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 September, when the air turns crisp, everyone starts thinking the same thing: Time to plan a weekend trip.
is a great time to try out a new bike trail, not only because of fall
colors and invigorating weather but because so many small towns throw
harvest festivals in September and October.
Since trails go right through towns, bicycle tourists are right in the middle of the action but not the traffic jams.
In this part of the world, fall is sweet but way too short.
All of the quaint little towns along rivers and in the bluffs have to pack their autumn festivals into the same six weekends, rolling out parades, pumpkin contests and oompah bands for all the leaf-peeping tourists.
choices are paralyzing. Flea market or scarecrow contest? Pumpkin regatta or studio tour? Yodeling contest or dachshund races?
In general, I like my heritage. It involves Vikings and trolls and populist politics. At festivals, tow-headed children dance around in cute outfits.
But the food . . . not so much. When it comes to herring and lutefisk, I'd rather be Polish. Plump pierogi with sour cream and sauteed onions now, there's an ethnic food I can love.
Luckily, it's easy to piggyback on other cultures in the Upper Midwest. Yes, many of us came from Germany, Ireland and Norway.
Fall is made for festivals. It's harvest time, and the fields and orchards are overflowing. Trees turn red and gold. And it's the last time we'll enjoy warm weather until spring.
The many people who heed the urge to get out and
about on crisp autumn weekends make it the busiest tourist season of
Any town that can hold a fall festival does, and well-established ones, such as Bayfield's Apple Festival (see Big apples), become almost too popular.
When fall arrives, we get a sudden urge to hoist a stein of beer, eat a grilled bratwurst and listen to red-cheeked men in little felt hats play the accordion.
Fall belongs to the Germans, who streamed into the Upper Midwest in the 1850s and still are the largest ethnic group in every state. Which is a good thing, because Germans like to have fun.
In October 1810, they had so much fun at the wedding of Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen and Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, held in a meadow near Munich, that they decided to do it every year.
As soon as rhubarb leaves unfurl and morels pop out of the ground, towns across the region begin their salutes to the local specialty.
It starts with Norwegian lefse on Syttende Mai and continues to Finnish pasties, German pretzels, Czech kolacky, Danish pancakes and American pie.
There will be music and parades and all kinds of goofy contests rhubarb-stalk throwing in Lanesboro, the rutabaga shot put in Calumet but mostly, there will be a lot to eat.
When summer comes, there's no time to waste.
Everyone is throwing a party, and you're invited.
For even more festivals, see Celebrating roots, a comprehensive list of ethnic festivals.
In the small Wisconsin town of Stoughton, red, white and blue flags fly everywhere on Independence Day.
Except here, the patriotic holiday is celebrated in May, and the flag is Norwegian, not American.
Norway had been under Denmark's heel for more than 400 years when it signed a new democratic constitution on May 17, 1814, a day that became known as Syttende Mai.
First, an elf sashayed down the street.
Behind him marched adults in bunads, the traditional Norwegian folk costume, and two shaggy little boys wearing the long noses, beards and tails of trolls.
Baton twirlers, roller-limbo skaters, polka dancers, folk dancers, fiddlers, buglers and queens of all kinds followed, lobbing torrents of Tootsie Rolls and hard candy to the crowd along the route.
We've got plenty of real heroes to celebrate in the Upper Midwest.
There are festivals honoring writers Sinclair Lewis and Laura Ingalls Wilder and musicians Bix Beiderbecke and Bob Dylan. From fiction, we celebrate Heidi, Paul Bunyan and William Tell.
But in some towns, an earthbound festival just doesn't cut it.
In Bayfield, Wis., the apple has mushroomed.
In 1961, the apple was the object of a small village festival. Today, it draws 60,000 people to a fall blowout featuring all things apple fritters, sundaes, dumplings, pies and apple-cheeked children.
On northern Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula, Apple Festival is nearly as revered as motherhood.
It's no secret there's buried treasure right here in Minnesota.
It's in every gravel pit, along every railroad track, on every beach. All you have to do is look to find a Lake Superior agate, Minnesota's official state gemstone.
And every July, agates also can be found spread over Moose Lake's main street 400 pounds of them, some even polished, hidden along with 2,000 quarters in 4 tons of rock.
The Cornish have been good to Mineral Point.
In the 1830s, skilled tin miners from Cornwall, England, came to southwest Wisconsin, replacing the rough frontiersmen whose "badger'' digs gave the state a nickname but the town an unsavory atmosphere.
"They'd start fights just for entertainment,'' said Lisa Kreul, a tour guide at the historic site Pendarvis. "Not until the Cornish came in 1837 did the town start to settle down.''
It's a wonder that we love the Norwegians so much, considering the food they brought from the old country.
Lutefisk, or dried cod soaked in lye? Rømmegrøt, a butter-soaked cream pudding that should be called heart-attack-in-a-cup?
We forgive Norwegians because they have a sense of humor about everything, including their food (O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma. O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma. You smell so strong, you look like glue, you taste yust like an overshoe.")
In the Upper Midwest, it's hard to know when spring starts.
On St. Patrick's Day, revelers may parade in sun or sleet; you have to be prepared for both. In the north woods, ski slopes hold spring luaus, carnivals and egg hunts, and skiers had better slather on the sun block or they'll burn.
March is the month for expos antiques, autos, gardens, golf, pets and sports and for tastings of beer, wine and cheese. Birding festivals start in April, and in May the flowers start popping out and festival season starts in earnest.
When a small town is about as pleasing as can be, what else can it do?
Why, make sure everyone notices, of course.
In 1972, an old Yankee mill town just north of Milwaukee started a Wine & Harvest Festival. Two years later, it started Winter Festival.
For a long time, the people of Superior, Wis., observed mostly Scandinavian traditions.
And then the dragons arrived.
In China, the works of poet Qu Yuan inspired dragon-boat races, which are held worldwide and have been popular in Canada for many years.
Have you ever had enough bacon?
If not, you can get your chance at a rasher of pork parties around the region. At Des Moines' Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival one year, a Nebraska woman put away 2½ pounds in less than five minutes.
If you're wondering how the bacon boom started, Business Week can give you the official answer. It has to do with pork-belly futures (seriously).
By April, the harbingers of spring are on the move.
"The spring migration is well underway!'' comes the report from wildlife refuges. "Eagles and swans, Canada geese, robins, sparrows, sandhills cranes have arrived!''
are birds, there are birders and bird festivals. Those are especially
nice for beginners, who dont yet have the skills to find and identify
True northerners don't let cold weather keep them indoors, not when they could be out on the ice playing broomball and bowling turkeys.
Many festivals in winter are held on frozen lakes, the best place for kite-flying, ice golf and hot-air balloon lift-offs. In northern Minnesota, an ice-house city goes up on Leech Lake for the goofy Eelpout Festival in February.
In parks, elaborate ice and snow sculptures entertain passersby. On rivers, buses take tourists to see bald eagles. Bonfires and hot chocolate are offered everywhere.
Like most women who take care of small creatures, Karla Bloem splits her life into two parts: Before Alice and After Alice.
Before Alice, Bloem could sleep late and travel whenever she felt like it.
But then little Alice came along. Alice wakes her up at the crack of dawn, sulks if she leaves her and leaves messes all over the house. Alice is a spoiled brat, Karla Bloem admits.
On a beautiful summer day in Milwaukee, history's underdogs were having a ball.
They were listening to pianists play Chopin. They were dancing an exuberant style of polka. They were tucking into pierogi and paczki.
Call it payback time for Poles.
Even in a region rich in ethnicity, the Dutch stand out.
In a town square in Iowa, lacy white hats shaped like pyramids, horns and half-moons bob high atop women's heads. Men wear black caps, breeches or baggy trousers and narrow bands cross at their throats. Their wooden shoes click and clack as they dance.
"These are the weirdest people I've ever seen!'' shrieked a little boy watching from the sidelines.
When people in Wisconsin are happy, they throw things and were not just talking confetti.
For New Years Eve celebrations in Prairie du Chien, farther down the river, a frozen 29-pound carp called Lucky drops 100 feet after everyone's had a chance to kiss him first. In Plymouth, an 80-pound wedge of cheese drops 100 feet at midnight.
If you feel like acting ridiculous this winter, any number of festivals will reward you for doing it.
You can race a bed, bowl turkeys, toss fish or ride cardboard sleds.
Where you find one weird competition, you'll likely find others. Here are some of the best in 2017.
Oh, the joy of being German.
There's no question that Germans know how to have a good time. After all, they've given the world Oktoberfest, half-gallon steins and "The Little Chicken Dance.''
And what else? Beer, of course, the enjoyment of which is a God-given right to Germans; their adage "Hopfen und Malz, Gott erhalts'' roughly translates as "Malt and hops, to God, are tops.''
There's no use hiding from winter it lasts too long, and eventually that living room will get old.
Many of the tourist spots we love to visit in summer work hard to lure us back when it's cold, offering festivals with lots of fun in the snow, plus bonfires and chili feeds to warm us up afterward.
For an exciting spectator event, watch the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth or the Crashed Ice extreme skating in St. Paul.
If you've ever seen "The Wizard of Oz,'' you probably love hot-air balloons.
They're great and powerful and definitely eye-filling. And they're coming to a festival near you.
See balloon launches and, at night, a "glow'' as the balloons are lighted. At many festivals, the public can go on tethered-balloon rides, and at some, private companies offer flights over the countryside.
For many people, the Minnesota River Valley is full of shadows.
In 1862, years of greed and misunderstanding erupted into a clash that cost settlers their lives, the Dakota their homeland and a new state its innocence. Even today, the valley's lush peacefulness is undercut by anger and guilt.
But on the first weekend of August, people of indigenous and European descent alike come to Upper Sioux Agency State Park to have a good time. At a wacipi, or powwow, the tradition of welcoming outsiders has held steady for many generations.