Two winters ago, Glen took me on a snowmobile ride through the Birch Lake State Forest. Despite visiting the state forest’s swimming beach on countless occasions, I had never been on the trails in the forest. The forest won me over instantly, and I vowed to come back in my hiking boots once the snow had melted.
    I made good on my vow a couple months later and began exploring this hidden gem with my friend, Summer. For a girl who grew up in the woods of northern Minnesota, an hour or so traipsing through the forest is pure catharsis.
    I had hoped to continue my sojourns into the woods last winter on cross country skis, but my limited shoulder mobility made skiing impossible.
    But soon after the snow melted and the temperatures moderated, Summer and I and our girls returned to the state forest. It was the perfect place to gather in person while also staying six feet apart. The combination of people time and forest time was much needed – especially for our kids – after weeks of isolation.
    For you fellow science junkies, the benefits of forest time are not just psychological. In a column last year, I mentioned phytoncides, the active chemical substances given off by plants. When we breathe in these phytoncides, our bodies respond by increasing our natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. Even more reason why spending time in the forest is the best way to survive a pandemic. (Grasses and shrubs also release phytoncides, so really, any time interacting with plants improves immunity.)
    It turns out that the green light in forests – from sunlight reflecting off the greenery – is also good for us. Looking at green light increases the body’s production of natural painkillers and reduces inflammation.
    I explored another Minnesota state forest this fall: Pillsbury State Forest. But this time, my explorations were mostly on horseback. My sister invited me to join her trail-riding group for a weekend of camping and trail rides. Despite not having been in a saddle for 20-some years, I accepted the invitation. I figured it wouldn’t be any more physically challenging than riding a bike.
    Our weekend at Pillsbury fell right in the middle of peak fall leaf season, which for me is when half of the trees have turned brilliant red, orange, and yellow and the other half are still green. I find the contrasting colors at this halfway point of transition to be the most beautiful.
    And, truly, the miles we traversed in the woods were stunningly beautiful. The gorgeous views helped make up for my horse’s inclination to trot instead of walk. I ended up with a few sore muscles afterwards, but I think I was most sore from all the laughing we did around the campfire at night.
    The trail-riding weekend reinforced, for me, the advantage of human interaction while exploring the forest. Whether it’s hiking on foot, riding on a horse, or sitting around a campfire, being in the forest with others seems to encourage rich conversation and feelings of togetherness. I assume this fellowship is similar to the camaraderie guys experience on hunting trips and why hunting excursions are sacred annual events for many families.
    Glen and Dan made their first trip into the woods in search of whitetail deer this past weekend. Dan was participating in Minnesota’s early youth hunt and Glen was taking advantage of our zone’s early antlerless season. Glen’s hope was that they’d fill their tags while it was relatively warm and thus avoid the colder weather of the regular November season.
    Each morning and each evening after returning from the hunt, they indulged me with their reports from the woods. One morning, the only animal they saw was the blue jay flitting raucously around the tree branches above their stand. Another morning, a woodpecker sprinkled them with wood dust.
    One afternoon, they watched a falcon glide slowly back and forth over the field before suddenly swooping down to pursue some small animal. On the falcon’s third try, it came up with a mouse.
    Glen’s comment after the falcon story was that patience is so clearly one of the natural world’s greatest virtues. That patience transfers to those who partake of nature. There’s no hurrying when you’re in the woods.
    On their second afternoon out, Glen and Dan watched as a small group of does cautiously and patiently crossed in front of their stand. Dan opted to wait for a buck; Glen took one of the does with his muzzleloader.
    They didn’t see another deer after that, but it sounds like they enjoyed their time in the woods together all the same. Maybe they’ll return in search of a buck for Dan; maybe they won’t.
    Now that we have snow – and it’s here to stay – I think their thoughts have turned to exploring the woods on snowmobile. I’m hoping for a couple more hikes in the forest before the snow on the trails gets too deep. Then, I’ll dust off my skis and enjoy the woods that way.
    Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 100 cows near Melrose, Minn. They have three children – Dan, 13, Monika, 11, and Daphne, 7. Sadie also writes a blog at www.dairygoodlife.com. She can be reached at sadiefrericks@gmail.com.