It’s 16 degrees below zero as the sun rises over Lake Superior, but more than one well-bundled figure stands behind a tripod along the rocky shore. As the sky brightens to a gold-kissed blue, vapor appears in great wispy curls over the lake’s calm surface. This is the area’s famous sea smoke, an ethereal pleasure reserved for early risers in Grand Marais, a town of about 1,400 two hours northeast of Duluth, Minnesota.
It’s one of many cold-weather shows in November and December, when storms coat trees and cobblestones in glassy ice and waterfalls up and down the shore begin their transformation into icicles. Along Grand Marais’ Artists Point, winter’s first winds drive waves to carve memorably named formations such as pancake ice (akin to lily pads) or ice hummocks (resembling layers of broken glass).
“It’s the premier destination for winter photography in the Midwest,” local photographer Bryan Hansel says. “You get this vibrant blue ice, and the fiery colors of sunrise and sunset.”
In keeping with the climate, high fashion here includes Norwegian sweaters, burly beards and mukluks (hand-stitched leather and fur boots), often made at the town’s largest human-built attraction, the North House Folk School. Classes tap Nordic heritage, channel practical do-it-yourself craftsmanship and celebrate the way humans live from, and with, the land.
The sharp scent of sawdust and the toasty heat of a woodstove push back the cold as a door opens into a well-lit workshop at the school. Conversations rise above the murmur of spinning wheels and the rhythmic clack-clack of looms as students learn to turn raw wool into simple rugs. Other classes—lasting from a half-day to two weeks—explore forge welding a knife blade, knitting Sami mittens, lathe-turning bowls and building canoes.
“The interest in handcraft grows every year,” program director Jessa Frost says. “I think there’s a real hunger for authenticity.”
North House Folk School class
After a day in the school’s warmth, students gather along the harbor to watch the sunset illuminate the ice, shot through with cracks.
Incredibly, the ice vanishes overnight, whisked away by the wind and current, leaving a calm Great Lake shrouded in sea fog. The lesson is clear: If you covet the beauty of a Northern winter, don’t delay in getting here. Even in cold this deep, time is never truly frozen.
The story behind sea smoke
Think of coffee steaming on a Great Lakes scale. Frigid air meets moist, warmer (relatively) air just above the open water, and presto! Steam spreads over hundreds of acres.
Winter getaway in Grand Marais
Get schooled In addition to a packed class schedule, the North House Folk School hosts the Winterer’s Gathering and Arctic Film Festival (November 18–20). northhouse.org
North House Folk School
Hit the trails Some of Cook County’s 400 kilometers of groomed ski trails enter Superior National Forest. Drive the Gunflint Trail to spot moose at roadside salt licks. fs.usda.gov/superior; superiorbyways.com
Nosh up North The Harbor House Grille serves a classic walleye/wild rice combo and a veggie walnut burger with blueberry ketchup. Angry Trout Cafe is a must for local fish. harborhousegrille.com; angrytroutcafe.com
Raise a glass Pair the Trailbreaker Belgian wheat with cheese-and-ale fondue at Voyageur Brewing Company. Catch live music Wednesday through Sunday at Gunflint Tavern. voyageurbrewing.com; gunflinttavern.com
Voyageur Brewing Company
More area information: visitcookcounty.com