7 winter wilderness guidelines from our Minnesota leader

Weather conditions fluctuate from rain, sleet, ice, and snow. Now. Add the word “freezing” in front of each element. That just about digests Minnesota’s January and February forecast. And if there’s one person who craves these extremities, it’s Outdoor Afro’s 2022 “Leader of the Year” Stephen Scott. “I personally love Nordic skiing (cross-country skiing) and snowboarding in the winter,” said Scott, 39, who is originally from Texas but has called Minnesota home for the past 10 years. “Our local network likes snow tubing, Nordic skiing, and snowshoeing.” 

Through Outdoor Afro, Scott typically commits these months to winter activities that introduce his community to cold-weather environments with care. From Feb. 17 to Feb. 20, he hosted a first-time “Intro to Minnesota Winter Wilderness Weekend” in Northern city Ely – tapping into the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – to teach survival skills and fun hobbies for this habitat. Community participants learned to dogsled, ice fish, and snowshoe. With nearly seven years of Outdoor Afro leadership experience in guiding his neighborhood in nature, Scott offers insight into no-man’s-land adventures during this time of year:

(Outdoor Afro Communications Director Candace Dantes) Q: Why was this network experience worth hosting to start 2023? What were the benefits of taking the time to coordinate and lead this first-ever experience for your community? (Stephen Scott) A: It’s an excellent opportunity to try new winter activities and experience the beauty of our national forest. It also creates partnerships within the Ely community (Kes Ebbs, Superior National Forest/Kawishiwi District, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, Arrowhead Outdoors) and shares the beauty of the outdoors in the winter. 

Q: For those not comfortable with radical winters (like me lol), what’s the appeal of Minnesota? Why is it an ideal staycation or travel destination? A: Beyond the frigid temperatures, Minnesota provides the perfect backdrop for a winter wonderland full of outdoor and indoor exploration. Before visiting in the winter, be sure to pack your layers (base, mid and top), gloves, and favorite hat. 

Q: So, what exactly did participants grasp during the wilderness weekend? A: A few different tasks. They learned about the conservation ethics, Minnesota ecosystems, careers in natural resources, and the relationship between recreation and management. For our specific activities, each got to understand the basics of dogsledding (orienting, meeting the dogs, launching a sled); snowshoeing (how to put shoes on and walk in them properly); and ice fishing (how to auger a hole into the ice, bait a hook, and find fish).

Q: From the images our professional photographer Joe Klementovich captured, the network action looked so tantalizing to try. As a seasoned winter wilderness expert, what tips do you have for first-time participants exploring nature in Minnesota during the winter months? A: Definitely dress in layers to maintain your warmth. Bring a warm beverage in an insulated container to stay hydrated. Pack adequate snacks to keep your energy going throughout the day. 

Q: Noted. For veteran nature explorers of the area, what’s something new they can learn in this region? A: Understanding the difference between “good” cold and “bad” cold to participate in local adventures. There is a difference. Also, being deliberate about their actions to prevent accidents, and truly knowing weather conditions so you’re prepared in terms of having the right gear and equipment.

Q: Speaking of gear and equipment, what are your must-packs for winter activities in Minnesota? And why these particular items? A: For me: wool base layers to start. These layers allow my body to stay warm but also help remove moisture from my skin. Second, a buff. It’s a multifunctional piece preventing drafts around the neck and can easily protect the face from the elements. Third is my windshell, which pierces blowing winds and pulls heat from my core. Fourth, softshell snow pants for movement, protection from snow, and turn into a vent when I get hot. Fifth are, of course, my snow boots to keep my feet warm and dry. Honorable mentions: gloves, a hat, sunglasses or goggles, and hand warmers. 

Q: Got it down. Thank you for those “honorable mentions,” too. Lastly, you’re serving as a guide and mentor to fellow Outdoor Afro volunteer leader Christine Meissner this year since she became a recipient like you were of the Polar Explorers Matthew Henson Scholarship. Christine will attend a five-day introduction to a winter travel training course in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. What specifically will you help Christine achieve during this experience? What advice do you have for her before pursuing this scholarship journey?

A: My role as a second-year scholar is to provide Christine support in preparation (gear and questions) for the Polar Shakedown Training – designed to ready scholars for extreme cold-weather expeditions or polar treks. I also joined the Shakedown team to help guide the other scholars. My advice for Christine is to embrace skill-building, camaraderie, views, and temperatures – fully. I hope she will learn about her own personal limits, become deliberate in her actions while being in the cold, understand the different types of coldness, and thrive. Not just survive. 

*Click here to learn more about our Outdoor Afro Leadership Training that volunteers like Scott and Meissner participate in annually to develop aptitude to guide their neighborhoods in nature safely and sustainably.