In Minnesota, Worshiping Winter At ‘The Great Northern’

Arctic wind might freeze snot to your cheek. But the people of Minnesota embrace winter more than most. A new ‘Great Northern’ festival highlights the frozen devotion.

ice sculptures minnesota Great Northern
Illuminated ice on a Minneapolis lake; photo by Steve Kotvis of f/go Photography

A ski race, fat biking, ice sculptures, hockey, sledding… the list goes on. In total, a new festival starting tomorrow in Minnesota includes 10 consecutive days of outdoor events and winter-oriented cultural gatherings.

Called The Great Northern, the event was made to “champion winter and spotlight iconic Minnesota traditions.” This includes wrapping the existing City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, and the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships under the new banner.

“We are Minnesotans and this is the North. Winter is not a season we should hide from or apologize for,” said Eric Dayton, founder of Askov Finlayson and an originator of The Great Northern.

Dayton noted the event was created to enhance the state’s reputation as a national destination for winter activity.

fat bikers in City of Lakes Loppet The great northern
Fat-bike race during City of Lakes Loppet; photo by Steve Kotvis of f/go Photography

More than 350,000 attendees are expected between Thursday, January 26, and Sunday, February 5, 2017.

Most of the events occur in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Find details and a full schedule of events here.

Embracing Winter In ‘The North’

I got into the spirit earlier this month, biking through the snow and icy streets of Minneapolis to meet with Dayton not far from GearJunkie headquarters. He was bundled against the 10-degree day and smiling at the stark white outside.

City of Lakes Loppet the great northern
City of Lakes Loppet; photo by Steve Kotvis of f/go Photography

We had lunch and Dayton talked through his bigger winter philosophy. Long a winter fanboy, Dayton grew up in Minnesota climbing, camping, and exploring snowy landscapes in Minnesota and far beyond.

In 2004, Dayton spent six months and 2,000 miles with Will Steger as a member of The Arctic Transect dogsled expedition. He was 23 years old and calls the trip his “first real job.”

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After battling Arctic gales, living in a city like Minneapolis is not a big deal despite 20-below days and winter weather that stretches past five months many years.

But a psychology persists, Dayton believes, in which winter is viewed negatively by many residents. “Just watch the weather report on the news,” he said. “It’s the only place where the newscasters are allowed to [negatively] editorialize on the air.”

Ice Stonehenge The Great Northern
Worshiping winter with fire and ice; photo by Steve Kotvis of f/go Photography

Beyond The Great Northern, Dayton has long been a promoter of something he calls simply “The North.”

His latest venture is the Skyway Avoidance Society, which aims to get people outdoors in the downtown core of Minneapolis. (I took the pledge, signed my name, and received a membership card and patch at the table over lunch.)

The Great Northern

Fat biking, pond hockey, an annual parade, and a major ski race anchor The Great Northern. But social gatherings throughout the 10-day event promise to draw a wider crowd.

A happy hour is scheduled in historic Rice Park in St. Paul. Minneapolis’ North Loop area will host an outdoor dinner in downtown. Adults can even grab a beer standing on the mile-wide slab of lake ice at a pop-up bar in the middle of Lake Nokomis.

Luminary Loppet ski event The Great Northern
Luminary Loppet ski event; photo by Steve Kotvis of f/go Photography

Especially fun-sounding events include an outdoor beer garden gathering featuring a sauna. One night, skiers will glide over a candlelit track that ends at an outdoor concert during the “Luminary Loppet.”

Dayton hopes The Great Northern draws locals and people from around the U.S. He envisions it evolving into a cultural event on the national radar, with festivals like South by Southwest (SXSW) as a template.

In 2018, The Great Northern will align with Minnesota’s hosting of Super Bowl LII. The organizers note it will give visitors an “authentic impression of Minnesota at its wintry best.”

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By
Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.
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