Our documentary, My Last Breath, won a regional Emmy on Oct. 3rd, under Best Topical Documentary! Myself for Producer/Writer, and Cy Dodson for Photojournalist/Editor. We’re on a roll! http://www.triumphpictures.com
Back to School / Birthday Party Issue
Compared to multiplex prices, drive-ins — which show all the latest movies — are ridiculously affordable with tickets topping out at $8.50 for adults for evening shows.
Cinema under the stars
Minnesota’s drive-in movie theaters draw loyal families with affordable pricing, atmosphere and blockbuster films
By Kelly Jo McDonnell
Summer is slipping away.
Instead of pool noodles, coolers and grilling gear filling the seasonal aisles at Target, it’s back-to-school supplies everywhere you turn.
But, wait: Once you’ve stocked up on crayons and Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils, there’s still time to savor this unbelievably beautiful (and precious) season we call summer in Minnesota.
See a movie under the stars and amongs the fireflies — at a drive-in movie theater.
Yes, Minnesota is home to six drive-in theaters.
Though many Minnesota cities offer music and movies at various parks all summer long, this is something different: This is classic, old-fashioned fun with brand-new blockbuster releases, too.
More than 90 percent of the state’s drive-in movie theaters have shut down.
But those that are left have extremely loyal followings.
Drive-ins — which show all the latest movies — are ridiculously affordable when compared to multiplex prices with tickets topping out at $8.50 for adults. Ages 5 and younger usually get in for free; and older kids can attend for as little as $1 each.
And those prices typically include two, if not three films, for those willing to stay up late. June offerings at Minnesota’s drive-ins included a mix of PG and PG-13 films such as Jurassic World, Pitch Perfect 2, San Andreas, Inside Out, Tomorrowland and others.
And the treats?
They cost easily less than half of those at local mall-based theaters.
Some venues, such as the highly popular 800-car-capacity Vali Hi in Lake Elmo, sell hot food — including $1 hotdogs.
Vali Hi, which celebrated its 80th birthday in 2013, even allows visitors to cook their own food.
Many families can bring their own grills and outdoor games and sit in lawn chairs while they wait for the sun to go down. Getting there early ensures a community camp-out kind of atmosphere. It also means making sure you can find a spot for your car — important at Vali Hi, which routinely sells out.
According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, there are fewer than 500 such theaters left in the world with the majority — 368 — in the U.S.
Dara Vigoren Hartzler of Stillwater remembers going to the drive in as a teenager.
Thanks to Vali Hi nearby, she’s now able to pass along the tradition to her daughter.
“It’s the experience, being outside, with friends, a little portable grill, playing tag, catching Frisbee. It’s always its own community,” she said.
Kristine Greer of Minneapolis grew up going to Duluth’s Sky-Line Drive-In Theatre (now closed) in the late 1960s.
She said the scary movies stood out in her mind. She first saw Psycho, King Kong and Creature From the Black Lagoon on a big, drive-in movie screen.
“It was always fun,” she said. “There was a playground next to the big screen, and we would go and play before we would see the shows.”
Greer said going to the theater was always an event for her family.
“It was more special than just going to a movie theater … it was a real experience,” she said. “At the end, some folks would honk their horns, as if they were clapping. It was a great time.”
Kelly Jo McDonnell lives in Lino Lakes with her son. She is a freelance writer and a producer/writer with Minnesota Bound on KARE 11 TV.
Minnesota’s drive-in theaters
This 1950s-themed venue is the most centrally located drive-in for metro-area residents. It offers 3-for-1 films seven days a week during its peak season, plus concessions, an arcade, $1 hotdogs, $1 admission for ages 6–12 and a relaxed atmosphere. There are spaces for 800 cars, but be sure to arrive early to guarantee a spot.
Season: May to early October????
Where: 11260 Hudson Blvd. N., Lake Elmo, about 13 miles east of downtown St. Paul
Cost: $8.50 for ages 13 and older; $1 for ages 6–12, free for ages 5 and younger
Info: 651-436-7464, valihi.com
Elko Drive-In Theater
Elko Speedway — a NASCAR racing site — is also home to a drive-in theater. Hot food, wine and beer are sold on site.
Season: Wednesday–Saturday June 5–Sept. 6, 2015
Where: 26350 France Ave., Elko New Market, about a half-hour south of downtown Minneapolis
Cost: Tickets are $8 per adult, $5 for ages 4-12 and free for ages 3 and younger, except on race nights when doors open earlier and adult ticket prices go up to $15. Specials include $10-per-car admission on Wednesdays, 2-for-1 adult admission on Thursdays and free admission for kids on Fridays (Family Night).
Info: 952-461-7223, elkospeedway.com/drive-in
Starlite Drive-In Theater
This classic theater venue features multiple screens as well as a concession stand.
Season: May through September
Where: 28264 Highway 22, Litchfield, about 1½ hours west of the Twin Cities
Cost: $7 for ages 13 and older, $3 for ages 6 to 12, free for ages 5 and younger
Info: 320-693-6990, starlitemovies.com
Long Drive-In Theatre
Go back in time at this family friendly outdoor movie theater. Sit in your car or bring some lawn chairs or blanket. Pizza, pulled-pork sandwiches, chimichangas, hotdogs, pretzels, nachos, fresh buttered popcorn, ice cream sundaes, rootbeer floats, candy and more are for sale on site. Outside food and alcoholic beverages aren’t allowed. Pets are OK.
Season: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays mid-April through early October
Where: 24257 Riverside Drive, Long Prairie, 2 hours northwest of the Twin Cities
Cost: $6 for ages 12 and older, $2 for ages 6–11, free for ages 5 and younger
Info: 320-732-3142, thelongdrivein.com
Verne Drive-In Theatre
Catch a sunset before the movie at this old-school drive-in known for its relaxed, serene setting. Hot food and ice cream are sold on site.
Season: May through early October
Where: 1607 S. Kniss Ave., Luverne, 3½ hours southwest of the Twin Cities
Cost: $5 for ages 6 and older, free for age 5 and younger
Info: 507-283-0007, vernedrivein.com
Sky-Vu Drive In
Not much has changed at this Red River Valley theater since it open in the 1950s — except the movies and that each film’s audio comes to patrons on their FM radios. Hot food, including BBQ sandwiches or nachos for $3.25, is sold on site. Popcorn starts at $2.50.
Season: May through early October
Where: Highway 1, one mile west of Warren, about 45 minutes northeast of Grand Forks, N.D.
Cost: $8 for ages 13 and older, $5 for ages 12 and younger
Info: 218-201-0329, skyvumovies.com
*Arrive early to get a good spot and enjoy the fireflies just before the movies start dusk.
*Many venues are cash only (even for concessions), so come prepared.
*Most drive-ins transmit the film audio via FM radio, so make sure the radio in your car works or bring along portable radio. Be sure to start your car in between movies to charge the battery if you use your car stereo.
*Shows usually start dusk, which is pretty late in Minnesota during summer, often between 9 and 10 p.m.
*Unless the weather turns severe, most theaters show their movies rain or shine.
How did it all begin?
The drive-in theater got its humble start in Richard Milton Hollingshead’s driveway in New Jersey.
Using a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, the auto parts sales manager projected the film onto a screen nailed to a tree. The home radio sitting behind the screen provided the sound. Hollingshead sat in the family car and watched and listened. And from a simple idea, the drive in was born.
By the 1950s, the drive-in — and automobile — industry was booming, especially in rural areas, with some 4,000 to 5,000 drive-ins in the U.S.
Minnesota once had 80 drive-in theaters.
Advantages were apparent to both adults and kids: A family with small children or babies could take care of their children while watching a movie, while teenagers with access to cars found drive-ins perfect for the dating scene.
Hollingshead even advertised his theater with the slogan: “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”
My son has a fort. It’s wedged between two evergreens in our backyard, and houses such treasures as slabs of wood and other knick-knacks. An old green army tarp hung by bungee cords serves as a wall. And while I sometimes sigh loudly at the amount of items that find their way into my son’s fort, I leave it alone. A few
years ago my father told me that a boy’s fort in nature is his sanctuary and refuge. “Treat it as such,” he warned.
I would never argue that point, as my own childhood memories are steeped in the great outdoors. Many of the most cherished recollections I have involve either a vacation up north or my own fort nestled in a thicket. I want my son to have those memories, too, but I worry the experience won’t be the same. And I’m not the only parent thinking this. There is a growing disconnect between our kids and nature.
According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, it’s a phenomenon—and not a good one. It was Louv who first came up with the term, “Nature deficit disorder” when his Last Child in the Woods book came out in 2005. His hypothesis is basically that people, especially children, are spending less time outdoors.
Why is this happening? The reasons are myriad, and a few, obvious. One I can relate to is “stranger danger,” or as Louv calls it in his book, the Bogeyman syndrome. “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young,” he explains. “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature. Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger—and of nature itself.”
My boundaries growing up included the entire town. Admittedly, my son’s boundaries are tighter. In a 2002 survey by TNS Intersearch for American Demographics magazine, 56 percent of parents in the U.S. said that by the time they were 10 years old they were allowed to walk or bike to school, but only 36 percent of those same parents said their own children should be allowed to do the same.
The loss of wild surroundings is another factor. In more and more cities and suburban neighborhoods, it can be tough to find green. But it’s worth looking for: a team study by researchers in Sweden, Australia, and the U.S. found that when children played in an environment dominated by play structures rather than natural elements, the kids established social hierarchy through physical competence. But by offering a grassy area with a few shrubs, and the kids engaged in more fantasy-style play, and their social standing became based less on physical abilities and more on language and creative skills. And a bonus: open play also provided greater opportunities for boys and girls to play together in egalitarian ways.
Even if you find a park or nature preserve, kids are seeing more restricted access. “Do not walk off the trail” one sign recently warned me at a neighborhood park. Everyone understands that the natural environment must be protected, but Louv questions the cost of that protection in some instances, and the direct impact it has on a child’s relationship with nature. Even environmentalists and educators, he points out, say, “look but don’t touch.” But sometimes that’s the only way to learn, especially for kids.
And a third obvious cause, of course, is the increased draw to spend time inside looking at screens, including computer, video, and television. The average American child spends 44 hours a week with some form of electronic media.
The effects of this are sobering. Our kids have a limited respect for their natural surroundings. Louv points out that this will be an even bigger problem down the road. “An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature…has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself.”
Research has shown that people who care about the earth now spent time in the natural world as children. GreenHeart Education stresses that we owe it to our children to give them unmediated time in nature, so
that, as one native elder explained, “the land will remember them.” That is, they will feel grounded and have a sense of “home” that they care about.
Another impact of nature deficit may be the development of attention disorders. Louv suggests that going outside and being in the quiet and calm can help kids. “It’s a problem because kids who don’t get nature- time seem more prone to anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit problems.” As a mother of an ADHD son, this research is worth watching. Some tips include encouraging your child to play in outdoor green spaces, study or play in rooms with views of nature, or plant and care for gardens and trees at your place of residence. Louv explains that although the impact of nature experiences on attention disorders and on wider aspects of child health is in its infancy and easily challenged, it’s not to be brushed over. “Yes, more research is needed, but we do not have to wait for it. If, as a growing body of evidence recommends, contact with nature is as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep, then current trends in children’s access to nature need to be addressed.”
Childhood obesity is another issue, and about nine million children ranging in age from six to 11 are overweight or obese, according to The Institute of Medicine. It’s time for kids to move more, which means getting off the couch and heading outside and away from screen-time. Blogger Marc Bekoff of Psychology Today says it may be an uphill battle for parents, but “we need to rewild our children before it’s too late.”
While my generation may have been the first to experience Atari and MTV, we also played kick the can, fished in creeks, and had more free-roaming boundaries outside. While some good works are already taking root, such as an environment-based education movement, a simple-living movement, and schoolyard greening, there’s always more work to be done.
With luck, our kids will realize their sense of purpose in this cause. After all, I can only hope that, someday, my son will want his own children to have an outdoor fort. A refuge, a sanctuary. Army tarp and all.
Here are some fun ideas to get things going with the cause.
Got dirt? A truckload of dirt costs about the same as a video game, so how about buying a load and throwing in some plastic buckets and shovels?
Plant some native plants, or maintain a birdbath. Invite some native flora and fauna in your kid’s life.
Revive some older family traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, and release them at dawn. Collect feathers or leaves. How about crawdadding? (Tie a piece of bacon on a string, and drop it into a creek or pond. Wait until a crawdad tugs.)
Encourage kids to go camping in the backyard. Put up a tent (you can rent them inexpensively through REI) or help them make a canvas tepee and leave it up all summer. (For some other great ideas, go to nwf.org.)
Tell your kids stories about your special childhood places in nature, then help them find their own. Encourage kids to build a fort, hut, or tree house.
Combine tech with nature and go digital—with nature photography that is. Digital cameras save money on film, and are decreasingly expensive.
Go on a moth walk. It sounds weird, but it’s worth it. Mix (in a blender) overripe fruit or wine, and blend in honey, sugar, or molasses. Go outside at sunset and spread the goop on a few trees or untreated wood. Go back when it’s dark, flashlight in hand, and see what you’ve lured. With luck, you’ll probably find moths, ants, earwigs, and other bugs.
It’s Minnesota, so in the winters build an igloo or snow cave, or go sledding, snow tubing, or snowshoeing. Stay outside!
I grew up a coach’s kid. Our family activities revolved around sports. The majority of my time was spent at a small Iowa gym, and having to shoot 10 free throws in a row before I could come in the house and eat dinner was standard protocol. Even the families we hung out with were other coaches. It was the norm.
It wasn’t until my Father, who is in the Iowa Coach’s Hall of Fame, passed away three years ago, that it hit me. As I gazed at the massive visitation line, I was struck with how many people came up to me with a story to share about “Coach McDonnell”. Each story was heartfelt, and I could tell he had made a huge impact on their childhood. My Father always said good coaches are what make the difference at a young age. But what makes a “good” coach, really? And what is it about a good coach that makes adults remember their coaching for years after the fact.
We’re not talking about coaches like Bear Bryant. This is about the youth coaches that are introducing our kids to the sport they want to play – in short, usually their first coach. We as parents know that coaches and sports in general can be enormously influential in the lives of our kids. Involvement in sports helps with physical fitness, teamwork skills and discipline. According to Safe Kids USA, there’s over 38 million kids engaged in some form of sports each year, and almost 75 percent of American households with school-age children have at least one student athlete. Yet, this athletic involvement comes with its own challenges, chief among them, coaches and parents being too competitive. Translation – the sports can stop being fun. How do coaches, along with parents, walk the fine line? How do coaches ‘level the playing field’ so to speak.
Coaches are known for being able to handle pressure. Whether you are on the sidelines of a NFL team, or your son or daughter’s youth soccer team, the pressures are there. And the similarities of all “good coaches” are there, as well, especially the ones that thrive despite the pressures. Everyone will have a slightly different answer to the question “what makes a good coach for my kid?” but similar theme’s rise to the top when talking to both parents and coaches. Being positive and making the sport fun are at the top of the list, as well as being able to develop confidence in every player.
Lori Juhl, mother of a traveling basketball player in the Centennial School System in Lino Lakes, and “team mom”, said a strong coach analyzes each individual player and tries to develop those that are perhaps less talented than the others. “It’s important to keep the team motivated, and be encouraging to the players, not negative,” she said, “coaches can point out the bad, but need to stay focused on the positive. A good coach knows the limitations and ability of each child.”
Brent Cuttell, former President of Cottage Grove’s Youth Football, and current youth football coach, said it’s imperative to remember that this is usually the first time that a child is being exposed to a sport. ”You have to understand and say wait a minute, I’m more than a coach,” he explains, “and it’s not about the x’s and o’s, and not about if the kid is the next Walter Peyton or Peyton Manning. Maybe the best thing that happens to this kid is that he starts the whole season, or that he just has fun, or that he improves. I think at a young age, the most important approach is to create a positive environment. The kid should want to play the next season.”
Steve Eckes, current board member for the Andover Baseball association, and youth baseball coach and father, has similar views. “Kids at this age, they don’t come pre-packaged with a perfect baseball swing, every kid is different with different personalities. If you can’t connect with them, you won’t be able to make them understand. You have to talk with them at their level, get down on your knee and talk face to face and be their friend. They have to understand that you care about their development, and that means getting down to their level.”
Connecting with younger kids can be tricky, whether you’re a coach or not. And the most basic skill of taking charge and having a plan can sometimes be the most difficult for a beginner coach. All seasoned coaches agreed across the board: make sure your practices are organized and you have a clear plan. “What I learned is, you should have your drills no longer in minutes than the age of the group your teaching,” said Cuttell, “if your coaching 9 and 10 year-olds, you can’t put in a drill of 20 minutes. They are going to lose focus. Keep the drills short and effective and keep it active, that’s what the kids want. Long, drawn out practices and drills probably have a negative, more than a positive impact.” Eckes also keeps drills short and sweet. “Kids don’t want to stand in line, and kids get frustrated if they aren’t busy. They are there to have fun, not become Derek Jeter. What I see when I see some coaches fail, is going into game mode; showing them the game without the fundamentals. Keep it like gym class, that’s what they like.”
Scott Fransen, who coaches girl’s youth B.B. in Minnetonka, explained repetition is very important, in order to build an understanding. “You have to be consistent with your message,” he said, “girls don’t like to be singled out, whether it’s for praise or trying to teach them something. For girls, the experience is equal part sports, to social interaction. Have a plan when you go into the practice, and remember that you’re trying to prepare them for the next level, and hopefully, to develop a love of the sport in general. Have fun, and there always needs to be a lot of praise, a lot of recognition and high-fiving.”
But how about the parent or team that gets the coach who doesn’t high five or praise, but tends to be a “yeller”. Just as there are similar threads to what defines a “good” coach, there are similarities that go the other way, as well. Parents agree: effective coaches should not use embarrassment and humiliation as teaching tools.
Seasoned, successful coaches agree with the parents. “A coach that plays favorites or that doesn’t communicate well is rough,” said Fransen, “then there’s a lack of understanding to the kids on what they’re trying to do on the floor, and there’s dysfunction in what the team is trying to do.”
Coaches who refuse to be flexible also pose challenges to the kids and their parents.
“You have to be flexible with what your team is telling you they need,” stressed Cuttell, “you have to adapt to what you’ve been presented. You as the coach owe it to the team to adapt to them, without losing focus of the goal. A ‘bad’ coach is somebody that is unwilling or unable to be flexible or adapt to their team. If you come with a Vince Lombardi attitude, it’s not going to work.”
• Article by: KELLY JO MCDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
• Updated: December 12, 2014 – 2:01 PM
In Lindstrom, Minn., they’ve put the kettle on for you, and it says “Välkommen till Lindström.” A Swedish coffee pot/water tower welcomes visitors to this little gem of a town, only 30 miles from the Twin Cities, that offers charming holiday shopping, antique finds, coffee and pastries, and a glass of wine to top it off.
The town of Lindstrom, incorporated in 1894, was settled by Daniel Lindstrom, who left his beloved Sweden for America in 1853. Ever since, the town has attracted its fair share of Swedish immigrants. In a small park on the main street, visitors will find a statue memorializing Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson, fictional characters in a series of novels about early Swedish emigrants. The statue also honors the many Swedish peasants who immigrated to the United States and settled in the area in the mid-1800s. The town’s motto is “America’s Little Sweden,” but whether you have Swedish roots or not, this town has something for you.
Where to shop
This time of year, holiday shopping is on everyone’s mind, including the shop owners in Lindstrom. Park the car right downtown, which is decked out for the holidays, and walk to all the charming shops.
You can’t shop downtown Lindstrom without hitting the cornerstone, which is Gustaf’s Up North and Välkommen galleries. The UpNorth Gallery opened in 1973, and exhibits works by Midwest artists. The Välkommen Gallery focuses on art and gifts from northern Europe, including Sweden, Norway and Finland. During the holidays, Gustaf’s always has something going on. On a recent day, Minnesotans Lori Evert and Per Breiehagen were at the gallery to sign their book, “The Christmas Wish,” complete with a live reindeer outside the store, unlimited homemade Swedish almond cake and coffee (651-257-1821; http://www.gustafs galleries.com).
Homespun Treasures carries only locally created gifts. Sometimes the artists are roaming the shop, answering questions on their creations — from refinished antique tables to mittens and hats to jewelry, including necklaces made from old keys and locks (the artist works down the street at the local newspaper).
The Lindstrom antique mall, right on the main drag, holds handmade treasures from floor to ceiling (651-257-3340). Miss Elsie’s Yarnery, a part of Cottage Gifts, has wonderful handmade hats, including a “Downton Abbey” style, a great stocking-stuffer.
In the Moment Boutique, a little shop that opened this fall, offers quirky clothing and accessories for the holidays. It’s in the old State Bank building, with clothing displayed around the old bank vault doors. Holiday apparel arrives daily, including fur-topped tube scarves, sparkly wraps, leg warmers and cool, funky jackets (651-257-9855; http://www.inthe momentbou tique.com).
Deutschland Meats is easy to find — just look for the giant wiener on the top of the building. It’s a family-owned and -operated meat processing company that offers German sausage, pork and bratwurst. The place is busy during hunting seasons, as they process deer and wild game for local hunters. There are always samples sizzling when shoppers come in the door (651-257-1128; http://www.deutschlandmeats.com).
Raise a toast
What’s a little shopping without a little wine? WineHaven winery and vineyard is down the road from Lindstrom on Deer Garden Lane. The wine label imparts the owners’ other pursuit: They are beekeepers. Kevin and Kyle Peterson are the successful father-and-son winemaking team, and they have racked up the awards to prove it. The atmosphere is warm and comforting, and the wine tasting room and gift shop are open year around. White wines include a Lakeside Chardonnay and a Gewürztraminer. The reds include an intense ripple black cherry wine called Lakeside Red, and a Deer Garden Red, made from their Chisago grape. But the sleeping giant on the wine menu is their Stinger Honeywine Mead, a winner of 29 medals. It smells like flowers and honey and boasts a crisp yet sweet taste. Have it served last on your flight tastings; it’s worth the wait (651-257-1017; http://www.winehaven.com).
Where to stay
Just down the road from the winery is the area’s newest place to stay, the Grandstay Hotel and Suites. The hotel is perfectly situated for the Chi¬sago Lakes area and Lindstrom, sitting quietly next to woods and water. The rooms are large and immaculate, and guests can choose from king suites with a whirlpool to a one-bedroom with full kitchen (1-855-455-7829; http://www.grandstayhospitality.com).
Where to eat
A must-stop on your Swedish trail should be the Lindstrom Bakery, which boasts a full array of fresh-baked breads and Swedish cookies and pastries. Daily specials can range from Scandinavian doughnuts to savory tomato bread, but a must-try is the Swedish almond cake. Get there early; they can sell out of favorites fast (651-257-1374).
Just down the street, take your pastry to the Northwoods Roasterie. Swedes are known for their love of coffee, and this cheerful coffeehouse doesn’t disappoint. The outdoorsy motif is cozy, and visitors can sip coffee while gazing into the roasting room to see how it’s done (651-257-5240; http://www.northwoodsroasterie.com).
Once the downtown shops close, head to the lake for a little history with your holidays. Family-owned Meredee’s Bistro, newly located in the former Dinnerbel building, overlooks the lake in downtown Lindstrom and is the site of Daniel Lindstrom’s first log home.
A hotel opened there in 1889, where it thrived until the Depression. In 1946, it was bought and reopened as the Dinnerbel; the entire building is a historical treasure. Have a glass of wine or a local brew and some grilled portabella caps, and sample their gigantic, fresh salad bar while you hear tales from the locals on the “friendly spirits” who reside in the building.
The owners and staff know every story (here’s one: If you smell the scent of roses in the lobby or the ladies restroom, it’s Rose, a late resident who still visits). (651-257-9144; http://www.meredeesbistro.com).
As a kid, I always wondered why I never spotted Paul Bunyan or Babe the Blue Ox during annual up-north family vacations. They were supposed to be so darn big, how could I miss them? Back then, summer seemed endless, and packing for the yearly summer vacation was an Olympic trial. While the rest of the family packed the fishing boat, I worked on strapping my banana seat bicycle to the truck.
This was our ritual, for every year we’d head north to Paul Bunyan country – past Brainerd and Hackensack to the third-largest lake in Minnesota, Leech Lake. Leech sits right smack in the Chippewa National Forest, and the town of Walker is nestled on its shores.
What’s truly cool about Walker is that it hasn’t changed much since I was there as a child in the 1970s. The downtown still has its small town/Mayberry feel, with many of the same stores I remember. Even the original museum is still there, complete with stuffed owls and beaver (although it now shares space with the Walker Spirits store, which makes for great wine shopping amidst the wildlife). But what has changed, and for the better, are the trail systems.
This area has worked hard, and continues to work, on its trails. They are well mapped out and well-marked, and locals are all familiar with them if visitors have any questions. Whether your bicycle has a banana seat or not, these trails will not disappoint.
The Heartland State Trail was the starting point on this excursion, as it runs right through the town of Walker. This trail was one of the first rail-to-trail projects in the country. It’s a multiuse trail that runs 49 miles between Park Rapids and Cass Lake. On this trip, we were told of “the loop,” which runs out of Walker, around past the North Country National Scenic Trail and connects to the Shingobe Connection Trail, which heads back into Walker for a 25-mile loop. It’s ideal for an afternoon ride, as long as you don’t mind numerous curves and some stretches of steep hills.
Also be sure to pack plenty of water and snacks, as this loop doesn’t go through any towns once you start out. In fact, only two other riders were seen on the path during the entire ride. It’s a great trail to get away from it all and enjoy the lake and hardwood forest that surround you.
Don’t zoom past those NCT (North Country Trail) signs that you’ll see along the trail – hop off your bike for a bit and head for a hike on this best-kept secret. At 4,600 miles, it’s the longest footpath in the nation. It runs through seven states, and it’s most well-known stretch is the Appalachian. It’s the only National Scenic Trail in the state of Minnesota, and it’s amazing how many folks still aren’t familiar with it. My favorite discovery? Funny-looking boot brushes are installed at trailheads to help you clean seeds or other plant materials from your shoes.
The Heartland Trail also connects to the Paul Bunyan State Trail. Yes, a trail named after the elusive giant I chased in my childhood. When it’s complete, the Paul Bunyan State Trail will be 120 miles long and extend from south of Brainerd to Lake Bemidji State Park. It’s now 112, and all paved from Brainerd to Bemidji, and it’s the longest continuously paved trail in our state’s trail system.
This trail is primed for hiking and bicycling, and I passed a fair amount of in-line skaters as well. Once the work is done, the trail will connect with the Blue Ox Trail (naturally) and will become one of the longest rail-to-trail conversions in North America at 210 miles. Not bad for the big guy and his trusty steed.
For a little sustenance after your ride, head to The Piggy BBQ. Local husband and wife team, Steve & Kathy Blake, offer fresh fare that’s smoked each day. When it’s sold out, it’s sold out, so get there early. The beef brisket, cold smoked turkey and ribs were the perfect end to a long day of biking, and the cornbread and real draft root beer with pure cane sugar will boost the energy levels back up.
Right behind the restaurant is the cute-as-a-button Green Scene market & deli, a perfect stop for healthy and organic snacks. The local farmers market takes place in the parking lot on Thursdays from June to September.
And just for the record, I could have sworn I saw a giant lumberjack footprint during the ride.
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