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Learning Vacations Make Minnesota Your Classroom

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Explore the Shore workshop, Two Harbors

Learning Vacations Make Minnesota Your Classroom

By Erica Wacker

Whether it's a cooking workshop, night sky photography course or multiday naturalist camp, blending learning with leisure is a surefire way to get an A+ on your next vacation.

Your alarm goes off at 4 a.m. You get dressed, eat a quick breakfast, and head out the door before the sun rises. After an action-packed day, going to bed early isn’t on the agenda. You’re out and about at sunset and later still, venturing to one of the darkest places you’ll ever see, so dark the stars cast shadows on the ground.

While this may not sound like a vacation to some, for others, it’s one of the most memorable trips they’ll ever take. North Shore photographers Bryan Hansel and John Gregor each offer a range of workshops that attract both novice and skilled photographers from around the world, teaching them how to capture waterfalls, wildflowers, night skies, and the natural beauty of the area.

“Sometimes people think learning isn’t fun, because school generally wasn’t fun. But these types of workshops are amazingly fun,” says Bryan Hansel, who also teaches photography at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais. “Not only are you going to learn, but you’re going to be around other people having fun, and it magnifies the experience.”

Learning vacations settler's cabin Hovland Explore the Shore workshop

Settler's cabin, Hovland

Art & Photography Vacations

Based in Grand Marais, Hansel’s workshops combine shooting time with classroom-based learning. The workshops are limited to 10 participants to allow for maximum one-on-one instruction. Options this spring and summer include spring waterfalls, wildflowers and night skies. Participants receive a discount at Aspen Lodge, or can choose to stay elsewhere in the area.

John Gregor’s ColdSnap Photography workshops follow a similar structure, with 10 or fewer people and lots of time outdoors. Participants can choose where they want to stay; most classes are based in and around Two Harbors, including the Duluth harbor and backwater tour and night skies, which includes post-processing work and prints to take home.

Also on the North Shore, the renowned North House Folk School is celebrating 20 years of hands-on arts, crafts and other disciplinary workshops on the beautiful Grand Marais harbor. Several options are available every week, from weaving and lathe turning to boat building and timber framing. Lodging is available at area resortsB&Bs and campgrounds.

Another Scandinavian-influenced arts school, Milan Village teaches traditional rosemaling, Norwegian knife-making and silversmithing, among other disciplines, at its school near Lac qui Parle. Nearby accommodations can be found in Montevideo, Watson and Appleton.

Many art centers around the state, including Great River Arts in Little Falls, Raspberry Island Folk School in McGregor, Owatonna Arts Center and Ely Folk School, offer one-day or shorter classes for travelers and residents alike to try a new skill. For a deeper dive, Foci in Minneapolis teaches a weekend crash course in glassblowing every other month, and the Weavers Guild of Minnesota offers three-day workshops for those with prior weaving experience.

Two girls look at wolves through glass at the International Wolf Center

The International Wolf Center in Ely tells the story of and protects this incredible species / Lucy Hawthorne

Environmental Learning Vacations

While there’s no shortage of opportunities to experience Minnesota’s great outdoors, those seeking a better understanding or connection to the state’s incredible natural resources have several options. A handful of environmental learning centers, which cater to school groups during the academic year, offer a range of adult and family programming in the summer months.

“It’s really critical for the health of the planet and our wellness as a species to learn about nature and get revitalized by being in it,” says Bryan Wood, executive director of the Audubon Center of the North Woods in Sandstone. One of the center’s most popular offerings is its Women’s Wellness & Adventure Weekend, where women ages 21 to 70-plus can learn archery, canoeing, forest ecology, yoga and more in a beautiful lakeside setting. Lodging is dormitory-style, with fresh, healthy meals made from locally sourced and natural ingredients.

Learning vacations high ropes course Audubon Center women's wellness weekend

High ropes course at the Audubon Center

For families, Wolf Ridge in Finland hosts family summer camp, a week of adventure ropes, rock climbing, nature studies, canoeing, and other fun, educational activities designed to foster an appreciation for nature. Stop by the open house in July to get a taste of the center’s many offerings.

If you love wolves, the International Wolf Center in Ely has a dozen options for families to learn from wolf experts—and the wolves themselves—during multiday adventure programs that include a slumber party overlooking the wolves’ den.

Chef Camp

Food and the great outdoors are two of life's simplest pleasures. Mix them together, add a dash of camaraderie and a hint of learning, and you have Chef Camp, a northwoods food retreat on Sturgeon Lake in northeast Minnesota. The weekend retreat occurs annually in early fall, and invites campers to take wilderness-themed cooking classes led by award-winning chefs; past rosters have included Jason Englehart of St. Paul's Meritage, Sean Cherman of The Sioux Chef, forager/author Kathy Yerich and Union Kitchen's Yia Vang.

All skill levels are welcome to attend; the only criteria is that campers must be 21 or older. Private rooms, tent sites and group bunks are available on-site at YMCA Camp Miller. In addition to taking cooking classes, campers can go swimming, canoeing, relax in the sauna and try their hand at archery.

Learn more and reserve your spot at chefcampmn.com.

Erica Wacker

Erica Wacker is a Midwesterner through and through, growing up in Illinois, going to college in Wisconsin, and settling down in Minnesota. She loves to run, travel with her family, and go to concerts to relive her youth.