“The North” brings to mind polar bears, ice caps, and (at least this time of year) Santa’s Sleigh and maybe even an elf or two. If you live in the southeastern United States, it likely represents the distant vortex of long winters with salted roads and endless shoveling that is New England. But, to those in Garrison Keillor country—Minnesota—The North is an entire cultural identity, not necessarily delineated by state borders so much as defined by a hearty climate, good midwestern sensibilities, and Scandinavian-bred ruggedness.
Inspired by this geographic and cultural nexus, the region more recently birthed an outerwear brand, Askov Finlayson (named for exit 195 on Interstate I-35, the northern coastal route along Lake Superior from Minneapolis). Headed out on this storied routh this past summer, in a rented bright orange Dodge Charger, we set our sights on Grand Marais, a smoked fish paradise of a town 270 miles north of Minneapolis and only 35 miles from the Canadian border.
Garrison Keeler once said “Intelligence is like four-wheel drive, it only allows you to get stuck in more remote places.” No doubt he was referring to this picturesque terrain, as it feels like it both attracts and breeds intelligent and hearty souls. Even the wilderness itself is conducive to allowing one’s mind to wander (while the wheels of your Charger spin out on the dirt roads).
Though I can imagine the charm of snowshoeing through the woods in the winter, the summer there is beautiful still offered enough of a drop in temperature for my southern-ish blood. Askov Finlayson’s motto, in support of tackling climate change, is “Keep The North Cold." The air is so clean it feels like a pure oxygen cleanse and the wind off of Lake Superior is reminiscent of being next to the ocean in December, but without the salt in the air. The Great Lakes are striking but known for causing in the vicinity of 10,000 shipwrecks over the years. The term “lake” is a bit of misnomer for the magnitude of what is really a small ocean, which can feel grand and intimidating when venturing more than a few yards off shore.
Our first stop in the lakeside town of Grand Marais was The Fisherman's Daughter, a fishmonger where you can find a variety of fresh caught trout and herring, smoked lake dwellers, and specialty chowders. That haul, paired with fresh corn, tomatoes, and “Minnesota Wild Rice” (my new favorite carbohydrate, although technically not “rice”) that we purchased off the back of a pick-up truck, was all that was needed for a week of dinners in our woodsy cabin. Grand Marais is chock-full with all kinds of whimsical, seaside village retail and dining, from donut shops to diners so perfectly rustic they looked almost like a movie set. From The Beaver House fishing supply shop with a giant trout head on it’s facade, to Joy & Co. the art supply store and gallery, to the truly old school local 5 & 10 department store Joynes Ben Franklin where you can buy malted milk balls out of a jar and Pendleton blankets by the pound.
Just north of town we passed a striking and formidable sign for The Naniboujou Lodge and Restaurant and knew that we had to explore further. We were not disappointed…think Dirty Dancing meets the Great Lakes meets Art Deco meets Native American art, all in the grandeur of the 1920s.
The Lodge has arguably the coolest and most colorful dining room I’ve ever seen, or can even imagine… anywhere. Currently a hotel, it once was aspired to be an exclusive and luxurious hunting club overlooking Lake Superior (c.1927) before effectively declaring bankruptcy in 1930, just one year after its grand opening. Antoine Goufee, a French artist, painted Cree Native American designs over the walls and the twenty-foot-high domed ceiling (fashioned in the shape of a canoe) making for a grand, psychedelic, elegant, and rustic effect all at once.
Even if not spending the night you can enjoy the dining room as a lunch or dinner guest (post COVID dining tines were still limited when we were visiting). I picked up the original Naniboujou Lodge membership book that was reprinted and is sold in their gift shop; it was once given to all new and prospective members of the original clubhouse to entice them to the call of the wild north, with names like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey amongst them.
To stay in Northern Minnesota for even a few days pays dividends to your psyche long after the trip has ended. Between painting outdoors, walking through the woods, eating smoked trout, and dunking in the icy waters of Lake Superior, the wilderness and the natural surroundings are restorative to the soul in ways I haven’t experienced before. Northern Minnesota feels more like “The True North'' in that it resets your inner compass.
The open expanses and crisp chill in the air act as reminders to continuously push oneself into a deeper and more fulfilling existence and at least occasionally, away from the digital realm for a few days. (You can read more about the Lodge here and about Askov Finalyson’s mission to protect the North and head off climate change here.)