One of the nation's top folk art schools is just warming up when winter's stark beauty comes to Grand Marais.
Grand Marais
Grand Marais
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

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
Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

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.

North House Folk School
North House Folk School
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

Winter getaway in Grand Marais

Get schooled

In addition to classes, the North House Folk School typically hosts events such as Winterers' Gathering and Arctic Film Fest (November 17-20, 2022).

Party up a storm

The Lake Superior Storm Festival includes events throughout November such as a wave dash, storm painting classes, storm trivia radio show and Gales of November mystery dinner.

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.

Voyageur Brewing Company Grand Marais
Voyageur Brewing Company
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

Eat and drink up North

Angry Trout Cafe is a must for local fish. Large fry bread tacos drizzled with house chipotle sour cream make for deliciously filling meals at Hungry Hippie Tacos.

Pair the Trailbreaker Belgian wheat with cheese-and-ale fondue at Voyageur Brewing Company. Catch live music select evenings at Gunflint Tavern.

Sleep by the lake 

Both East Bay Suites and wallet-friendly Best Western Plus Superior Inn offer lake views and convenient locations.

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