TTH – Viking Ships, Downtown Fargo and the Land of 10,000 Lakes

Since both the Hjemkomst (Kum-komst) Center and Fargo’s downtown mural art were highly recommended as ‘must sees’ before leaving the Fargo-Moorhead area, we set out to do both.

 Close-up of the dragon at the bow of the Viking ship replica, Hjemkomst.

Close-up of the dragon at the bow of the Viking ship replica, Hjemkomst.

The Hjemkomst Center is an organization which ‘collects, preserves, interprets and shares the history and culture of Clay County, Minnesota.’ Yes, Minnesota. When we crossed the bridge over the Red River from Fargo, we entered Moorhead, Minnesota. The culture of this part of North Dakota-Minnesota (the cities meld into one another) is primarily Scandinavian and the museum is rich in the history of these immigrants. 

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The gem of the museum is the Hjemkomst Viking Ship … a full size replica Viking ship which was conceived, built and launched by Robert Asp as a way to connect with his Norwegian heritage. Asp died before realizing his dream, but his family continued his legacy and sailed Hjemkomst (Norwegian for Homecoming) from Duluth, MN to Oslo, Norway in 1982.

 Hopperstad Stave Church

Hopperstad Stave Church

Sitting peacefully behind the museum is the Hopperstad Stave Church, a painstakingly accurate replica of the ancient Hopperstad Stave Church located just outside the village of Vikøyri in Vik Municipality, Norway. Built between 1996 and 2001, the Hopperstad Stave  Church Replica is a blend of Christian symbols and Viking tradition. Stave (stahv) is a building construction technique used by the early Norsemen. A local man, Guy Paulson of Norwegian heritage, had seen the original 900-year-old church in Norway and wanted to recreate it. The carpentry, carvings and workmanship are superb.

After a walk along the Red River to absorb all we’d seen, we crossed back into North Dakota to take in the downtown murals that had been touted. We parked Blue and walked … and walked … and walked. We didn’t manage to see them all, but here’s a glimpse of some Fargo street art. Fargo, by the way, turned out to be quite a lovely little city.

We crossed the Red River once again bound for Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes … although I’m told it’s really more like 12,000. One of the claims to fame in Minnesota, beyond its vast number of lakes, is that it’s the home of the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. It seems there was much controversy over the years as to the actual location of the headwaters. Henry Schoolcraft was finally credited with identifying Lake Itasca as the river’s primary source in 1832. We were here and figured we’d check it out.

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Itasca State Park is a gem of a place and we chastised ourselves for giving it such short shrift. Established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1891 as Minnesota's first state park, Itasca is the second oldest state park in the United States. (New York’s Niagara Falls State Park was first in 1885.) We stopped at the impressive visitor’s center for the usual cadre of brochures and maps, then proceeded to the famous headwaters.

 The line of rocks separates Lake Itasca from the headwaters of the Mississippi

The line of rocks separates Lake Itasca from the headwaters of the Mississippi

When I think of the Mississippi, I think big, wide, muddy with high banks to try to contain it. Here, a boundary of small rocks designate lake on one side and the baby Mississippi, only a hop, skip and jump wide, on the other as it flows south and begins its journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

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We had inadequate time to explore, we had a … dare I say it? … schedule to keep and a place to be. Tall Timber Days (remember the trip name is Tall Timber-Hobo Loop?) were about to begin in Grand Rapids and we still had one more stop before arriving.

 Paul Bunyan & Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji, MN

Paul Bunyan & Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji, MN

Who could possibly leave this part of the state without a sidetrip to the college town of Bemidji to pay homage to its legendary native son? There in the town center, much bigger than life because he was, stood Paul Bunyan, lumberman extraordinaire and his faithful friend, Babe the Blue Ox. Now there is also much controversy over Paul’s birthplace as the town of Bangor, Maine has a Paul Bunyan statue and claims him as theirs. I’ve seen the Bangor statue and was mightily convinced at the time of the authenticity of Bangor’s claim until my visit to Bemidji. I read subsequently that several other towns also claim him … he really got around.

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At last, we headed to Grand Rapids … Minnesota, that is, not Michigan. The Tall Timber Days Fest was not the only draw here. Our good friends, Diane and Steve, happen to have a fine cabin on the shores of nearby Lake Pokegama (Po-KEG-ama) and had invited us for a stay. Diane had been sending me interesting tidbits from ‘Weird Minnesota’ that she knew we would be unable to resist.

 

 Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in the classic, Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in the classic, Wizard of Oz

 

For instance, Grand Rapids is the birthplace of Frances Ethel Gumm … No dispute here … Bangor does not claim her. After a warm welcome to the cabin, the four of us set out to visit Frances’ museum. Yup, a whole museum dedicated to her … better known as Judy Garland. Perhaps, Grand Rapids is over the rainbow? The museum claims to have the largest collection of Judy Garland and Wizard of Oz memorabilia in the world. They once had one of the five original pairs of ruby slippers, but they were stolen in a mysterious fashion in 2005 and never recovered. Now there’s only a replica on display. You can still see an original pair at the Smithsonian and if you’re up to it, there’s the Wizard of Oz Festival at the museum in Grand Rapids every June.

 David as Scarecrow, Steve as Tin Man, Marcie as Dorothy and Diane as the Cowardly Lion.

David as Scarecrow, Steve as Tin Man, Marcie as Dorothy and Diane as the Cowardly Lion.

There was barely time to fit all the festivities into our 3-day visit. There was a boat ride on the lake in their awesome pontoon boat. There was nightly card playing, drinking, eating and extreme laughter well into the early morning hours. There were morning walks and sometimes evening walks and of course, Tall Timber Days was in full swing.

 Pontoon boat ride on Lake Pokegama with Diane & Steve

Pontoon boat ride on Lake Pokegama with Diane & Steve

Tall Timber Days is an annual event here celebrating the lumbering industry and the lumbermen heritage of the area. There are still a lot of trees in Minnesota. The downtown area was a-flurry with excitement. Streets were closed off and booths and kiosks offered all sorts of unique and fine (and some not-so-fine) wares. The pièce de résistance for David, however, was the lumberman competition. We’d witnessed this competition in Tasmania and looked forward to it here.

Though very skilled, the presentation was done by a group of professional performers that toured the country demonstrating their lumberjacking skills at events such as Tall Timber Days. From speed chainsaw carving to log rolling to pole climbing … we still enjoyed every minute. And then we hit the beer garden.

 Dinnertime on Lake Pokegama

Dinnertime on Lake Pokegama

All in all, this was one of the best visits ever. Diane and Steve could not have been more hospitable and our time together could not have been better. But … as Ben Franklin said, ‘Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days’ and it was time to move on.

Next on the itinerary … Voyageurs National Park. It’ll be exciting … I guarantee it.