Getting a kick out of Green Island: Old Scandinavian pastime of kicksledding offered in Wadena
If you lived in one of the Scandinavian countries during the winter a century ago, there is a very good chance you not only owned a kick sled but you were also pretty good on it.
For the first half of the 20th Century, the sport of kick sledding thrived in the northern European countries because winter roads were not plowed, they were packed. A good, hard-packed snow base translated into perfect conditions for kicksledding. Kids did not get to school in the long winter months in cars, SUVs or buses as they do now, they would kick sled.
"Kicksledding was perfect for an individual to get back and forth into town on a hard-packed ice roadway," Green Island's Kent Scheer said. Scheer and Vicki Chepulis, owners of Green Island Preserve in Wadena, are doing what they can to rekindle interest in the winter transportation for reasons of recreation and health - and they have help.
This Scandinavian version of light rail transportation has been struggling to make a dent with locals in 21st Century Minnesota for the last three winters. Scheer has been a cross-country skier for many years. He has been a frequent winter visitor to Black's Grove Park, located two miles west of Wadena, where groomed skiing trails can be found.
"I'd been very fond of Black's Grove, and one day I decided to try something different, and I bought myself a kicksled and found it quite delightful," Scheer said.
Green Island acquired 12 kick sleds for use split evenly between adult-size and youth-size and offers a mile of groomed trails for kick sledding.
Scheer has found a kicksled runs around $250 with another $50 for shipping costs.
Scheer started spreading the word, and in a short time he was contacted by Wadena County Public Health.
"We did a little talking, and I told them how valuable I thought it was as a form of exercise, and Wadena Public Health actually decided to sponsor the kicksleds that we have here. So it is actually a public health project."
Operation Roundup, run by Todd-Wadena Electric and the Lamson Trust, managed by the United Church of Christ, have chipped in as well.
"These are being offered as a community service by the sponsoring organizations and by Green Island," Scheer said. "It's very uncommon. To my knowledge there are two other places in Minnesota you can try out a kicksled, but also to my knowledge there is no place in the United States you can kicksled for free other than right here."
A typical kicksled resembles a chair sitting atop a pair of skis with a bar for the skier to grip. Early kicksleds rode on cutters but modern ones can be fitted with a shoe-like attachment called a "snow float." You can propel yourself in several different ways, but Scheer feels he knows the best method.
"Kicksledding is more like a scooter you just continue to kick, you kick and glide, kick, glide, kick glide then you alternate feet when one gets tired," Scheer said. "It's isn't really kick, kick, kick, coast."
Scheer has been out kick sledding under optimal conditions and noticed his foot tracks can be as much as 20 feet apart in the snow. He has has found that gravity is a kicksledding friend. A downhill slope allows a kick sledder to coast and on a hard-packed surface it can get a little scary. The trick is steering the kicksled.
"You can aim them, but you have to work at it. You can do it by leaning, flexing the handlebars and using your feet correctly," Scheer said. "If kicksledding conditions are ideal, especially on a downhill, you can out-pace a skier with no problem."
The real trick to kick sledding is having the snow. That frozen, white foundation is all-important.
"The trick is that we need to have enough snow to be able to pack that down without pulling bare spots open and exposing gravel," Scheer said.
For the first three years Green Island Preserve had good snow conditions, but winter has become a fickle season in Minnesota.
"We've had a decline in our winter snows and weathers for the last three or four years," Scheer said. "The previous two years to this we had no kick sledding, and we had almost no skiing around this area. This year we have had slim kick sledding because we've had barely enough snow to pack a decent trail, and any big thaw has the potential for sending us right back to zero."
Scheer wants his guests to enjoy themselves when they come to Green Island, but they also should know a simple truth - there is a time to kick sled and a time not to kick sled.
"I really encourage people to understand the conditions that they should think about kick sledding," Scheer said. "If they can just look around and judge the winter conditions that would be right then they won't be driving here and then finding that it is just a really lousy time to do it."
Warmer temperatures would seem to be the right time but actually they are not.
"You don't want to kick sled at a thaw because the trails will be soft and you can create grooves. They'll be soft and slow," Scheer said. "However, after a thaw and a re-freeze that is a pretty good time because then you have hard pack because the thaw has created this kind of glaze."
Fresh snow can be a kick sledder's porridge but only if it is not too soft.
"It's not like skiing, you don't want to get out there in fresh snow," Scheer said. "You want to wait enough time for the snow to be packed artificially or to be packed down naturally."
Christian Breczinski of Wadena enjoys taking his wife, Tamara Moore, and their four kids out to Green Island. The older kids can give their younger siblings a lift on the kick sleds.
"It's great exercise for the whole family," said Breczinski, who compared the sport with cross country skiing as a exercise. "If I'm out there pushing away my heart beat is up and my blood pressure is up. It's a great aerobic exercise."
Moore is also a big fan of kick sledding. She enjoys the fact that she can sit her two-year-old on her sled and she also enjoys a good fire and some hot cocoa after a kick sledding session is over.
"It's a lot of fun," Moore said. "It's easy enough for people to do who might not be that athletic."
Not only is kick sledding a great family activity, it is a good way of exercising at your own pace.
"You can make it as strenuous as you want to," Moore said.