Christmas in February

Our 2009, Christmas Eve’s Eve gathering proceeds as usual. The grandchildren arrive at Gram and GrandBob’s house with their parents in tow. The little ones manage to eat a few bites of wild rice soup as their expectations soar. Excitement builds until the moment finally arrives for opening gifts. Four-year-old Elise is the first to rip open a red and green package to discover heavy black pac boots and wool socks. One by one the three stair-step boys share her obvious disappointment as they all extract from their brightly wrapped packages—balaklavas, goggles, moisture-wicking base-layer underwear, thick gloves, toboggans, jackets and neck gators. “Where are the toys, the electronic games—the fun things Gram always gives us at Christmas?”

As they grudgingly try on their heavy winter wear, the adults finally reveal the second part of a Christmas surprise. The kids will travel in February, with their parents and grandparents, from Alabama to Northern Minnesota, birthplace of their great grandmother and former home of their French/Ojibwe great-great-grandfather, a Boundary Waters fishing, hunting and canoeing guide.

How ironic! The day we are to leave for the 1,200 miles to our winter cabin near Ontario, Canada, the weather report is snow on the ground in 49 of the 50 states, including Alabama. Our departure is delayed, waiting for snow and ice to melt, exhausting everyone. After our 10-year-old geography wizard sets his GPS, we proceed in caravan from Birmingham to the promised white Christmas in February.

The week begins with a family sleigh ride drawn by two giant Belgian draft horses, then exploring frozen Bear Island Lake in near zero-degree temperatures and knee-deep snow, making snow angels and snow ice cream. Following a day of adjusting to the extreme climate, the educational activities begin in earnest—visits to the Dorothy Moulter (Root Beer Lady) Cabin/Museum, the Bois Forte Ojibwe Heritage Center, the International Wolf Center, the Ely Ice Sculpture Outdoor Exhibit, Chilly Dogs Mushing Center, ice fishing and snowmobiling. Each child keeps a journal, a condition for missing five school days.

To walk a mile in someone else’s snowshoes increases one’s level of appreciation for the hardy folks who live here.

Highlights of the trip are mushing six teams of sled dogs through several miles of wooded trails flanked by towering birch trees and evergreens, and howling to wolves deep in the nighttime wilderness with guides from the Wolf Center.

As I write this blog I glance occasionally at the snow-bound lake outside our window and wonder why I almost refused to take this journey into our country’s official deep freeze in the dead of winter. It’s a frontier for folks who prefer the raw challenges of nature to the domesticated conflicts of urban survival. This cross-cultural experience is proving enlightening as well as inspiring for each member of our family. To walk a mile in someone else’s snowshoes increases one’s level of appreciation for the hardy folks who live here.

This morning, our host at the lodge asks one of the children how he’s enjoying the vacation his grandmother planned. His answer comes quickly. “Gram doesn’t take us on vacations; she takes us on field trips.” We hope he remembers to say that to his teacher back home.

Written by: Bob W.