In Minnesota's north woods, an old logging town is famous for oversized legends.
© Beth Gauper
A statue of Shaynowishkung, a benefactor of Bemidji's first settlers, has been on the lakefront since 1927.
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 Shay-Now-Ish-Kung, 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.
A stern, square-shouldered Paul Bunyan stands a block away, near the visitors center.
When he was built for Bemidji's first Winter Carnival in 1937, the town's lumberjacks were still around, still telling stories of the logging camps that, not long before, had fed the area's magnificent white pines into the maw of the sawmill.
The first Babe the Blue Ox was made of canvas and placed over a truck, whose exhaust pipe was funneled through the nostrils
and made Babe's breaths steam in the cold winter air.
The two were an immediate sensation, earning a page in Life magazine.
The canvas Babe was replaced by a concrete-and-plaster ox in 1939, and she and Paul sparked a mania for giant mascots that
As a piece of Americana, they're irresistible. Over the generations, very few tourists have left Bemidji without a photo of Paul and Babe.
A third giant figure stands across Bemidji Avenue, next to Morell's Chippewa Trading Post. Known at the shop as "Injun Joe,''
he's naked from the waist up, has a single feather stuck in a headband and raises a stiff arm in a "How'' salute.
With his presence, unwelcome to some in Bemidji, Injun Joe is a remnant of the historically uneasy relationship between the town and the Ojibwe residents of the nearby White Earth Reservation.
But things have changed, and these days, many shop doors bear greetings in Ojibwe, especially "Boozhoo,'' or
For a small town, Bemidji, pop. 13,400, has many layers. One of the last towns in Minnesota to be settled, it retains a frontier feeling despite the presence of a university and the main campus of Concordia Language Villages, which pulls in students, counselors and visitors from around the world.
It's still a logging town, and the home of hard-core fishermen and snowmobilers, but it also has some of the best cross-country ski trails in the state.
Lake Bemidji State Park is a center for silent sports, with naturalist programs, swimming at a long beach facing town and the northern trailhead of the Paul Bunyan State Trail, popular with bicyclists.
In the summer, no matter what the activity, visitors fill their lungs with the bracing air beloved by generations of
windswept North Dakotans and heat-fleeing Southerners.
In the forests, there's a rich, woodsy tang born of balsam fir, pine resin and moist earth; Thoreau called it "the moulding of odors of the soil.''
During the long winters — average ice-out on Lake Bemidji is April 26 — the snow-draped forests are
threaded with trails. At Three Island County Park, skiers glide along 20 kilometers of trails, many of them alongside the
rushing Turtle River.
© Beth Gauper
Every tourist has to stop and take a photo of Paul and Babe.
At Movil Maze, 11 kilometers take advanced skiers on a roller-coaster ride. There are gentler trails in Hobson Memorial Forest, through stands of red pine and along small lakes and bogs across from Concordia Language Villages.
At Lake Bemidji State Park, 17.5 kilometers of ski trails wind through forest and along a ridge above the beach; during candlelight ski tours, the lights of the city, glittering from across the black lake, add to a magical atmosphere.
And Buena Vista Ski Area has 25 kilometers of trails, on which the Finlandia Ski Marathon is held in February.
Buena Vista, which straddles the Laurentian Divide, is a friendly ski area run by a family that’s been living next door
for more than a century, since there was a logging boom town of Buena Vista.
Four chairlifts serve 15 trails, all starting at the top of the ridge that determines whether a raindrop flows to the Arctic
or to the Gulf of Mexico. The view, obviously, is spectacular.
At the bottom of the hill is a re-created logging village with a church, a schoolhouse, a lumberjack hall of fame and a wanigan, a floating cook shack used during log drives. In February, Logging Days pay tribute to the area's logging history.
Bemidji's downtown is a modest collection of brick storefronts that house coffeehouses, pubs, shops and a theater.
The marquee of the renovated 1918 Chief Theater on Beltrami Avenue blinks year-round, with concerts, dance and
community-theater performances in winter. In summer, the professional Paul Bunyan Playhouse presents a slate of
musicals and comedies.
The playhouse was started in 1951 by an impresario who brought in a troupe of New York actors for a season but went broke in a month.
It was long enough to hook Bemidji's citizens, who raised enough money to pay the actors' room and board while they performed
the rest of the season's plays and to pay for their tickets home.
Then, the town raised enough to pay for a season the next year, and the year after that. Now, the Paul Bunyan is Minnesota's oldest professional summer-stock company.
At the southern edge of downtown, a renovated 1910 depot was developed into a restaurant. It was the first of a wave of
renovations and openings in Bemidji, including the Headwaters Science Center, where children carry out their own experiments,
and the Bemidji Community Art Center, in the old Carnegie library on the lake.
Students from the lakeside Bemidji State University put on plays and concerts around town. The Prairie-style Headwaters
School of Music and the Arts shows and sells the work of local and regional artists, and hosts frequent concerts by local
© Beth Gauper
In summer, the professional Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Minnesota's oldest, stages comedies and musicals.
Next door, the Wild Hare Bistro & Coffeehouse shows other works on its slick, contemporary walls.
But not everything in Bemidji is modern. The family-run Bemidji Woolen Mills has been going strong since 1920, still famous for its plaid Paul Bunyan jackets, ear-flap caps and other warm items made in the back, where short tours are given on weekdays.
New is good. But there's no sense in throwing out the Babe with the bathwater.
Trip Tips: Bemidji
2013 events: Jan. 18-27, Polar Daze. July 20-21, Art in the Park. July 31-Aug. 3, Dragon Boat Festival. Oct. 18-20,
First City of Arts Studio Cruise.
Accommodations: Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge, on the northwest corner of Lake Bemidji, has a feel of old-fashioned gentility. It's a full-service resort with a long beach, indoor pool complex and dining room.
It's one of the region's best values; for more, see Last call for lake breaks. In winter, it's a nice place
for outdoors groups to stay.
The newer, lodge-style Hampton Inn &
Suites on the south shore near downtown has a long sandy beach, and rates include a hot breakfast.
On the west shore, the 1910 Villa Calma B&B has four attractive rooms.
Lake Bemidji State Park has four heated camper
cabins, two of them wheelchair-accessible, $50. There's also camping.
Dining: Across the street from the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Brigid's Irish
Pub serves such entrees as Guinness beef stew and shepherd's pie, including a vegetarian version. It also has an
impressive beer list, including craft ale from the local Bemidji Brewing.
Down the street, Tutto Bene Ristorante has a pretty patio and serves seafood and steaks as well as pasta.
Around the corner, the Cabin Coffeehouse & Cafe serves hot dish as well as
soups, sandwiches, salads and pastries.
At Minnesota and Fifth Street, Wild Hare Bistro & Coffeehouse serves
breakfast and lunch Monday-Saturday and has a small back patio.
Raphael’s Bakery, the Minnesota Nice Cafe and the Keg ’n’ Cork also are decent downtown lunch spots.
The prettiest spot to dine is the lakeside Garden Court Grill at Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge, which has a gorgeous view of the
© Beth Gauper
On the Paul Bunyan State Trail, a bicyclist crosses the spot where the Mississippi River leaves Lake Bemidji.
Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji, Minn. In 2013, it's putting on "Guys
on Ice'' June 5-9 and 12-15; "Dancing at Lughnasa'' June 19-23 and 26-29; "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'' July 3-7 and 10-13;
"Boeing Boeing'' July 17-21 and 24-27; and "She Loves Me'' July 31-Aug. 4 and Aug. 7-10.
Lake Bemidji State
Park: It has a year-round naturalist and offers many fun nature programs. Its bog boardwalk is very popular, especially
in June, when the pink showy lady's slippers are blooming.
The annual open house, with free admission, is the first Sunday in June.
In summer, naturalist John Fylpaa gives free, narrated pontoon-boat rides with three themes, Exploring the Mississippi,
Exploring Lake Bemidji and Paul Bunyan's Footprint. Call 218-308-2300 after noon on Tuesdays to reserve a spot.
Sports rentals: BSU rents canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, sailboats and mountain bikes for only $5 an hour at Diamond Point Park, at the end of Fifteenth Street. 218-755-2999.
Paul Bunyan State Trail: The trail starts in Lake
Bemidji State Park and goes all the way to Baxter via Walker. The first seven miles are a scenic cruise around the east shore
of Lake Bemidji.
For more, see Bicycling the Bunyan.
Beaches: There's a small public beach without services on the south shore, next to the Hampton Inn. On the west shore, at 24th Street, Cameron Park has a nice beach with changing rooms and a shower tower.
Diamond Point Park has beaches, one next to a nice playground. On the north shore, Lake Bemidji State Park has a lovely beach.
Cross-country skiing: Pick up maps at the visitors center or any business.
Downhill skiing: Buena Vista is 15 miles north of downtown on County Road 15, 800-777-7958.
Concordia Languages Villages: The
main campus of the world-renowned language-immersion camps are just north of Bemidji.
Information: Bemidji tourism, 800-458-2223. The visitor center on Lake
Bemidji is worth a stop for its display of Paul Bunyan-sized memorabilia and its Fireplace of States.
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