Once, Bemidji was one of the roughest towns in Minnesota. Now, it's one of the coolest.
This is the north-woods logging town that produced the original Paul Bunyan and Babe in 1937, and even today, these figures on Lake Bemidji are rarely without a cluster of tourists at their feet.
Look beyond this iconic but corny duo, as the visitors bureau fervently hopes you do, and you'll find everything else a tourist heart could desire a gorgeous state park, a paved bicycle trail, a professional playhouse, fine restaurants and shops.
In the middle of Minnesota's vacation land, the lakes go from big to bigger.
There's Girl Lake and Woman Lake, with the biggest woman of all, Paul Bunyan's 17-foot "wife'' Lucette Kensack, standing on the shores of Birch Lake in Hackensack.
Looming to the north is giant Leech Lake, the third-largest in Minnesota, and the town of Walker. Fishermen know it for giant muskies; bicyclists know it as the hub of the Paul Bunyan-Heartland-Migizi trail system, now the state's longest.
In 1896, a St. Paul man named J.A. Berkey came to Minnesota's Leech Lake, threw out his line and reeled in a whole new industry.
"He set up white tents for some men from Kansas City, who fished their guts out and said, 'Were going back and telling everyone, said Renee Geving, director of the Cass County Museum.
The hook was set. Over the years, Leech Lakes reputation as a fishing hole grew as big as its muskies, which can be huge.
On the first Sunday in August, hundreds of people clog the only street of the Restaurant Capital of the World.
Tiny Dorset claimed that title because its restaurants outnumber its houses. Still, the eateries in this lakes-country oasis will be hard-pressed to make enough quesadillas and snowball sundaes for everyone who wants one at Taste of Dorset.
During the festival, the town raffles off its mayor job (maybe that's where Rod Blagojevich got the idea). One year, I spent $1 and voted for myself, but a kindergartner from Chicago won. Hmmm.
In Bemidji, three faces tell much of the town's story.
Chief Bemidji stands facing the lake the Ojibwe called Bemidgegumaug, or "river flowing crosswise. His real name was Shaynowishkung, and he fed the white people who settled on the lake's shores in 1888.
Their settlement became the first town on the Mississippi, which starts 35 miles away in Itasca State Park, winds north to Bemidji, flows through its lake and heads east before finally turning south.
On lazy summer days, Walker is a classic northwoods Minnesota town.
I've been going to a lake resort near there with my family for years. We ride our bikes into town on the Heartland State Trail, eat ice cream at the Village Square and buy muskmelons and corn on the cob from the stand near the gas station.
The pace is slow, serene unless a Crazy Day Sale falls on a cloudy day, in which case the resorts empty and shoppers crowd into the town of 1,100 like sheep to salt.
In the Upper Midwest, there's nothing better than a week at the lake.
But summer or vacation, anyway doesn't last long. And while there's nothing better than a week, a few days can be almost as good.
My favorite escape is to Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge on Lake Bemidji. Like many of its guests, I first went after dropping off my son at the nearby Concordia Language Villages.
In Minnesota's early days, creating a park was no picnic.
As the public admired the towering pines around Lake Itasca, loggers dreamed of the miles of board feet they could produce.
"No measure was ever more unreasonably harassed and opposed," wrote park founder Jacob Brower. But in 1891, the Legislature gave the people their first state park by one vote.
In winter, only the most dedicated pilgrims make the trip to Itasca, Minnesota's most revered state park.
Yet the park is beautiful without its forest canopy. It's easy to see its bones, the lumpy quilt of knobs and kettles laid down by retreating glaciers.
It's easy to see the 300-year-old pines that escaped loggers. And it's easier to listen to the sassy chatter of a squirrel, the prehistoric croak of a crow, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker.
Ever since it was settled, Park Rapids has been a crossroads for tourists.
The trains that hauled out white pine at the turn of the century brought in summer guests, who were met at the depot by resort owners and taken to the lakes in wagons.
When highways were built, Park Rapids became the gateway to Itasca State Park, 20 miles to the north. After the rail line was abandoned, it became the western trailhead of the Heartland State Trail, one of the nation's first paved bicycle trails.
By rights, the northern Minnesota hamlet of Dorset shouldnt even exist.
Its on the road to nowhere, a mile and a half off the highway that links Park Rapids to Walker. Its not on a lake. It has virtually no houses.
It does, however, have a knack for hyperbole. In the 1920s, it tried "land of clover, the big white potato and the dairy cow.
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.
Played all the usual suspects around the Brainerd Lakes? Throw your clubs in the car and drive a little farther north, west and east, where you'll find half a dozen more great golf courses.
Minnesota National Golf Course is brand-spanking new and determined to be taken seriously.
north of McGregor, halfway between the northern edge of the Brainerd Lakes and Duluth, the course stretches a
breathtaking 7,200 yards from the back tees, making it one of the longest
in the state.
One winter, I went to summer camp.
It was the German-language immersion village in Bemidji, Minn., to which my daughter went for eight years. She always returned starry-eyed and eager to go back: "I wish I could go there year-round,'' she'd say, sighing.
Id always wondered what kind of pixie dust the Concordia Language Villages counselors sprinkled on children. Then Concordia started offering family weekends in winter, and I got to find out.