhaled immediately condensed, leaving me to walk through my own personal mist. Snowflakes of varying sizes cascaded around me, falling gently onto my jacket and the ground without wind to turn them violent. These uncharacteristically still surroundings carried with it a sense of magic, of possibility and of adventure. The day, today, could not have been more perfect. We were, after all, here to enjoy this- the cold, the snow, the winter weather of Minnesota, and its natural surroundings.
A stream of students filed off the three nearby busses. In this icy temperature, many sported unzipped jackets, sneakers, and gloveless hands. More than half were hatless, their clothing serving as the first indication that these students were unaccustomed, despite living in Minnesota, to being out in its elements. They lived through winter but didn’t spend time in it, one teacher telling me this would be the longest many of them had spent outdoors. Ever. And while this might make some shy away from winter, I heard nothing but excited chatter, so loud and continuous it drowned out the crunching of snow beneath their feet. I saw smiles spread across their faces as they took in the park. Before them sat an open space, with hardly a footprint, ready and waiting for their exploration.
Breaking into stations, I set off on the guided nature walk. Leaving the larger group behind, we ventured along the woods, spotting an eagle’s nest high atop a tree. We made our way down to the river, noticing long imprints atop the snow where river otters had slid along the water’s edge. Ayisha, clearly intrigued by the tracks had a list of questions, excited to return to school and dive into researching the answers. Jalen, another middle schooler from Linwood Monroe, kept throwing rocks onto the frozen waterway, fascinated by the ice’s durability. He lived near a river but had never visited in winter, to see it in this state.
The group even stumbled upon a small herd of deer, stealthily moving throughout the trees. I, someone to whom deer sightings were commonplace thought nothing of it. But the students stood in awe, a few attempting to follow their path in order to continually observe their movements. Almost all of them recounted this moment as their favorite, having never witnessed them in the wild before. Ayisha believed she’d seen them in the zoo but “to see them here, they looked so happy. So free.”
While the snow had stopped, the temperature sat well below freezing and despite Ayisha’s claim that she was “too distracted to feel the cold,” she made a beeline for the fire starting station, an activity that needed no introduction or explanation of its importance to winter living. Once inside the shelter, students listened to an explanation of flint and steel, their eyes widening as sparks flew from the metal onto the cotton ball. A handful had built a fire previously but for most, this was a first, and they eagerly grabbed the equipment before them.
One girl, Aoni, seemed to be a natural, easily producing a flame with each stroke of the steel. Her neighbor, however, struggled. Using all his might, he scraped the two pieces together, desperate for ignition. He changed his position, the angle of the flint, the proximity to the cotton ball. Nothing worked. So, he asked Aoni to help. Her eyes lit up more brightly than the nearby flames, clearly thrilled at having found success and at being asked for her assistance. Aoni provided encouragement and advice, eventually generating the spark herself, to which the boy exclaimed, “Wow. Five to six minutes ago she’d never done this” and now seemed unstoppable. I knew she’d carry this new skill, and the self-confidence it created, well beyond this shelter.
I could tell as I walked to my car that these students had experienced something special, something that could change their understanding of Minnesota’s winters. They gained new knowledge, made new friends, and took in new sights, all the while coming to appreciate their home state just a bit more.