Learning How to Build a Boat, Forge a Blade and Tan a Hide in Northern Minnesota

At the North House Folk School, traditional craftsmen come together to teach their arts.

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“That’s an Umiak,” Jessa Frost says as she points to a sleek watercraft hanging from the ceiling. Frost, the program director of the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota, finishes describing the boat — its name means “woman’s boat,” and it was used by Inuit women to carry their children while the men hunted in kayaks — then leads us out of the student commons into an uncommonly perfect summer day on the north shore of Lake Superior. Down at the dock, the school’s two-masted schooner, the Hjørdis, creaks in the breeze. Behind us, the sound of metal striking metal rings from the blacksmith shop. North House is a place of dissonant elements — Inuit hunting craft, Norwegian sailboats and forge welding — knitted together by a common theme: keeping alive the North’s traditional crafts.

Given its reputation for snow and cold, not to mention a sizable population of Norwegian and Swedish descendants, northern Minnesota is the perfect place for the school, which is based on the Scandinavian folkehøjskole but has expanded beyond Nordic crafts to include those of the Inuit, the Sami and the French Canadian voyageurs. Its home, Grand Marais, is one of the most picturesque towns anywhere on Lake Superior. Part fishing village, part artists’ colony, it draws tourists by the carload all summer long for its beautiful harbor, its eclectic mix of shops and cafes and its proximity to the Gunflint Trail, the jumping-off point for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Out of this artsy-outdoorsy milieu sprang North House Folk School in the mid-1990s, founded by some local residents, initially to teach wood- strip canoe building and Scandinavian bowl making. But the school quickly filled a desire for experiential learning. As its curriculum grew, so did its campus, which fills a quiet space on the marina behind a fish market, with brightly painted wooden buildings that could stand in for a Swedish vacation town in a pinch.

The feel of the campus is one of a utopian neo-Luddite experiment, one that seems to be working remarkably well way up here on the big lake.

North House’s course offerings have swelled from those first boat- and bowl-making seminars to a catalog that now lists upwards of 300 classes. They range from simple one-day lessons in wood-fired baking to a two-week course in which students build a wooden rowboat seaworthy enough to ply the chilly harbor outside the woodshop. In between are weekend classes in everything from forging a Damascus steel knife and tanning a deer hide to embroidery, cooking and landscape photography. While there are a few full-time staff at the school, many of its teachers are guests who come from greater Minnesota or beyond to pass on their knowledge, like acclaimed nature photographer Layne Kennedy, chef Scott Graden and polar explorer Lonnie Dupre, who lives in Grand Marais when he’s not summiting Denali solo in winter. While a few of their classes demand prerequisite knowledge or experience, most are open to rank beginners who don’t know a chisel from a punch — or an umiak from a kayak. The noncompetitive environment builds assurance and a sense of accomplishment, which can end up being more important than the knowledge a student may have gained. Building a pair of shoes out of deer hide isn’t a skill you can take back to the office on Monday. Confidence is.


The feel of the campus is one of a utopian neo-Luddite experiment, one that seems to be working remarkably well way up here on the big lake. In some ways the scene is reminiscent of a historical reenactment or recreated village, like Plimoth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg. But the students and instructors here aren’t actors dressed up in period costumes. It’s a mix of all ages, from gap-year kids to retirees, hippies to yuppies. Phones aren’t expressly forbidden, but the hard manual work and concentration leaves little time for social media or emails. In the student commons, white-haired embroidery pupils mingle with bearded boat builders and leather-clad blacksmith apprentices pour coffee for fresh-faced college kids. This is a cultural and socioeconomic melting pot of people brought together purely by a desire to get outside of their comfort zones, to rediscover that it’s working with their hands that makes them human. “The most important goal listed in our mission statement is building community,” Frost says. That the crafts taught at North House are “Northern” is not really the point. The North is what they know here, so that’s what they teach. The crafts themselves are merely a vehicle for bigger missions — empowerment and collaboration.

Once a week, the school fires up the outdoor wood oven for a campus-wide pizza dinner over picnic tables by the pebble beach. The days are long here, and the work hard; hand planing a wooden canoe hull or running a forge bellows makes for achy shoulders, especially for the weekend warriors who aren’t used to it. At the end of the meal, everyone chips in on cleanup duty. Someone builds a fire; someone strums a guitar. When the sun goes down, a chill blows in off the lake and, although it’s still August, you can tell winter can’t be far away. This is the North, after all.


This story first appeared in Issue One of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 280 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from seven distinct locations around the world. Subscribe now and receive free shipping on the biannual magazine. Offer expires soon.

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