Throughout my life, my relationships with other women have, at times, been strained. I always felt more comfortable around boys growing up. Friendships with other girls were stressful and uncertain. I found some comfort in groups of women during college, but often with an undercurrent of competition for men, grades or recognition.
All that changed one winter when I strapped on a pair of skates and stepped onto the ice rink. I was working as an intern at Wolf Ridge, an Environmental Learning Center (ELC) near Silver Bay, in northern Minnesota. Not much comes easily in that part of Minnesota, especially during the long, frigid winter months. The folks who call this area home are determined to enjoy the weeks of minus-30-degree temperatures in the winter as well as the heat of summers. These families are understandably wary of the "weekend warriors" who journey north from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area to their cabins for weekends in milder seasons. The majority of naturalists who work at Wolf Ridge also come from other parts of Minnesota or even other states. Locals call us tree-huggers, granolas or Blue Coats, because of the brightly colored anorak each intern is given, and working at Wolf Ridge is considered almost as bad as being a tourist, except Blue Coats stick around all year.
During the winter of 2005-2006, I was an intern at Wolf Ridge, and during that time, I began playing pick-up pond hockey outdoors at the home of a local Forest Serviceman, just down the road from the ELC. I'd played hockey all four years of high school, and was happy to be back on the ice. Several of the men with whom I skated had wives, neighbors or friends who practiced on Monday nights in a ladies' ice hockey league. One week, mainly out of curiosity, I paid my three dollars and tried skating with this group of women.
When I first stepped onto the ice, I was nervous. It had been several years since I'd tried to skate in an actual rink. Those fears were soon put to rest, however, by the generosity of spirit the women showed to me, an outsider who worked right in their backyards. The ladies who skate Monday nights have seen their share of difficulties: working in taconite mines and factories, age-old conflicts between families, injuries and personal losses, but the first time I sat down in the locker room before practice, I heard only cheerful banter in thick Northern accents.
These women make a huge commitment to their weekly games. They work full-time as bankers, electricians, caregivers, state employees and as mothers of school-age children (all of whom are hockey-playing kids, which in Minnesota means traveling to games and tournaments weekdays and most winter weekends). The late-night ice time is all that the ladies' team could get, usually skating until after 11 p.m. with some women driving back home 40 miles home through blizzards only to shower and prepare for work.
After a few weeks of practices, I began feeling comfortable chatting in the locker room, and occasionally carpooling with ladies from the neighboring towns. Toward the end of the season, I even began helping them with skating skills like passing, shooting and stopping. The women eagerly followed my "coaching" and began coming to me with questions about some aspect or skill in the game.
It was through these good-will ambassadors of hockey that I came to learn about the community in which I live. Family and friends make signs for games and wives and moms get loans of expensive hockey equipment. My teammates respect their own strengths, are committed to self-improvement, and when they knock a teammate down, they can often be seen laughing and helping them back up again. The group simply radiates mutual support—the kind you can also see at a Bible study, a book club or a gardening group. I was just lucky enough to find it in a hockey-playing team of energetic, good-humored, hard-working ladies.
After playing my second game as a Silver Bay Mariner against the county rivals, I drove home and suddenly found myself choked up. Without noticing, after two winters of showing up to late-night practices and sharing an enthusiasm for the game, this Blue Coat had become part of their tight-knit family group. Although I grew up far from the North Shore of Lake Superior, it is not the beauty of the area that holds me here but the beauty of the people who choose to live here throughout the year who have given me a gift far greater than I ever could have imagined: acceptance.