First-timers, veterans converge on SMU hill for pre-Christmas fun

It was a rather unusual way to break up a road trip.

Erica Hawgen and Emmanuel Minter hit the road at 6:15 a.m. Monday to make the journey from Chicago to Minneapolis, where they planned to celebrate Christmas with Hawgen’s family.

But about three-quarters of the way there, they stopped off at the Winona Menards, bought two $8 plastic sleds, layered up in the car and hit the sledding hill at Saint Mary’s University in Winona.

The go-to winter destination wasn’t crowded Monday afternoon when Hawgen and Minter were there. Perhaps it was the one-digit high temperature or wind chills approaching -10 degrees that kept visitors away.

But Hawgen, a Winona State University graduate now working toward a master’s degree in Chicago, said the spot was a no-brainer: “It’s just the best hill for sledding,” she said. “It’s huge.”

Seated side-by-side in blue and red sleds, Hawgen, 26, and Minter, 27, launched from the top of the hill simultaneously, screaming and laughing all at once.

About halfway down, Hawgen’s sled cut to one side, and she slipped off, rolled like a log a few times, then regained footing and shot back up, smiling. She looked around for Minter so the two could go again.

The Saint Mary’s hill was one of a handful of stops on the shotgun tour of Winona that Hawgen gave Minter on Monday, which included the Garvin Heights, a walk down Third Street, some highlights of the Winona State campus and all the places she’d lived around town.

The couple’s Christmas plans included cooking with Hawgen’s mom, baking snowmen cookies and opening stocking-stuffers with Hawgen’s family in their pajamas on Christmas morning over a breakfast of hot cinnamon buns.

Minter has been dating Hawgen for just five months, but he said he wasn’t nervous about meeting the family.

He’d already been to the house weeks ago for Thanksgiving, and “he was such a success, he gets to come back,” Hawgen joked.

Laughing, the two turned into the bitter wind and trekked back up the hill for another go.

Around that time, friends Skyler Vandermaten and Cody Hill, both 9, came running up the hill beside them, their orange-and-yellow sleds bouncing behind them.

Skyler’s father, Mason Rebarchek, followed behind, carrying his 3-year-old daughter, Lily, and dragging two more sleds behind him.

It was Rebarchek’s first time sledding at the Saint Mary’s hill with his children — and Lily’s first time ever.

Because it was so cold outside, Rebarchek said, he asked Lily ahead of time if she wanted to play with friends somewhere inside.

But she really wanted to go.

“Daddy, let’s go up there,” Lily said from his arms, pointing a pink-mittened hand toward her brother.

Skyler was already jogging his way back to the top of the hill for round two.

“That was awesome! I’m doing that again!” he yelled, panting from the exertion.

He and Cody had hardly reached the hill’s summit before they were off again.

“Ready, set, go!” Cody called out. He only made it about 10 feet before he flipped out of his vessel and landed on his stomach. He sat up in the snow and let out a series of fake wails.

Once they reached the bottom of the hill, the boys said they were most excited to open presents over Christmas, hopefully, Legos, GI Joes or other action figures.

They also looked forward to gathering around the table and sharing a meal with loved ones.

But for now, that was hardly on their minds.

Skyler handed off his long, rectangular sled to Rebarchek, who found a shallower slope and settled into it with Lily on his lap.

The boys turned to race tirelessly back up the hill, all rosy cheeks and smiles.

(1) comment


If you’re looking for sledding hills, check out for a map of local hills including ratings for steepness, obstructions, popularity, and parking. You can also add your own hills for others to locate and enjoy. Happy sledding!

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