Personal Favorites of 2016

Well, it’s past the third anniversary of my blog chronicling the fun activities I’ve found to experience Twin Cities over the past few years, and the one year anniversary of Lindsay joining me on these explorations, so I thought I would take the time to review a few of my favorite adventures of the past year. Only a little more than a month after New Years, but whatever! I’m raring to go to share my thoughts on fun things to do for Twin Citians for the next awful year of 2017, have to find something to take our minds off how the world is falling apart, after all.

Getting my first tattoo last January, with the colors added in March, was definitely one of the highlights of last year. Now, we just need to get a tattoo for Lindsay!

Over the summer, Lindsay and I found plenty of local state parks not far from the cities to go camping for a lovely weekend of hiking, canoeing, and enjoying the outdoors. Well, at least during the summer, our attempt to go camping in October turned out to be a little bit too cold. Also, watch out for those mosquitoes and deer ticks!

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Enjoying a summer weekend on the St. Croix, Interstate State Park

In late July, we had a great time riding vintage buses throughout the streets of Minneapolis sampling some of the city’s crop of craft beers and learning a little about the history of public transportation in the metro. I thought that the Hennepin History Museum and Minnesota Transportation Museum’s Bus and Beer History tour of Minneapolis was one of the most fun, educational, and enjoyable experiences from last year. I’d recommend checking out any of their tours.

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Twin Cities Lines

The trip Lindsay and I took across state lines to Wisconsin last August on my family’s traditional vacation area of Door County on the Lake Michigan coast was the most romantic and wonderful time of 2016, ending with Lindsay and I getting engaged!

A great end to the year was the Bell Museum Garage Sale last November, celebrating the last days of the University of Minnesota’s awesome natural history museum at its Minneapolis location before it hops over to the St. Paul campus this year. Looking forward to it! I also enjoyed being able to post one of my few prompt blog entries!

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Lindsay and crafting our new ornaments at the last Night at the Bell Museum, back in Decemeber

After looking over the past year, I’m looking forward to all the new things we’ll experience in the coming year! The temperature is already beginning to signal the coming of the Minnesota spring!

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Union Depot Holiday Bake Sale

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In the weeks before the holidays, one can certainly find oneself encountering all manner of treats and goodies, whether at holiday potlucks or family cookie exchanges. It can all be a bit overwhelming, especially as one is also scrambling to find those last minute gifts, if you happen to be or know people celebrating Christmas.

Popping up across the Twin Cities in November and December are a large number of holiday craft shows, a few of which I blogged about during the last few years. This year, Lindsay and I went to the St. Paul Union Depot for it’s European Christmas Market. Due to icy wind and snow on that afternoon, though, we soon went inside the depot to check out another event; the Union Depot Holiday Bake Sale. The 4th Annual sale, it boasts drawing the top Twin Cities bakeries to peddle cookies, candy, and other sweets. There were definitely some delectable and tasty treats on sale, in particular the T-Rex Cookie Company and Heavenly Treats’ toffee. We were able to get some shopping done, too! Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’d come back- the admission fee to get in to even browse the treats ($5 with a commemorative tote) seemed a little much, especially since so many other craft and food shows are free (including the Depot’s Christmas Market, itself). Only a handful of our favorite bakeries were represented, so it was definitely lacking quite a few of the best bakeries the Twin Cities can offer, and curiously, several non-baked good merchants were also on hand, almost as if the selection criteria had little to do with merchants offering the best desserts in town. There were some music and cookery demonstrations, but nothing was happening while we were there. May be best to plan ahead before visiting events with admission fees.  

A Kinda Kinky Holiday

 

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Kinda Kinky take the stage at their 2016 Holiday Concert 

Been a busy holiday season, and I’m ready to start the new year! My lovely fiance and I are scheduled to tie the knot this spring, so it is going to be an exciting year for us (if not for the country). Let’s try to update what we’ve been up to this chilly time of the year.

A month or so ago, on a snowy evening in December, Lindsay and I attended one of the most joyful and kitschy pieces of holiday nostalgia you can experience in the Twin Cities. Kinda Kinky is an energetic, rocking tribute band devoted to the seminal ‘60s English band, the Kinks. Touted by the Star Tribune as the best cover band in town, it is easy to see why. Lindsay introduced me to the four piece band last spring and she had gotten us very excited to see their annual holiday concert and food drive this year, held at the Eagle’s Club in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis.  

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A snowy night at the Eagles Club

The 6th annual show, Kinda Kinky and a variety of other local guest musicians, including David Campbell (formerly of the Current), mounted the festively decorated stage and belted out a best of compilation of the Kinks’ classic songs. It really was quite the time! Fellow 30 somethings, if you are tired of feeling super old every time you decide to check out a show, stopping in here will make you feel like one of the kids, downright underage! It was, I think, the most fun I’ve had at a holiday event in a long time. The Minneapolis Eagles Club is quite a kitschy, cavernous venue by itself, appearing much unchanged since the ‘70s and the expansive dance floor made a great space for rocking out, even for those of us who are not really used to cutting a rug. I’m definitely looking forward to checking it out next year! With some food drive donations, tickets are discounted, so it’s definitely a fun, inexpensive treat in a season known for splurging. 

Bell Museum Garage Sale

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The James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History is one of my favorite hidden gem museums in the Twin Cities, tucked away on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. The U’s showcase for the natural sciences, of Minnesota, the world, and the cosmos, I loved exploring its detailed wildlife dioramas as a child and ducking in for a relaxing diversion as a college student. The handsome art deco building built in 1940 houses a great variety of specimens, hands on activities, and works of art, and is a great place to visit if you are interested in checking out exactly what type of creature a “golden gopher” is. However, if you want to visit it at its current location, you only have until the end of the year! After December 31st, the museum will close to prepare for a move to a new, state of the art location being constructed over at the St. Paul Campus. As the only natural history museum in Minnesota, it’s always been a special place to me, and I must admit some mixed feelings seeing it move. Still, I’m excited to see what the University has in store for the bigger, better building!   

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Waiting to enter, morning of November 25th.

This weekend is a great time to stop in at the Museum if you haven’t been or want just one more visit to the cozier old location before the great expansion. Until Sunday, the museum is hosting a garage sale, dispensing with a multitude of awesome museum ephemera that any museum nerd will just have to have. Lindsay and I stopped in this morning, braving a bit of a line to get inside where we dug through awesome t-shirts, posters, and display cards from special exhibits from past decades, and piles of books, among other interesting finds. There might still be fishing rods from the museums’ old summer camp, if you’re into that! While I think all of the lifesize fish silhouettes were snatched, there’s bound to be a lot more treasures to be found over the next couple of days, and at pretty good prices, too! Sunday, in particular, includes free museum admission and $5 for whatever you can fit in a grocery bag!

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Wolf diorama- Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

After loading the car with our haul, it was nice to get to wander through the museum’s renowned dioramas one last time, watching people walk over the simulated bog and other old favorites, such as the touch and see discovery room, filled with all manner of bones, terrariums, and other fun stuff. What will the new location bring that we still can’t imagine?

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Our haul! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

It’s open tomorrow from 9 to 5, with an admission of $8 for adults (free for University students and staff), and 10 to 5 on Sunday, with free admission!

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A collection of stuffed rodents- Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Minnesota State Fair

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The crowd at the last sunday of the 2016 Minnesota State Fair

One of the last celebrations of the Minnesota summer and its quick and exorable transformation into fall, and winter, the Minnesota State Fair, also called “the Great Minnesota Get Together,” and I’m sure a lot of other self-aggrandising nicknames. Lindsay and I spent the last Sunday of the venerable Minnesota tradition enjoying its treats and braving the crowds. It was surprising that I had avoided the fair for the last decade or so, and so I really enjoyed getting to rediscover it with a newcomer to our strange state. After moving here, Lindsay found herself enchanted by many aspects of the Fair and attends faithfully each year, and I was eager to experience it again with her.  I was definitely not disappointed by my return!

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So much honey…

A lot had changed, and a lot had stayed the same, since my last visit. As our local media is dutiful to report, there were a lot of delicious, if not exactly healthy sounding, new culinary innovations being hawked throughout the Fair, some delectable and some, not so much. In any case, we had to track a few of the most promising sounding ones down, and as we explored twisting grounds of the fair, weaving through the throngs, we encountered some of the weird and wonderful quirks that make our state a little bit different. By all accounts, this was the largest attendance ever for the Minnesota State Fair, an event not known for a small turnout.

We started out with some breakfast near the in the Blue Barn in the new West End Market, a welcome transformation of what I found the chintzy old “Heritage Square.” Nothing says breakfast like a cup of beer, so I started off with that, a Caramel Apple Pi beer, which was the closest one could get to drinking a caramel apple pie, along with some fried french toast. The important artifacts remain, the cabin and the windmill, and there’s still plenty of taxidermied animal carcasses to take home (if you must).

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Saying hi- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Heading over to the livestock, always a popular attraction at the fair, we wandered through the goat and sheep barn, echoing with bleats, munching, and that goaty smell. Even better, Lindsay and I were enchanted by the rows and rows of Lindsay’s favorite creature, rabbits. There were so many, of so many different hues, sizes, fur types, and ear shapes, but all adorable. Some stood up, inspecting their surroundings with concern, if not interest, while others simply took it easy on their furry little bellies. Of course, some were winners and some were losers to the farm kids who raised them to show at the Fair, but they were all great to us city kids. The baby animals of the Miracle of Birth barn, with calves born just hours before and was also an interesting stop.

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newborn calf- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Hungry for lunch and other refreshments, we walked towards the Agriculture Building, but not before grabbing some fried croissants from the French Meadow and floating through the Old Mill, the oldest surviving attraction at the Fair. The Mill, a rickety contraption that propels brightly dyed water and boats of visitors through a cramped, dark, damp maze, past pastel murals of gnome villages, is what is known as a “tunnel of love.” The place is so old, as you creak through the maze, attempting to find the lips of your loved one in the darkness, you can think of Garrison Keillor doing the same years before. Sorry!   

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Dahlia- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Finding our way to the Agriculture-Horticulture Building, I again subjected Lindsay to a slew of beers courtesy of the Land of 10,000 Beers, the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild exhibit. With a sampler of four different local beers by theme, Lindsay and I picked out a couple, the sweeter beers and the “Cicerone’s Choice.” By the time we were done with them, we were both a little overly indulged. What better time than to tour lovely displays of Christmas trees, rows of precisely arranged jars of honey, and tables covered with dahlias of every color. Of course, the iconic seed art was worth checking out, too.

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wow, that’s a lot of cookies!

 

After drinking a few more State Fair themed beers, I needed something to soak it all up, and Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar definitely had enough. I had never heard of this stand before, but judging by all of the fairgoers dragging around piles of chocolate chip cookies throughout the fair, it was a popular place. I was enticed to get the giant bucket option, a tub overflowing with cookies that we snacked on as we rode the SkyGlider over the busy crowds, marveling at weird agricultural vehicles of Machinery Hill and all of the stuff that somehow ended up on the roofs of the nearby buildings. By the time we escaped from the dangling cable cars, the sun was setting and our feet were burning. It was time to escape the Fair and make our way home. I would definitely recommend taking advantage of one of the bus shuttle services that bring people to the fair (there was one a short walk from our home), as the fair only seems to be getting more crowded and parking more difficult to come by. It was nice not to have to worry about that as we stumbled back and boarded our shuttle to return home, to relax and try to massage our feet back to life.

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Happy times on the SkyGlider

A New Adventure in Wisconsin

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The sun sinks low over Green Bay, Door County, Wisconsin- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Now that we are officially in autumn, and I’ve been struggling to catch up recording all of my summer adventures for the blog, I felt I would take the opportunity to share one of the biggest adventures of the year; my engagement to my beloved! As I’ve blogged about before, my family has traditionally taken a holiday every year in the fall to Door County, Wisconsin. This year, though, we embarked on the first summer visit to Door County, and I was proud to be bringing my lovely girlfriend, Lindsay, with us for the first time! Among the usual Door County diversions, we got a lot of reading done, though not always as lovely as the surroundings- check out my reviews of Door County related books over on the new platform for my book blog, Reading Rainstorm.

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Lindsay and I kayak near Peninsula State Park, Door County, Wisconsin- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

 

Summer in Door County was a bit more crowded, but was still fun. Lindsay and I then left the group to do a little exploring of our own in eastern Wisconsin, visiting some places neither of us had ever visited before. Across Green Bay from Door County, we drove up the coast looking for the grave of Lindsay’s great great grandmother, buried in Marinette, Wisconsin. We found the headstone, took a few pictures, and then crossed the border into Michigan, so that Lindsay could say she’d been there. We ate a couple of the Upper Peninsula’s famous pasties and headed back into Wisconsin. Along the way, we visited an interesting local museum, the Peshtigo Fire Museum, the site of the worst recorded fire disaster in North American history, which ravaged the region back in 1871 (but was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which happened the same day). The museum, housed in an old church, features a few charred artifacts that survived the fire but is also packed full of old stuff of every description. Outside the museum, the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery houses the mass grave of the hundreds of victims of the fire who were never identified. Definitely a interesting place to stop if you enjoy cemeteries, history, or perusing rooms filled with random old objects!

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Peshtigo Fire Monument, Peshtigo, Wisconsin- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

We stayed in Green Bay, which is a bit much if you’re not entirely devoted to the cult of football- though the beer is good! Neither of which appeals to Lindsay, so Green Bay may not have been the best choice for us. I got plenty of good beer at Badger State Brewing, and Titletown Brewery, but being confronted by so much football was a little much. Nope, not a fan! For a train fan like Lindsay, though, the National Railroad Museum was a bit of a must see. The vintage train ride around the grounds was kind of a summer disappointment in that the oppressive heat inside the historic train car required that we ride in a much less charming open platform pulled behind it. However, the museum’s cavernous train sheds housed an amazing variety of old trains, some lovingly restored, like the train that carried Eisenhower throughout the UK during WWII, and some, like the Zephyr, musty and waiting refurbishment. In either of both types, visitors could explore and poke around through many of them.

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The train car we couldn’t ride in, due to the heat- National Railroad Museum, Green Bay, Wisconsin

 

The college town of Appleton was a bit more to our tastes- we visited the History Museum at the Castle, a very interesting local history museum housed in an atmospheric old Masonic Temple built in 1923. One of the museum’s ongoing exhibits features Houdini, the famed illusionist. Harry Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss in Hungary in 1874, moved to Appleton as a toddler and claimed it as his hometown ever after. The exhibit is controversial, apparently, for detailing how the magician performed his famous acts. In addition to this, the museum had some very touching and informative exhibits on the history of bicycles in the “Fox Valley,” the history of African-Americans in the region, and local homelessness. It is always nice to see local museums tackle such heavy and important topics!

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Museum at the Castle, Appleton, Wisconsin- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

After the museum, we strolled around the town for a bit, stopping by a funky little boutique, the Blue Moon Emporium, which we found packed full of awesome knick knacks by local independent craftspeople and designers. All the Wisconsin shaped earrings and t-shirts one could want! We also saw some lovely rings shaped from antique spoons, and found ourselves enchanted. We bought a pair and proposed to each other under the drizzle and the imposing turrets of the Castle. Engaged in Appleton! Not the most expected locale, but I feel it fits our wandering natures!

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Vintage Buses and Beer

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The bus travels through downtown Minneapolis

Over the past year or so, the Hennepin History Museum has been trying to raise its profile in the community with a series of evening Night at the Museum events featuring different themes and topics. After our romantic cookie exchange at the museum last year, Lindsay and I have attended some of them, which have always been interesting and full of fun activities and little known facts about local history. We toyed with the idea of robots, learned about bees, saw how the history of pets and bicycles affected the local culture. As I said in previous reports, the Hennepin History Museum is a hidden gem of Twin Cities museums, and each visit has been a treat.

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Interior of the vintage bus (before crowd fills it up)

This summer, the museum hosted, along with another local institution, the Minnesota Transportation Museum, a historical Vintage Bus Brewery tour of Minneapolis. Bringing together three of my interests, local history, public transportation, and beer, it was definitely a blast! One of the highlights of the summer, Lindsay and I boarded the 1950s era GMC Transit buses which served Metro Transit for some years during the ‘50s and ‘60s to be whisked around to several local breweries, all the while listening to interesting facts about the history of the area. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the history of the region’s public transportation fascinating- we were riding in the bus that replaced the streetcar lines across the Twin Cities in a shady bit of corporate grift. The bright colors and lines of the old city bus attracted the attention of passersby as it rumbled through town. The preservation of the vintage bus was immaculate, with its period advertisements and creaking seats, it was like traveling back in time.

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enjoying a beer at Boom Island Brewing

 

Our first stop was at Boom Island Brewing, close to the river. A Belgian-style brewery in North Minneapolis, Boom Island’s beers are earthy and powerful, with enough variety to please just about any beer connoisseur. I had not been there before, but it would definitely be one I’d like to visit again. I particularly liked the Brimstone Trippel and the Cuvee de Boom. While we were visiting, the brewery was hosting a Bayou Blowout Crayfish boil, which was a nice place for me to get my seafood fix along with a beer. Some crayfish fettuccine is just the thing I didn’t know I was craving before setting out!  

Reboarding the bus, the crowd a bit more in our cups than before, we trundled off to our next destination, a stroll across the Stone Arch Bridge. Along the way, we passed through Nicollet Island, our interpreter having to raise his voice a little to be heard over the reveling. Crossing the river, we strolled around the park, walking off some of the beer we already imbibed. St. Anthony Falls, the reason the city was here in the first place, was roaring, the wet weather making it more than twice as full as it would be that time of year on average. The river-scented mist billowing off of the falls dampened us as we watched it flow from the bridge. I also took the opportunity, like so many others on the tour, to capture a few new pokemon on the newly exploding Pokemon Go app. Yep, it was just like being on an actual bus! As for the app, well, that can be an entirely different conversation best saved for another entry.

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View of St. Anthony Falls from the Stone Arch Bridge- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Our last stop was Day Block Brewery, one of my favorite breweries in Minneapolis, a venue that, in addition to its great beers, offers some intriguing craft cocktails for Lindsay as well! After enjoying a few more libations, and a fairly delicious pretzel to help absorb the booze a bit, we got back on the bus and returned to the Hennepin History Museum. While there are no more tours being offered this year, I’m looking forward to trying out one of the vintage bus history tours of St. Paul breweries next year, and I’d definitely recommend it!

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Preparing to board, outside of Day Block

East Lake Open Streets

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The Open Streets street fests in Minneapolis are some of my favorite community events for the summer, and so far this year, like last year, I attended just one. In July, Lindsay and I rode our bikes across the river from St. Paul to explore what East Lake Street had to offer. In my role as a traveling Hennepin County librarian, I’ve often staffed the desk at the East Lake Library, one of my favorite branches, and was always struck by the energy and diversity of the area. Having the chance to spend some more time in the area with Lindsay, trekking on foot down the middle of Lake Street exploring and encountering local people and organizations. It was a nearly perfect summer day, with blue skies, a nice breeze, temperatures in the mid ‘70s, the kind of afternoon you can only dream about in February.

The street was a frenzy of activity, with people walking or riding their bikes down the center of the usually car filled thoroughfare. Weaving through the crowds, Lindsay and I decided to concentrate on the events and activities going on on the north side of the street before crossing it on the way back to see what was going on on the other side! The new local darling eatery, the Hi-Lo Cafe started the walk out in an memorable manner with a pie eating contest. While we didn’t participate ourselves, we enjoyed a couple of cocktails and street food courtesy of the Blue Door Pub, which we ate while watching a group of children go to town on some banana cream pies.

Continuing up the street, we grabbed some tasty frozen treats from Frio Frio (a standard at these events), and sampled some of Urban Forage’s ciders. We enjoyed the crisp, refreshing drinks and I’m definitely looking forward to when they open a taproom next year to share their locally sourced ciders, wines, and meads.  We checked out the Nordic bric a brac at Ingebretsen’s and had a delicious lunch of tamales at the Mid Town Global Market, finishing off with some beers at East Lake Brewery. By this time, we realized that things were winding down, so we started along the walk back. In the end, we walked more than five miles during the event, and we returned to our bikes footsore and a little bit sunburnt. Next year, we might start earlier to get more on both sides of the street!  The last one of 2016 is this Saturday in Dinkytown, so if this sounds fun, you should check it out!

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