MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Learning vacations

Living in a lighthouse

Around the Great Lakes, volunteers keep the light on for tourists.

Around the Great Lakes, love for lighthouses is unlimited. Often called "America's castles,'' lighthouses are symbols of a more adventurous era, and tourists find them irresistible.

Now, the state parks and friends associations who care for them have found a way to harness all this passion: They're turning tourists into volunteer keepers. 

For a week or two, volunteers live at the lighthouse, hosting visitors and doing chores. Some get to sleep under quilts in the historic keepers' quarters.

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Schools of know-how

Go away for a relaxing weekend and come home with a new skill.

In this part of the country, the do-it-yourself movement is alive and well.

Folk schools in Minnesota are thriving, with dozens of workshops offered. In canoe country, you can learn winter photography one weekend at the Ely Folk School, and animal tracking the next.

In bluff country near Lanesboro, take a class at the Eagle Bluff Skills School on cheese-making or Amish bread-baking.

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Whitewater 101

On the Wolf River in northeast Wisconsin, novice kayakers learn the moves at Bear Paw resort.

Whitewater paddlers are, by definition, thrill-seekers.

That's why they seek out the northeast corner of Wisconsin, "the cradle of rivers.'' The big Wisconsin River starts there, as do the Wolf, Peshtigo and Menominee, three of the Upper Midwest's best-known whitewater rivers.

On the Wolf River, Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure Resort has been a whitewater hub since 1994, selling gear to expert wranglers and teaching novices how to handle the rapids that churn over knots of boulders dropped by the last glacier.

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Classroom in the Clearing

In a tranquil Door County forest, students gather to reflect and learn.

In a cedar and pine forest on Lake Michigan, moments of illumination fly around like sparks off a campfire.

The best way to capture sunrise on film. Handy techniques for depicting shadow in watercolors. How to harness the power of the inner eye.

At the Clearing in Door County, everything becomes clearer.

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Now they're cooking

On weekend getaways, amateur chefs can test their mettle in the kitchen.

If you think you're a pretty good cook, just take a class at a cooking school and see how fast you change your mind.

When I showed up at L'ecole de la Maison at the Osthoff Resort, 18 detailed recipes were awaiting our group of eight students.

Everything had to be made from scratch: sheets of pasta and two sauces for the seafood rotolo, rolled cheese crisps for the salad, ladyfingers for the tiramisu. The ciabatta bread, too.

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Capturing winter's beauty

In photography workshops, learn how to translate snow and ice into stunning images.

Nothing is more photogenic than winter.

You've got icicles dripping off cliffs, trees covered with hoarfrost and pancake ice floating on harbors. But how do you capture all that?

As anyone who’s tried winter photography knows, it’s no snap.

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Foot to the floor in Elkhart Lake

In this eastern Wisconsin resort town, unleash your inner speed demon.

Thanks to the last glacier, Elkhart Lake is amply endowed with curves — just the kind of curves a race-car driver appreciates.

In 1949, the old lake-resort town was struggling. Then millionaire sportsman Jim Kimberly, scion of the Kimberly-Clark paper fortune in Neenah, began looking for a local place to race his cars.

He and three buddies, including Fred Wacker of the prominent Chicago family, chartered a plane and circled the forested kettle moraine west of Sheboygan. They found exactly what they were looking for in the undulating curves and swells of the roads around Elkhart Lake.

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Slinging cement in Mineral Point

In a historic Wisconsin village, students follow some dusty footprints.

In southwest Wisconsin, it is natural that people gather in Mineral Point to smash plates, snip glass and cover themselves in cement dust.

Not far to the west, a German-born priest built the Dickeyville Grotto from conch shells, china cups, quartz, petrified rocks and glass.

Just to the east, an Austrian-born cheesemaker encrusted his house with glass "jewels'' and filled his yard with concrete fairy-tale figures.

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Taking another swing

At summer sports camps, grown-ups dust off old skills or learn new ones.

I coulda been a contender.

I played tennis as a kid, teaching myself on the courts near my house, and I played on my high school girls’ tennis team, which, while not very competitive, had an actual coach thanks to Title IX.

But I never took lessons, and after high school, my budding skills slid into disuse. The years passed and I became a has-been, with nothing to look forward to but the senior varsity.

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Language camp for adults

In the woods of northern Minnesota, learners are immersed in world cultures.

It had become a summer tradition: Drive my daughter up north to her German camp at Concordia Language Villages, look enviously around the fabulous campus and whine that adults should get to come, too.

Someone was listening. One day, a flier arrived at my house, announcing the first French and German adult weeks. As it turns out, others had whined, too.

"We've got these millions and millions of dollars' worth of facilities, and we want to use them,'' said Larry Saukko, dean of the Finnish and academic-year German programs.

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Volunteer vacations

Sign up to work in a lighthouse, study wolves or join the fur trade.

Around Lake Superior, you have to act fast to reserve a vacation mowing lawns or combing the ground for bones.

It may not sound glamorous, but the lawns are at lighthouses, and the moose bones are in the backcountry of Isle Royale National Park, where volunteers may be tutored by famous Wolf-Moose Project researchers Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich.

You may not get to take a lot of hot showers, but oh, the stories you’ll tell.

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