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Bemidji couple shares below-zero Itasca State Park adventure

While many people spent the cold weekend snug in their homes, Hal and Ronda Sanders of Bemidji were making their most of their time at Itasca State Park by getting out on the trails.

Frigid temperatures didn't deter Hal and Ronda Sanders from their tradition of spending President's Day weekend enjoying the beauty outdoors at Itasca Sate Park. (Submitted photos)

The couple has stayed at the park the weekend before President’s Day for the past seven years. And they weren’t about to let the extreme cold change that tradition.

They stayed at the Itasca Suites when not enjoying the great outdoors. “Soon we’ll have next year’s reservation in,” Hal said.

“I work for the school district and Hal is an Ameriprise advisor, so it’s a nice little stay-cay during the winter,” Ronda said.

When they heard the weather forecast had highs below zero and lows in the 30s below, it didn’t deter their plans.
“We just packed warmer clothes,” Ronda said. “We don’t let the weather stop us. We did a lot of hiking. There’s not enough snow for snowshoeing and the ski trails weren’t the best. We put on anywhere from seven to 10 miles each day Friday, Saturday and Sunday ”

They hiked the Jacob Brower trail, Deer Park Trail, the Mary Lake Trail, the Ozawindib Trail and up close to Bear Paw Campsite and back. On the Dr. Roberts Trail, they watched both sunrise and moonrise.


“The Mary Lake Trail even had bare ground with no snow in spots on the southern exposures,” Hal said.

This weekend getaway is a time when they both look forward to de-stressing.

“We stop and we look and we just take in this most incredible beauty and connect to the world and forget everything else that’s going on to a degree,” Hal said. “The connection to the natural world is such a gift. Sunlight and silence were abundant.”

Dressing for the weather

“You wear a base layer of Smartwool and long underwear,” Ronda said. “I also had a wool sweater, insulated snow pants and my Wintergreen shell jacket from a store in Ely. A face mask, mittens and MukLuk boots were very warm and also made in Ely. I put the hood up on the jacket so all I had exposed was my eyes.”

Hal says he is more low tech. “I have a 1960s Air Force parka,” he said. “I wear boots that are not insulated or waterproof, but I put bread bags over my wool socks to keep my feet dry. I have old Army surplus wool pants, a Smartwool base top and bottom and a sweater on top. My Air Force parka has a heavy hood.”

Thursday night Hal did a trial run he calls a “shakedown cruise” to determine what gear to wear. “By that I mean I went out and checked the conditions to find out how much clothes I need to be warm based on the conditions,” he said. “If you dress too warm, you sweat and you’re in trouble. There’s nothing wet like cold-to-the-core, wet cold. I wear glasses so Sunday, when it was windy, I stopped every 30 minutes and took my hands out of my chopper mittens and would put them over my nose and cheeks to warm them up because once frostbite starts you’re in trouble. We would check each other's faces for frostbite.”

“And we kept moving,” Ronda said. “If I sat still, I’d start getting chilled. Of course, you’re going to be cold when you first start, but within 10 minutes you should have warmed up. If you haven’t warmed up, turn around, go back and put more layers on. ”

Both Hal and Ronda carry packs with food, a compass, matches, blankets, whistles and energy food like nuts, trail mix, dried fruit and water. “A combination of fast energy and long energy and you’ve got to hydrate,” Hal said.


“But don’t hydrate too much,” Ronda said.

During the night, any clothing that has gotten damp needs to be dried out before being worn again.

“I always take my mittens apart and hang my base layer out to dry,” Hal said. “You don’t want to ever put on clothing that is damp.”

The forest provided some protection from the wind.

“For the most part, we didn’t feel much wind except on the Mary Lake and Jacob Brower trails in spots,” Ronda said.

“You have to adjust your face covering to accommodate the wind,” Hal said. “That’s when I needed to warm my nose because I can’t cover it with my face mask or my glasses fog.”

Winter night magic

Sunday, they did a night hike on the Dr. Roberts Trail for about an hour and a half that included watching the moonrise.

“That was my favorite,” Hal said. “The stars were just breathtaking. So beautiful. We would stop and just look up and marvel at the creation. The sliver of the moon provided all the light we needed, and luckily, we also had walking poles which help with nighttime trail walking. We also heard the trees popping from the cold.”


“We had head lamps but never had to use them,” Ronda said. “Believe it or not, with the little bit of moonlight that was there it was enough that we could see.”

They saw tracks of timber wolves. “They were probably made the previous night,” Hal said.

“We have heard bobcats at night but never timberwolves. Because of the cold weather, very few animals were moving. We saw very little fresh tracks other than those of a couple of timberwolves running deer Park Trail.”

“The coldest we were out in was -35ish,” Hal said. “But the time I was the coldest it was probably 22ish below but windy. ... We definitely checked each other's faces out often in that wind for telltale signs of frost. My eyes did tear up in the wind and it was kind of funny, because as the tear went down my cheeks it was frozen before it hit my nose. Also I had to de-ice my eyelashes multiple times because my glasses kept getting ice chunks on the inside from my eyes watering.”

Back at their suite, they spent time relaxing. “It felt so nice to get in the shower and get that sweat washed off, get some nice dry clothes, sit under a blanket and read,” Ronda said.

They brought chicken noodle soup and chili to heat up and crackers, cheese and pulled pork for snacking.

“I sewed a rip on my parka one night, Ronda did some crocheting, we played cribbage and watched some TV,” Hal said. “We do try to disconnect electronically somewhat. We hope this article encourages people to get outside more often.

“Itasca is a treasure in our own backyard. One of our mottos is ‘there is no bad weather, only inappropriate gear.’ We look forward to this trip all year and we don’t let the weather dictate our time.”

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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