How I spent my summer vacation: For a growing number of people, the answer involves an experience of learning by doing. "Learning vacations" can be engaging, fulfilling and fun, a chance to get inspired and be creative. Minnesota offers several opportunities to visit scenic destinations, participate in a small group learning experience, and bring home a special kind of souvenir.
One avid fan is Karen Ellingson of St. Paul, who has taken several classes in the past few years at North House Folk School, including basketry, birch bark weaving, bread baking and sewing your own anorak. Each time, she has come home with a completed project. "That's the fun of it," she explained. She strongly recommends the experience to others. "I have a good time," she said. "It's a really good break."
North House Folk School
A cluster of five colorful buildings along the scenic Lake Superior harbor of Grand Marais make up the campus of the North House Folk School. Founded in 1997, this nonprofit endeavor, based on traditional community folk schools common in Scandinavian countries, teaches northern crafts and ecology. Its ambitious, eclectic program includes almost 150 courses in spring and summer, with more during the fall and winter. Most courses are one to four days, generally over a weekend, and range in cost from $150-$400 plus materials, although the boat building courses are longer and cost more.
The school draws about 1,400 students a year, with most coming from outside of the area. One of the major draws is the lake itself. "The true inspiration is where we're located," says Scott Pollock, of North House. The scenic village of Grand Marais and Lake Superior itself make a retreat-like setting for North House.
But the learning experience itself draws those who enjoy making things by hand and jump at the chance to hone their skills or try something new. The course program offers an incredible array of workshops focusing on crafts of traditional northern cultures, from Inuit to Scandinavian. There are workshops in basketry, birding, canoe building, fly casting, furniture building, jewelry, knitting and other fiber arts, photography, sailing, woodcarving and much more. They range from stuffing your own sausage to building a birch bark canoe.
"We re-engage people in creating their own food, clothing and transportation," explains Scott. The key is the instructors, many from the region and others from as far away as Alaska and Sweden, and their personal interaction with the students. The teachers "court them into a successful learning journey," says Scott. "It's total magic."
Many participants come back to try other crafts after their initial experience at North House.
North House hosts two summer festivals in Grand Marais: the Northern Landscapes Festival and the Wood Boat Show and Summer Solstice Festival, both in June. Both include a variety of presentations as well as hands-on courses. North House also offers daily (depending on the weather) sailing trips aboard a 50-foot schooner. (Call for reservations.)
North House participants stay at the town's campground, motels or B&Bs, or at area resorts, and enjoy the many cafes and art galleries in Grand Marais.
A small hamlet with Norwegian roots in the countryside near the Minnesota River is home to the Milan Village Arts School. Like North House, it is modeled on traditional Scandinavian folk schools. "It started with traditional Scandinavian arts," explained Ron Porep, the school's coordinator, "and expanded from there to contemporary arts."
Although the tiny town has a population of about 300, the area is home to many artists. A group of dedicated residents created the arts school more than 20 years ago. Classes are held in a renovated country schoolhouse; instructors come from throughout Minnesota.
Artists teach classes in traditional Scandinavian folk arts, including rosemaling, as well as a variety of workshops in woodcarving, painting, photography, calligraphy, silversmithing and more. Classes are typically one to three days, mostly on weekends, and costs range from $100 to $200. Some are introductory classes aimed at beginners, and others are for those with some expertise in a particular art. In mid-May, Milan celebrates the traditional Norwegian fest Syttende Mai, and various artists demonstrate their work at the Village Arts School.
International Wolf Center
Ely is a north woods town at the edge of a wilderness of lakes and woods, native habitat for grey wolves. These animals are the focus of the International Wolf Center in Ely. The center has fascinating exhibits on wolf behavior, communication and mythology, as well as a resident pack of wolves that can be observed through a large window. It also offers a wide variety of education programs, including learning vacations.
Several learning vacation packages, including lodging, are offered throughout the year, with several different focuses, including wolf behavior, wolf research and family weekends. They include field trips to howl at wild wolves in the area, in hopes of eliciting a response, in addition to learning about wolves and observing the pack at the Wolf Center.
Trips designed for families include games and crafts to engage kids. Others are designed for grandparents and their grandchildren, offered through Road Scholar (formerly known as Elderhostel).
The programs range from two days to a week. Program fees range from under $100 to several hundred, including meals and lodging.
Continental Divide Folk School
The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center recently initiated a folk school offering a range of classes, mostly three to four hours long, teaching various arts and home crafts, including painting, pottery, weaving, dance, gardening, winemaking, and cheese making. This arts center in a rural town in central Minnesota may be best known for its annual “Great American Think-Off,” an everyman’s competition focusing on different philosophical question each year. The cultural center also offers artists’ retreats, a gallery and various performances. Watch for additional classes as the folk school evolves.
For overnight lodging, there’s a B&B in New York Mills, motels 10 miles away in Wadena, and area resorts.