Posts Categorized: Today

Going Stir Crazy? Get Away to Decorah!

By Aryn Henning Nichols

We Midwesterners are a hearty lot, but when you live in a place that has winter for nearly half the year, it’s easy to go a little stir crazy. Somehow those last two months stretch out like warm Laffy Taffy on a hot summer day. Wait. Sorry. I’m wishfully mixing my seasonal similes.

The point is, when it seems like the cold, snow, and ice will never end, people are desperately searching for something fun to do. Many lucky folks head south to an exotic locale with palm trees and temperatures above 30, but we’ve got something a little closer and a little nicer on the pocketbook in mind: Decorah.
It’s no secret that we’re inspire(d) by our hometown; we loooove Decorah. With all our great hotels, cuisine, concerts and productions, museums, recreation and activities, we think you will too. So whether you live an hour away or just two blocks, we wanted to share our ideas on how to “getaway” for some late-winter fun and to fall in love with Decorah for the first time or all over again.

Looking to book a romantic weekend as a Valentine’s Day gift? Do you say “weather be damned” and want to get outside for some active fun? Maybe you’re hoping to shop, relax, and hang out with friends. We’ve put together a list of must-do activities for a variety of travelers – mix and match or do ‘em all, and most importantly, enjoy yourself.

Read on to get the inside scoop on how to fly the late winter coop.

Romancing the (Lime)Stone
Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries – there are lots of romantic excuses to come to Decorah, but you don’t really even need a holiday to enjoy your time here.

1. Head downtown to Magpie Coffeehouse, 118 Winnebago, and try some local, award-winning Kickapoo Coffee and a delicious toad-in-the-hole or tasty sandwich. Dine in and read the latest Inspire(d) and play a round of Scrabble. Or take it to go and leisurely enjoy your hotel room while you get ready for your day.
2. Hold hands and take a romantic walk up Broadway Street through the Historic District or walk down Water Street, stopping in at the many great shops. On the west end of town, go to the Decorah Hatchery to buy his and hers Quality Chick t-shirts (For him: “I love Quality Chicks.” For her: “I’m a Quality Chick.”). On the east end pop into Agora Arts to check out regional artists’ wares or pick out a print by StoryPeople, the quirky, world-renowned artwork full of poignant and often funny messages. FYI: StoryPeople is headquartered right here in Decorah!
3. Take the short drive north of town to Winneshiek Wildberry Winery, 1966 337th Street, to check out their 140-year-old family farm and try some of their tasty local wines – favorite quirky wine names: “Horny Heifer” and “How Ole Made Lena Blush.” The winery is open Wednesday through Sunday.

Decorah Explora’
Do you like to get a little fresh air while you’re on vacation, even if it is a little cold outside? Get your gear on, ‘cause there’s outdoor fun to be had.

1. Decorah is known for its great mountain bike trails and the paved Trout Run Trail – but perhaps you didn’t know many of those trails are groomed in the winter for cross country skiing. And of course, if there’s snow somewhere, you can snowshoe there.
Groomed trails and difficulty levels:
Dug Road, from the campground end of the trail all the way to the Decorah Trout Hatchery and beyond. (Beginner)
Palisades Park, complete loop (Moderate)
Van Peenan Park (Moderate to Advanced)
City Prairie behind Aase Haugen Home (Beginner)
Luther College cross country course and large lower practice field (Moderate)
Need the equipment and maps? Decorah Bicycles, 101 College Drive, rents skis and snowshoes for just $10/day and they’re full of helpful information.
2. Are trails not your bag? There are few winter activities sweeter or more enjoyable than ice skating. Head across the Upper Iowa River on College Drive to the Carl Selland Wayside Park. Decorah Bicycles rents ice skates for just $5 a day.
3. Disc golf has grown in popularity in Decorah, largely through Decorah resident Dan Bellrichard, founder of The course at Luther College has nine holes that wind over the hills and through the woods (but not to grandmother’s house). The baskets are up year-round and the course is open to the public. At Bob’s Standard Gas Station, 208 College Drive, you can rent up to six discs for just $5/day. You can even play at night with an LED light, also available at Bob’s Standard. Visit for more information.

Live Culture is Good for You
Decorah, like yogurt, is full of good culture, but more the museums, classes, artifacts sort of culture. Make it a “better yourself” trip, and learn a little about what makes Decorah tick.

1. Vesterheim, meaning “western home” in Norwegian, is surprisingly larger than it would seem from the outside, and is one of the best Norwegian museums in the country. It houses a small sailboat, an amazing silver collection, and rotating exhibits that make you forget you’re in a town of just 10,000 people. The 16 historic buildings in its main complex occupy most of a square block in downtown, and it has more than 24,000 artifacts! It’s no boring museum…I suggest you check it out. Bonus: admission is free on Thursdays thanks to Decorah Bank and Trust!
And don’t forget to check back in the spring when Seed Savers Heritage Farm and the Porter House and Laura Ingalls Wilder Museums are open.
2. Are you looking for the perfect souvenir from your culture-rich trip? Just down Water Street from Vesterheim, you can stop by Vanberia to pick out a Scandinavian goody or some Uff Da stickers, or head down the street a little farther and pop into Donlon’s to pick out your favorite Nisse – these “household spirits,” usually under four feet tall with a red cap, are said to be responsible for the care and prosperity of a farm. Just stay on his good side, if you know what I mean.
3. Feed your brain and your stomach at the Oneota Community Co-op, where you can watch Co-op employees make fresh mozzarella. Bocconcini and ovalini (small, semi-soft balls of mozzarella) are made nearly every day. The marinated bocconcini is amazing with the sourdough bread made by local Waving Grains Bakery, available fresh Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. Check out for more information.

Best Friends Forever, for Guys and Gals
No matter what you like to do, there’s no need to feel boxed-in in Decorah. Maybe you and your friends like to do your nails then go shoot skeet. Or perhaps you want to grab a beer after you’ve shopped ‘til you’ve dropped. Whatever your style, we’ve got it covered.

1. Shopping on Water Street…
For her: Looking for fun clothes, purses, accessories, shoes or souvenirs? Try Modish, The Good Foot, Fancy Pants, KD Rae, Margaret’s, Happiness Is, or Elaines. For him: Amundson’s Clothing carries awesome lines of men’s clothing… isn’t it time you invested in a suit? Or perhaps you’re a little more casual – check out your favorite team’s gear at The Sport Shop.
2. Relaxing in Decorah. Get a rejuvenating soak and massage at Day Spring Spa or a manicure and pedicure at Eclips Salon or Riah or Appearances. Or grab a booth and one of the 36 tap beers at Rubaiyat., and while you’re in the beer mood, make sure to head down to the Courtyard and Cellar too!
3. Or playing in Decorah. Chase the Adventure, just south of town 1838 Middle Calmar Road, has skeet and trap shooting year-round! Call ahead, 563-532-9821, or go to for details.

The Angry Pickle – The Angry Pickle has a great selection of deli sandwiches designed by Chef Mark. Try the Craisin Chicken Salad on focaccia!
Family Table – Their motto, “Nothing fancy, just good food,” says it all. Open daily until only 8 pm, they serve yummy breakfast all day and make a mean piece of pie.
Java John’s – Life slows down at Java John’s. Grab a coffee (they even make coffee ice cubes for their iced coffees!) and a piece of Mary’s delicious chocolate cake and enjoy the company.
La Rana Bistro
– If you’re looking for an intimate lunch or dinner setting, look no further. Watch the chef prepare your meal in the open kitchen. The mojitos are amazing, and so is the chicken salad at lunch and the salmon and risotto at dinner.
Magpie Coffeehouse – We talked about breakfast (mmm… Kickapoo Coffee and Little Maggies), but Magpie does lunch too. Their deli-style and pre-made sandwiches satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.
McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita, out by Twin Springs Park off Highway 52, has great views and beautiful brick oven. Try the Thai Kickin’ Chicken Pizza – it’ll make you want to slather the nutty, sweet and spicy peanut butter sauce on everything you eat.
Oaks Steakhouse – The locals rave about the Oak’s half-baked cookie sundae dessert. Order it after you get your own personal bacon-topped meatloaf or the Angry Salad with house-made bleu cheese dressing and blackened sirloin.
Oneota Community Co-op – A big reason the Decorah community is so amazing is our fantastic food cooperative. Bright and cheery, the Co-op has different themes – like Brazilian, Indian, or Mexican – for their daily hot bar specials and offerings. And their caprese panino: delicious.
Restauration – Situated in the Hotel Winneshiek, right in the middle of town, Restauration provides great people watching out its floor-to-ceiling windows. Check out whatever Chef Tom has on special.
Rubaiyat – An anchor to downtown, Rubaiyat Restaurant has cozy booths and a fun bar. It’s hard to pick a favorite thing: the capon, brie, red onion and lingonberry pizza is a tasty treat, but so is the Build Your Own Bloody Mary Bar at Sunday brunch.

Pizza is my favorite food. Lucky for me, there are lots of amazing options in Decorah.
Happy Joe’s Pizza, an endearing old-fashioned pizza parlous, hands down has the best Taco Pizza in the state. Maybe the country.
Mabe’s Pizza is famous in Decorah – thin crusted and cut in squares, the regular has been my all-time favorite. A secret: did you know you can order it double-crusted? It’s a whole different animal…
Pizza Ranch is an Iowa chain that does it all – pizza, chicken, salad, ice cream, potato wedges, green beans. But we usually order the thin crust Sweet Swine (Canadian bacon and pineapple). It’s sooooo good.

We’ve got a lot of great options for lodging in Decorah – from historic B&Bs to a lovingly-restored landmark like the Hotel Winneshiek, we’re sure you’ll be able to find a place to stay that suits your needs.

Decorah B&B/Hotels in Three (or so) Words

Bed and Breakfast-Style Stays

B&B on Broadway, 305 West Broadway, – royal, antique, lavishly-restored
The Loft on Water Street, 106 East Water Street Suite 203, – contemporary, convenient, luxurious
Decorah Guesthouse, 202 St. Lawrence Street, – comfortable, cozy, cottage-style
Dug Road Inn, 601 West Main Street, – classic, Zen-like, elegant
Palisades Inn, 2566 Ice Cave Road, just on the outskirts of town near Palisades Park, – private, relaxing, scenic

More Traditional-Style Hotels

Hotel Winneshiek Downtown, 104 East Water Street, – turn-of-the-century restored, Decorah landmark, charming
Country Inn and Suites, 1202 Highway 9 West, – country-style, indoor pool, spacious rooms
Heartland Inn, 705 Commerce Drive, – indoor pool, casual, clean
Super 8 Motel, 810 Highway 9 East, – affordable, simple, standard rooms
Bluffs Inn, 1101 Highway 9 West, – affordable, attached bar/restaurant, retro-style

Maps and information about Decorah are available at the Winneshiek County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, 507 West Water Street, or online at

Aryn Henning Nichols truly does love Decorah, and doesn’t mind winter all that much when there’s this much fun to be had.

For this Decorah destination guide, we joined forces with the Winneshiek County Convention & Visitors Bureau. The name’s a mouthful (try WCCVB instead!), but we really think you should know about these guys. They’re a local non-profit organization that’s marketing efforts (radio, print, billboards, web, travel shows and more) drive visitors to this gem of a place we call home. All businesses featured here are current CVB members. If you’d like to become a member and be part of their Midwest tourism campaign, contact them to sign up! Contact WCCVB Director, Brenda Balk for membership information:
507 W. Water St., Decorah

Interview with Alaska String Band

(What’s got 8 wheels, 25 strings, 5 heads and is 140 years old? Well, The Alaska String Band of course…)

By Benji Nichols

When faced with the choice to either buckle down with a “day job,” or leave your career to tour across the country playing music and traveling in a 40-foot bus with your three children, it’s safe to say that a lot of parents might chose the day job. But life is short, fragile really, and children don’t stay kids for long, which are all reasons that Paul and Melissa Zahasky and family made a collective decision from their home in Juneau, Alaska to quit their jobs and buy a 40-foot MCI tour bus site unseen. Their extraordinary musical talents would not only entertain crowds from Juneau’s Gold Creek Salmon Bake to the southern-most tip of Texas, but would also pay the bills. And heck, who knows, maybe along the way they’d have the time of their lives. The bus, and Zahasky’s parents (Don & Helen) live here in Decorah, and lucky for us, the Alaska String Band uses this as a home base while traveling to and from the lower 48 states.

Inspire(d)’s Benji Nichols recently caught up with the “Z-Family” to ask a few questions about how this whole family string band thing got started – and the next thing you know there was a show scheduled in Decorah with the AK String Band. Don’t miss your chance to meet Paul and Melissa Zahasky and their three incredibly talented kids – Laura (18), Quinn (16), and Abigail (12) – as Inspire(d) and The AK String Band host a benefit concert for Decorah’s Free Clinic Thursday, February 18, at 7 pm at First Lutheran Church. Admission will be a cash donation to the Free Clinic, but no will be turned away for lack of funds.

Inspire(d): How did the Alaska String Band come to be?

Z: We (Paul and Melissa) were introduced by a common musician friend many years ago. Our first performances together as a duo were in churches in Juneau and on board cruise ships. Music has always been a passion and a natural part of our lives so the children were exposed to it from infancy.

It is a common occurrence that children will imitate the behavior of their parents and that seems to be what has naturally occurred. Of course, we offered to teach the kids how to play various instruments from when they were very young, but never insisted that they do so. We did say that if they wanted to participate in performances that they would have to take lessons and practice but that decision was left with each child. As they have matured and shown the dedication to learning and loving music, we have actively searched for venues that could accommodate our growing family band.

Making the decision to transition the Alaska String Band from a local music group to a full-time performing ensemble was slow and somewhat agonizing. We both reached a point of overload where we realized that Paul could no longer work full time as an Alaska State Parks employee and run his own excavating business, while Melissa oversaw the home and education of our children. At the same time the Band continued to increase its schedule to the point that nothing was being done well. We spent months discussing our visions and goals, talking with friends whom we felt could offer sound council, and praying for direction.

We asked ourselves tough questions such as: When I am really, really, old (a lot older than I am now) will I have any regrets of not following my dream? If we give up the security that a full time position with the State of Alaska including benefits provides, in exchange for only a year or possibly two to pursue this musical dream with our children, will it have been worth it? We always consulted the children on their desires as well. A good Juneau friend offered us this helpful gem; “God is not in the habit of showing you the net until after you jump…” We are a year and a half past the point of no return, and we have no regrets.

Inspire(d): What Inspire(d) you all to start playing music as a family, and perhaps more importantly continues to inspire you to keep playing together?

Z: In the process of becoming a family string band we have discovered that it not only feeds our musical passions but also knits us closely together. We share a common dream, which includes success and failure, fear and courage, totally cush gigs and crummy hardships, frustrations, disappointments and delights, humor, humility and pride, and of course faith, hope and love.

Wherever we perform there are comments that continue to spur us on: “Thank you for being willing to share your faith publicly. Don’t ever stop doing what you’re doing!! What do you really do for work?!? Do your kids ever fight? You guys are shredders!! Do you sleep in the refrigerator to keep warm?”
Melissa was originally inspired with the family string band idea by seeing the McLain Family Band perform ( when she was a child in Juneau.

Other inspirations have been “The Sound of Music” – which leaves one wanting… Wanting to know the rest of the story, which our family discovered when we read aloud “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” by Maria Augusta Trapp. In addition The Von Trapp Children – today’s great, great grandchildren of Captain George and Maria Augusta Von Trapp – have been fun for us to read about and see in concert. Another read-aloud that our family enjoyed was “Don’t Think It Hasn’t Been Fun: The Story of the Burke Family Singers” by Sarah Jo Burke.
Finally, music is eternal. There will always be one more song to sing, one more genre of music to aspire to. We will never arrive, but are continually led on to greater depths of feeling and communication through the exploration of music. Ultimately it is our Creator who inspires and enables us to continue to sing and make music.

Inspire(d): Tell us about home schooling your kids. What has that been like in addition to keeping up performances and a national touring schedule?

Z: Laura, Quinn and Abigail have been educated at home from infancy. Alaska hosts a large population of home-schooled students and the state has been very accommodating to this form of education as the remoteness of many homes inhibits public school access. Our children are currently enrolled in a state funded correspondence school that provides certified teachers, guidance counselors, yearly state mandated testing, educational resources, and an accredited high school graduation ceremony. We choose the curriculum that best suits each child’s course of study and teach it ourselves. Laura is our first high school graduate having received her diploma in May of 2009.

The transition of schooling at home to schooling on the road is seamless. It’s just as hard on the road as off! Staying disciplined and focused at home has proven to be as difficult as studying in the midst of travel. There will always be a million distractions no matter what our circumstances are. When the Alaska String Band is faced with a split decision the kids get three votes, Mom and Dad get 10.

A few techniques we have found that seem to foster better study habits are: Feed the kids, Academics first. Study in the morning and practice music no later than 6:00 p.m. if possible. Separate the kids – this can be a challenge in a 40-foot bus, but if left together in too close of proximity without fairly close supervision they act just like every other school kid in America. While traveling use a tippy cup – or your essay on “Bus Dwellers Across America” will be coated in Gatorade. Avoid study or practice/rehearsal outside the bus – due to the public arena that we are immersed in while touring we have found it is just about impossible to work without interruption if we are outside the confines of the bus. People love t

o visit with us and are naturally curious about what we are doing. They also love to talk about Alaska if they have been there themselves or ask us what it is like. We love to do this but find it has to be separated from school and work responsibilities.

This touring experience touches on all aspects of education and richens their awareness in ways that a textbook cannot. Often the children will study on weekends, at odd hours and through holidays knowing that there will be interruptions in the coming days on the road.

Inspire(d): Tell us how you came to be the proud owners of a tour bus and any favorite bus stories from the gang.

Z: When we began dreaming up our first national tour we all agreed that a bus would best accommodate our needs and desires. Old of course was a prerequisite due to our “vast” financial resources and all the derelict busses around Juneau were spoken for, so we surfed the Internet. Eventually Paul came across a 1978 MCI 8 which appeared to fit our criteria. It was located in Missouri and had been converted by a contractor who had used it for his own family’s RV. Paul carried on correspondence via email for quite a while and in the end it was a huge step of trust in an unknown, but thankfully genuine and honest cyber seller.

We packed up an excessive amount of tour gear which included all things relating to music performance, school and recreation and which we were sure all music stars would find necessary, hopped on an Alaska Airlines jet and flew to Chicago where we rented a car and drove the rest of the way to our bus’s home in Eureka, Missouri, then hit the road. As we are currently into our fourth cross-country tour, our bus is maintaining consistent performance. Gas mileage: five miles per gallon, down hill with a tail wind traveling south. On an average we end up in the maintenance shop once per tour.

Late one evening while driving down the Crooked Road – Heritage Music trail in Virginia, Quinn recalls one hysterically funny escapade. It was a dusty drive and the windshield had coated over with a pretty heavy layer of cruddy mud. Paul saw a toll booth rapidly approaching and yelled, “Somebody fill the largest bowl you can find with water and as soon as I stop at the toll booth I want one of you kids to jump out and rinse off the windshield for me so that I can see properly!” Quinn was the quickest responder and as we rolled to a stop he jumped down and crossed in front of the bus. He gave a good heave to the bowl of water. The water flew up in an arc then swooshed down with a huge splash through the open tollbooth window, drenching the attendant and filling the change drawer and his lap with water. Quinn shot back into the bus and dove to the darkened recess of the furthest back room. He didn’t surface for quite some time. Melissa and the girls were howling with laughter and Paul was left trying to explain to a shocked tollbooth operator the purpose of his 14-year-old son’s agua ambush.

Inspire(d): What would the “ultimate show” be?

Z: Garrison Keilor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” a round-the-world music tour, Carnegie Hall, or Sarah Palin’s presidential inauguration.

Inspire(d): Can you tell us about the musical advantages of being a family band?

Z: Quinn would most definitely say the food. We would say living and raising a family in Alaska is an amazing opportunity. Our remote location in Juneau, which can only be accessed by air or water, poses some serious restrictions on travel. We have found that the travel afforded by the entertainment industry has been an incredible boon. Young pickers also learn faster and are more nimble than their elders and they breathe new life into old songs.

Singing in harmony is an ongoing challenge. It’s a spine tingling moment when the pitches meld together so perfectly that the harmonics buzz in your ear. Because we are family our voices naturally sound similar and identical phrasing and breathing becomes intuitive. We do not personally detect a difference in our blend compared to other musical groups that are not tied by blood, however many who have heard us sing do say we possess a sound heard only in family ensembles.

Inspire(d): What has the biggest highlight of the past year been – musically, and non-musically?

Z: Completing a summer season of Southeast Alaskan Odyssey Shows in our homeport of Juneau on board Norwegian and Holland America Cruise lines. Doing a chapel service as well as the Southeast Alaskan Odyssey Show in the 2500 seat Belcher Center for the Arts at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, one day and giving an Alaskan String Band performance at Curtis Rountree’s Bluegrass Pickin’ Place in Lonestar, Texas, the following day. Sharing stages across the country with other awe inspiring musicians as well as meeting other family string bands who are following a similar dream. Enjoying untracked deep powder slopes at the Eaglecrest ski area in Juneau during a record breaking 20-foot snow fall winter followed up with a summer of record-breaking sunny days and warm temperatures in our rainforest home.

Inspire(d): What is the temperature out right now where you are, and what was the last wildlife that any of you saw before answering these questions?

Z: We are on North Padre Island, on the Gulf of Mexico in southern Texas. It is 73 degrees Fahrenheit.

Abigail: a jackrabbit
Laura: a sand crab
Quinn: a sea worm
Melissa: a pelican
Paul: an out-of-control Texas road hog

Inspire(d): What do you miss the most about home and Alaska when you are not

Z: Family, friends, regular aerobic exercise, excellent mountain drinking water, our spacious home, pristine wilderness, abundant wildlife, and alpine meadows.

In response to one of Quinn’s Vocational Tech classroom assignments Quinn is currently keeping a travel blog entitled Quinn’s Extraordinary Travel Ramblings. This is an ongoing account of his adventures with the Alaska String Band and can be accessed via the Alaska String Band website

Benji Nichols is completely inspire(d) by the Zahasky family and their adventures. He also has to thank his Dad, Paul Nichols, for tipping him off about the Alaska String Band. Benji is no stranger to old busses and touring – and looks forward to more escapades to come, along with the comforting hum of a diesel generator lullaby…

Get in the Rink: Rollerderby!

Strap on your quads; We’re goin’ derby

By Aryn Henning Nichols . Photo by Studio J Photography

Photo by Studio J PhotographyBy day she’s the housewife. The attorney. The writer, the stylist, the chef. She moves with confidence, a fresh bruise merely a reminder of her latest battle, and like a rogue superhero, she can’t wait to pull on her fishnets and hot pants, slap on some red lipstick and get back in the rink to kick some derby ass. It’s just the way she rolls.

In a post-feminist era where romance is no longer a dirty word, but yes, the lady still just might want to mow the lawn, roller derby seems a natural fit. It rides a line between burlesque and brawn: the girls are sexy AND tough. They come together from all kinds of backgrounds and in all kinds of packages, united by their love of all things derby. Or they just like beating the crap out of each other while on old school quad skates. Either way, it’s not exactly your grandmother’s roller race.

Inducted in the 1930s by Chicago businessman Leo Seltzer, roller derby experienced a series of highs, lows, and evolutions over the decades until the 60s and 70s when the spectacle of it took precedent over the sport. Roller derby’s popularity fizzled out. Revival efforts didn’t take until 2001 when a group of Texas women pulled it out of its grave and gave it a whole new look.

The game goes like this: Two teams of five players are on the track, each with one jammer (she has a star on her helmet and is the one who scores) and four blockers (the blocker with a stripe on her helmet, the pivot, leads her blockers). For every opponent the jammer passes, her team scores a point. But short of throwing elbows or making human clotheslines, these girls are doing everything they can to keep the opposing jammer back and get their jammer through.

“One of the reasons roller derby is so popular is because of the explosive, fantastic combination of sport, entertainment, female aggression, and (dare I say it?) sex appeal,” says Decorah native Regan (Johnson) Jacobsen. “Let me be explicit – this is a real, full-contact sport.”

Jacobsen, aka Tammy Faye Undertakker or more often, TFU (a tribute to Ms. Tammy Faye Bakker, the late overly-made up televangelist), lives in Madison and has been skating with the Mad Rollin’ Dolls going on four years. For her, all it took was one bout. She wanted in.

“The second I walked in the door I was hooked. I just KNEW I had to do this,” she says. “I didn’t for a second consider the time, the money, the injuries, or the fact that the closest thing I ever played to a sport was marching band.”

The Mad Rollin’ Dolls (MRD), kicking off their sixth season the end of January 2010, were Midwestern pioneers of the sport alongside other leagues like the Minnesota Roller Girls (MNRG). Leagues like these frequently have thousands of people come to see them skate (at a recent MNRG bout, they had nearly 4,000 attendees!), but it definitely took a lot of work getting there. And as with most things, being a pioneer has its pros and cons.

Zara Danz, aka Candi Pain (“I picked my name because it seemed sweet and bad ass. The play on words thing is pretty big with derby names. Also I really like candy!”), has been with the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Roller Girls since day one. She says being one of the first Midwestern teams had some physical perks.

“I decided I wanted to be the one hitting the hardest, not the one getting knocked over. That motivated me,” Danz says. “I was lucky though, because at the point I started it was new to all of us. We were the first league to bring derby to Minnesota. Now when rookies start, they get pounded by seasoned vets.”

Jacobsen says MRD had to blaze a wide trail for leagues that would one day join the ranks.

“Madison didn’t have any blueprints, any mentors, or any limits. That’s been a challenge and also a great responsibility – to help the leagues that formed after us learn from our mistakes, improve on what we did right, and succeed where we have failed,” she says.

According to Jacobsen, everybody has a “fresh meat” story – “I was scared as hell when I started. The first time I went to a practice with ‘veteran’ skaters flying by me on the track on all sides, their wheels clacking up against my wheels… it was terrifying” – but teammates work hard to train new players.

“Derby is very ‘Three Musketeers’ in that regard,” Jacobsen explains. “Don’t get me wrong, we want everyone to improve so it’s more of a challenge to knock them down and more exciting to watch, but we want everyone to improve, regardless. It’s just not fun to knock down someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Ok, it is, but you don’t feel as accomplished.”

Closer to home, smaller cities like La Crosse are founding their own leagues. The La Crosse Skating Sirens, not even one year old yet, look to teams like MRD and MNRG for guidance and advice. Because starting a roller derby league isn’t easy: it’s a business. You need organization, recruits, money. Skating Sirens founder and president Melissa Larivee, aka Skin Kitty, is proud of how far they’ve come in just a few short months. They have great sponsors (“The people who back us, back us.”), skate all their home bouts at a great venue – the La Crosse Center – they have enough members for two teams on their league, and they’re improving on the track.

“We got our asses kicked at our first bout,” Larivee says. “But we’re getting better. We’re losing by less now.”

At the interview, Larivee’s left wrist is in a cast, and her nose is healing nicely after a dirty bout punch, she says.

“She’s our league clutz,” jokes Skating Sirens vice president Marghie Arttus, aka Hiss’n Kitten.

“No, I’m just aggressive,” Larivee retorts. The two agree they are complete opposites, but because of derby, they’re best friends.

“It’s all about the comraderie,” Larivee says. “We want women to have a place to go to be athletic and skate. Women can dominate this sport. It does take a certain kind of woman, you just don’t know who that is exactly. There isn’t a stereotype for it. You can have your basketball star and your Goth out there on the track together. But I think it’s popular because it’s all women – the guys are in the minority.”

So the fact that men’s leagues are starting to form across the nation naturally raises the derby dander a bit. Jacobsen explains.

“When I first heard about men’s derby leagues popping up, I was upset. I felt, “Can’t we just have one thing!?” because women have traditionally been so excluded from sports; and women’s sports and women athletes are not given the same clout or attention as men’s sports and male athletes. I was afraid men’s roller derby would surpass women’s derby in popularity and co-opt all the hard work derby leagues have done to popularize the sport and bring it into the mainstream.”

She continues, “But, then I saw men playing roller derby… let’s just say my fears were waylayed. It’s an entirely different animal than all-female derby. And also, derby is fun. I don’t want to discourage anyone from having fun, working out, and participating in a community. Seriously, though, have you ever seen a six-foot tall man with hairy legs in hot pants? Yikes.”

Beside men, the derby leagues all have their rivals. For Danz, it’s the Mad Rollin’ Dolls.

“As far as our Allstar traveling team, our biggest rivals would be Madison,” Danz says. “Madison has an amazing league! We have a fantastic fun-loving border battle with them.”

MNRG has four home teams that play each other, and Danz is the captain of the Dagger Dolls. “I think this year we’ll be the force to be reckoned with. We have some amazing rookies and killer vets!”

MRD has six teams in their league, and Jacobsen skates for the Unholy Rollers. She’s her own biggest rival (“I am constantly trying to improve my game”), followed by MRD’s Reservoir Dolls. (“There is no team I enjoy beating more than the Res Dolls.”)

The Skating Sirens are still figuring out their opponents. “We don’t have any real rivals yet,” Arttus says. “Although we’ve played some pretty dirty skaters, most everyone is having fun.”

Fun is the emphasis for skaters and attendees at derby bouts.

“Everyone goes to see derby,” Danz says. “There are bands, games, giveaways, food and delicious PBR! I think there is a serious cool and fun factor that nothing else out there has. I could go on and on. Roller derby fever is contagious!”

Perhaps it’s the short skirts and stockings. The racy names. Or the motley crew that is the roller derby norm. But it truly does seem to kick ass.

“Derby is like the Island of Misfit Toys for grown-ups,” Jacobsen says. “We’re all a little nutty, injured, socially inept, what have you, but we came together because no one else would accept us or no one else was doing what appealed to us. We accept each other for better or for worse, and together we make something phenomenal.”

Aryn Henning Nichols thinks it would be amazing to start a Decorah derby league. I mean, WTFDA rhymes with UFFDA…can you think of a better sign? Now…to find the time…