St. Paul’s hot in the coldest weather

Mike Muckian, Contributing writer

Residents of St. Paul still bridle over a New York reporter who once described Minnesota’s capital as uninhabitable during the winter months. Hardy local residents well conditioned to the season chuckle over the apparently delicate natures of New York’s residents – or at least its writers.

If anything, St. Paul has become a hot winter destination, with more outdoor activities than you can shake an icicle at. Yes, it’s cold, but as all good Minnesotans know: There’s no bad weather, just unprepared people who don’t know how to dress for the weather.

St. Paul occupies the eastern bank of the Mississippi River that both separates and unites the community of nearly 300,000 with its sister city of Minneapolis. With an almost Old World charm, St. Paul is considered the last city of the East. It’s the hometown of “Prairie Home Companion” creator Garrison Keillor.

On the river’s opposite bank, the more modern city of Minneapolis, the hometown of rocker Prince, is considered the first city of the West. 

During the 1930s, gangster John Dillinger and his cohort vacationed in St. Paul under the approving eye of Police Chief John J. O’Connor. Public Enemy No. 1 and his friends were safe to come and go as long as they registered upon arrival, paid O’Connor a bribe and committed no crimes within the city limits. Such liberal thinking may have helped foster St. Paul’s uniquely independent spirit and feed its slightly raucous character. 

Editors at The Lonely Planet travel guide recently named the Twin Cities among the top 10 U.S. destinations for 2013. They may not have been thinking of the area as a winter destination, but – truth be told – that’s when St. Paul really begins to shine.

Crashed ice craziness

St. Paul’s energy and enthusiasm in the face of subzero temperatures are among the qualities that attracted the Red Bull Crashed Ice competition to the city for the second consecutive year. The relatively new international sport of ice cross-downhill racing involves a 400-meter raised track of glare ice that skaters rocket down singly and in team competition. This year’s field began with 200 competitors from 14 countries, all of whom raced to become one of four finalists.

The event brought more than 115,000 spectators to the slopes of Cathedral Hill Jan. 24-26 to watch the finals. The St. Paul track, built in the shadow of the stately Cathedral of St. Paul, was the most technically challenging of the five worldwide Red Bull-sponsored competitions this season. 

In the end, Minnesota skater Cameron Naasz, the top U.S. competitor, grabbed third-place honors. Highlights from the event will be aired Feb. 16 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on most NBC affiliates.

All that other winter jazz

Crashed Ice wasn’t the only way St. Paul celebrated winter that weekend. The city also turned out in force for the Winter Carnival, an event originated in 1885, when the aforementioned New York reporter referred to the city as “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.” (Minnesotans have long memories.) Offended by the remark, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce launched the carnival – a modest version of Mardi Gras held amid the snowdrifts, where it’s too cold for flashing.

Like any such event, the winter carnival elects a king and queen who are attended by a royal court of be-sparkled noblepersons, many in long fur robes and ornate headgear. The Vulcan Krewe, clad in red capes, attends to the court and carries torches.

The carnival features an ice sculpture competition and several parades. Some of the sculptures were very good, considering they were begun using chain saws. The parades drew mixed reviews, but everyone enjoyed the St. Paul Bouncing Team. 

Think of the traditional blanket toss, with seven or eight men clutching a large piece of fabric and catapulting into the air a young woman who then twirls and spins her way down. The technique worked well with the trained team members. It worked less well with the well-dressed female members of the carnival royalty, one of whom landed squarely on her tiara. We hoped there were no puncture wounds to either the participant or, more importantly, the fabric.

Drink up!

For the heartiest of souls there also was the winter Beer Dabbler, a chance for 7,500 thirsty imbibers to drink beer outdoors with the fervent hope that their lips would not stick to their commemorative glasses. More than 100 breweries each poured three to six of their most distinctive brews in a frenzy of froth and fun. 

There was no way to keep up with the bounty of brew, but that didn’t stop many of the participants from trying, especially as both darkness and the temperature fell. However, any fear of freezing was eased by the wall-to-wall bodies that shared the space with beer tables, music stages and food trucks, another fixture of the St. Paul winter scene.

No beer event has ever required this much stamina, we thought as we pushed our way to the front of the next beer line. What must these folks be like when the weather warms up?

We made a note to return in July for the summer edition of the Beer Dabbler to find out.

On the Web: www.visitsaintpaul.com