2017 Highlight: Honeymoon to Alaska

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Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park

I’m wrapping up the last few highlights of 2017 in the next couple weeks, and then hopefully embarking on some new things for the new year.

Over the summer, Lindsay and I embarked on an adventure neither of us had ever attempted, one that would take us far from Minneapolis and St. Paul and onto the waves of the Pacific Ocean. For our honeymoon, we went on an Alaskan Cruise.

During our trip to Madison, we’d come up with a nerdy little challenge for ourselves, a goal to visit every state capitol building over the course of our travels through the United States, so we reasoned a cruise would be a great way to visit Juneau. Basically, we planned the whole trip around this, though seeing the glaciers while they’re still here had been a longtime goal of Lindsay’s.  

The cruise we opted for embarked from Seattle, and made four ports of call: Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, Alaska, along with Victoria, British Columbia, and a day spent traversing the waters of Glacier Bay National Park. We would, in essence, be recreating a sea voyage to the Klondike Gold Rush.   

It was an experience.

I think I will leave out the name of the cruise ship we embarked on in order to avoid offering any indictment or endorsement of any certain company, especially given that we soon learned that perhaps cruising may not be our favored mode of vacation.

Don’t get us wrong, it was an awesome trip, sailing the rainy, foggy bays, channels, and inlets of the Southeastern Alaskan panhandle, enjoying the majestic landscapes of the wilderness and the quirky towns cut off by road from the mainland. These were all amazing. We saw humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, harbor seals, and, way off in the distance, grizzly bears. And of course, lots of salmon. The ship itself, though, felt a little confining.

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Fog on Glacier Bay

In all, it felt like a rather limiting way to travel, having no control over our arrival in port and being forced to curb our explorations to the hours ashore allotted to us. On the one hand, on some stops we had to cram everything we wanted to do into a few awkwardly timed hours, where others we had more than enough time to wander aimlessly. The guided excursions set aside at each port seemed overly expensive and restrictive, and for the most part, we explored on our own once we were able to escape the ship. Most of the trip seemed to consist of relaxing on board with a book, trying to fight off seasickness and the crowds, availing ourselves of our free drinks, though unlimited booze and the wind and waves did not always go well together.

We didn’t really feel like we fit in with the typical cruise crowd and it was hard to find a quiet place to hang out outside of our cabins, though we did find a few cozy spots hidden away at the top or bottom of the fourteen level ship. We may have been antisocial, but it turned out for the best.

Having not much to discuss with other passengers but, apparently, as one fellow passenger waiting in line attempted to engage with us, our assumed shared love of Trump. Incredulously, I could only deny this, prompting more attempts to engage in conversation. What a horrible way to make small talk! I can only assume the camo hatted gentleman in question was mocking us, but it was disturbing to say the least.

In spite of the feeling of being cooped up a bit too much, though, we had a lot of fun times. Here are some of our recommended stops during the trip.

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Enjoying a few beers at Cloudburst Brewing

 

Seattle was a great place to begin our excursion, especially as we got to hang out with my old friend Aaron, who moved there a couple years ago. One of my favorite places to visit, I had not been in town since 2014, so took full advantage of our time there. On Aaron’s suggestion, we had some great wood oven fired pizza and local beers at the Masonry, in the Queen Anne neighborhood north of downtown. We had a couple more great beers at Cloudburst Brewing and then walked down to Pike Place Market to enjoy cocktails at the Zig Zag Cafe, the popularizer of one of favorite cocktails, the Last Word.

 

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Leaving Seattle

The next morning, we boarded our ship and watched the Seattle skyline recede as we sailed up Puget Sound northwards.

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Checking out the Alaska State Capitol Building

Juneau was our first port of call, and we sailed into the harbor on a foggy, rainy day, not an unusual experience in a southeastern Alaskan summer. Juneau, the reason we went on this particular cruise route, definitely did not disappointment, even with the limited hours we got to explore it. We managed to squeeze a lot in here! Perched on a channel, the town huddles in between the water and the mountains, the quaint streets bustling with shops. Not unlike the other ports of call, the area close to the docks is dominated by jewelry shops, places to buy fudge, and other venues catering to cruise tourists. Of course, you can’t bring any food items back on board with you, so best eat them fast!

 

 

Only accessible via sea or air, Juneau is the most isolated state capital (aside from Honolulu), and it still seems to have kind of an off the beaten path feeling. We walked up the hill to tour the Alaska State Capitol building, a six story art deco building constructed as a federal office in the 1930s, before statehood. Very few people were around, so we wandered the legislative chambers on our own, examining the decorations.  

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View of Juneau from Mount Roberts

When we left the capitol building, it was less rainy out, so we took the touristy Mount Roberts Tramway, an aerial tram that conveys visitors up the side of Mount Roberts for great views and hiking, through lush rainforests and alpine tundra. Definitely one of the trips highlights. Upon returning to sea level, we enjoyed some lovely cocktails at Amalga Distillery.

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Arctic Brotherhood Hall in Skagway, Alaska

 

The next port was Skagway, a well preserved, 1890s boom town that served as the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada’s Yukon Territory, where thousands hoped to strike it rich only to lose it all. Many historical buildings are preserved here, as much of the town is a national historic park. We arrived for the nicest weather of our trip, sunny skies and relatively balmy temperatures with only a few minutes of rain all day. We spent hours wandering from the Union, surviving brothel buildings, bars, general stores, and other places prospective miners would prepare for the crushing journey inland to the Klondike gold fields.  

 

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The Coast Range as viewed from the White Pass and Yukon Route

 

Here, we took our one excursion of the trip, a ride on the White Pass and Yukon Route narrow-gauge railroad up into the mountains into British Columbia, where prospective miners had to lug a full year of supplies to get through customs, leaving thousands of dead horses behind. It was a fun trek away from the ocean for a few hours. 

Back at sea, we took a leisurely voyage through the grandeur of Glacial Bay National Monument (described earlier in this essay), even more majestic cloaked in rain, mist, and foggy conditions, before rocking and bobbing into our next destination, Ketchikan.

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Ketchikan Creek, Ketchikan, Alaska

 

In the port of Ketchikan, a fishing town also isolated from the mainland, we braved pouring rain to explore the quirky, waterlogged streets and forest paths. We walked above the rushing torrent of Ketchikan Creek on the boardwalk of Creek Street, through the fringes of the Tongass National Forest to the Totem Heritage Center.  

 

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Lindsay returns to the Miniature Museum in Victoria, British Columbia

Our last stop was Victoria, British Columbia, where we wish we had more time. It did happen to be the first time Lindsay and I were out of the country together. We just had an evening there, making a whirlwind tour of the Royal British Columbia Museum, which had some really cool recreations of historic Victoria streets as well as an exhaustive collection of indigenous culture. Another highlight was the wonderfully kitschy Miniature World, the type of weird little place that I love to track down. Lindsay had wonderful memories from her visit as a child, so it was very cool to experience it with her as an adult for the first time. Packed full of tiny dioramas featuring scenes from history, fantasy, and the future (as depicted by mid 20th century toy sized models). This is a piece of Canadiana I was happy not to have missed, and it was nice it was open later in the evening for our visit. Boarding the  boat for the last time, we began heading back to the start of the trip.   

 

After we arrived back in Seattle, we were kind of glad to back on dry ground for awhile, and returned to the daily grind of our lives in Minnesota. Just forty seven state capitals left to go!

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Camping in the Metro

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Canoeing the St. Croix- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Throughout the summer, Lindsay and I took advantage of our year long Minnesota State Park sticker, as can be seen during our voyages outstate, but there are plenty of Minnesota State Parks within a short drive from Minneapolis and St. Paul. Two of the nearby state parks we took lovely, relaxing weekend camping trips to over the summer were William O’Brien State Park and Wild River State Park. Each are situated just along the border with Wisconsin, along the scenic St. Croix, probably my favorite river in Minnesota, and offer plenty of hiking trails through mixed deciduous and conifer forests, prairies, and swampy lowlands. We wandered along some of them, plodding through the green, buggy summer woods and fields of these wonderful natural areas, encountering ghost towns and the occasional squirrel or deer. As I mentioned in a previous blog, though, even wearing plenty of insect repellent, it proved too much for us- the mosquitoes were particularly horrible at Wild River, hideous clouds that beat even those we encountered earlier in the year at Bear Head Lake. We had to run back to our campsite in terror! We were also horrified to find a deer tick on Lindsay at William O’Brien, but were quickly able to remove it thanks to the tick removing devices sold at the park.

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William O’Brian State Park

On the whole, though, our favorite times were the pleasant hours of grilling veggie dogs, making s’mores, and reading next to the campfires I managed to start (I guess those years of Boy Scouts were good for something), watching the sun set and the stars come out as fireflies flitted in the woods.

William O’Brien is, in particular, a very popular park for campers from the Twin Cities, especially due to its proximity to the charming tourist town of Stillwater, a place where one can find no shortage of antique stores, bookstores, boutiques, and other high end shopping. I could not help but drag poor Lindsay to yet another brewery, Maple Island Brewing, during our afternoon in Stillwater. We shared plenty of tasty brews, even finding a few that she didn’t think were too bad! I particularly enjoyed the Cup of Joe Freakshow, a dark, roasty oatmeal coffee stout. Also, Stillwater has plenty of places to get candy, from the Twin Cities’ standard, Candyland to the local Tremblay’s Sweet Shop, which contained the most peanut brittle I’ve ever seen outside of Christmas. Because of all of these attractions nearby, most summer weekends at William O’Brien are pretty well booked, so it’s a good idea to take a look at sites early through the online booking system. This allows you to have a better choice of sites, so that you can avoid the one right next to the bathroom but also make sure its not all the way on the other side of the camping area!

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On the river- Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Up the road a bit at Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls, we went on a canoeing adventure down the St. Croix. Renting a large canoe from Taylors Falls Canoes and Kayaking for a reasonable rate, it was a lovely afternoon for a river voyage. Along with a small fleet of other renters, we floated down the mostly unpeopled river, occasionally paddling. I was bit a rusty in my canoe steering (or maybe I never really developed that skill at all), but the current and river were not too demanding. After a few hours of listening to the wind, and the waves thump up against the sides of our canoe, we reached our destination, a park on the Minnesota side across from Osceola, Wisconsin. From there, we waited for a rental bus to return us to Taylors Falls.

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Franconia Sculpture Park

Just outside of Taylors Falls, we encountered one of the Twin Cities weird, hidden gems, one I had never been to before (though I had heard things), the Franconia Sculpture Park. Wow! The sunny fields and shady woods of the expansive grounds were packed with strange and monumental works of art from artists all over the world. Founded just twenty years ago (just twenty years!?), judging by the dates the works were installed, they are always growing. Lindsay and I were not prepared for just how huge the place was, and just how many bizarre, innovative sculptures were tucked away all over the place. It would definitely warrant another visit, I think! The place is open 365 days a year, so I’m intrigued by the idea of checking it out during the winter!

Heading Past the Edge of the Prairie

 

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A stormy day on the prairie, Pipestone National Monument

In July, Lindsay and I went south, driving down to the prairies and farmland of southwestern Minnesota. It was a much different landscape than our trip to the Iron Range and the North Shore, and I was struck by the great range of terrain to be found throughout the state. We began by heading into some familiar territory for me, spending the first night in Mankato. Before getting there, though, we stopped off at what is becoming a popular Minnesota attraction, Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store at Jim’s Apple Farm, known locally as the Big Yellow Barn. A completely overwhelming expanse of treats, from the local to the global; local apples, all manner of obscure and international candies and sodas (or “pop,” as we prefer around here), and much more. We escaped with a few bottles of soda, a tray of nostalgic Runts, some organic popcorn, and a selection of British candy bars. Quite a chaotic scene, there was something weird everywhere you looked, from a talking bear head guarding the immense selection of honey, to Cthulhu mints!

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Minneopa Falls

Arriving in Mankato, my old haunt, we spent some time at Minneopa State Park, visiting the majestic Minneopa Falls, which tumbles forty feet into a rugged gorge tucked away into the Minnesota flatlands. After the wet season we’ve had, the creek was still a raging torrent, sending plumes of mist into the air and making for a great, refreshing place to relax on a hot summer day. Later, we saw some of the State Park’s herd of bison, reintroduced from the population at Blue Mounds State Park as part of the DNR’s Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd. It was pretty awesome to see these iconic North American animals roaming so close to home, where they used to thrive.

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Schell’s Brewery Deer- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

The next afternoon, we stopped at the picturesque grounds of the August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm. The second oldest family owned brewery in the United States, Schell’s Brewery is a pretty interesting place to make a stop, even if you aren’t particularly interested in beer (like Lindsay, sadly). After a lunch of a large pile of cheese and a few of Schell’s beers (hey, it was after noon) we explored the interesting museum chronicling the history of the company and the immigrant German family who started it back in 1860. The lush gardens and woods that surround the working brewery, the historic Schell family mansion, and other cool buildings  were picturesque, and inhabited by peacocks. These colorful birds, along with the company’s mascot deer, made for some surprises along the garden paths.

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A peacock- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

We continued our journey across the plains, dotted with the looming white forms of the wind power generators rotating gentle in the prairie wind, soon arriving at our next destination; the unique and ancient Jeffers Petroglyphs, another location of the Minnesota Historical Society. The petroglyphs, images carved onto an outcrop of Sioux Quartzite, date from many periods from about 7000-5000 BCE and are important to indigenous cultures across the continent up to the present.

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A turtle petroglyph- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

It really is pretty breathtaking, these intricate carvings etched thousands of years ago on rock a billion years old, on a small ridge above miles and miles of prairie dotted with prickly pears, with constant wind buffeting and providing a welcome respite from the sun. Among the many symbolic and mythical, more concrete figures are seen among the petroglyphs as well, including the atlatl, a hunting tool predating the bow and arrow. The site offers visitors the chance to try out it on a model bison, flinging deadly spears at the effigy animal. After one husky gentleman failed to connect even once, I guess I’m probably a bit too proud to say I managed it! Again, as Historical Society members, we were able to visit the site for free. Definitely one of my favorite places in Minnesota!

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Trying out an atlatl- Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

That evening, we pulled into our final destination, the town of Pipestone, Minnesota. We had reserved a room in the historic Calumet Hotel, reputed to be haunted. In fact, as soon as we parked, we could see that the little town was one that was, apparently, obsessed with ghosts. The Pipestone County Historical Society was offering a Saturday night Historic Ghost Walk, and we arrived just in time- after a quick, uninspiring dinner at the local Pizza Ranch, we lined up for the leisurely, informative walk around town to learn about the various ghost stories that have popped up around it. Hosted by a trio of storytellers dressed in Victorian garb, the stories were generally of a gentle, comical nature and rarely very horrifying or gruesome- the worst being the wife-beating confectioner who hung himself in a dumb waiter. Creepy! The stories of the mysteries of Pipestone were also very interesting, such as the missing statue of a nude woman carved and put on display by Leon Moore, a businessman and amateur sculptor who peopled his building with many strange gargoyles. No one knows where it went!

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The Moore Block, displaying a few gargoyles and the niche that, legend has it, formerly held a sculpture of a naked woman; too much for conservative Pipestone- photo of Lindsay Cameron

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Lindsay and I at the Calumet. Photos courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Amusingly, while we experienced no qualms with sharing with the tour the exact room in the Calumet Hotel we were staying in (I was both disappointed and relieved to find out we weren’t staying in the most haunted room, where a man died in a fire almost a century ago- not that Lindsay or I believe in ghosts), we were too embarrassed to volunteer the fact that we ate at the Pizza Ranch, which was also a haunted location! The Hotel itself was large and reasonably priced, though the room offered few frills aside from a light that flickered out mysteriously (or maybe the bulb was just old!)

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The next morning, after breakfast at a local institution, Lange’s Cafe, home of what Jane and Michael Stern of Roadfood called the best sour cream raisin pie in the world (a fact the restaurant is obviously very proud of) we visited the second National Monument in Minnesota, Pipestone National Monument. The location where the hard red rock was quarried by many different indigenous groups over the centuries to carve peace pipes and other important sacred items, the monument is another breathtaking Minnesota landscape, rich in natural and historical importance.

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Winnewissa Falls

After some atmospheric thunderstorms sweeping in across the prairie, we hiked across the quartzite cliffs, examining the quarries from which the sacred stone is mined, viewing intriguing rock formations and Winnewissa Falls, also filled the brim. The prairie flowers filled the moist but cool air with a host of wonderful smells, and the lichen covered walls flowed with water. It was a wonderful end to a wonderful trip.

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The quartzite cliffs at Pipestone National Monument

A Voyage to the Northwoods

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Bear Head Lake on a rainy evening. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Having recently returned a few weeks ago from my family’s annual trip across state lines to Door County, Wisconsin (a first for my beloved), I thought I would write a little on the many adventures Lindsay and I have had this summer exploring the state of Minnesota, from the northwoods to the prairies, taking advantage of the state’s natural wonders and seeing some pretty interesting things.

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In early June, we drove up to the Iron Range and the Boundary Waters, the first time either of us had visited these famed regions. Taking no heed of the late spring rains, we pitched our tent at Bear Head Lake State Park. A beautiful near wilderness, Bear Head Lake appeared a little mysterious, wreathed in mist and rain as we drove and found our campsite, our first of the year. Lindsay purchased the state’s annual sticker, which we would make use of the rest of the summer and into autumn. Bear Head Lake felt like among the most isolated state parks I’ve visited, making it a good place to get a feel for the conditions of the northwood’s waterways and conifer forests before braving the Boundary Waters or the Gunflint Trail someday. A couple warnings as well for those looking to visit; at this time of year, the mosquitoes were pretty intense! Stepping into the forest, it did not take long for a swarm of whining assaulters to surround us, becoming a maddening cloud around our heads. During an atmospheric expedition to Raspberry Lake through a rolling landscape of billion year old rocks and tall pine trees, I  think we ended up with more than a hundred bites between us by the end. This was, at the time, the most mosquitoes I had ever seen. Strong bug spray is a must. Also, I found a deer tick as well, so always self check!

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What you can’t see are the mosquitoes. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

 

By far the highlight of the trip was our descent into the mine shaft at Soudan Underground Mine State Park. Burrowed nearly half a mile into the ancient metamorphic rock to extract the precious, remarkably pure iron ore, it is an amazing place to visit. The first source of iron on Minnesota’s eponymous Iron Range, the Soudan Mine opened in 1882 and began delving deep into the earth’s crust in 1892, thought of among miners as the best working environment in mining. Miners continued tunneling for iron ore until 1962, in almost complete darkness until the end. Taking a tour introduces you to the dangerous conditions miners encountered underground. In addition to incredibly poor lighting and uneven ground (with the occasional unprotected hole), miners were often organized in groups from different immigrant ethnicities, mutually unacquainted with each other’s languages to cut down on organization but also the ability to communicate danger.

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Soudan Mine elevator

The creaking, rattling elevator takes you and a dozen or so other visitors down to the 27th level, 2341 feet, a damp, chilly 51 degrees. Learning about the how the miners crammed into the same little elevator with only small personal lights to guide them through the treacherous maze of pits and tunnels was pretty mind blowing. However, the history aspect is only one of the tours available, though for the other one, you have to move fast!

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Half a mile underground! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

For decades, a portion of the 27th level has been utilized for an entirely different project- the Soudan Underground Laboratory. Instead of digging hematite out of the rock, the former mine was used to extract knowledge of the cosmos itself. As part of the University of Minnesota’s particle physics laboratory, the thickness of the rock prevents interference from the ambient cosmic radiation on the surface, allowing for physicists to search for exotic particles without contamination. Several experiments have been underway in the massive cavern, with its huge detector plate, designed to catch a variety of mysterious neutrinos and other Dark Matter being beamed through the earth’s crust all the way from Fermilab, outside Chicago. Taking the informative physics lab tour at the mine is a great way to experience a taste of the mysterious of the universe and how scientists are attempting to plumb them. Even for someone so lost by complex mathematical discussions as myself, the tour was entertaining and informative, simplistic enough to appeal to general visitors but packed with enough information about the various forms of neutrinos and other ghost particles to inspire awe. The mural painted on the wall inside the physics lab is also quite awe inspiring.

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The detector plate and mural, Underground Physics Lab. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

After twenty five years, though, the two experiments are wrapping up later this year, so people interested in seeing the Underground Lab as a working physics lab have only the next two months to make it up to Soudan to take the tour. We’d really recommend it!

In the nearby town of Ely, the “gateway to the Boundary Waters,” there are many local attractions celebrating the rich ecosystems of the conifer forests and the majestic wildlife that live there. We visited a couple that focus on some of the most popular and feared of the animals native to the region, the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center. Whether you are a fan of gray wolves or black bears, both are worth a stop if you have any interest in nature and the environment, and in particular the effect of human interactions on these populations. While both present at least an official neutrality in regards to hunting as a means to balance populations, and each strive to present accurate information on these oft misunderstood creatures, they also each take a slightly different approach. Both rely heavily on the presence of their focus species to familiarize visitors with them and both contrast scientific studies with the folklore and culture surrounding them.

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Some sleepy wolves. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

The International Wolf Center, though, had a more focused experience, centered around the gray wolves and their ambassador pack.  For the most part, they seem to let the pack alone to live as naturally as they can in their several acre habitat. If you don’t schedule your visit, the wolves might be in hiding from annoying human interaction. In the informative, interesting, and exhaustive displays, the wolf specimens were carefully noted as from wolves who died from natural causes or accident. At the North American Bear Center, though, the displays seemed more wide ranging, a little less organized. The bear specimens were often from record-breaking hunting trophies donated to the center, though they were also prepared in a style that minimized their perception of ferociousness. Here, too, the resident black bears (all rescues from situations that would make it difficult for them to survive in the wild) were given plenty of acreage to wander, but were presented with plenty of peanuts to entice them to approach the fences.

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A hungry bear. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

We spent the next segment of our trip in one of Minnesota’s most popular vacation locales, Grand Marais. Situated between the North Shore of Lake Superior and the Sawtooth Mountains, Lindsay and I had some fun comparing Minnesota’s examples of “mountains” and coasts to her experiences as a Californian. It was a lovely little town, and a place to stay and read alongside the pounding surf of the world’s largest lake, an inland sea unto itself. Even as a driving wind came up off of the lake during our evening jog, making it feel closer to April than June, it was a relaxing stay. The Voyageur Brewing Company offered some tasty beers and good food, and the World’s Best Doughnuts lived up closer to its namesake that you might think.

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Lake Superior, just outside Grand Marais harbor. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

We didn’t just enjoy the surf and sun, though, we also checked out one of Minnesota’s two National Monuments, Grand Portage. Some thirty five miles north of Grand Marais, it makes for a very interesting day trip. A fascinating recreation of the North West Trading Company’s 1802 post at the portage, where furs from across North America were traded between the Ojibwe and other indigenous peoples and European newcomers, becoming one of the major zones of interaction between the groups on Lake Superior. After viewing an entertaining and informative video, we explored the lovingly recreated buildings (including costumed living history interpreters who were happy to share all of their knowledge on the canoe technologies that connected the interior of the continent to Montreal and Europe via this bustling spot) and dock on the lake. Walking up the steep hiking trail to the summit of “Mount” Rose gave us a stunning view of the monument, Lake Superior, and the surrounding landscape.

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View of Grand Portage from the top of Mount Rose

On the way back to Grand Marais, we also took advantage of the lovely hiking trails at Judge Magney State Park. We hiked  along the Brule River, leading up to the beautiful Devil’s Kettle waterfall, which plunges a majestic fifty feet, spraying up impressive plumes of cool mist.

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Visiting the Devil’s Kettle! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Of course, before heading home to St. Paul, as we drove back along the North Shore towards Duluth, we had to stop by the most photographed location in Minnesota, the lovely Split Rock Lighthouse. I was so happy to stop by this Minnesota icon with Lindsay, who was visiting it for the first time. It is always worth a stop, especially when you have a membership to the Minnesota Historical Society as we do! It was definitely a great way to finish up a wonderful trip!

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Madison Bound

 

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Stained glass, Winona County Historical Museum

Over the next few days, I will be tackling a small backlog of adventures I missed writing about back in February. The first adventure is a fun road trip for those times when you might require a change of scenery from the Twin Cities. Over Valentine’s Day weekend, Lindsay and I crossed state borders for a little trip to Madison, Wisconsin, a fun college town that makes a nice weekend getaway from the Twin Cities. Here are a few highlights and recommendations from the trip!

Taking the scenic route down the Mississippi from St. Paul, we stopped for lunch in the sleepy but interesting college river town of Winona, Minnesota. This is the town where my grandparents lived, so I spent a lot of time here growing up, but it had been awhile since I visited so it was fun to stop again, see how things changed, and introduce Lindsay to another weird Minnesota town.

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Riverboat exhibit, Winona Historical Museum (Courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

We had a delicious lunch at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse, one of my favorite restaurants in the state. In addition to the yummy food and friendly, laid back artsy vibe, they share a space with a used and new bookstore, The Book Shelf, which always has good finds. We then explored the recently renovated Winona County Historical Society Museum, which I’ve found to be one of the best local historical museums in Wisconsin, displaying a variety of interesting artifacts from one of the oldest cities in the state. After climbing into a reproduction steamboat and marveling at some preserved storefronts, we then took the opportunity to explore some art in the collection of Winona’s ambitious and newest museum, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. It may seem like an unusual location for the collection, but Winona does have a historic port supplying lumber and flour for shipment down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. The Marine Art Museum explores the “historic human relationship with water,” an apt mission for a museum set on the banks of the Mississippi River. Featuring contemporary photography as well as work spanning the artistic movements from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, including such luminaries as Monet and Picasso, it is one of Minnesota’s hidden gem museums.

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Capitol District Madison being transformed into a skiing track.

Crossing the border into Wisconsin, we were in Madison by early evening, where we had a date to catch comedian and actor David Cross perform at the Orpheum Theater, located on State Street, the epicenter for entertainment in Madison. The humor of Cross, of Arrested Development fame among others things, was a great way to kick off the trip, especially when he upset the more religious portion of the audience.img_20160213_133136

Madison, the capital city of Wisconsin and home of the University of Wisconsin, is always an entertaining place to visit. Situated on an isthmus between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, with the Capital building sitting on top of a hill, it is a compact, walkable city that seems to pack a lot into a relatively small area. We were in town during the last big cold snap in the Upper Midwest, and it came just in time for the Madison Winter Festival, though a lack of snowfall required the city to haul in a layer of snow to surround the Wisconsin State Capitol building for racing cross country skiers. With folksy fiddle music playing on the loudspeakers and a few quirky little snow sculptures, downtown Madison became a wintery wonderland.  

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Spending the weekend exploring the isthmus area over the weekend was a fun and relaxing way to brave the cold and enjoy each others’ company. Particularly with the Winter Festival going on, parking was difficult downtown, but most things are in easy walking distance of each other. At the center of Capitol Square is, of course, the Wisconsin State Capitol building, a pretty impressive edifice of state government. They offer a free and quite informative tour throughout the building, visiting the executive, legislative, and judicial branches where we marveled at the ornate interiors and fossils embedded in the stone walls. It was pretty interesting to be standing right there behind the leather upholstered chairs where the Wisconsin state legislatures make laws (rather poorly, under current administration, eh?). The tour was full of the usual list of notable “bests” that Wisconsin’s capitol building can boast (taller than the US Capitol Building, largest granite dome in the world, etc.) Some of which seem a little questionable, perhaps, but now I am looking forward to touring the Minnesota State Capitol building, to see what we can boast!

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Wisconsin State Capitol building interior (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

In addition to the Wisconsin State Capitol, we also visited the Wisconsin History Museum and its entertainingly goofy exhibit on Wisconsinites in Hollywood. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is also a good place to check out, which hosted several fascinating collections, including a surreal and energetic collection of 1970s prints by Wisconsin artist Warrington Colescott inspired by Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. That’s one for the reading list! The exhibit goes on until April, so if you’re in town, stop in!

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Sculpture Garden roof of Madison Contemporary Museum of Art, enjoying the snow

Strolling along State Street, we stopped in a variety of charming boutiques and shops, either just browsing or in full shopping mode. Of course, the bookstores were where we found the most to peruse. Browzers Bookshop is a maze of used books, with plenty of weird things to look at and you’ll probably get quite the deal there too! At the venerable independent feminist bookstore A Room of One’s Own, one can browse a very wide selection of new and used books. This was a very nice bookstore to spend some time hanging out and picking out a new book or two (or, hell, more).

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Some of Wisconsin’s fine beers, at the Old Fashioned

 

Of course, nothing says Wisconsin like enjoying an alcoholic beverage and we certainly had our fair share, so leaving the car behind was a wise choice. The charming, quirky, and rowdy bars of State Street and the Capital Square serve up some tasty Wisconsin beers and delicious cocktails. The Old Fashioned, a bar and restaurant specializing in Wisconsin’s food and drink specialties is a good place to start. Offering more than a hundred Wisconsin beers and a half dozen versions of the Old Fashioned, along with cheese curds, cheese plates, and many other tasty treats, it is a good place to go to be overwhelmed by choices. Just arrive early, the place is packed to gridlock by 6 on weekends. Breakfast, though, is a more relaxing time to visit. We had a perfectly decadent Wisconsin breakfast: A rich cheese plate, giant (and affordable) apple fritter, a breakfast old fashioned, and a pint of Tyrena Brewing’s Devil Made Me Do It Coffee Imperial Oatmeal Potter.  

Paul’s Club, on State Street, is another good place to stop in for a drink. Where else can you go to a bar that has a full side tree inside of it, along with a good beer and cocktail list?The Great Dane Pub is a pretty cool place to stop by in the Capital Square area as well, a brewpub that offers a nice rotating selection of brews, including the Stone of Scone scotch ale. Also come for the shuffle boards (Wisconsinites are super serious about this game).

If you find yourself famished while shopping on State Street, a nice place to stop by for very filling Laotian and Thai cuisine is at Vientiane Palace Restaurant, which has a lot of delicious food for reasonable prices, including some very tasty pad thai noodles. My eggplant dish was also very tasty. Graze is a romantic and atmospheric choice for dinner. A new restaurant specializing in farm to table cuisine, we had a very lovely meal here and I would recommend it for a fancy evening out, with nice views of the Wisconsin State Capitol and very good food. Again, the cheese plate is highly recommended, as is the oyster plate.

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Some of the collection of the National Mustard Museum (photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

On the way out of town, we stopped by one of Wisconsin’s many “quirky” attractions. Where else, for instance, could you visit a museum devoted entirely to a condiment? Located just outside of Madison in Middleton, Wisconsin, the National Mustard Museum is worth a stop for anyone with even a little appreciation for mustard. An exhaustive selection of gourmet mustard varities from across the world upstairs, and a tongue in cheek celebration of the history and art of mustard downstairs, it is a cool and funny place to stop to sample some tasty sauces. After picking up some mustard for upcoming gatherings, we left Madison for St. Paul. A quick stop in Osseo, Wisconsin, for some top notch pies at the Norske Nook  Restaurant and Bakery rounded out or trip (and our bellies). All in all, it was a great weekend sampler of a winter town in Wisconsin, and I am looking forward to returning.  

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Did you know Tony Shahloub was from Green Bay? Display at the Wisconsin History Museum (photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

 

 

Day Trip: A Winnipeg Adventure

Here I talk about some destination we in the Twin Cities can get to in less than a day’s driving in order to get a change of scenery for a bit

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Downtown Winnipeg

While some people in Minnesota go on vacations to Florida or Cancun in the middle of January, my sister and I decided to instead take our short winter trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba! We made the seven hour drive from Minneapolis to see a special concert, the Love, Lake Winnipeg concert, a tribute to Canadian folk singer Sol Sigurdson, which included one of our favorite musicians, John K. Samson of the recently disbanded Weakerthans.

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Just past the border!

I can’t think of a better long weekend escape than driving up to Winnipeg, such an interesting and fascinating city that offers a lot of fun things to visit even in the dead of winter with temperatures hovering around -2 all day(-18 celsius!). As we drove up through northern Minnesota and into North Dakota, we crossed the border with no trouble and headed north through the vast, flat prairies of the Prairie province, covered in layers of snow. It seemed snowier than we’ve had down here yet. After checking into our hotel and getting a wad of lovely Canadian currency from the ATM, we spent the rest of the day exploring downtown Winnipeg. Here are a few highlights you should check out if you visit.

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Canadian Museum for Human Rights, at twilight

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights– An amazing feat of architecture, the glistening, glassy spire of the museum towers over the banks of the Red River and affords a commanding view of the Winnipeg skyline on both sides of the river. Opened a little more than year ago, in September of 2014, this was a thought provoking, informative, and affirming museum to visit, one of the best I have visited so far on my blog. With glowing marble ramps and interactive, bilingual displays discussing human rights and Canada’s triumphs and failures throughout its history in terms of racism, sexism, gender, ableism, and labor, making me wish that the United States, and Minnesota in particular, had more to offer here. Truly an awe inspiring place.

The Forks Market

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Forks Market on a subzero morning

A cozy indoor market at the historic confluence of the Red River and the Assiniboine River in a converted rail yard horse stables, the Forks Market is definitely a fun place to go for lunch, breakfast, or just to do some shopping. There’s all sorts of different quick and tasty food to grab, Sri Lankan, Chilean, Ukrainian, crepes, and  Caribbean, among others, and plenty of places to grab those needed Canadian souvenirs as well.

The Exchange District

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Stephen Juba Park, just outside the Exchange District

There are a lot of fun things to do around this well preserved historic neighborhood, including Corrientos Argentine Pizzeria, with served up some delicious Argentine-Italian style pizza. For dessert, we stopped in at a really cool place, Across the Board Game Cafe, which, for five dollars minimum for drinks/snacks, you can play an unlimited number of awesome board games. The place was hopping, I had a few local Manitoba craft beers, and missed having more of these in the Twin Cities. I’ve seen them in Winnipeg, Victoria, and Toronto and I wish they would start to catch on around here. We certainly have the market for them!

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Some highlights, via Adventure Sibs

We ended the night by heading down Ellice Avenue to the West End Cultural Centre to see the Love, Lake Winnipeg Concert, which featured four groups of Manitoban musicians from diverse genres, including John K. Samson, formerly of our favorite band, The Weakerthans, interpreting songs from a cult classic lp, The Lake Winnipeg Fisherman, by folksinger Sol Sigurdson. A handful of audience members had a coveted copy of the 1970 original, which has become a hard to come by and much sought after item! It was definitely an awesome show, supporting the Lake Winnipeg Foundation’s efforts to preserve the great lake for the future. With our tickets, everyone got a cool EP featuring the covers and mixes of the groups so that we could keep on listening to them. 

The EP features the electronic artist DJ Co-op, alt country/folk singer Jess Reimer, Scott Nolan performing with John K. Samson and Christine Fellows, the young indie rock group from Gimli, Manitoba, Mise en Scene. Energetic performers, I definitely am excited to see more of them! All in all, it was a great show and I am totally excited to make up another excuse to visit Manitoba, maybe in the summer next time so we can stop by Lake Winnipeg, and the Icelandic community of Gimli as well!

A Diversion to Door County

 

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Lake Michigan shoreline, Peninsula State Park

Last weekend, I accompanied my family on our traditional local weekend getaway my parents have been doing since the early ‘70s; the annual trip across state lines to Door County, Wisconsin. It may just be my own nostalgia for camping trips, hikes, and campfire stories of childhood, but I would still recommend the region to Twin Citians looking for a local weekend adventure, especially during the fall. Why let the Chicagoans have all the fun, right?

Door County is that little peninsula that sticks out into Lake Michigan from the eastern side of Wisconsin. From St. Paul, it takes about five hours to get there. Usually, we leave at four in the morning and arrive in time for breakfast. It is a quaint, rustic type of place, with rocky shorelines, thick deciduous forests (particularly dramatic with the changing leaves), along with plenty of farms and orchards offering a nice selection of produce. For the most part, we’ve stayed in the campsites at Peninsula State Park, a thickly wooded and hilly park tucked into the center of the region, making it a convenient place to access most of the fun stuff in the county. Plus, it has some nice hiking trails up bluff ridges and down to the rugged Lake Michigan coastlines. It’s probably the best deal of places to stay around, but make sure to make reservations early.

For those of us who do not have our own boat, a car is probably the most convenient way to traverse the peninsula, though there are plenty of scenic bike routes as well, and I’ve been wanting to try that out sometime as well. Numerous places offer bike and kayak rentals, and I’ve even seen a few of the towns offer free bike “borrowing” at the community centers. Pretty fun!

Along the county’s shorelines are a variety of little villages and hamlets, formerly farming and fishing communities, now each with their own little restaurants and shops. It’s pretty touristy, even if by October the large crowds of summer have begun to thin out a bit (I guess I wouldn’t really know, I’ve never been there in the summer). Still, there are plenty of high end shops offering works of art, camping supplies, clothes, and various trinkets- though there are bargains to be found as well. In some places, there’s a definite funky, DIY ambiance in the county that I really enjoy.

Here are a few of my favorite spots, aside from the celebrated tourist institutions of the peninsula, your Al Johnson’s and fish boils, say.

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Hands on Art Studio silo

For the last few years, one of the highlights of the trip is the Hands On Art Studio, also known as the “Art Barn,” in particular the Adult Night on Friday Evenings. A variety of studios housed on a working farm in the interior of the peninsula, the various artists allow visitors to try their hands at making a variety of DIY projects, including fused glass, mosaics, painting, and metal work. Very fun to come home with your own piece of art, especially the fused glass. It’s good to come with some ideas, of course, so start coming up with a plan before you go. Of course, being Wisconsin, there’s a nice variety of beers available to spur the creative process.

After letting your creative juices go, you may be hungry. There’s certainly no shortage of places to eat around the county, but my favorite is probably Czarnuszka Soup Bar in Ephraim. A tiny little storefront, Czarnuszka offers just hardy, Eastern European style soups, three or four varieties a day from a constantly changing menu. Including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian items, my favorite has to be the Bohemian Potato Soup, a constant. A bowl of soup, a roll, and maybe a drink is a great lunch, and extremely affordable too. Bring cash, though. Also, a bowl of soup is a great lunch as well, as it will satisfy you but allow you to save room for the other things you know you’ll be eating later in the day.  

Things like Sweetie Pies, which, admittedly, we stop at more than is probably healthy. But hey, we don’t eat pies everyday! This may be a bit more touristy, but it must be mentioned. When you find yourself in Door County, you will probably find yourself wanting pie. This is especially true in the fall. This place has the best selection and the best quality, I feel. If you want your rhubarb pie uncontaminated with other fruits, go here. There is also pumpkin, pecan, and a variety of other fruits and mixtures as well, including a delectable caramel apple.

The Door County Brewing Company seems like a lively and interesting place to try various microbrews. Went here for the first time last year, and it was a very nice craftbrewery. They specialize in Belgian style ales as befitting the culture of the Belgian immigrants who moved into the area, so there is a lot of interesting saisons and farmhouse ales. My favorite, of course, was Bare Bottom Madness, a Pale Ale brewed with oats. I like hoppy beers and I like oats, so together they were great! I’d recommend checking them out, having a flight, and picking up a growler for the next gathering.

Autumn foliage at the Ridges Sanctuary

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Autumn foliage at the Ridges Sanctuary

If you don’t have time to go on an all day hike up to the top of the bluffs at Peninsula State Park, but you would still like a little walk through nature, a visit to the Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin’s oldest land trust, founded in 1937. Some lovely walking trails, meandering through the thick conifer forest, among marshy swales created over a few millennia by Lake Michigan, make for some very nice nature walks, and you can be done in an hour or so. If you want, you can also walk down the the Lake Michigan shoreline and look at the zebra mussels! 

Looking forward to my next visit already, and who knows, maybe next time I’ll experience it during the summer (or the winter, that would be interesting as well!)

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Sunset over Green Bay, Door County, Wisconsin

 

A Journey to Japan… and back

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A rainy night in Tokyo’s city center.

 

It feels strange, but one week ago I was in Tokyo, shopping at the Tsukiji Fish Market, visiting museums, and riding the train. I spent the better part of the month of September in Japan, and it felt like a really long time to be gone. I actually felt like I started forgetting what it was to go to work, commute across the Twin Cities, and live my do general errands. Now, being back, the last week has gone by in a flash. Maybe time does not always fly when you’re having fun, because I definitely had an awesome trip. My sister and I spent our days exploring, never knowing what each day would bring. We’d visit interesting spots, like the Meguro Parasitological Museum and Jigokudani (Hell Valley). We spent time in Tokyo, one of the world’s largest, densest cities, as well as in small, rural towns, like Tono, in Iwate Prefecture. We hiked in the mountains of the least populated island, Hokkaido, and visited the first city opened up to the west after the arrival of Commodore Perry, Yokohama. Everywhere we went, we saw something new, in addition to some more familiar things.

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Shibuya

Of course, three weeks is too short a time to really get to gain much experience into such a huge, complicated country as Japan but in the end, I dragged home a lot more than a bunch of interesting snack foods and souvenirs.

Visiting another country, another city, grants new insights into your own. Could two cities more different than Tokyo and Minneapolis exist? One is one of the world’s megalopolises, a great port city, capital of a dynamic and ancient world power. The other is a minor regional hub in a landlocked region of a large continent. We don’t have the international fame and fashion of Tokyo, it’s multiplicity of neighborhoods, its importance in history. I can still hold high opinions of the Twin Cities place in the global community, though.

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Jigokudani (Hell Valley), a volcanically active hot spring zone in Shikotsu-Toya National Park, Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido

Despite these obvious differences, though, I was surprised by some unexpected commonalities. In spite of institutions going back centuries, such as Sensoji and the Imperial Palace, much of Tokyo is very new, even newer than much architecture in Minneapolis or, in particular, St. Paul. Due to natural disasters and the ravages of war, much of the city is less than fifty years old, and this is definitely evident as we toured. Also, the sheer size of the metropolis is astounding too. Even on a rainy, cloudy day that hid much, the scope of the city was incredible viewed from the top of Tokyo Tower, every side a sea of high rises as far as the eye can see. 

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Sensoji, in Asakusa District, Tokyo, from the roof of Amuse Museum.

We ate a lot of delicious food- everywhere you looked, something looked good. We couldn’t eat them all, but we tried our best with what could fit in our stomachs. Some of those delicious regional specialties of ramen, such as Sapporo’s Miso Ramen and Hakodate’s Shio Ramen. Cheap tempura, all manner of fried goodness, all of those wonderful Japanese pickles for breakfast. Give me a Japanese breakfast of miso soup, sashimi, and pickles over a huge pile of starchy, syrupy pancakes any day.Tokyo’s great okonomiyaki dives, and, of course, sushi. I couldn’t pass that up! Do the places around here measure up? Hmmm.. maybe, we’ll get to that in a later article.

Could there be a certain similarity between the polite, non-confruntational cultures of Japan and the Upper Midwest?

I was thankful that I was with my sister, as she studied Japanese in college and could get through a minor conversation or struggle her way through a non-English menu if the need arose (and it did, numerous times). I would have been entirely lost. In fact, I did get that, numerous times. Well, never really lost, but on occasion not exactly sure which way to go next.

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Metropolitan Teian Art Museum, Tokyo

I was struck by how lush and verdant the city was, even among the acres of paved concrete in areas like Shibuya and Akihabara, there were many luxuriant trees and little green spaces. It was also a lot flatter than I had imagined; while hills certainly existed, Tokyo seemed no hillier in general than the Twin Cities, which are known for being extremely level.

Odd, that the dirty dishwater reek of the late summer gutters are exactly the same as Minneapolis’.

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While visiting Japan’s fourth largest city, Sapporo, the capital of the the prefecture of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. We arrived on a rainy morning, I noted that the temperature was exactly the same here as it was back in Minneapolis at the time. This northern city, with its wide streets, parks, and chilly temperatures, felt much more like home. Visiting the Hokkaido Museum, in particular, reminded me of home. In fact, it had been described to me by a fellow Minnesotan as the “Wisconsin of Japan,” with its popular crops of corn, dairy, and delicious summer melons (the trademark nightly yield of delicious squid notwithstanding). Not unlike Minnesota, Hokkaido is a colonized region, with the mainland Japanese “pioneers” arriving in the late nineteenth century to homestead, bringing their farming, mining, and industry to the frontier. Hmm, seems familiar. Of course, for thousands of years Hokkaido was home to another group of people, the Ainu, who faced war, disease, and, ultimately, forced integration into the population and the attempted erasure of their ancient culture. The exhibits in the Hokkaido Museum in Sapporo, showing off the place of modern Ainu in their native land, had a definite similarity to our own history museums, eager to display native stories while also trying to aggrandize our immigrant history as well. Hokkaido Museum devoted much time to the “settlers” and their agriculture, mining, industry, all based on forcing Ainu from traditional lands, and I was reminded of our own “pioneer” past, my own immigrant ancestors building farmland in the former nations of the Dakota and the Ojibwe at the exact same time Hokkaido was being absorbed into the greater Japan.

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On a more positive note, not unlike the Upper Midwest, Hokkaido is also known as the capital of craft brewing in Japan, and I definitely took advantage of this. After a long day of hiking through the autumn forests and lakes of the north island, some beer was a great treat. It was at this time I began to miss home…

More than anything else, as I devoted each day to tracking down more cool stuff to do, I realized that, really, I didn’t have to be in Japan to do this. I could continue my adventures daily in my own region, and in fact, wasn’t that why I was keeping a blog in the first place. As much as I love traveling the world (and already, I am planning for my next overseas trip), keeping a curisity and eagerness to explore even in daily life is something to treasure. In taking these weeks off to devote exclusively to exploring another world city, it made me think of all of the stuff that’s still hidden in my own home. 

I felt that I saw a lot more, visited more places, had more experience. Probably, I visited more places than the average Tokyoite does in a year. It made me think of all of the things I’ve yet to experience in Minnesota, and the local region, and made me eager to get out there and see what they are like. Why just explore on vacation? Why not explore every day, visit the things that visitors to your own city visit but which you haven’t been to, or haven’t been to in years? There are still a lot of things to learn about my hometown, I can treat everyday as its own “staycation” without spending money for plane tickets and taking time off of work. Keep watching MSP Adventure Time to see what other adventures I can have in the Twin Cities.

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Tokyo is Yours, near Yoyogi JR Station.

In any case, I’m glad to be back, I felt I was missing out on my favorite time of year, and it’s looking like there’s going to be some pretty fun things happening throughout October this year!

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Daibutsu, in Kamakura

 

 

To Japan!

 

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Rainy morning at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport- goodbye Twin Cities!

As I mentioned in my last entry on the Como Park Obon Festival, I’m really excited to have scheduled an adventure outside of the Twin Cities for the next few weeks.

So, this morning I’m boarding a flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Denver, and from there disembarking on the long voyage across the Pacific to Narita Airport to explore Japan for the next few weeks. My sister and I will start in Tokyo, journey north to Hokkaido, and then explore the northern tip of Honshu, Tohoku. Other than this, we have no real plans and will just see what we see! Of course, I’ll be reporting in upon my return.

This will be the first time I’ve left the continent since 2007, so I’m very excited, and I also can’t believe this long awaited trip is here already. Because of this, I won’t be as active on the MSP-Adventure Time blog this month, but I’ll have a few entries prepped to tide things over for the time being. In the meantime, we’ll be posting pictures from the trip on our new Instagram account, AdventureSibs, if you’re so inclined. It’s completely empty so far, but things will start appearing tomorrow, no doubt!

Now, as we wait to board our flight, we’re enjoying some pretty good scones from the airport incarnation of a favorite Minneapolis spot for breakfast, French Meadow! It’ll be the last taste of home for now.

Perhaps, when we get back, if we’re not too tired of ramen yet, we’ll attend the upcoming Ramen Attack Block Party at the Mill City Museum. Looks fun!

A Return… to the Last Days of Minnesota Summer

Summer in Minnesota can be so fleeting, it is true. I write this as the sun goes down on another warm, sunny Minnesota evening which will all too soon be gone. Today is the last day of July already and it seemed like the month just disappeared. Is there something about this languid season of heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and lakes that causes people suddenly to look up into the sultry summer night and realize that there is only about one and a half months of summer left? It could definitely be, of course, the rather late beginning of this summer after a winter of bone chilling cold, we had a long spring of driving rains that swelled the lakes and rivers over their banks.

For me, of course, it did not help spending the first two weeks of July on a road trip out to the Pacific Northwest, and then the rest of the month recovering. It feels like I just got back, really, like I’m still trying to readjust from life on the road to daily life. For me, summer often meant an adventure across the country so I am happy I got one in this year. Great trip, and a great way to reflect on what my city means to me after visiting others. Over the two weeks, I spent time in Portland, Seattle, Port Angeles, and a short trip to Victoria, British Columbia.

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Pike Place Market on a foggy Seattle morning

There does seem to be a connection between these two regions, the Upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest dating at least as far back James J. Hill the Empire builder, whose Northern Pacific railway empire was centered in St. Paul and linked Chicago to Portland. A shared Scandinavian-American culture, particularly noticeable in Seattle, also informs both regions. Perhaps for this reason, there also seems to be a friendly (for the most part) rivalry between these cities as well. In short, we all seem to focus on kind of a trifecta of “bikes, beers, and books,” or something equally glib.

Over the weeks I spent in Portland, Seattle, and elsewhere in the area, I encountered numerous transplanted Midwesterners from Minnesota and Wisconsin. In among the most “Portlandia” moments, one vegan former Wisconsinite was oddly insistent that was “a Portlander now,” as if eager to distance herself from the land of cheese. Speaking of that, it seems Fred Armisen first conceived of the idea for Portlandia after being inspired by Minneapolis.  At the same time, I met a woman who was preparing her own vacation across the country to the Boundary Waters, while another man was leaving for Roseau in a few weeks. While they would be kayaking the Boundary Waters or hiking the Gunflint Trail I was hiking the Olympic National Park. Indeed, these cities would top my list of American cities to transfer to if I ever left Minnesota. They all offer strong connections to a host of natural attractions, whether lakes and streams or mountains and harbors. Perhaps for this reason, you can find huge statues of Paul Bunyan in all of these places!

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A great place to grab breakfast, Cartopia Food Carts, Southeast Portland

When I first visited some years ago, I thought that Portland, in particular, reminded me of the Twin Cities, a little more than Seattle. We are both river cities, for one, and are always competing for the coveted title of Bicycle Magazine’s most bike friendly city, though both the Twin Cities generally manage to beat Portland on the most literary city list, Powell’s City of Books notwithstanding. I, of course, had to spend at least four hours exploring here. Since my last visit, food carts had proliferated to a degree not yet seen in the Twin Cities, at least in “pods,” as they call them in Portland. The food stands, offering cuisine of any conceivable type, from Georgian cuisine and bahn mi, through craft hot dogs, falafel, and other standard street food. While we have a good community of growing food carts and trucks, we have a little ways to go here.

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The line for doughnuts, Voodoo Doughnut, Old Town Portland

Among the most interesting touristy attractions I checked out while in Portland, right down the street from the infamous Voodoo Doughnut (inspiration for our trendy new doughnut shop Glam-Doll Donuts on Nicollet), was the Portland Underground Tour. Like the underground tours located in Seattle, a large group of out of towners were led by knowledgeable locals down into the bowels of the city; in this case, Old Town. Unlike the relatively cool Seattle tunnels, though, these were cramped and hot; they were, also, according to the guide, where hapless newcomers to the city of Portland were for decades, around the turn of the century, drugged and dragged off as indentured laborers for sailors crossing the Pacific to Shanghai. Hence the term, “shanghaiing.” For many years, the guides maintained, this dark history of human rights abuse was ignored in official histories of Portland which continues to have a very high rate of human trafficking. While some historians continue to question the validity of the extent of these tales, I was left to wonder about Minneapolis and St. Paul, with their network of tunnels and catacombs and histories of corruption and crime that also have kept under the radar until recently. As we crawled out of the sidewalk in Old Town, I pondered of the different ways a city’s identity is often not even identifiable to the people who are living in it.

All in all, a wonderful and reinvigorating trip, though I now look forward to enjoying the rest of the summer in the Twin Cities and spending some more time going on adventures close to home!

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Space Needle, as seen from the Seattle Asian Art Museum, on a sunny Seattle afternoon