MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Do It Now: Winter

This weekend

Prowl for owls or take a plunge.

Winter Festival in Bayfield, Wis. The Lake Superior festival features fat-bike tours, a poker run, a candlelight ski and polar plunge. March 6–8.

International Festival of Owls in Houston, Minn. This southeast Minnesota town offers owl prowls, hooting contests, pellet dissection, live-owl programs and children's activities. March 6–8.

Bock Fest in New Ulm, Minn. There's a parade of mythical Germanic characters, a hunt for billy-goat heads on the Schell Brewery grounds and beyond and a big party afterward with beer, live music and a bonfire. March 7.

Soar With Eagles in Wabasha, Minn. The National Eagle Center holds live-bird programs and nature presentations weekends in March, when bald eagles migrate northward along the Mississippi. March 7–8.

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Best bets for the weekend

Follow up fireworks with bonfires and candlelight.

The Christmas rush is over, and it's time to enjoy winter.

There's enough  snow for skiing, snowshoeing and tubing, and enough cold for ice castles in Stillwater, Minn., and the Wisconsin Dells.

Minnesota's North Shore reports good cross-country skiing, and all of the downhill areas are open. If you're an alpine beginner, learn to ski in Michigan, where a $35 lesson, rental, and lift package is good at 26 ski areas in January.

In the forests, you can ski or snowshoe by candlelight every weekend from now through February. This year, even Mackinac Island is hosting three Twilight Turtle Treks by lantern light.

If you haven't yet made plans for New Year's Eve, take a look at our 10 great ways to celebrate. But don't celebrate too hard. On New Year's Day, there are lots of naturalist-guided First Day Hikes: nine in Minnesota, 12 in Wisconsin and 26 in Iowa. Michigan is holding four Shoe Year's Hikes.

Then, think about summer. If you want a cheap beach vacation, reserve now in Michigan state parks, especially the very popular, 100 percent reservable parks with Lake Michigan beaches (there's a six-month window).

And did you know you can camp in Chicago suburbs? Reservations open Jan. 3 for cabins and campsites at forest preserves in Oak Forest, Palatine, Northbrook, Willow Springs and South Holland, which have rustic as well as heated and air-conditioned cabins plus climbing walls, free weekend programs and gear rental.

This will be our last newsletter. Remember, all the information you need is on the website, including the Events Calendar and the trip-planning page, where you can find stories by category or location. We keep everything updated.

Thanks for reading! — Beth and Torsten

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Next weekend

Ice is playground for climbing, sliding and fishing.

Ice Festival in Sandstone, Minn. There are ice-climbing and winter camping clinics, a chili cook-off, door prizes and use of demo gear in Sandstone Ice Park. Jan. 6–8. 

Bald Eagle Days in Rock Island, Ill. At the Quad Cities Expo Center, there's an environmental fair, with flying demonstrations by eagles, hawks and owls and many other events. Jan. 6–8.

Breezy Point Ice Fest in Breezy Point, Minn. This Brainerd Lakes resort village celebrates with horse-drawn sleigh rides, snow golf, ice fishing, an ice slide and fireworks. Jan. 6–7. 

Winter Festival in La Farge, Wis. Visit the Kickapoo Valley Reserve for horse-drawn wagon rides, guided snowshoe and ice-cave hikes, winter games and a sled-dog race. Jan. 7. 

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Warming up to winter

Plan now for fun cold-weather weekends.

It looks as if winter has settled in for good — time to have fun with it.

Here at MidwestWeekends, we actually like winter, and we'll give you 20 reasons why.

Winter doesn't last that long, once the holidays are over, so it's best to plan now. Get yourself some snowshoes or learn how to cross-country ski, then reserve a weekend at a cozy lodge where you can ski or snowshoe from your door.

Plan a getaway around one of the popular candlelight events or a big festival. If you're a beginning downhill skier or boarder, check out learn-to-ski bargains. Or snap up Wisconsin's Skiing Wisconsin Coupon Book, $99, good for lift tickets at 13 hills (Michigan's $219 White Gold Card, good at 33 hills, already is sold out).

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Magic under the moon

In winter, plan a trip around a candlelight ski or snowshoe.

On a dark winter night, there's nothing more magical than skiing or snowshoeing on a trail lined by candles.

I got hooked in Minnesota's Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. A fat blue moon hung in the sky, a thick coating of hoarfrost made tree branches look like reindeer antlers and more than 400 glowing bags gave the forest a fairy-tale aura.

I often plan winter trips around candlelight events. In Minnesota, you can stay right in the park if you reserve fast enough.

Here's our list of candlelight skiing and snowshoeing events for 2014.

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Counting birds

At Christmas, birders go afield for the annual census.

Around Christmas, it's time to count birds.

You won't see three French hens, two turtledoves or a partridge in a pear tree, but chances are good for swans a-swimming, geese (though not a-laying) and many more than four calling birds.

And when the annual Christmas Bird Count approaches, the National Audubon Society and local bird clubs look for help.

Between mid-December and early January, birders spend a day in the field at thousands of locations across the Americas, compiling numbers that will be used to monitor the status of bird populations and identify potential threats.

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Volunteering on Lake Superior

Be keeper of the light or a modern voyageur.

If you want to live in a lighthouse this summer, January is the time to shine a light on your qualifications.

The national-park service has posted volunteer positions at national parks and monuments around the nation, and some of the most enticing are on Lake Superior.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin has the most lighthouses and the most keeper positions, on Devils, Michigan and Sand (pictured) islands. The park service also needs live-in helpers on Oak and Manitou islands.

In Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the remote Au Sable Light needs a volunteer keeper.

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Reserving for summer

Nab your spot now in Minnesota and Michigan state parks.

Warm weather may seem far away, but it's time to reserve your spot in Minnesota and Michigan state parks.

In Minnesota, you have only through Dec. 26 to make any kind of reservation — campsites, camper cabins, cabins and lodges — in the state parks. The state is upgrading its reservation system, and the new one won't launch until March 1.

Since reservations can be made a year in advance, the choicest places on summer weekends already have been taken. But there are plenty of spots left in all seasons, and if you want to avoid the crush on March 1, reserve now.

In Michigan state parks, campsite reservations can be made only six months in advance. That means that all the sites in the Lake Michigan beach parks are available from mid-June. They're 100 percent reservable and extremely popular, so you really have to plan ahead.

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