February 7 was one of those warm winter days that makes northerners dream of spring. The sun was shining, the air was balmy, and the only thing lacking was just a little more snow to make play time more fun. I spent more than an hour lounging in my backyard with kid and dog, before heading out in the afternoon for a leisurely run on the Brown’s Creek Trail. Come evening, we headed to Lake Phalen, where I helped to cue puppets for a special story-telling at the inaugural Phalen Freeze Fest.
When St. Paul Parks and Recreation began planning for Phalen Freeze Fest, they conceived of an evening in which hardy Minnesotans would come together to play and spend time outdoors, in spite of the cold and snow. Urban Roots and the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District lent their talents to plan a creative telling of the Ojibwe legend of Shingebiss, a plucky merganser duck that thrives throughout the winter, cutting holes in the ice to fish each day. Urban Roots, a Saint Paul-based organization focused on food, conservation and youth development, worked with teen volunteers to build larger than life puppets they used to act out the story. Meanwhile staff from Parks and Rec and the Watershed District worked with school and after school groups at St. Paul Public Library, Duluth Case and Hancock Recreation Centers, Harding High School Earth Club, American Indian Magnet, Farnsworth Aerospace, and Great River School to create smaller puppets for event attendees. The idea was to have kids in the audience act out the story as it was narrated and performed on stage.
Ten minutes before show time, the crowd was still small, but by the time the narrator began, nearly every seat was taken in the outdoor amphitheater near the lake. On stage, the youth surged forward and back, five to a puppet, as the Winter-maker and merganser took turns leading the story. In their seats, smiling children giggled and waved animal masks and sock puppets on cue. Some, like my son, shouted words of encouragement to Shingebiss, who nonchalantly carried on even as the Winter-maker doled out his worst.
After the story, the crowd fanned out toward Lake Phalen, where MN Department of Natural Resources, Fishing in the Neighborhood (FiN) staff were helping families try out ice fishing. Other activities included cooking over a fire, flashlight geocaching, lighted frisbee tossing and a Story Walk.
Our own encounter with the Winter-Maker happened later in the evening, once it was fully dark. My son led me down to the lake to show me where he had been fishing earlier and we chatted with the FiN staff as out little guy poked a stick into the water. Then, in the wink of an eye, he stood up and stepped plunk straight into the hole, soaking his leg all the way up to his knee. Being the plucky ducks that we are, however, we did not rage or shake our fists at the winter. We scooped the kid up and headed back to the car, and, when we stopped for Indian on the way home, Charlie wore one of my mittens on his foot instead of a boot.