In Minneapolis and Saint Paul, a 10-day celebration called The Great Northern wears the chill of winter like a badge of honor—just in time for Super Bowl LII.

By Timothy Meinch
December 29, 2017
Chefs prep a four-course dinner in the street during The Great Northern’s first celebration last year.

When Eric Dayton looks at the familiar regions of the United States, he sees a glaring omission: East Coast, West Coast, the South and "… where is the North?"

The Minneapolis native-son of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton-avoids framing it as secession from the Midwest. But he's sounding a Gjallarhorn for the North, a region he recognizes in state of mind and spirit as much as geography. It looks like snow-flecked resolve, frozen ponds and a fire in the chest that only the clutches of winter can stoke.

Base camp for this cause is the Twin Cities, which Eric deems the Winter Capital of America. To make his case, last winter he spearheaded The Great Northern, a giant party corralling local traditions and spanning the metro for 10 days. Nearly all events are outside, and this year they build up to February 4, Super Bowl Sunday, when the most-watched event on U.S. television plays out in the new home of the Minnesota Vikings. (The $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium opened in 2016 as a glass-sheeted fortress reflecting the Minneapolis skyline.)

"This is our chance to show the rest of the world who we are," Eric says. "There's no better place to be in winter."

Chefs prep a four-course dinner in the street during The Great Northern's first celebration last year.

Natives in Minnesota's capital preached the same message in 1886 at the first Saint Paul Winter Carnival. For 132 years since, they've embraced the season with ice palaces, fiery parades and mulled wine. "It's spunky. And if it's 20 below zero, it gets really spunky," says Sue Hurley, standing beside a man in shorts on a balmy 28-degree night in Rice Park.

The Great Northern created one big tent for the Saint Paul carnival and two other long-standing pillars: the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships and the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival. Previously sprinkled across the calendar, the three events now align over two weeks. Eric added new attractions, such as a ticketed 100-person meal served in the street and art installations. Saint Paul Winter Carnival this year is extending its celebration by one week to capitalize on the Super Bowl crowd.

Saint Paul Winter Carnival

For many Northerners, though, the pigskin will never compare to sticks on ice. Bundled bodies will flock to Lake Nokomis for the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, free to attend and kicking off The Great Northern. Touted as "hockey the way nature intended," the tourney blends beer tents, family fun, crooked noses and serious competition. Some 2,000 American and Canadian players, both amateurs and retired pros, compete on 25 rinks butted up like dominos. The winning team claims the golden snow shovel. But the real prize is raw nostalgia.

"It's this massive fraternity," says Carson Kipfer of Team Greenwoods. The name came from the street of Carson's childhood home in Wisconsin, with a pond out back. "These pickup games are a huge piece of childhood. That's where the neighborhood hung out."

Photo courtesy of U.S. Pond Hockey Championships

At all these events, knit hats emblazoned with North dot the crowds. They're from Askov Finlayson, an apparel company run by Eric and his brother Andrew (next to their restaurant, The Bachelor Farmer) in Minneapolis' North Loop. The first run of 150 hats disappeared in four days in 2013. Now thousands sell each year, along with other North wear. But it's not just a brand. It's a mission, with a portion of sales funding Keep the North Cold, a campaign to educate youth on climate change. "I don't want the pond hockey championships in 50 years to be the roller hockey championships," Eric says.

To reach that end, his vision for the North isn't about exclusivity. He hopes other states join the charge, and he applauds efforts like Fargo's new North of Normal campaign. But for now, The Great Northern (with a Super Bowl tacked on) makes Minneapolis and Saint Paul an epic rallying point.

Eric Dayton

Catch football fever during The Great Northern at public events like the Super Bowl Live fan fest at Nicollet Mall.

Saint Paul Winter Carnival, January 25–February 10 Rooms in the historical Saint Paul Hotel overlook the heart of festivities in Rice Park.

Saint Paul Winter Carnival

Loppet Ski Festival, February 2–4 Sign up for a competitive cross-country race, or stick to fun and games, like a kubb tournament, snow sculpting or the REI Luminary Party.

Loppet Ski Festival

U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, January 25–28 BYO skates for the family rink, warm up by fire pits at the Labatt beer tent, and then watch the competition.

U.S. Pond Hockey Championships