How the People of Ely, Minnesota Taught Me to Love Winter
There seems to be a common attitude, a general consensus even, that winter is a cruel time of year, and as I was growing up, I believed it.
I grew up outside of Indianapolis, Indiana in a suburban area, which is only ten minutes from the countryside and fifteen minutes from the heart of the city. Our winters were typically mild in terms of cold and always very gray. Most years, we get a couple substantial snowfalls, but last year, only a couple inches fell and the little snow we did get melted quickly.
Combine the dirty slush all around, constant cool temperatures around 30-40 degrees F, and several weeks of not seeing the sun, and what do you have? Where does that leave you?
A city of cooped-up, cranky folks with glowering moods and vitamin D deficiencies.
Living in an urban area can complicate the winter season; Even when Father Winter grants us the gift of snow, no one has room to run around and frolic appropriately! Winter days in the city can make for frustrated drivers, schedule delays, and dangerous car accidents. What fun could possibly be had in a concrete jungle stuffed to the brim with snow?
I was among the lucky few kiddos of suburbia: we had at least a little yard space to make a snowman or two in our youth. I was especially blessed to live on a hill with a couple acres of land.
Needless to say, we had the go-to sledding spot.
On winter mornings that offered even the slightest chance of a snow day, I would wake up early in the pitch darkness and groggily turn on the morning news with crossed fingers. Not yet fully awake, my half-open eyes and partially-stirring brain would scan the alphabetized list of fortunate schools scrolling across the bottom of the screen; seeing your school’s name was always a glorious moment that brought sheer bliss and buzzing excitement.
Yes! Success! Snow day!
After going back to sleep for another hour or two, I would rise with the sun, assess the snow on our hill, and call all my pals to come over for a sledding day. We would slide around all afternoon; building ramps by packing the snow, making a train of sleds that would stretch and bunch all the way down the slope, initiating snowball fights, wrestling in the fresh powder, erecting snow forts, and even putting snow in a bowl topped with maple syrup for a cold, sugary snack. Snow days were the finest opportunity to frolic with our friends winter, to experience the joy of these frosty months.
Unfortunately, as I grew into adulthood, the general population’s distaste for winter seeped into my psyche as well. Winter became nothing but an inconvenience. It symbolized cold, gray, sad days. All the women in my family complain of constantly having icy feet and chilly hands. Everyone furrows their brows when they speak of oncoming winters. No one seems ready or willing to give up summer or to let fall fade away. Everyone stays inside and they cancel all the joyous activities they would normally enjoy in the out-of-doors.
I knew no one whose favorite season was winter;
I knew no one who eagerly anticipated the cold.
However, my scrooge-like attitude toward winter radically transformed when I came to Ely, Minnesota. Here, people love spending time outside in the Northwoods and find great joy in so many different winter activities. As compared to winter living in Indiana, I found that the people of Ely generally enjoy this special season. Many who call Ely home, like my employers (the Schurke family of Wintergreen Northern Wear and Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge), have created a livelihood that relies and thrives on winter.
I can tell you one thing, though: the standard for what constitutes “cold” in Ely is vastly different than the standard for “cold” in Indiana.
Ely is the only place in the world where I’ve heard people rejoice about the temperature “finally being below zero degrees.” After the first night with a hard freeze of twenty below, people celebrate and exclaim that “it’s finally cold!”
At first, I thought, “Wait, so I’m supposed to be happy about it being 55 degrees colder than when water freezes?”
The answer is yes, but I definitely needed to change my vantage point to see that, to see winter for what it is and embrace the bounty she brings us.
I have been introduced to so many different winter sports (read my “10 Things I Never Tried Until I Moved to Ely” blog post”) that I never even realized existed before visiting this state, and I have fallen in love with all of them. Snow and ice can bring some serious fun into your life once you have the right gear to romp and play in! I now see why people pray for the next big dump of snow; they are waiting for their backyards to become illuminated winter wonderlands once again, they are eager for their snow globe playgrounds to come to life.
I am beyond grateful that I’ve been able to spend time learning from those who call the Northwoods home. This beautiful culture has been amazing to learn from and I always take away so much from my experiences here. Of course, one of the main takeaways is my newfound affection for winter: spending time in Ely has forever altered my view of winter and fostered a life-long love for the season. I am now comfortable in my ability to dress for the cold, and every day I learn more about how to properly prepare for the conditions. This acquired knowledge and skill has allowed me to flourish in the cold, because (trust me when I say this) I hate being cold. However with good winter gear and even better mentors and friends, my adoration for winter has been restored and is only growing with every passing day and every positive experience.
To Ely and the beautiful Northwoods, thank you for reviving my inner child.
Thank you for bringing back to life the truest part of my spirit;
the part that takes joy in the snow, in the wind, and in the moment.
If winter sounds to you more like punishment than anything else, I encourage you to change the way you look at winter.
Spend time with it.
Spend time in it.
Live it, feel it, and most of all, enjoy it.
McKayla is a recent graduate of Indiana University who studied Human Development and Family studies while teaching yoga and other group exercise classes in campus rec centers, riding for a women’s cycling team, performing original spoken word at open mics, implementing programs for the local Boys and Girls Club. She currently is employed by Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge as an intern winter guide leading people on dogsledding and winter camping trips. McKayla has always loved writing, traveling, new experiences, being active, creating things, meeting people, eating well, sipping lavender tea in a hot candle-lit bath, etc.
To read more of her adventures, visit and follow her travel blog!