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15+ Boredom-Busting Kids’ Activities in the Driftless

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And the Livin’ is Easy: 15+ Boredom-Busting Kids’ Activities in the Driftless
By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Summer 2015 Inspire(d)

So, school’s out, and the snow clothes have been washed and pushed to the back of the closet (finally). Light plays out longer in the evenings, breathing extra life into after-dinner games of tag, dog-walking, and park-going.

Sounds magical, right? Like everyone in your family should understand summer to mean shade-sitting. And catching up on reads that friends have been recommending. Or leisurely picking of wildflowers. Surely?

More likely, I – er, you – won’t make it through one golden evening before the summertime chorus starts up: “I’m bored!”

If this refrain has you locking yourself in the bathroom for a sanity check, try these kid-friendly pursuits in the Driftless. From spelunking to strawberry picking, there’s something for every pint-size naysayer. Best of all, many activities are free.

INTO THE WILDS: EXPLORING NATIVE LANDSCAPES

Driftless Safari
Best for: Anyone!
Open: Memorial Day through Halloween
www.driftless-safari.org

Rare trees and prairie plants, springs to splash in, wildlife tracks. Driftless Safari is both a self-guided tour of natural resources in Northeast Iowa, Southeast Minnesota, and Southwest Wisconsin and an introduction to community programs that support educational adventures for families.

To get started, pick up your guidebook and map packet for this year’s destinations from a public library in Winneshiek County (or print one online), then visit sites in any order. Prove you were in each location by making a crayon rubbing in your guidebook of the ‘marker’ placed there (crayons provided in your packet). When you have 15 or more rubbings, you may return your guidebook to the library to register for awesome prizes.

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Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
Location: Lanesboro, Minnesota
Best for: 6+ (Kids able to hike some distance without whining! Ability to read is also a bonus.)
Open: June – August (by appointment in off-season)
www.eagle-bluff.org

Located on nearly 100 acres of Root River bottom, limestone bluffs, and tall-grass prairie, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center offers organized outdoor education courses for kids during the school year and family programming and multi-age ropes/zipline courses on Saturdays and Tuesdays ($25/person) in the summer months. Free stuff includes its nearly nine miles of hiking trails and public geocaching course, as well as access to the Schroeder Visitor’s Center.

The center also hosts River Roots Skills School courses for teens 15 and older and adults (generally $40/person) ranging from orienteering to Amish bread-baking to taxidermy basics. Follow the directions online, rather than your GPS, to avoid sometimes-impassable back roads.

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Driftless Area Wetland Centre
Location: Marquette, Iowa
Best for: Anyone!
Open: Year-round
www.driftlessareawetlandcentre.com

The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre opened its doors in August 2013 with one goal in mind: To connect people of all ages to the natural world and empower them to positively impact their local environments. The facility provides a shared environmental education and community gathering space, covered plaza area, and 24/7 bathroom, in addition to the beautiful, man-made Wetland and viewing platform. See a full story on the Centre on page 14 of the Summer 2015 Inspire(d).

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DRIFTLESS REGION FISH HATCHERIES
Best for: Anyone
Open: Sunrise to sunset year-round

The Driftless is home to renowned fishing along its creeks and winding rivers, and some of those fish (hundreds of thousands, actually) are stocked from Department of Natural Resources fish hatcheries in the summer months. Many hatcheries are open year-round, allowing kids to feed varying ages of brook, brown, lake and rainbow trout a quarter’s worth of pellet food, available from gumball-like dispensers. Tips: Bring a small bucket or cup to hold the food, and wear closed-toed shoes suitable for walking.

FishHatchery

Locations and hours:
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IOWA
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Decorah Fish Hatchery (Decorah)
This facility raises around 150,000 “catchable” rainbow and brook trout annually. Features include their stately limestone office, built in the 1930s as a Civilian Conservation Corps project, and family-friendly (clean) bathrooms. Group tours are available 7:30 am – 4 pm daily by calling the office at 563-382-8324.

Big Spring Fish Hatchery (Elkader)
Located on the Turkey River and fed by the largest cold-water spring in Iowa, this hatchery raises 150,000 rainbow and brook trout from 2” in length to 10-12” over 15 months on average. The Big Spring Watershed is nationally renowned among researchers of karst (limestone) groundwater activity. River access at the hatchery is open for trout fishing and primitive camping, featuring a new angler access trail, a trout pond open for public fishing, and Iowa’s first kids’ fishing pond for anglers 15 and under. Fisherpeople must have appropriate licensure. Group tours are available 7:30 am – 4 pm daily by calling the office at 563-245-2446.

Guttenburg Fish Hatchery (Guttenburg)
This hatchery spawns Northern Pike fry in the spring, then operates the kid-friendly Guttenburg Aquarium and Fish Management Station May – October 8 am – 4 pm. See 35 species of fish, fresh-water mussels and turtles native to the Mississippi River ecosystem and its tributaries. Admission to this Great River Road Interpretive Network educational site is free. Call ahead for tour information and special events: 563-252-1156.

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MINNESOTA
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Lanesboro Fish Hatchery (Lanesboro)
This spring-fed hatchery produces a jaw-dropping 120,000 pounds of trout per year:
450,000 brown trout fingerlings (spring or fall of their first year)
24,000 brown trout yearlings (spring following their hatching)
85,000 rainbow trout fingerlings and 200,000 rainbow trout yearlings
Guided group tours are available by reservation (507-467-3771). Hours for self-guided tours are 7 am – 3:30 pm Monday – Friday.

Peterson State Fish Hatchery (Peterson)
This hatchery specializes in spawning lake trout, stocked to deep, cold lakes in northern Minnesota, and rainbow trout stocked in the Driftless and urban lakes in the Twin Cities. Self-guided and curated tours are available 7am – 3:30 pm Monday – Friday: 507-875-2625.

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WISCONSIN
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Genoa National Fish Hatchery
Located on both sides of the Great River Road Scenic Byway (State Highway 35), three miles south of Genoa, Wisconsin. Visitors should first head to the office (west side of the highway) to check in and learn about operations. There are 13 species of fish reared on site and a number of mussel species common to the upper Mississippi River basin. You’ll also find a 1,000 gallon aquarium, a wetland and native prairie boardwalk with outdoor classroom area, a walking trail , and culture buildings housing 24 species of fish, freshwater mussels, and amphibians. Call 608-689-2605 to schedule group tours, generally provided 7 am – 3:30 p.m. Monday – Friday.

CAVE SYSTEMS
Locations: McGregor, Iowa, Preston, Minnesota, and Harmony, Minnesota.
Best for: Anyone, but best for kids who don’t mind cool, damp conditions and close enclosures.
Open: May through October
The Driftless Region’s craggy bluff topography offers stunning viewscapes underground, too, where water has carved formations and caverns into the area’s soft(ish) bedrock.

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Spook Cave & Campground near McGregor, Iowa, offers 35-minute curated boat tours 9 am to 5:30 pm daily. No walking is required, as you travel by boat through the cave chambers. With a free picnic area and reasonable camping hook-ups and cabins on site, Spook Cave suits families, especially those with small children and seniors in the mix. Be sure to dress for the coolness (literally) of the cave itself, which remains 47 degrees year-round. Tour admission is $11 for adults 13 and older; $8 for kids ages 4-12, and free for kids 3 and under. spookcave.com

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Mystery Cave, managed by the Department of Natural Resources, lies between Spring Valley and Preston, Minnesota, and is the longest cave system in the state, at nearly 13 miles. Park naturalists lead curated tours of the stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, fossils, and iridescent underground pools, where flash photography is allowed, if you’re up to it.

Programs range from a scenic tour for all ages and degrees of mobility (available daily; $12/adults, $7 ages 5-12, youngers are free) to flashlight and geology expeditions for children 8 and older ($13-$20/person). If your teen can’t resist mud or physical challenge, check out the Wild Caving tour, a four-hour exploration of undeveloped sections of the cave system, outfitted with real spelunking gear ($75/person; 13 and older; group maximum of five people).

Reservations for Mystery Cave tours are recommended and available online (dnr.state.mn.us/mystery_cave) or by calling the Minnesota DNR at 866-857-2757.

Photography, Wild Caving and advanced geology tours are arranged by calling cave personnel directly at 507-937-3251. Follow guidelines for appropriate dress (48 degrees underground!) and be sure to consult the GPS-defying travel directions online.

Mystery Cave is located in a state park and requires a park day pass ($5) or sticker valid for the year ($25). While you’re in the gate, consider visiting Forestville, a living history replica of the settlement before railroad development in Minnesota.

Uniquely Minnesota

WaterfallNiagara Cave near Harmony, Minnesota, boasts a one-hour, one-mile, guided tour April through October (see niagaracave.com for current hours). Visitors climb down a set of stairs into another world – there’s an underground stream leading to a waterfall nearly 60 feet high, tiny and massive stalactites, calcite flowstone, and fossils that have been dated to more than 400 million years old. There’s also an in-cave wedding chapel where more than 400 weddings have been performed. After the tour, take your minis for mini-golf or gemstone mining. Reservations for tours ($14 / $8 for 4-12 / youngers are free) are recommended, but not required. 507-886-6606.

Check out Inspire(d)’s in-depth (haha) Driftless cave feature from 2012.

Splash Down: Awesome Swim Facilities
Locations: Spring Grove, Minnesota and Hokah, Minnesota
Open: June – August (or, when the lifeguards go back to school)

There are city pools, and then there are swim destinations. Spring Grove Swim Center, in quaint Spring Grove, Minnesota, offers a toddler slide, waterfalls and a zero-depth entry wading area for younger kids, and more thrilling two-story water slides, drop slides and diving boards for, you know, older guests who usually beg off getting in the water. If you’re willing to let carb and sodium counts slide for a day, you can find a whole meal at the poolside snack bar.

Admission is $4/person; ages 62+ or 2 and under are free. Hours are 1-6 pm Monday through Sunday, and a cool-deal $2 admission 7-9 pm on Fridays. Toward the beginning and end of season or whenever weather might interfere, call ahead at 507-498-7946 to check pool hours. www.springgrovemn.com/swimcenter (Spring Grove pool photos courtesy Marlene Deschler.)

SpringGrovePool_Marlene Deschler

If chlorine isn’t your thing, head over to 20 Como Street in Hokah, Minnesota, where you’ll find a natural phenomenon uncommon beyond the Yellowstone Caldera of the West: a sand-bottom, spring-fed swimming area. The Hokah ‘pool’ offers diving boards, an in-water volleyball court, snack concessions and sandy banks for land-locked ‘beach’ play. Admission is $3/person Monday-Saturday 12-5 pm and Sunday 11 am–3 pm. Get in for $1 on Wednesday nights 5-7 pm. Call ahead to confirm pool hours at 507-894-4557. www.facebook.com/HokahPool

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STICK A FORK IN IT: FOOD ADVENTURES WITH A DRIFTLESS TWIST

Wold Strawberries
Location: Rural Mabel, Minnesota
Best for: Anyone who can pick more than s/he eats.
Open: Daily when berries are ripe. Call ahead for details.
woldstrawberries.com

Summertime means seasonal food-a-palooza in the Driftless. If you’re looking to dig in beyond visiting your local farmers’ market, check out Wold Strawberries between Decorah and Mabel, Minnesota. Established in 1973 as a pick-your-own strawberry farm, the Wold plantation now offers ready-picked and pick-your-own varieties of strawberries in early to mid-June; raspberries (red, black and purple) in mid-July and late-blooming red raspberries again in mid-August.

If you’re on top of the season’s optimal weather for berry harvest, you might also get in on their sought-after blueberries and currants in mid-July through early August. (Hint: Call Wold’s at 507-493-5897 each week for peak picking forecasts, or follow them on Facebook.) In 2015, the highway entrance to the Wold farm is under construction, so follow alternate directions on their site (woldstrawberries.com) to get picking.

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Northeast Iowa Dairy Center
Location: Calmar, Iowa
Best for: All ages
Open: Daily
www.iowadairycenter.com

Read about robotic milking or seen it on YouTube? It’s here in Iowa – and truly hands-off – as the newest innovation in dairy science. At the nationally acclaimed Iowa Dairy Center, cows produce more milk when they self-select when to enter the robotic milking parlor – up to six times per day. Get a bird’s-eye view from the visitor platform, open 24/7. The center also has a human-powered milking parlor for another 140 cows, where visitors can watch the process three times per day – 4 am, 12 noon, and 8 pm. The adjacent calf barn gives you a peek at doe-eyed dairy youngsters, and if you’re lucky, you might see a calf born in the transition barn.

Don’t miss the annual free/free-will donation Breakfast on the Farm. Fill up on ‘Dad’s Belgian waffles,’ sausage and dairy products made in Northeast Iowa before exploring the center’s educational exhibits, including a curated tram tour of the barns. For more info, call the center coordinator at 563-534-9957 ext. 107.

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Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm
Location: Decorah, Iowa
Best for: Mobile kids or those content to traipse about in a backpack or sling
Open: Daily 10am-5pm March 1 through October 31
seedsavers.org

If your kids are just getting the food-to-earth connection, visit the internationally renowned Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm north of Decorah, especially at the height of summer, for a look at where a diverse diet comes from. Spread over 890 acres, the farm is home to display gardens growing 1,000 seed varieties of heritage vegetables and flowers; an orchard (preserving 950 apple varieties); a herd of Ancient White Park cattle; and heritage breeds of turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese.

Explore eight miles of hiking trails or cool your heels in bubbling Pine Spring Creek (where trout fishing is allowed). If your kids are game, you could spend a good day getting between the growing areas. Pack a lunch and regroup at the Lillian Goldman Visitor Center, which offers picnic facilities, (air-conditioned) bathrooms, a water fountain, and a gift shop. Check online or call ahead to dial in the best times to catch up with the cattle herd, for example, and to learn about special events that may affect visiting hours.

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Cooking Classes at Oneota Community Food Co-op
Location: Decorah, Iowa
Best for: Ages designated in course descriptions (young’uns through teens)
oneotacoop.com

Someone brilliant once suggested that we parents should let kids do the cleaning while they still think it’s fun. The same might also go for cooking and kitchen skills.

To give your kid a knife (with supervision!) and encourage an interest in cooking with fresh healthful ingredients, try a summer session from Oneota Community Food Co-op. Courses cater to little ones through teens, and use the co-op’s stylish new cooking classroom, adjacent to the store on Water Street. Register for classes online (starting at $40) and check out the co-op’s free educational kids’ booth at the Winneshiek Farmer’s Market most Saturdays in May, June and July.

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SHOW TIME: SUMMER ARTS OPPORTUNITIES

ArtHaus Camps, Mud Club at The Clay Studio, and Drama (of course!)
Location: Decorah, Iowa
Best for: Ages designated by course descriptions (ages 2 through teens)

Do you find yourself confiscating all the household writing or snipping tools from your little artist(s)? Sanctioning the Playdough? Send them to an ArtHaus camp or Clay Studio class, where professionals with more patience will help channel their creative impulses. Read about ArtHaus classes – from Saturday morning art studio for tots to Art Innovations Camp for kids ages 6 through 12 – and register online at arthausdecorah.org.

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Mud Club at The Clay Studio in Decorah is a monthly night in for kids ages 5-13 featuring a project-based lesson, art games, and a snack. Sign up online at theclaystudiodecorah.com for upcoming Mud Club events (6-8 pm occasional Saturdays). Note: Register at least a day in advance; online sign-up is not available the day of an event. (Photos courtesy ArtHaus & Clay Studio)

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If your kids are more at home on the stage, don’t miss summer productions by area community theaters. The region is also home to outstanding professional companies, including the Commonweal Theatre  in Lanesboro, Minnesota, and the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota. Great River Shakespeare Festival even offers summer youth education programs like Shakespeare for Young Actors or Creative Drama and “Chill with Will” (Shakespeare, of course) free performances for ages 10-18. Me thinks there’s an alchemy in the warm night air, bright stage lights and stories from far-off places.

Check out these area theatre options for current shows:
Wisc. Community Theatre for Youth
New Minowa Players
Elkader Opera House Players
Ye Olde Opera House

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Photo by Kathy Greden Christenson – Shakespeare for Young Actors, 2014, The Tempest.

 

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Kristine Jepsen is definitely one of those parents in need of a go-to guide for kids’ activities in the warm season. When she’s not hunched over her laptop, writing on assignment and for herself (kristinejepsen.com), she’s outdoors drumming up something to do with her family, including her daughter, Eliza.

RAGBRAI Fun in Northeast Iowa!

By Sara Friedl-Putnam
Illustrations by Aryn Henning Nichols
Originally published in the summer 2017 Inspire(d)

RAGBRAI is known for its seven fun-filled days, with upwards of 9,000 riders pedaling west to east across the entire state of Iowa. The three days scheduled in Northeast Iowa this year (2017) are no exception. There’s so much fun stuff here, in fact, we thought we’d put together just a few ideas to get folks started (do adventure on your own too!). Have fun, and welcome to the Driftless!

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THURSDAY, JULY 27, 2017

Today’s relatively short 54.6-mile ride should give you plenty of time to explore Cresco and its surrounds before calling it a night.

CRESCO (overnight)

Lovely day out? Discover unique prairie wildflowers and grasses at Prairie’s Edge Nature Center – and relax beside the small waterfalls and sloping pools at Vernon Springs Ladder Dam, Iowa’s first rock-arch rapids project.
Read a fun feature on Cresco here!

Cresco Theatre and Opera House
115 Second Avenue West

Are you looking for someplace fun to rest those weary bones? Look no further than the cushioned seats of this architectural gem of a theatre, opened in 1915 (to a packed house) and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.

Once a popular stop for vaudeville performers, today the 425-seat theatre hosts concerts, stage productions, and, of course, recently released films. The price at the door may be more than the five cents it was a century ago, but the experience is worth every (additional) penny.

Dough and Joe Bakery
114 North Elm Street

A full day in the saddle awaits, so why not start your ride off right with a full dose of carbs and caffeine? This family-owned bakery offers plenty of both, from the latte of the week to cookies and cake pops. But it’s the heavenly cream-filled long johns that helped earn Dough and Joe Bakery the seventh spot on Travel Iowa’s list of best donut establishments in 2016.

FRIDAY, JULY 28

What’s on tap for day six? You’ll climb 2,483 feet as you traverse just about 60 miles of scenic Northeast Iowa terrain. First stop is Decorah, where the town’s annual Nordic Fest promises to be in full swing. Then Ossian, Castalia, and Postville await before you call it a day in Allamakee’s county seat: Waukon.

DECORAH

Outdoor highlights:
One town, three waterfalls! At 200 feet, the truly spectacular Dunnings Spring waterfall is just minutes by bike from downtown Decorah. Out of town but right off the Trout Run Trail (map here!) you’ll find Siewers Spring, located just steps from a popular trout-rearing station. Further off the RAGBRAI path is Malanaphy Springs, near Bluffton but well worth the ride if you have the time and inclination to make it.

Nordic Fest
Water Street and environs

Dish up the kringla, krumkakke, lefse, and lutefisk. Cue up theNordic Dancers and Luren Singers. Each July since 1967, small-town Decorah has put on one big Norwegian celebration, featuring an array of entertainment and, yes, lots and lots of energy-boosting Scandinavian food, most served up by friendly locals from food booths up and down Water Street. Even if you don’t know varme polse from rømmegrøt, hop off your bike, partake in the fun, and take advantage of the opportunity to be a little bit Norwegian for the day.

Oneota Community Food Co-Op
312 West Water Street

Swing by and stock up on some healthy fuel for the road. Locally grown organic produce, piping-hot panini sandwiches, and fresh-baked breads and pastries – this thriving community co-op has them all, as well as shelves stocked with everything from natural peanut butter and sweet potato chips to bulk bins with nuts, dried fruits, and other nutritious treats.

College Drive Breweries:

Toppling Goliath

Small-town Decorah has some big-time beer. Poured inside the modest Toppling Goliath taproom is craft beer so remarkable it’s widely considered among the best in the world. And as locals will tell you, the outdoor patio is tailor-made for kicking back and enjoying popular tap varieties like Pseudo Sue pale ale and Dorothy’s New World Lager.

Pulpit Rock
Just down College Drive you’ll find Pulpit Rock, which opened its doors in a retrofitted laundry / garage in 2015 and has quickly made a name for itself as a destination taproom. Thirst-quenching pale ales, delicious Saftig IPA, and variations of (local) Impact coffee-infused pour-over porter – there truly is something to satisfy even the most discriminating of beer enthusiasts at this adventurous craft brewery. While you’re at it, swing down around the corner on Water Street and hit the Courtyard & Cellar for beer garden or cellar-shade nirvana

What cyclist doesn’t crave ice cream on a hot summer day? Take your pick of soft-serve at the Whippy Dip on College Drive, or hand-dipped Sugar Bowl on Water Street.
Read our “thoroughly researched” Driftless ice cream guide here!

Its nitro cold brew on tap may be perfect for a hot July day, but Impact Coffee Bar also offers a full menu of custom-roasted coffee, pour overs, espresso-based drinks, and loose-leaf teas. Read more about Impact Coffee  in our ‘Summer 2017’ magazine!

EN ROUTE

Need to make a quick pit stop before you hit Postville? Then be on the lookout for Shooters Bar and Grill (Main Street, Ossian) and Susie’s First Chance Saloon (Greene Street, Castalia).

Home to one of the smallest YMCAs in the nation, the small but diverse town of Postville also boasts some memorable restaurants, including the Brick Oven Pizza and Eatery on Greene Street and the authentic (and tiny) Mexican restaurant and carniceria, El Pariente, next door. Not hungry yet? Swing by the city park and relax to the strains of live Mexican music, or check out the music and beer garden downtown.

RURAL WAUKON

Empty Nest Winery
1352 Apple Road

Want to take in the countryside without pedaling? Then check out this off-the-beaten-path winery, established in 2011 by husband and wife team Dave and Pam Kruger. Folks can sit back and relax with a glass of wine while enjoying the picturesque woods, hills, and fields of Northeast Iowa. In addition to its handcrafted pure-berry wines, the Empty Nest will be serving up beer, sangria, and slushies – plus a tasty food buffet – for RAGBRAI riders (or any visitors, really!).

The “Old” Rossville Store
851 Volney Road

There’s nothing more quintessentially Midwest than the supper club. And the homespun “Old” Rossville Store has a reputation as one of Iowa’s best. Be sure to come hungry, though, as large portions of entrees like its popular prime rib come with choice of potato, steamed veggies, AND a trip to a far-from-ordinary salad bar. Be on the lookout for marinated carrot salad, cottage cheese, pea salad, macaroni salad, potato salad, tomato salad, and even chocolate pudding and strawberry ambrosia.

WAUKON (overnight)

W.W. Homestead Dairy
850 Rossville Road

When nearby Luther College needed a dessert (literally) fit for a king, it was this small dairy that got the call. That’s right – in October 2011, King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway capped off a luncheon at the college with a helping of W.W. Homestead Dairy’s cinnamon ice cream created just for the occasion. No doubt RAGBRAI riders will be equally pleased by the rich, flavorful ice cream – made with farm-fresh, cream-line milk – served up in dishes, cones, and carryout containers. Or if ice cream’s not your jam, swing by and sample the dairy’s fresh cheese curds, just as sought after by the hometown crowd.

Main Feature Theater and Pizza Pub
38 West Main Street

Pizza. Popcorn. Beer. And, yes, a movie. What more could you ask for after a long, hot day biking Iowa’s back roads? First opened as the Town Theatre in the 1930s, this Main Street fixture was re-invented as a dine-in theatre in 1989. Since then, it’s been welcoming hungry adults and kids for an affordable, one-of-a-kind entertainment experience. Word on the street is that the pizza & movie combination may be going away soon, so catch it if you can!

Steel Cow Gallery
15 Allamakee Street

Her works decorate the sides of barns and the walls of homes, businesses, and galleries throughout the Midwest. Hop off your bike and check out the bovine artistry of Valerie Miller, creator of the popular Steel Cow line of original paintings and canvas prints. 

SATURDAY, JULY 29

Further explore the splendor of the Driftless Region as RAGBRAI ascends 3,200 feet over 44.8 miles. Wind through Waterville, then the Yellow River State Forest, with its 8,500 acres and 25 miles of trails known for rocky outcrops, stunning bluffs, and steep slopes. Gotta stop for a quick drink or bite to eat? Check out Missfitz Bar and Grill or Spillway Supper Club, both in Harpers Ferry, before finally conquering the last 13-mile leg to Lansing, the last stop on RAGBRAI XLV.

LANSING

Driftless Area Education and Visitors Center
Great River Road

Learn more about the Driftless flora, fauna, and other natural features you’ve seen from the seat of your bike. Be among the first to experience the interpretive displays of this just-opened center, which overlooks the mighty Mississippi River and explores the mysteries of the region, including its limestone bluffs, Native American mounds, and algific talus slopes.

Horsfall’s Lansing Variety Store
300 Main Street

Itching to hitch up your bike and head for home? Better press that pause button because no trip to this scenic Mississippi River town is complete without at least a brush through the bargain-stacked aisles of the store known simply as Horsfall’s. Variety is the name of the game at this storied establishment, which celebrates the glory days of five-and-dimes and carries pretty much anything you can imagine. From greeting cards and sunglasses to cookbooks and cat toys, Horsfall’s has it all.

Safe House Saloon
359 Main Street

Kick back, relax, and write the final chapter of your RAGBRAI adventure at this fun local eatery. As its name suggests, the Safe House Saloon offers plenty of beer, both bottled and on tap, craft and otherwise. But you’ll also find beer-battered cheese curds, wings slathered in homemade sauces, and an array of gourmet pizzas with entertaining names like the Naked Cowboy and the Bootlegger to satisfy those hunger pangs before you hit the road back home.

Congrats to all who are making the 2017 trek across the state – we hope you find your way back to the Driftless soon – and please tell all of our friends above that we sent you! Cheers & happy riding!

Crystal Creek Magic!

Crystal Creek Magic

A Minnesota couple launches a Citizen-Artist Residency program in their magical Houston, Minnesota, cabin in hopes of connecting artists and residents to create a better region…and world.

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Somewhere around its 100th birthday, Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge moved on up – up a bluff – to Oak Forest Lane just outside of Houston, Minnesota. There, a former owner reassembled the log cabin and built two thoughtful additions. Typical to a country cabin, there are gorgeous views for days, but untypical is that this log house also has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fairly open floor plan, and laundry on-site.

Erin Dorbin and Taylor Harris bought the 1890s home in the spring of 2016.

“I feel like ‘1890’ is what they say when they’re not sure exactly when a place was built,” Taylor says with a laugh, eight-month-old baby Maple in hand. “I know, right?” Erin agrees, laughing. “Sometime in the late 1800s, anyway, this cabin, we believe, was built in Viroqua, Wisconsin.”

Beautiful, old, salvaged doors and windows, exposed beams, and giant porches welcome visitors. Just “cabin-y” enough, the 100-year-old logs peek out from behind the breakfast nook and next to the ladders – yes, ladders – that lead upstairs and downstairs. A love note to the former owners’ kids is etched into the mortar that literally holds the house together.

Maple squeals as she plays with a tiny toy giraffe, and their sweet dog Georgia leans in for a pat as rain pitters outside and mist rises from the bluffs surrounding Crystal Creek below. It’s a little bit magic.

So it’s no surprise that finding the cabin was a like finding the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Erin was pregnant at the time, and the couple was looking for ways to facilitate careers in two locations. Erin worked in Rochester for Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, a non-profit dedicated to preserving historic buildings and places. Her outreach took her to counties across Southeast Minnesota. Taylor is an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Northeast Minneapolis.

They had planned to park their vintage Avion camper at Maple Springs Campground (which even inspired their baby name!) in Forestville, but the universe – aka their future cabin – stepped in.

“I found this place and was like, ‘Oooh my gosh!’ Erin says.

“I was mad,” Taylor says. “We weren’t planning to buy a house! But it was so amazing. We couldn’t pass it up.”

“Seriously! One early foggy morning I took the gorgeous and tightly winding Highway 76 to Caledonia on my way to work. I saw this fox and bird playing together on the side of the road, but they probably weren’t really playing together, they were probably fighting over roadkill,” Erin says with a grin, “But it sure looked like it. And I thought to myself, ‘This is it.’”

Erin grew up in Michigan, in a place rural enough to be 15 minutes from the nearest town. So Houston – population under 1000 – seemed just right.

“I feel very rooted here,” she says.

Taylor, on the other hand, hails from New York City, although he’s spent the last two decades in the Twin Cities. He feels very rooted there. So the two-home set-up made sense for the young parents, both in their mid-30s.

Things went smoothly with the closing on the cabin, and shortly after, Erin and Taylor listed it on Airbnb. They had bookings immediately.

“We had to turn people away, in fact,” Erin says. “People would come here to stay and be absolutely taken with the place. In Minnesota, everyone says, ‘Go North,’ but we say, ‘Go Southeast.’”

Inspired by a variety of organizations – such as the Wormfarm Institute’s Artist Residency program in Reedsburg, Wisconsin; a wild McKnight grant artist named Dan Senn who produced a sound and video installation in the 90s in the “Catacombs of Yucatan” (Houston, Minnesota); and by the region itself, it didn’t take long for Erin to hatch the idea for the Crystal Creek Citizen-Artist residency program.

“The phrase Citizen-Artist just came to me one day,” Erin says. “It just felt right. It described how I, and other creative professionals, were performing creative and professional community-connected work. It took off from there.”

“And I just follow along on the crazy schemes,” Taylor says, laughing. “I hold the baby.”

The plan is this: Erin and Taylor will host three (this year four) artists, individually, for week-long residencies during the months of July, August, and September 2017 (those months may vary in future years).

Each year, they will select one local or regional artist, and two from outside regions, meaning, beyond the Driftless Region. Artists’ work will be inspired by the Driftless, though, and will help the larger community of Southeast Minnesota re-imagine their locale right alongside the citizen-artists-in-residence.

The Citizen-Artist program goals are twofold:

  1. To introduce people to the Driftless Area of Southeast Minnesota
  2. To connect with and leverage Houston County’s natural, social, and cultural assets. A big proponent of the program was that the Citizen-Artists-in-Residence (CAIRs) didn’t need to have a “traditional” fine art background. Erin and Taylor welcomed writers, chefs, social scientists, historians, podcasters, dancers, musicians – you name it – to apply.

“We wanted to broaden the perception of what art means to people and institutions in Houston Co. Minnesota – it can be place-based; it can be interactive; it can influence civic matters,” Erin and Taylor say together, one idea on top of the other. “It’s not necessarily rural or urban, either; it’s art for everyone.”

The amazing luck that seemed to follow Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge continued through the CAIRs project – “Cabin Porn,” a popular cabin-living book and website, picked up Erin’s Citizen-Artist Facebook post and shared it. That post got an 18,000 reach. Their first application came from Montana.

So while Erin and Taylor can’t get a cell phone call out at Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge, they can get artists all the way from Victoria B.C. and New York.

“There were at least nine applicants that we really would have loved to have come, but we finally settled on four,” Erin says. “One residency is being shared by two CAIRs.”

The 2017 CAIRs are as follows:

  1. Harry Graff Kimball, a place-based songwriter from New York
  2. Melissa Wray and Todd Melby, from the Twin Cities as the regional representation and shared residency. Both artists host podcasts and are excited to interview the people of Houston County while exploring the tension between rural and urban life.
  3. Cimarron Corpé, a geographer and multimedia artist from Victoria, B.C.

“I wanted to find a way to expose people to this area, and know they’ll leave with a little piece of it in their hearts. The CAIRs won’t just be tourists, they’ll hopefully become part of the place; residents themselves, even if for a brief amount of time,” Erin says. “After they leave, they can connect their experiences here in Southeast Minnesota with their own larger communities and global networks.

Although funding wasn’t totally in place when Erin and Taylor jumped into the project, Houston Arts Resource Council (HARC) quickly came on board as an active partner.

“HARC is committed to creating vibrant communities in Southeast Minnesota through promoting arts and cultural programming. I would love it if new ideas were generated in Houston County that can help pave the path for the region as a whole,” Erin says.

Other area partners – local arts, history, and community organizations – are also working with Erin and Taylor to help realize their vision. To further facilitate community interaction, there will be workshops and meet-and-greet sessions in different locations – from coffee shops to visitors’ centers. Plus, next spring, a Citizen-Artist Showcase is planned to promote works created during the residency, and to hopefully inspire other rural arts activities in Houston County.

“I wanted to be a conduit for connecting all these things,” Erin says. “I’ve worked in economic development, planning, education, historic preservation, and – although I’m not totally comfortable saying this – I’ve worked as an artist too. So I’ve infused everything I’ve done with this creative vision.”

Her passion for the project and Houston County, as a whole, is evident.

“I really want to trigger our local assets,” Erin says. “Let people come here with fresh eyes and let the people of our community look at things with fresh eyes, and together find a way to make life here in the Driftless even better.”

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Aryn Henning Nichols was taken, herself, with the magic of Houston County and Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge. She thinks connecting people in the region and larger world to make life better is what we should all strive to do, everyday, and this project is a great step in that direction!

 

Inspire(d) caught up with each of the 2017 Citizen-Artists in Residence via email to ask a few questions about their upcoming trips to the area, and why they applied. For more details about the CAIRs project, check crystalcreekcitizenartist.com.

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Residency 1: July 16-22 – Harry Graff Kimball, from New York
Meet & Greet: July 18
Workshop: July 20

Harry Graff Kimball is a songwriter, producer, and builder-storyteller. A classical guitarist by early training and a member of the late ’90s, almost-almost-famous NYC indie group Ensimismada, Harry is also the bassist and co-founder of Los Chinches, the only group ever described as a “Pavement-meets-Dead Kennedys” revelation. He is “a halfway-decent carpenter, an inveterate tinkerer, and a budding amp maker. He writes speeches to pay the bills.”

On his art medium:

I write songs and play them. Some of the times I’m like a singer-songwriter, some of the times I’m in a rock band, and for this I’m trying to focus on people and place, so I’m calling the art product ‘place-based story-songs.’ But yeah, folk songs.

Why did you apply?

The thought certainly crossed my mind: “Why should I go to rural Minnesota for a week to write songs?” But seeing Erin and Taylor’s enthusiasm in the words they put down, and feeling the vibrancy and beauty of the region and the people that live there made it easy, even necessary. “Of course I should! There are a lot of songs there, and I bet people there are already writing them!”

How will you spend your week?

I think a lot of artists would love to be alone with their thoughts for a week with no interruptions or expectations – but this is different. It forces a duality: look inward and outward at the same time. I’m not the most outgoing person, so I’m basically going to force myself to be manically collaborative with whoever will talk to me or play music with me or share a song or a ride or a meal. That said, I would also like to write some music, so I will try to enjoy the peace of the place and engage with the writing process. I also want to go fishing. So I guess a third of the time getting to know people and hopefully making some music with them, a third of the time writing (or writing with other people!) and a third of the time just being in the region, in the woods, on the roads and gathering experience.

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Residency 2: Aug 12-18 – Melissa Wray/Todd Melby, Minneapolis
Meet & Greet: Aug 14
Workshop: Aug 16

Melissa Wray

Community and stories are at the heart of Melissa Wray’s creative work. Melissa co-founded Hazel & Wren in 2011, a community resource organization for writers. As a writer herself, she mostly writes poetry and creative nonfiction. She is the Marketing Coordinator at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she produces The Loft Podcast.

On sending in that application:

When I heard about this residency, I immediately knew I had to apply. I grew up near Caledonia, Minnesota, on a sheep farm. My family still lives there, and it’s a place dear to me that I always consider home. However, I have made my adult home in Minneapolis since 2006. I’ve constantly felt this tug between my two ideas of home. One home is this rural environment that taught me so many things about community strength, the importance of the natural world, and my roots. The other home is the vibrant urban environment in which I’ve been able to build a sustainable career working in the nonprofit arts world, grow as an individual, and meet my now-husband.

This rural-urban divide is even more poignant now as our nation faces the reality of this same tension. I had already been developing ideas for creative projects that address this, and knew that this residency was the perfect place to start, back where it all started for me: home.

How do you plan to spend your week?

After applying, Erin reached out to me and another applicant, Todd Melby, about sharing a residency. Todd has done amazing work with radio journalism, and we’ll be working together to gather audio stories, asking Houston County residents to talk about sense of community and culture.

Todd Melby

Todd Melby is a reporter, interactive producer and filmmaker. He’s best known as lead producer of Black Gold Boom, a public media project documenting North Dakota’s oil boom – and bust. His radio stories have aired on MPR, Marketplace, and The World. He’s also a senior producer at 2 below zero, a public media nonprofit, and has created interactive and television documentaries, including one which recently aired on PBS stations. In 2013, he was awarded a McKnight Media Artist Fellowship. His newest project is the podcast The Drunk Projectionist.

On the agenda for Todd:

I plan to wander and talk to anyone who is willing to talk with me: teens playing basketball, guys smoking outside of bars, farmers sipping coffee at the local cafe at 6 a.m., whatever. I’d also ask those connected with the residency to recommend elders or anyone else they think might have a great story to tell.

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Residency 3: Sept 10-16 – Cimarron Corpé, Victoria, B.C.
Meet & Greet: Sept 12
Workshop: Sept 14

Cimarron Corpé is a human geographer whose interests focus on landscapes and the role sound and images play in our orientation and construction of place. He has lectured and presented creative works internationally, on topics such as physical and human geography, environmental science, and sustainability. Cimarron is currently Director of Policy Development with the Province of British Columbia, where he leads projects including technical building requirements, energy efficiency, accessibility, and climate leadership.

On his art:

I am a multimedia artist working with images (photography and video) and sound (field recording, acoustic instruments, and electronic synthesis). My works range from exhibits and installations to live performance. I also dabble in expressionist painting and collage.

Why did you decide to apply to be a Citizen-Artist?

I was attracted to the unique physical geography of the Driftless Region and felt that the topography, caves, sinkholes, springs, and subterranean rivers offered numerous opportunities to engage with the landscape and draw creative inspiration.

I also found the broad criteria for applying for the residency to be very refreshing and inviting. There are very few other residencies that encourage chefs, podcasters, community organizers, and artists to apply. This is a very innovative and forward thinking approach.

What’s on the agenda for the week?

I intend to explore the bluffs and network of caves, ride a bicycle along the Root River Bike Trail, and visit the many small towns. Along the way I will be preparing a comprehensive audio and visual record of my observations and experiences. This collection of images and sound will form the foundation for the work I will produce during my stay, which I will first present at a citizen-artist meet and greet sponsored by the Houston Arts Resource Council.

Later in the week I will host a community workshop on field recording. We’ll start with an introduction to the history, philosophy, techniques, and practice of field recording, then move outdoors to capture sounds in the field, finally reconvening to listen to our recordings and share our experiences.

crystalcreekcitizenartist.com