Bluff land

  • A pocket of Norway

    In northeast Iowa, Decorah still is Norwegian after all these years.

    Of all the immigrant groups, Norwegians perhaps are most sentimental. Generations later, they’re still painting bowls and stitching costumes in the old style and celebrating holidays with foods poor Norwegians ate in the 19th century.

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  • In the land of Norwegians

    Old World traditions come with a wink in the bluff-country burg of Spring Grove.

    At first, the southeast Minnesota town of Spring Grove looks like any other town. There’s a café, an antiques store and a park full of statues. But Spring Grove isn’t ordinary. It’s full of Norwegians. In the park, two bronze men appear to be squabbling; they’re characters in a nationally syndicated comic strip written by a Spring Grove man 50 years before Neil Simon came up with “The Odd Couple.’’

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  • Brigadoon in bluff country

    At Historic Forestville, visitors are transported back to 1899.

    In Minnesota, people value their own history so much that the Minnesota Historical Society was founded nine years before the state itself. No wonder the state's living-history sites are among the best in the nation.

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  • Owl aboard

    In southeast Minnesota, a live-wire named Alice inspired an annual festival.

    Like most women who take care of small creatures, Karla Bloem splits her life into two parts: Before Alice and After Alice. Before Alice, Bloem could sleep late and travel whenever she felt like it. But then little Alice came along. Alice wakes her up at the crack of dawn, sulks if she leaves her and leaves messes all over the house. Alice is a spoiled brat, Karla Bloem admits.

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  • Escape to Eagle Bluff

    A center near Lanesboro welcomes families for weekends filled with nature and good food.

    It was a beautiful fall weekend in Lanesboro, and the streets of this picturesque town in Minnesota’s bluff country were packed with sightseers and bicycle tourists. In fall, Lanesboro is the darling of day-trippers and weekenders. My children and I love it, too. They spent 15 minutes with me in the arts center, I spent 15 minutes with them in the Indian crafts shop, and then we went in-line skating on the paved trail, across the trestle bridge and along the limestone bluffs.

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  • Minnesota's cave country

    In the southeast corner of the state, scratch the surface for a glimpse of splendor.

    Under the cornstalks of Fillmore County, an unusual sculpture garden sits in shadow. Stalagmite topiaries line walkways, alongside pale-green flowstone as translucent as Chinese jade. Stalactite statuettes dangle in artistic arrays. They’re obviously created by a Pollock of rock, a Van Gogh of stone. Yet their genius relies not on the medium — water, applied one drop at a time — but on eons worth of time.

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  • Searching for morels

    When days get warmer, mushroom hunters get ready to root out the wily morel.

    Deep down, every morel hunter believes in divine providence. There's nothing so providential as baskets overflowing with morels, and the taste is so divine hunters dream about it all winter. In spring, they offer a fervent prayer to the mushroom gods: May the fungus be among us. Morels do taste heavenly. But it's the hunt that's so addictive — it's fun to find something for free that's so expensive in stores and restaurants, and it's fun to beat the odds by finding something so notoriously elusive.

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  • Bicycling in bluff country

    In southeast Minnesota, the Root River Trail brings swarms of tourists to scenic villages.

    It was a sunny day in southeastern Minnesota, and everywhere I looked, there were Babes. They were the Fat Bottom Girls Cycle Club from Des Moines, also known as Babes on Bikes, and they were having a swell time riding the smooth, scenic trails of the Root River Valley.

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  • The belle of bluff country

    In southeast Minnesota, tiny Lanesboro pulls in the tourists.

    In an isolated bluff-country valley, reached only by small, winding roads, lies one of Minnesota's favorite getaways. Only 750 people live here, and they can't afford to advertise much, so most visitors come via word of mouth.

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  • By river and trail in Lanesboro

    In summer, head for this bluff-country river town and go with the flow.

    For a hamlet out in nowhere, Lanesboro is picturesquely blessed. Eagles, herons and egrets cruise along the scenic river just to the north, alongside canoeists and kayakers.

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  • Table-hopping in bluff country

    On a culinary adventure to Decorah, we tighten our belts, then let them out.

    Sometimes, we like to travel like kings . . . and paupers, too. I suspect a lot of other people do the same thing. To get what we want, we save on something else. Our favorite splurge is eating out, but a meal for two in a really good restaurant costs $80-$100, same as a hotel room. Our solution? We pitch a tent.

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  • Lodgings in Lanesboro

    In this bluff-country bicycling capital, take your choice of B&Bs, small inns and even cabins.

    Before the Root River State Trail was built, the only places to stay in Lanesboro were some small hunters' cabins near the city park. With visitors pouring in, Lanesboro also has become the bed-and-breakfast capital of the Minnesota, with more B&Bs than any other town, plus several small inns.

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  • Getting away from mosquitoes

    In the bluffs of southeast Minnesota, breathe a sigh of relief.

    Had it with mosquitoes? Head for southeast Minnesota. That's karst country, where porous limestone lies just under the surface and rain sinks into fast-moving underground streams that are chilled to 48 degrees when they run through the many cave systems. Trout like it, but mosquitoes don't. There's no standing water, so there's nowhere for them to breed.

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  • Nordic nirvana

    Every July, Decorah puts on one of the best fests in the Midwest.

    First, an elf sashayed down the street. bunads, the traditional Norwegian folk costume, and two shaggy little boys wearing the long noses, beards and tails of trolls.

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  • Amish country

    In the southeast corner of Minnesota, folks are different, yet not so different.

    In southeast Minnesota, some of the locals stand out a bit. They travel in horse-drawn buggies, they dress only in dark colors and they speak an archaic German dialect. In their homes and workshops, they refuse to use electricity, natural gas or plumbing, all of which would literally connect them to the outside world. They're Old Order Amish, direct descendants of a Swiss religious group that believed Martin Luther and other Reformation leaders didn't go far enough in returning the church to strict Scripture.

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  • Road trip: Northeast Iowa

    In the scenic bluffland around Spillville, Decorah and Burr Oak, extraordinary people lived and worked.

    There's something inspiring about a certain pocket of northeast Iowa. It's nurtured a a beloved children's-book author, a famous composer and two brilliant woodcarvers. It's stirred battalions of people who create art, preserve heirloom seed and carry on Norwegian culture. There are a lot of stories in these hills and valleys on the edge of the Driftless Area, which escaped the flattening effects of the glaciers.

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  • Road trip: Bluff-country byways

    During harvest, the towns around Lanesboro in Minnesota's southeast corner yield a cornucopia of treats and scenery.

    At harvest time, Minnesota's bluff country overflows with beauty. Fat pumpkins await buyers at farmers' markets. Golden clumps of wildflowers line bicycle trails. From buggies, the Amish sell homemade baskets, bumbleberry jam and apple butter. There's an abundance of everything, including tourists.

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