By Anna Hoeschen.
It’s September in Minnesota as I’m writing this, and we’re all hoping summer will make like Midwesterners at a party and show off its knack for drawn-out goodbyes. However, that’s just not the case in Grand Marais.
Seasons in this northernmost city, flanked by Lake Superior and the Superior National Forest, simply get on with it. Forget languid transitions, because winter comes, and quickly. The air is new and washed and clean—acerbic, even. Remember your lungs? You can feel them now.
“The people who live here have pretty much come on purpose. I mean, you don’t go to Grand Marais by accident because we’re out on the edge of forever up here.”
That’s Greg Wright—the charismatic executive director of the North House Folk School. He ushers me and my friends Caitlin and Beth into the Student Commons, and we seat ourselves on a wooden bench. We’re in the Blue Building, which seems like an apt descriptor for the place. I love the name, because I love the facade: it’s painted bright cobalt blue.
The North House replicates the Scandinavian model of folkeshoskoles, or craft schools, created in Denmark during the mid-1800s. Inside refurbished classrooms, cedar chips fly (remember Cooper Ternes?) and the course catalog touts titles like “rosemaling,” “eco printing,” “flower pounding,” and “cedar strip canoe building.”
It all speaks to the mission of the school: “To enrich people’s lives . . . re-inspire people to grab onto life with their hands and make real things . . . to literally pull the potential of our lives out of the landscape… not in an aggressive way, but in an incredibly potent way,” Greg explains.
Making here means embracing Scandinavian and Inuit spirits of a bygone north. The energy is vigorous and hearty. People are fervently creating, and there’s an undercurrent of necessity. No, we didn’t just love these things—we needed them. Greg expands: “Craft, by definition, connects people to the landscape. 400 years ago . . . Everything you needed either came from the landscape, and you knew how to do that, or you were dead.” Full stop.
I don’t think Greg is too far off. Nature is a tender beauty. And damned fickle and dramatic. Even on a September afternoon in Grand Marais, you resign yourself to her capriciousness. You concede to bundling up in multiple layers of clothing. You let your cheeks turn pink. You permit your toes to tingle and your eyes to water.
Ultimately, it makes you gracious and reverent. Because needing something—something to be awed and enchanted and confounded by—means you still have the capacity to be charmed by this world. It’s curious and riveting and it wakes you up, like a slap of cold water to the face. Do you need it?
Go dip your toes in the lake.
P.S. If You Go North: