The Oz of the North: Grand Rapids, Minnesota

Article and Photos by Rika Wolf Dockery

Visit Grand Rapids, Minnesota and you’ll understand why its population is more than quadruples each summer, from under 11,000 to about 50,000. Grand Rapids is the Land of Oz to many – residents from Minneapolis, Duluth, and Chicago come to this Technicolor, year-round playground to escape their stressful, black-and-white city lives. As for me, I found Grand Rapids to have so much more to offer than similarly sized towns elsewhere in the country.

My best friend Cheryl and I drove up for an adventure in nature in what we thought was the “off-season” only to discover that Grand Rapids is bursting with activity in the wintertime too.

The busy local visitors bureau lures guests #upnorth to experience snowshoeing, snowmobiling, fat-tire biking, hunting, ice-fishing, cross-country skiing and hockey.

The Outdoors & The Arts
There is not only a long list of outdoor activities available year round, but the arts are thriving here, too. No matter the weather, the Reif Center for Performing Arts, which just underwent an $11 million expansion and renovation, is the place to catch world class performances. As you walk into the large, open lobby, you’ll discover a visual art gallery with rotating exhibits. Their 2017-18 season includes 52 varied shows from September through May.

The theatre is also shared by the local high school (for band, choir performances, and plays) as well as the local orchestra and theatre group, providing a plethora of offerings. During our visit, we enjoyed an exceptional program by the James Sewell Ballet with Ahn Trio.

Sadly, we just missed the First Friday Art Walk which takes place fall through spring and involves thirteen different venues. KAXE 91.7 is the local radio station and several locals let me know this popular station is the oldest rural public radio station in the country.

One of the more unique cultural gems in Grand Rapids is the Judy Garland Museum, alongside the Children’s Discovery Museum. A single ticket allows guests to visit both halves of the complex.

Need a little more Oz in your life?
Every summer the museum hosts the Wizard of Oz Festival, scheduled for June 14-16, 2018. In 2014, the Festival set a Guinness World Record for most costumed Wizard of Oz Characters in one place. Over the years, the festival has welcomed many of the original munchkins. [FUN FACT: Today at 97, actor Gerard Marenghi, who played the Lollypop Kid, is the only surviving munchkin actor.]

The museum has welcomed many celebrities, like Margaret Hamilton (who played the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz), Mickey Rooney, and other friends and relatives of Judy’s to celebrate one of America’s most beloved actresses and movies of all time.

The Lost 40
After exploring town, Cheryl and I were anxious to see where we’d be staying. Our property was near “The Lost 40”: an area of old growth pine, never touched by loggers. As a winter- lover, I found the area to be breathtakingly beautiful.

Route 38 is on the “Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway,” a 47-mile scenic drive along lakes surrounded by gorgeous, thick woods. As I drove, I took in the beauty: a lake peeking through the snow-covered pine, birch, and aspen trees, steam rising above the water. The small round sun pierced through a feathery cloud floating in the deep sky-blue sky. Two bald eagles swooped across the road right above us, breaking the stillness.

Our vacation rental home, “Cabin 7”, is one of several homes at Buckhorn Resort, located just north of Grand Rapids near Marcell, Minnesota .

A fieldstone fireplace was already lit when we arrived, providing a cozy, warm atmosphere thanks to homeowner Peggy Landin, who we likened to Glinda from Oz. As we stepped inside the cabin, we were amazed at the beautifully constructed, Swedish-style white cedar log cabin, featuring one-of-a kind burled wood, handcrafted dining room table, chairs, and bar stools.

After our tour, I could truly say, “There’s no place like [this VR] home.”

With a well-appointed kitchen, games, books and no TV (unplug!), it is easy to see why this four-bedroom, three-bath home is a favorite for families and groups. Winter visitors can take advantage of some of the best cross-country skiing in the state. Even better? A snowmobile trail runs right through this property too. As with many traditional Swedish homes, this cabin also boasts a sauna, which is known to help reduce arthritis pain and muscle soreness.

Peggy and her husband, Tim, built this and the other cabins on their property entirely from scratch. Tim is a self-taught craftsman and owned a log home building business until his recent retirement. He saved many unique burled pieces over the years, with a dream of building cabins that vacationers to the area could enjoy, as his log home clients do. Finally, Tim and Peggy found their dream property, complete with 1,000 feet of shoreline.

One of the highlights of the cabin is a private dock on Caribou Lake, which is the clearest lake in Minnesota—its clarity reaches 40 feet into the 160-foot deep lake.

Meanwhile, Peggy gave us tips on where to dine and what to see. We took her up on her suggestion to catch the weekly jam session at the VFW, held every Wednesday from 7-9 PM and featuring amazing jazz musicians. It was an easy and scenic drive back to Grand Rapids from our vacation rental and the town offered all the modern conveniences we needed for our five-day adventure.

We enjoyed our first dinner at 17th Street Grill (in Timberlake Lodge). The modern convention center hotel’s restaurant is also a favorite among locals. We happened upon “Martini Mondays,” featuring sushi and craft martinis. On a return visit, we noticed a build-your-own pasta bar and saw plates pass with generous portions. Our waitress reported that the ribeye is a popular item, as are their Minnesota Wild Cakes (like a crab cake, but made with Walleye). Of course, in keeping with the Oz theme, I tried their signature cocktail: the Ruby Slipper, made with Absolut vodka, Moscato, and strawberry lemonade.

We also tried the “legendary Sawmill Hotel,” Cedars Dining Room. This family-owned restaurant , circa 1973, has been frequented by Oz Munchkins over the years for the Oz Festival. You definitely feel that you’re in the forest here, surrounded by the log décor. The Sawmill is known for their popovers, which were tasty. The reasonably priced menu features old standards such as steaks, seafood, pastas, and salads. We enjoyed a delicious meal here with Judy Garland Museum’s Executive Director John Kelsch and his wife Michelle. (Editor note: The Sawmill Inn closed in January, 2018) One of the other top dining spots in town is Forest Lake Restaurant. This eatery offers three separate dining options: a steak house, a dining room and a lounge. With views of Forest Lake, the log building

provides a cozy atmosphere and variety of menu and dining options for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Coffee shops often become the town meeting spot and that is no exception in Grand Rapids. I learned that the Green and Democratic Party consider Brewed Awakenings an unofficial headquarters.

The coffee was excellent, as expected, and Brewed Awakenings also offers wonderful homemade soups, vegan and vegetarian options, and even a gelato bar. I tried the soup of the day and it tasted just like one my grandma used to make – filled with cabbage in a flavorful broth. Owned by Joan Foster for over twenty years, this local favorite features a rotating selection of artwork and live music.

One new establishment I missed is the town’s new craft brewery, Klockow Brewing Company. Hopefully I can return during warm weather to enjoy the region’s first microbrew beer!

We found many interesting shops in town, selling candy, clothing and shoes, recreational gear, crafts, antiques, artwork and more. One

of the more interesting shops is next to the MacRostie Art Center. Lake & Co. features clothing and gifts that are Minnesota-made or inspired. The owners also produce an absolutely beautiful print magazine Lake Time Magazine that includes articles, a resource guide, and an activity calendar, covering northern Minnesota.

After shopping and eating, we needed to rest. And what better way to relax than with a massage. After asking around, we were fortunate to find that The Kayak Lady had an opening in her busy schedule. Mary Shideler (pictured below) is known in these parts for the accomplishment of paddling her kayak in all 1007 lakes of Itasca County. Mary is also a photographer, so the book she wrote about her adventure features many beautiful shots of the area’s wildlife and natural beauty.

Cheryl and I enjoyed our last dinner at the Timberwolf Inn  Restaurant, about 40 minutes north of Grand Rapids up Scenic Route 38. We enjoyed talking with owners Jared Anselmo and Ryan Rolfes, who retired from their careers in Seattle so they could return to the area to operate this inn/restaurant in Marcell, MN. Jared and Ryan brought with them a hip flair to this small-town restaurant. Though locals insisted they maintain the salad bar tradition with homemade bread, these two introduced new menu items and special nights like Monday four-course wine pairing

dinners. The menu incorporates standard fare like burgers, steaks, fish and pasta dishes. We both thought the soup of the day, Tomato Basil was one of the best we remembered. And though we each claimed we weren’t bread pudding fans, we tried theirs and yum!

We’re fans now. What made the meal even more enjoyable is that Jared and Ryan (pictured above with the author) joined us and shared a bottle of wine from their private collection. We felt so special it was as if we were joined by the scarecrow and tinman from Oz.

On our last day, just before leaving town, I thought I’d try once more to get a meal at Air Espresso. Other attempts earlier in the week were unsuccessful as this eight-table diner is the local’s secret hotspot. I walked in this former gas station thrilled to find one table available. When the owner Helen D. Nelson approached me, I felt like I had an audience with the Wizard! Helen opened the restaurant twenty-three years ago after her husband passed away. Her first location was inside the Grand Rapids airport (now defunct) serving coffee and soup. Now she’s also known for her pies and homemade daily features. Last year they sold 180 pies over Thanksgiving! My meal and conversation with Helen was special, just like this town.

There were many sites I wasn’t able to see on my short trip and I was sad to leave as I found this area to be so magical. But I’m clicking my heels and hoping that I can return soon—this time to enjoy the area in a different season.

Year round Minnesota lake fun in an awesome hand-crafted log lodge in the Chippewa National Forest – It just doesn’t get any better. Click here to check on availability and details for this adventure

Rika Wolf Dockery was bitten by the travel bug at an early age. Her passion is still travel and she’s visited all fifty United States and forty-two countries on four continents. With a master’s degree in nonprofit management from Indiana University, she recently retired from her career as a college fund-raiser to manage her three vacation rental properties in the greater St. Louis area. Connect with Rika at Timberwolf Vacation Rentals or on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest @TimberwolfVacationRentals.

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