Forty miles southwest of the border with Canada, a Minnesota village of 1,400 overlooks a shore of near-paradise, its foundation hardy in character and nostalgic in spirit.
“We’re a long way from everywhere, for the average person,” observes community leader Greg Wright, and most people who stay for more than a vacation “don’t come here by accident.”
It is the same with many of the students at his North House Folk School, established in 1997 as an outlet for teaching traditional northern crafts and ways of life. Students leave with more than wall hangings and harbor photography.
Imagine thinking like an Inuit when building your own kayak or sculpting art from sandstone. Weave strips of bark into baskets, shoes, hats – or stay longer and make a birch bark canoe. Other make mukluks from moose hide and canvas, or drums from cedar and rawhide.
Blacksmithing, bladesmithing and flintknaping also are class topics. Learn to make sausage, a wood stove, yurt or earthen oven. Become a student of solar power, or herbal health care.
Wood turning – using a lathe to shape wood into a bowl – is a Scandinavian-inspired process that is taught. A fall class focuses on wild rice, with hands-on harvesting to hulling.
Many of the offerings “celebrate cultural traditions, the things that bind us together over time,” says Greg, the nonprofit school’s executive director. Teachers “find joy in creating with their hands and connecting with the northern landscape.”
He has long considered the outdoors as his home “and a place of spiritual significance,” also noting that “some pastors call North House ‘the other church in town’.”
The school emerged from “a community already rich in the arts.” About 13,000 people from 36 states and three foreign countries found their way to North House in 2009.
Most instruction occurs in warehouses built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. When the buildings turned into eyesores, they were given to the community. Then came proposals to level the property and build condos, open a museum, transform the structures into artist studios.
The folk school idea also was floated and given a six-month trial run. “They hoped for 100 students and got 200,” Greg explains. Now the campus also includes converted fishing buildings and harbor docks.
Elise Kyllo of Minneapolis, a landscape designer and muralist, is drawn to the area because she used to work as a guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, next to Grand Marais. “The school has had a really big impact on the community,” she says.
Elise teaches felting classes at North House, and the craft is more about passion than livelihood for her. She doesn’t make art sales a goal because “then it becomes production and I don’t like it as much.”
That meshes with the folk school philosophy, which emphasizes learning and creating, not grades or competition.
For more about North House Folk School, 500 Hwy. 61 West, Grand Marais, Minn.: www.northhouse.org, 888-387-9762. Tuition reductions are possible, in exchange for labor. Students arrange their own meals and lodging (choices include campsites, cottages, motels, bed-and-breakfast inns).
Craft and wood-fired baking demos, Norwegian fjord horse-and-cart driving lessons and sailing lessons on a 50-foot traditionally rigged schooner occur at least weekly during summer and early autumn.
Nearby: The Angry Trout Café, a converted commercial fishing shanty in the harbor of Grand Marais, exudes a defiant attitude but no fury.
Consider this statement of intent:
“Although the function of the Angry Trout is to serve our customers, our purpose, which is a broader concern, is to make money in a way that makes a better world for our selves, other people, other life on earth and for future generations.
“To do this, we will attempt to consider all of our costs of operation including the environmental and social costs now and in the future that have traditionally been omitted from the evaluation of economic success.”
What does this mean? Plenty, and the menu provides great detail. Beer comes from kegs, “to avoid the waste of all those bottles.” Shrimp are spot prawns, caught through trapping – not trawling – in Alaskan waters. Most vegetables and meats are organic; farms are listed by name and location.
Trout chowder and tomato fennel soup are specials when I visit, and the fresh fish choices are Lake Superior herring, lake trout and whitefish, caught and processed by the adjacent Dockside Fish Market.
The vibe is casual, the service attentive, the prices affordable but not cheap. I can read about who hand-harvested the wild rice and who hand-carved the entry door. I also learn which area residents made the salt and pepper shakers, the credit card trays, the organic cotton napkins, light fixtures, bathroom mosaics and stained glass.
The lack of Coke or Pepsi products is not an oversight. The restaurant’s electricity comes from wind power, and the neighborhood emotionally fuels the place in myriad other ways.
For more about the Angry Trout Café, 408 Hwy. 61, Grand Marais: www.angrytroutcafe.com, 218-387-1265. The business is open May to mid October.
For more about this part of northern Minnesota, consult www.grandmarais.com, 888-922-5000.
Much of Highway 61 flirts with the shore of Lake Superior, making this northern trek an outstandingly beautiful drive. It is 155 miles between Duluth, Minn., and Grand Portage State Park, at the border with Canada. Grand Marais also is at one end of the Gunflint Trail, which links Lake Superior to inland lakes at Canada’s border.
What a shame to make the drive to Grand Marais and ignore Ely, Minn., a scenic (most of it through Superior National Forest) and two-hour drive away.
Visit the North American Bear Center, 1926 Hwy. 169, to watch black bears Ted, Honey and Lucky through a large wall of glass or upstairs observation deck. The trio lives in two acres of enclosed forest. Videos, talks, taxidermy and other exhibits aim to separate bear facts from fiction. Some features, like the Cub Room, are specifically designed for children.
For more: www.bear.org, 877-365-7879. “Bears have been unfairly demonized for centuries,” the nonprofit attraction asserts. Some of what is on display also can be viewed online. That includes a Web cam that follows the antics of the center’s three captive bears.
Also in Ely is the International Wolf Center, 1369 Hwy. 169, whose educators lead programs of interest to children and adults, as a supplement to displays and dioramas of wolves demonstrating life-like situations.
Outdoors, four wolves – Grizzer, Maya, Denali and Aidan – roam the acreage and sometimes make themselves visible to visitors through glass observation windows. Two other elderly wolves – Malik and Shadow – live in retirement quarters, which means they are protected from the younger animals and not in an area directly visible by the public (although a Web cam and remote video system show all both wolf environments).
For more: www.wolf.org, 218-365-4695. This attraction also is nonprofit and exists to advance “the survival of wolf populations by teaching about wolves, their relationship to wild lands and the human role in their future.”
Closer to home, The Clearing Folk School in Door County – established by landscape architect Jens Jensen – this month celebrates 75 years of operation.
The school’s 130 acres are away from the bustle of tourism, in a setting of woods and meadows, plus views of Green Bay. Classes – poetry, birding, quilting, philosophy and more – are a noncompetitive outlet for students to connect to nature and themselves.
Founder Jens Jensen, who designed Chicago parks and the estates of well-known industrialists, used his summer vacation property as the site for The Clearing.
Openings remain in several of the weeklong summer program classes, which end Oct. 23. Rates include on-campus lodging and meals. One- and two-day workshops for commuters end in mid-November.
Accommodations disconnect participants from the electronic world, and cell phone use is discouraged.
Volunteers, many of whom are local residents, teach the 100-plus weekly classes offered in January and February. Topics include trash-to-treasure jewelry, reading the Bible, birds of the peninsula, microbrewery beers, astronomy and glass fusing.
For more about The Clearing, 12171 Garrett Bay Rd., Ellison Bay: www.theclearing.org, 877-854-3225.