Minnesota author’s debut novel captures sense of adventure in the Northwoods
“Up in the land where Paul Bunyan statues are big and the tall tales about him are even bigger, lie some of Minnesota’s most beautiful resort communities. This is the land of 10,000 lakes and truly untouched wilderness surrounding Bemidji, Duluth, and Brainerd, among other towns, otherwise known as Minnesota’s Northwoods," Julie Jo Larson author says.
BRAINERD, Minn. — A rural Brainerd woman may have been seen walking through the Minnesota Northwoods holding a walking stick, with Mukluks on her feet and a rusty-reddish shawl wrapped around her upper body.
Julie Jo Larson’s wanderlust and sense of adventure made her the perfect person to write “100 Things to Do in Minnesota Northwoods Before You Die.” Larson — a researcher, public speaker, presenter, story catcher and freelance writer — now can add author to her many titles.
Larson’s book published by Reedy Press was released April 1, and she had no problem finding 100 things to do in the Northwoods to write about, as she has explored many areas of Minnesota for the past decade. In 2014, Larson formed a women’s history group called The MsStorians. The group has toured abandoned cemeteries, century-old buildings and vanishing communities. The adventurist then would write about the places she toured and call them “MsStorian Adventures,” which have appeared in the Lake Country Journal and other Northwoods publications.
Larson describes the Northwoods as the central and northern portions of Minnesota from St. Cloud north to the Canadian border, including Grand Portage to the west from Moorhead to Duluth to Moose Lake.
Larson said she hadn't planned to write a book for many years, as she was busy with myriad endeavors — she serves on the Crow Wing County Historical Society Board and the Humphrey Center for Native American Studies; is a member of the Crossing Arts Alliance and the Cuyuna Rock, Gem and Mineral Society; and she works full time as the assistant director of TRIO Student Support Services at Central Lakes College.
But then she got a call last spring from Krista Rolfzen Soukup, owner of Blue Cottage Agency, a business that represents and promotes literary arts. Soukup asked her if she was interested in writing a book as Reedy Press, out of Missouri, was seeking a writer to craft a book specializing in a 100-things-to-do book.
Soukup met Larson at one of the publishing and marketing workshops she taught through The Crossing Arts Alliance. She said Larson has been active in the writing community for years.
“As a follower of Julie Jo’s articles showcasing her love of history, nature and exploring, she was the first writer who came to mind when a large publisher reached out looking for someone to write this book,” Soukup said. “With Julie Jo’s zest for adventure, solid writing ability and an easygoing personality, I knew she would be a perfect fit and the publisher agreed.”
Larson said the idea for the book at first was 100 things to do in Brainerd, then the Brainerd lakes area — and then it got bigger and became a more regional book.
Larson said the timing to write a book was perfect as the coronavirus pandemic hit last March.
“I thought why not in this time of COVID?” Larson said. “We needed something to do and this was a good thing to do. So, you know, you ask why write the book? Why not write the book? Plus I love the Brainerd lakes area, and the Minnesota Northwoods. I lived up in this area and have been visiting for over 30 years. I've been in almost every cemetery imaginable, old buildings and everything, so why not share it with people who are visiting, or people who have moved up here but don't know what's going on?”
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Larson said she is thankful Soukup thought of her to have the opportunity to write her first book.
“Writing my first book and raising my first flock of chickens really helped me stay positive during the lockdowns,” Larson said. “I believe these opportunities also helped my husband through the year, he was my sidekick for a few trips. He's not a genuine MsStorian, but he fills in when my team is away.”
The author has been to many places in the Northwoods, so she already had information and photos of some of the places, and she visited other places for the book or did research or phone or email. Larson said there are 100 things to do in the book, but some places have more than one entry, such as wineries.
“You never think of wine when you think of ‘up north’ in Minnesota,” Larson said. “But there's wineries all over the place. We've got Drummond down here (in Brainerd), there's Carlos in Alexandria, and Forestedge Winery (in Laporte) south of Bemidji and another in Cushing.”
She also has a section about all the places to visit in Walker, which is “one thing” with several pieces to it.
Larson said her friend Vicki Foss was the photographer for the book and helped her brainstorm categories and ideas.
According to a news release from the publishing company, the regional areas highlighted in Larson’s book include Alexandria, Baxter, Bemidji, Biwabik, Brainerd, Carlton, Chisholm, Cloquet, Coleraine, Collegeville, Crosby, Deerwood, Duluth, Ely, Eveleth, Garrison, Grand Rapids, Grand Portage, Hackensack, Hibbing, Hinkley, Ironton, Isle, Kettle River, Knife River, Laporte, Little Falls, Lutsen, Meadowlands, Moorhead, Moose Lake, Nisswa, Northome, Onamia, Orr, Park Rapids, Pequot Lakes, Pierz, Pine City, Pine River, Sandstone, Sauk Centre, Tower, Two Harbors and Walker.
In the book, Larson describes the focus of her work:
“Up in the land where Paul Bunyan statues are big and the tall tales about him are even bigger, lie some of Minnesota’s most beautiful resort communities. This is the land of 10,000 lakes and truly untouched wilderness surrounding Bemidji, Duluth, and Brainerd, among other towns, otherwise known as Minnesota’s Northwoods.
“Though only the hearty live here year round and the winter averse just vacation here in the summer, there’s still no shortage of activities and sights to fill your itinerary, no matter the season. Whether you use this book as a bucket list, tour guide, or a cure for cabin fever, we’ve got you covered. We’ll entice you to try new outdoor activities, such as wading across the headwaters of the Mississippi, eat unusual foods, and sip flavorful beverages. You’ll also find a plethora of things to do inside on rainy days, such as exploring the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum. Carefully crafted itineraries and seasonal — yes, there are four seasons here — activities will provide plenty of inspiration for visitors and locals alike.”
Larson said she is proud of the book and she believes it showcases the Northwoods well, whether for a new visitor or someone who has lived here their whole life.
“There's things in this book that you'll be like, ‘I didn't know that,’” Larson said. “And there'll be things that you're like, ‘Oh, I knew that, but I didn't know that piece of it.’ We tried to find old and new pieces and some novel things, such as the best chicken wild rice pizza is at Poor Gary's Pizza in a little town called Moose Lake. ... They also have a 1918 fire museum that really pays tribute to the time in Minnesota when fire and war and famine and flu, where everything just came together.”
Larson and her husband have three adult children ranging from 31-24; a dog named Kyra; two cats named Charlotte and Chase Matthews; and six egg-laying chickens.
JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5851. Follow her at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.