Monday, September 12, 2016

ode to northern Minnesota.

As a born-and-raised South Dakotan, it took me nearly thirty years to understand why people kept losing their shit over northern Minnesota.

It also took me nearly thirty years to actually GO to northern Minnesota, so that would explain that.

Growing up in southeastern South Dakota meant that our vacation spot of choice was usually the Black Hills. That’s just where South Dakotans go. And that was fine – the Black Hills are beautiful, and we Bjorklund kids loved Wall Drug and Dinosaur Hill.
I STILL love that stuff.
My family also gravitated towards the Rapid City area because it was the approximate halfway point to the Denver and Colorado Springs areas – our other vacation spots, as they were (and still are) home to a handful of family members. Said family members would often meet us in Rapid City for summertime reunions, as it was a pretty easy six-ish hour drive for all involved.

The Black Hills are, unquestionably, the most scenic part of South Dakota. Our fair state is long on prairies and rolling hills, but rather short on mountains and trees. So if we eastern Dakotans wanted a landscape to please the eye, we headed six hours west and found it.

Little did I know that my Minnesotan counterparts were doing the same thing… but instead of heading west, they headed north. Southern and central Minnesota isn’t nearly as barren as eastern South Dakota (except for the southeastern corner in which I reside… go figure), but if you wanted some serious forests and lakes, north you’d go.

But I didn’t understand this. Until I moved there for college, I had spent precious little time in Minnesota. I went there for the occasional Minneapolis trip with my family, and I spent one harrowing week in Bemidji for Norwegian Camp (which is certainly northern Minnesota, but I was too busy being traumatized by enthusiastic Scandinavian camp counselors to notice).

Upon arrival in Minnesota (Morris, to be precise), I would often hear my new Minnesotan friends talk about the glory of “up north.” I heard about lakes and trees and fishing and canoeing, and that all sounded fine, but I could see and do all of that practically in my parents’ backyard. Whatever the big deal about up north was escaped me.

It took until 2010 for me to get a taste of the north – that was the summer James and I took a trip to Duluth. We were living in Minneapolis, and he was about to leave for his job in southeastern Minnesota. Upon hearing that I had never been to Duluth, James insisted that it was a place I needed to see. We scraped together the tiniest bit of money that we could spare and headed the two hours north - and I LOVED IT. We saw a ship come in and the lift bridge go up, and I stepped in the chilly water of Lake Superior and nearly went into hypothermic shock. It was glorious.
So young. So bad at selfies.
James and I went back to Duluth in August 2011, a mere month before I moved away from the land of lakes and into the land of prairies and... prairies. Moving to Sioux Falls meant that instead of being two hours from glorious Lake Superior, I would now be six. Since neither of us would be able to afford twelve hours' worth of gas in the foreseeable future, this would be goodbye for now.

But not for long, thankfully! James and I spent our honeymoon in late July/early August 2013 driving through Winnipeg and northern Minnesota. We came home via International Falls and Duluth, and that was my first little bit of exposure to northern Minnesota. We drove through George Washington State Forest, and we saw huge pines and deer the size of cows. We saw bald eagles and not another car for miles. It was wild and wonderful, and I got a small taste of Minnesotans' affinity for the northern part of their state.

And then it became OUR state. James and I moved to the southwestern corner of the state right after we got married, so I've been a legal Minnesotan for just over three years. As a Minnesotan, I wanted to become better connected to this state I call home. I commute to South Dakota for work every day, and my family and friends live in South Dakota, so I often forget that I am actually a Minnesota resident. I pay taxes in this state, but I am never around to enjoy the best parts of it.

I’ve lived in Minnesota for a number of non-consecutive years: four years in Morris for college, two years in Minneapolis after college, and (so far) three years in Luverne. After all that, South Dakota still feels like my home – I did live there for eighteen straight years (plus two spare years in Sioux Falls). James and I have no plans to remain in Luverne for the long haul (it’s slowly killing our souls, after all), but I do love Minnesota as a whole. I have always loved the cities, and Morris is near and dear to my heart. James and I visited Fergus Falls this summer, and we were blown away by the lakes. Even our disastrous camping trip to Lanesboro was salvaged by its beauty. Aware of the mythic beauty of northern Minnesota, I knew that this was something I needed to experience if I was to call myself a Minnesotan.

So summer 2016 became the Summer of the North.

(Sort of. Not really. We went to the North Shore twice, but indeed, that is twice more than I’d been before.)

James and I spent our Fourth of July weekend camping in Duluth. We had no real intentions of driving up the North Shore that weekend, but we found ourselves in Duluth without much of a plan. As I had never actually been up the North Shore of Lake Superior, we thought it would be a pretty neat thing to with a few spare hours.


We were barely into our drive on scenic 61, and I had James stopping at every scenic overlook and every harbor so I could marvel at the titanic sprawl of Lake Superior. I marveled over the still waters and the cliffs jutting out from the shore. It looked as though we were in the Pacific Northwest, not somewhere north of Duluth in Minnesota.

At every stop, James had to practically drag me away from my superior (ha!) view, telling me that we'd never make it to Gooseberry Falls and the Split Rock Lighthouse at this rate. The Split Rock Lighthouse was as far north as we could get that trip, as we had to drive the entire way back to Luverne from there (nearly six and a half hours away), and our afternoon was going fast.

Split Rock Lighthouse took my breath away. The lighthouse itself was great (we land-locked Midwesterners tend to get really thrilled about lighthouses as it is), but the view from the shore was spectacular. It was all forests and cliffs and huge rocks and blue water and then LIGHTHOUSE. 
Gooseberry Falls was nothing to sniff at, either - northern Minnesota is chock-full of waterfalls, and you can expect to see as many as your heart desires (or, as many as your feet will allow you to hike to).

James and I went back to the North Shore with our friends Nate and Taylor at the end of August. 
However, this North Shore trip was NORTH: we went past Grand Marais and up the Gunflint Trail to the Boundary Waters, land of lakes and trees and no cell phone reception. We stayed in a cabin on the south side of Gunflint Lake. On the north side of Gunflint Lake? Canada. So we were NORTH.
We kayaked across the lake to CANADA.
Neither of us had been that far into northern Minnesota before, and we delighted in its unsullied beauty. We hiked to Devil’s Kettle (a waterfall and rock formation in which half of the Brule River disappears into a chasm of unknown depths) and to the High Falls in Tettegouche State Park (the tallest waterfalls located entirely in Minnesota). 

We explored Honeymoon Bluff with our friends, and we ate wild blueberries on Blueberry Hill (where James stepped in bear poop, convincing us that we would soon meet our end in the jaws of a bear). 

We kayaked and canoed; we had campfires and watched loons on Gunflint Lake. 

We saw countless lakes and towering pines, we saw a bear cub and a fox (!!!), and we basked in the quiet wonder of this wild and wonderful place. If I were a religious person, I would think this is what heaven must be like.

On our drive home from Gunflint Lake, our stops were frequent. Not ready to give up the majestic views, we took in as much as we could: Grand Marais, the Temperance River Falls, Sugarloaf Cove, and Palisade Head. 

We soaked it all in, trying to burn these glorious hours into our memories so we could feed off their joy in the joyless winter months.

As soon as we hit Duluth and Lake Superior faded slowly into the background, the disappointment in the air was palpable. Now that we had tasted true northern Minnesota, we were loath to leave it behind.

Now, finally, FINALLY, I understand what the big deal about northern Minnesota is. I GET IT. Nate and Taylor, north woods veterans, told us we would love it there.
We believed them, but I didn’t know that this place would get under my skin and into my blood. I think about the north all the time, and I find myself staring longingly at some of the photographs I took and wishing desperately I was there. (In the two weeks since we’ve been back, I’ve already framed an 11x14 print of the Split Rock Lighthouse, and I’m already scouting spots on our crowded walls for a print of the Lake Superior shore at Grand Marais.)

Our trips north have also helped me along in my quest to become more connected to my state of residence. It’s so easy to forget that the magnificent north is part of the state in which I live, the state that I’m trying to call home. And really, the vast majority of Minnesota is pretty great. The southwestern portion aside, Minnesota is a damned beautiful place, and I would do well to remember that – and now that I have been north, I know what true Minnesotan beauty is.

And it sure is something.

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