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89 Days

Celebrate winter and explore climate solutions with the return of the Great Northern Festival

Pouring water over hot stones to create steam in a sauna.
Pouring water over hot stones to create steam in a sauna.courtesy Stokeyard Outfitters

by Natalia Mendez

January 23, 2023

Winter gets a bad reputation. It may be cold and dark, but those of us who’ve cracked the Midwest winter code know one of the only ways to survive it is to try to enjoy it. Since 2016, The Great Northern Festival has encouraged Minnesotans to lace up their boots, snuggle into their parkas, and immerse themselves in the severe beauty and teeth-chattering joy of winter.

We live in a state where people love to talk about the weather. When this article was being written, nearly 40-degree temps and rain were melting snow piles — many the height of the average middle schooler — that we accumulated just a few short weeks ago. The bittersweet joy some feel for warmer winter patterns like the ones we’re experiencing now, however, is the glaring signature of climate change at work. These more regular freaky winter cycles are something that threatens the very existence of the wintery wonders that The Great Northern festival celebrates, so in 2021, Great Northern began to shift its programming to highlight the realities of the existing climate crisis.

For us to continue to bask in the celebration of winter, it can’t be all fun and games, it must be educational, too. As the festival’s website states, “The Great Northern celebrates our cold, creative winters through programming that invigorates mind and body. In an era of changing climate that threatens our signature season, we seek to create community, inspire action, and share the resilient spirit of the North with the world.” With Kate Nordstrum at the helm as Executive Director and Artistic Director of the programming once again, the lineup dazzles with musical, artistic, and athletic partnerships from around the globe, with an expanded lineup that seeks climate solutions.

The evidence for the need for this focus is already recently evidenced by the Luminary Loppet, originally scheduled to be a part of this year’s festivities on February 4 but rescheduled to February 18 due to what the Loppet’s site describes as “heavy snow and warm temperatures [that] have created unsafe and difficult conditions on metro area lakes. The slush under the snow has made it impossible to groom the trails on the lakes, difficult to construct features, and unsafe for participants.” Thus, The Great Northern is a call to action for those who love winter and want to ensure they can enjoy it for years to come.

"What does winter give us? What do we stand to lose as our climate continues to warm?" is a question Nordstrom asks herself that helps her and The Great Northern team select beautifully curated and well-rounded programming. When questioned if she herself was always a fan of winter, she admits it’s still a struggle for her at times, but she loves to consider how the deepest parts of winter shape our culture. “The festival is meant to provide invigoration and a presence of mind and body,” she says. “Our winters are precious, vulnerable, and worth protecting.”

This year, the gifts winter gives are bountiful, as The Great Northern festival runs from January 19 through February 18 and hosts a variety of entertainments, experiences, and climate-conscious content intended to keep winter resilience — both for people and the planet — in mind. Visitors can engage all of their senses and imagine solutions for a better world that encourages us to consider the way we interact with it.

Climate conversations

Topics on climate are plentiful, and the list is longer than ever before for this year’s presentation of The Great Northern. The Climate Solutions Series runs through the weekend of January 27 to 29 and hosts a diverse range of presenters from varied cultural and professional backgrounds, all unified in the mission to offer ideas and perspectives to address the climate crisis head-on. Get a preview of climate scientist Dr. Heidi Roop’s book, The Climate Action Handbook, which offers 100 actions people can take in their daily lives to help deter the impact of climate change. Learn how Indigenous innovators are helping lead tribal nations to renewable energy pathways with solar power in Robert Blake and Chéri Smith’s talk on January 27. Musicians Brian Eno and Donna Grantis explore art’s role in the climate crisis as they try to find solutions to reduce the environmental impact of the music industry. The next generation of climate activists looks promising, and their voices are essential in today’s climate conversations, like Juwaria Jama and Isra Hirsi, who will discuss what motivates them to demand climate justice.

A collage of portraits of people speaking on climate issues
The Great Northern Climate Solutions series panelists
courtesy Great Northern Festival

For every body

There’s a little something for everyone within the overlapping interwoven themes throughout the list of upcoming events. Want to delight your senses and sink deeply into the feeling of being in your body? Check out the events that test your body, like the guided breathwork experience involving heat and cold exposure at The Great Northern Sauna Village at Malcolm Yards from January 26 to February 5. New to the festival this year, the village is both a social and therapeutic experience that allows visitors to experience multiple kinds of saunas along with the contrast of the chilly winter air and cold-soak tubs.

A collage of images related to using a sauna
Sauna Village at the Great Northern Festival
courtesy Stokeyard Outfitters

The Wild Rice Retreat helps attendees center themselves with a series of classes that combine breathwork, yoga, and music that encourages us to focus on wellness and peace that reflect the stillness and slowdown that naturally comes from winter. For those seeking more intensity with their movement, longtime partners the U.S. Pond Hockey Tournament (already held January 19 to 22) and the aforementioned City of Lakes Loppet once again bring heart-pounding participation to Minneapolis. 

Tucking in

Foodies can rejoice knowing the festival provides a wealth of delicious options for their taste buds. The Great Northern has partnered with local restaurants throughout the Twin Cities to present thoughtfully paired food and drink inspired by the season. Kick it off with cocktails and delightful small plates at the Chill Out: Festival Launch Party at Surly Brewing’s Beer Garden on January 25. For food conversation, learn about cultural and food preservation from artists and agriculturists Gabrielle E. W. Carter and Jovan C. Speller; they’ll discuss what it means to adapt and shift traditional cooking and gardening techniques in the face of climate change in their talk, Cultural Food Preservation, Climate Limitations, and Adaptation, on January 28.

Arts aplenty

Indulge in the arts with public showcases throughout the Twin Cities during the course of the festival. Stand on a frozen lake, try ice fishing, and learn about a traditional Japanese printmaking technique with Seitu Jones on Silver Lake on January 22. The American Swedish Institute showcases the United States premiere of artist Jo Andersson’s exhibit, Being, in the Fluidity: Identity in Swedish Glass presentation, where handblown vessels filled with water reflect and bend light in unexpected ways that urge us to reflect on the fluidity that lives within ourselves. Celebrate Black femme joy with an artist talk featuring nine local artists who will explore what life looks like when there’s room to move past survival and into a realm where Black creatives can thrive.

Family fun

Don’t forget the kiddos! Family-friendly Kidarod East gets little ones moving in the snow in an event inspired by the famous Iditarod. This two-mile obstacle course includes sledding, hiking, and running, and it offers fun for the whole family. The Minnesota Orchestra presents Winter Wonderland, a presentation of winter-themed music where everyone is welcome, being mindful of those with sensory needs or autism. Meanwhile, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, a founding partner of The Great Northern, has been spreading the joys of winter since 1886; it offers parades, snow sculptures, and a scavenger hunt that are sure to engage all family members.

Live music

Music presentations this year provide a wealth of entertainment along with opportunities for reflection on both the social and literal climate. Seth Parker Woods and Spencer Topel return once again with a performance of their avant-garde piece “Iced Bodies,” played on a cello carved from ice and painted black that slowly disintegrates throughout the performance. Its aim is to highlight underrepresented individuals’ struggle with mental disability and the painful commonality of their conditions going overlooked. A newcomer to the festival, Emily Wells, is a composer, producer, and visual artist. She will perform at the Cedar Cultural Center songs from her 2022 album, Regards to an End, a compassionate and impactful album that weaves together the voices of AIDS activists from prior generations, thoughts on our ongoing climate crisis, and her own narrative in reflecting on it all.

Much acclaimed powwow singer Joe Rainey is back again, and this year it’s for an indoor set after last year’s chilly outdoor performance. “I feel like I live in a weird pocket of global warming,” Rainey says as he reflects on his childhood winters full of playing in snow piles in stark contrast to today. Those wintry wonderlands are much more infrequent where he currently resides in Oneida, Wisconsin, near Green Bay. Environmental sustainability through respect for nature is something he grew up learning, and his work documenting and recording drum circles and powwows is reflective of a desire for cultural sustainability, too. The Minneapolis-raised Rainey returns to The Great Northern Festival with his hauntingly beautiful album, Niineta, at The Cedar on January 26. Along with local producer and artist Andrew Broder, he’s accompanied by string quartet Owls performing composer William Brittelle’s arrangements. 

A man wearing a baseball cap and black T-shirt
Joe Rainey at 7th St. Entry in Minneapolis on Monday, June 27, 2022.
Darin Kamnetz for MPR

Fitting finale

To conclude the festival is the closing party featuring an outdoor showing of the David Bowie film Moonage Daydream at Malcolm Yards on February 5, where attendees can experience exclusive footage projected onto the United Crushers towers, sip a curated cocktail and enjoy one last steam in the Sauna Village before it’s lights out on The Great Northern for one more year.

With such a wealth of wonders of winter, The Great Northern Festival offers activities for all to get us through the brunt of the cold to even longer and brighter days. The festival’s shift to addressing the climate crisis provides many options for curtailing its dangerous impacts on our glittering, snowy winters. As enjoyers and residents of the Twin Cities, we should all be so proud to host this thoughtful and well-rounded festival that provides an excellent global example. Within its enmeshing of celebration with environmental justice, The Great Northern Festival proves that there is room for revelry and a positive impact that doesn’t have to come at the cost of our home planet.

A collection of icons of winter clothing, food, recreation
The Current's 89 Days of Winter brings together highlights of the season for music, entertainment, and more.
Alexis Politz for MPR

This feature is part of The Current’s 89 Days series, helping you enjoy the best of the season with weekly guides to events, entertainment, and recreation in the Twin Cities.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.