You can drive north from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota on Interstate 35, and after a few hours, you hit Duluth – an inland harbor city on the shores of America’s largest freshwater lake. Lake Superior greets you with a blast of cooler air, a view of the lift bridge, and some fog as you crest a large hill and start the descent to lake level. A twisty route through the maze of ramps and tunnels that punctuate the city center eventually invites you to merge onto MN Hwy 61. You take the right turn, drive past some of Duluth’s oldest and grandest lakeside manors and exit the city, still heading north and now slightly east. With the lake to your right and a thick forest to your left, you continue on your way, noticing the purple lupines in the ditches and tiny rain-fed waterfalls in all of the rocky formations that are exposed due to continued updates to the road as the years progress. As you continue northeast past the little town of Two Harbors and leave the last chain fast food joint behind, you can feel time slow down. You still have 50+ miles to go to your destination, but somehow you feel like the rush to get there is over. The pace of life is slower here, out of the city and away from things like multiple lane freeways and shopping malls.
And eventually you do get to your destination, after a few short excursions down footpaths into the dense forests of the many state parks or out onto rocky outcroppings that allow a gaze of moody water that seems to go on forever. Grand Marais, another harbor town of much smaller scale that Duluth, invites you in as you drive up a gentle slope, past a canoe outfitter, the local radio station and a campground. The road looks like it will take you straight into the big lake and you welcome the sensation of immersing yourself in the energy of the place.
The North House Folk School – a pocket of brightly colored, large timbered buildings, wood fire smoke and wooden boats – holds some of that energy. When you walk onto the small campus, you might hear the sounds of hammers, conversation and the clanking of boat moorings. You might smell bread baking in a wood fired masonry oven or notice the scent of the neighboring fisherman’s catch being prepared for lunch. You might see the Hjordis, the school’s 50 foot schooner, docked for the moment or perhaps coming in from an afternoon excursion on the lake, its maroon sails demonstrating why it has become icon of the harbor. It is a place where things are done slowly, with intention. Traditional crafts are taught and learned with a sense of reverence – of wonder – that an act as simple as carving a spoon from a piece of wood can be so powerful to the soul. It is a place that is dedicated to the act of creating something that is going to last – something that is unique and real because it was made by hands that were eager to embrace the creating as much as the outcome. There is a sense of being able to grab onto the energy of this place and make it into whatever you need it to be. Things are possible, here. This is a place that will show you what it means to interact with your environment in a way that will sustain you for years to come. This is a place that honors the past and the future in the same breath.
You meander around campus for awhile, have dinner at the Angry Trout Café next door and head back south on the road to your campsite. A gentle rain is falling, but the tangible energy remains unshakable despite the fog that hangs over the landscape. When it is time to go home you wonder if you’ll be able to remember to honor the breath of the handmade and sustainable as the days click by, virtual remains part of life and quickness threatens to dictate. You wonder if this place will be able to hold space for stillness and intention and craft even if the roadway continues to get wider. You wonder what it is about this energy that speaks to a woman in deer skins, a man in high-tech hiking clothes, and a biker in leathers in a language they can all understand. You wonder what it is about this place that makes people curious and open to other perspectives.
But at the end of the day, you know. Perhaps all people crave stillness and a sustainable pace at their core no matter what they do with the surface of their lives. And perhaps the act of making something tangible with your own two hands, or being around the energy that is produced by such an act, is one way to remember and honor that craving.
“I treasure the memories of my time at North House. The experience was an antidote to life in the rat race” -Student testimonial