CARLTON - Jim and Linda Couture were keeping a date on Sunday that they'd made almost a year ago.
"Jim saw it right after New Year's last year," Linda said of the First Day snowshoe hike at Jay Cooke State Park on Sunday. "So we said oh - and we even wrote it down on our calendar - we should do this next year. ... We wanted to try something different."
The Hermantown couple, on a snowshoe hike for the first time in their lives, were among two dozen people who gathered around Carly Hawkinson in the early afternoon for the second of two First Day snowshoe hikes the Jay Cooke park naturalist led on Sunday.
The tradition of beginning the new year with a hike started at a state park in Massachusetts 20 years ago, Hawkinson said, and has spread to all 50 states.
"A lot of people think of January 1 as a fresh start," Hawkinson said. "This is just another one of those incentives to get people outdoors, to enjoy nature and welcome in the new year."
The first day of 2017 offered seasonable temperatures, sunny skies and a well-packed route that mostly followed the park's CCC Trail along the St. Louis River before looping across state Highway 210 and back toward park headquarters.
Some, like the Coutures, were on snowshoes for the first time, borrowing the aluminum-frame shoes from the park's ample supply. Others hiked on their own trusty snowshoes. Reginald Sohm, 61, Silver Bay, said he got his military surplus, magnesium snowshoes about a decade a go.
"I'm not a real serious snowshoer," Sohm insisted, as he strolled nonchalantly toward the back of the pack.
For the beginners, Hawkinson offered a brief and simple lesson in how to do it.
"Try to walk normal," she said, imitating the stiff gait she was discouraging. "I don't want any Frankensteins out there."
Hawkinson, 42, has led each First Day hike since coming to Jay Cooke in 2012 and at Gooseberry State Park before that. Snowshoeing is her favorite winter activity, she said, and she often will throw the snowshoes in her car when she heads up toward Ely or Grand Marais, not requiring a trail for her explorations. But for this group she stuck to the trail and stopped frequently, either to allow stragglers to catch up or to offer a brief nature lesson.
When Hawkinson asked what had done a number on a tree trunk, 7-year-old Frederick Thurn quickly identified it as the work of a beaver. Frederick, a first-grader visiting with family from Kalamazoo, Mich., explained later that he's a fan of PBS nature programs.
Frederick and his dad and mom, Jonathan and Anne Thurn, were among those on snowshoes for the first time. Frederick, the youngest hiker in the afternoon group, gave the experience mixed reviews.
"I like not sinking," into the snow, he said, but added, "It's very tiring."
Rhonda Goepferd, 45, of Rogers, Minn., said she came up just for the hike with her daughters, both 15 and adopted from Russia when they were toddlers. She grew up in Esko hiking and snowshoe hiking, and she wanted her daughters to have the experience, which was new to them.
Daughter Tori, keeping pace with her mom as the hike entered its homestretch, said she had learned about different animals and trees along the way. Rhonda Goepferd said she had learned what it looks like when a porcupine has chewed the bark of a tree. "I didn't know they went so far up," she said.
The Coutures said they were interested to learn about the horizontal line of dots a yellow-bellied sapsucker makes on a tree's bark.
At the final stop, Hawkinson noted that the group had been hiking for more than an hour.
"You just burned 360 calories," she said. "Whatever your new year's resolution was, you can pat yourselves on the back."
Linda Couture, 56, said it hadn't been as hard as she thought it would be, and Jim Couture, 58, said he'd enjoyed himself.
"Anytime you can get outside it's a good day," he said. "And with the sun coming out, it's all good."
To learn more
Upcoming naturalist-led snowshoe hikes at Jay Cooke State Park include winter encounters snowshoe hikes on Saturday and again on Jan. 21; a full wolf moon snowshoe on Jan. 13 and a full sucker fish moon snowshoe on Feb. 10. The park will host a candlelight event for skiers, snowshoers and hikers on Feb. 11.
On other occasions, snowshoes are available for rental at the park for $6.
Information for events at all Minnesota state parks can be found at dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks.