Steam, Indigenous music and climate solutions: Our top 5 picks from the Great Northern Festival

A person pours water over hot stones in a sauna
The sauna village at the Great Northern festival is a popular attraction.
Courtesy of Stokeyard Outfitters

Not much snow will remain after this week’s winter warmup, but the annual Great Northern Festival starts on Thursday to remind us of the ways Minnesotans get creative and cozy in our state’s deep cold.

This festival has a focus on the changing climate, along with arts and the outdoors. There will be nearly 50 different events over the course of 10 days.

Executive Director Jovan C. Speller spoke with Cathy Wurzer on Minnesota Now and said her hope is that guests will feel “deeply engaged” and bring the things that they learned into their homes and communities.

“I think the conversations really do spread across a wide gap of topics, and there will be something for everybody to take away,” she said.

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Here are our top five events to check out.

The Great Northern Sauna Village

“Sah-nah,” “saw-nah,” or “sow-na”? You can decide while sitting in the sauna village in the Market at Malcolm Yards. Visitors can gain experience in sauna culture during 60- to 90-minute steam sessions.

Session attendees can visit We Are Water MN’s Water Bar and learn about Minnesota’s relationship with the Mississippi River.

And MPR fans can check out the MPR Cabin at the Sauna Village. It doesn’t get much more Minnesotan that listening to MPR in a sauna, right? We will be playing the MPR Cabin Steam Stream, a collection from MPR News, The Current and YourClassical MPR for all visitors to enjoy.

Learning from Place: Bdote

Join the Minnesota Humanities Center for an immersive learning experience of Dakota people in Minnesota. Participants will learn from members of the Dakota community to reassess their relationship with water, land and more.

Bdote is a Dakota word that means “where two waters come together.”

The event is outdoors, so dress accordingly.

It takes place Sunday, Jan. 28 or Sunday, Feb. 3 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Fort Snelling State Park. Tickets are $30 and a state park permit is required.

Climate Solutions Series

Head over to the American Swedish Institute Saturday, Jan. 27, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. or Sunday, Jan. 28, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. to learn about climate solutions. The sessions will touch on how topics such as fashion, food and art intersect with the climate crisis.

The goal of the series is to envision “a greener and more sustainable future for all.”

Frozen Footgolf Snow Sculpting

Ever missing playing in the snow? Well, here’s your chance. Join teams of professional artists to design and sculpt your own hole in the frozen footgolf course on Sunday, Jan. 28 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Silverwood Park.

Attendees are encouraged to bring their own tools and creative props.

Broken Ice: Indigenous Sonic Salve from the North

Broken Ice brings northern Indigenous bands to First Avenue’s main stage. The lineup will feature AKU-MATU; a powwow performance by powerhouse group Bizhiki, comprised of Dylan Bizhikiins Jennings, Joe Rainey Sr. and S. Carey; followed by Galanin’s Sub Pop Records band Ya Tseen as the headliner with video work by artist Jaida Grey Eagle.

The event will be be hosted by Kate Nelson on Thursday, Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets are $30.

Editor's note: MPR News is a media sponsor of the Great Northern Festival

Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: Oh, Minnesotans, you are all a creative bunch, especially when it comes to naming snowplows. MNDOT has had several successful Name the Snowplow contests. And today, final voting opened on the top 50 finalists after winnowing down the original list of 8,000 submissions.

There are some delightfully silly submissions. Beauty and the Blade. Because I Said Snow. Because I Said Snow. Alice Scooper. I Came, I Thaw, I Conquered. And my favorite, Taylor Drift.

Voting will remain open through Sunday, January 28. You can check out MNDOT's website. All right, not a lot of snow will remain after this warmup. But, the Annual Great Northern Festival starts Thursday to remind us of the ways Minnesotans get creative in our state's deep cold.

The festival has had a focus on the changing climate and is, perhaps, one of the biggest and best places to reflect on this year's wonky winter. The Great Northern Festival has a brand new executive director, Jovan C. Speller. She joins us, along with chief programming officer Kate Nordstrum. Jovan and Kate, thanks for joining us.


KATE NORDSTRUM: Thank you so much.

CATHY WURZER: Jovan, it's been a pretty wimpy winter so far. How is the festival adjusting to what is a very odd, warm, and snow-free winter?

JOVAN SPELLER: Yeah, I think one of the things that the Great Northern is really good at is adapting, right? Not just because we're a nonprofit, but because this winter and this ever-changing winter, this constantly warming climate, really speaks to our mission. So we are always prepared for the change. We're always prepared to adapt.

And our programs are still strong and thriving. And I think that we're just going to incorporate what is happening here locally into the conversations that we're having, especially at the climate solution series.

CATHY WURZER: Say, Kate, let's talk about that-- a lot of events focused on climate change. Tell us about the programs.

KATE NORDSTRUM: Yeah, thanks. Well, we kick off this Thursday night with a big party at Surly and O'Shaughnessy Distillery and the courtyard in between the two. So we'll kind of open up with a party on Thursday that all are welcome to. It's free. There's great entertainment, great food, and that's when we begin.

And then we just kick off a full 10 days of arts, outdoors, climate, and food events that we really think will inspire those who are guests at the festival. So there's so much to dive into. We have almost 50 different events over the course of those 10 days.

The first weekend is our climate solutions series, which takes place at the American Swedish Institute. And for two full days, there will be all sorts of folks on panels and doing direct-to-audience conversations about our about climate action, and all the great work that is being done right now, and why we have cause to be optimistic if we all come together and work. And so there's a lot of great information sharing that first weekend.

CATHY WURZER: Jovan, what do you want folks who participate in some of the climate discussions to take away from them?

JOVAN SPELLER: Yeah. I think we really want for people to feel deeply engaged with, I think, this place in particular, right, with their surroundings, their environment, but also have little inspirations of things that they can bring into their homes and actions-- small actions, large actions-- that they can actually take and implement into their lives and throughout their families and at work. I think that the conversations really do spread across a wide diaspora of conversations and topics.

And there will be something for everybody to be able to take away from the emerging careers in climate conversation, to conversations about philanthropy and sustainability in philanthropy, to fashion, to curating and sustainability in the arts. There's really something for everybody to take away and learn something new.

CATHY WURZER: Say, Kate, thanks for mentioning food. A lot of us concentrate on food during the cold winter weather.


CATHY WURZER: So tell us about the food programming.

KATE NORDSTRUM: Yeah. We have quite a number of options for people. First of all, I'll mention Cuben, which is a terrific collection of Latin chefs from across the twin cities that we'll have a popup at Glass House during the Great Northern. And we will have six different food and beverage pairing stations. So this event is really kind of cocktail party vibes celebrating our awesome food culture here.

And it's on a weeknight. It's kind of a fun night to get out and just mingle and enjoy all sorts of great food creations. We also have an event called The Last Supper, which is quite original. And this is designed by Sam Kess, who was an advisor to President Obama on food policy.

He ran Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign and was the personal chef for the Obamas for many years. Sam Kess developed this dinner that highlights foods and ingredients that will really not be around in the future because of climate change. So it's this opportunity to bring awareness to foods like pistachios, and wines from certain regions, types of chocolates also-- there's all sorts of wonderful opportunities to sample food that we have now and won't have in the future.

And it sounds a bit depressing, I know, but it's actually this beautiful event where we can appreciate what we have and learn about what we stand to lose. And it's very much meant to also send people out armed with information and motivation. And Andrew Zimmern, who is a local wonderful food celebrity, UN World Food Program goodwill ambassador, will be partnering on this event. It's at the Hewing Hotel.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, unique educational experience, obviously. Say, thank you, by the way, both of you, for the sauna villages. I think that that is fantastic. I'm a big sauna fan. And I know MPR has a sauna.


CATHY WURZER: Thank you. Thank you. So talk about the sauna villages.

KATE NORDSTRUM: Yeah. So it was such a hit last year when we started the sauna village. We had 4,000 guests that utilized the sauna village last year. This year, we have upped capacity to 8,000 visitors, opened it last weekend.

There's 22 different sauna units-- so very different types of mobile saunas, different types of steam, yeah, different designs that are super unique. And so patrons are able to sample sauna at all these different sauna outfitters. And our lead partner, Superior Sauna and Steam, has been just doing such a terrific job in curating the whole thing.

We are partnering with the humanities center to have a water bar at the sauna village where you can sample different waters from across the state. And the MPR sauna has a classical music stream and a dedicated special stream so you can listen to beautiful music in that sauna. But it's so much fun.

It makes you so happy to be there. And there's family days this year, so you can bring kids. So that's just a new thing to check out this year-- a lot of special programming besides the open steam hours.

CATHY WURZER: Say, Jovan, I have about a minute left, so if you had to pick one event, which I know is really difficult and it's very unfair for me to ask you this, however, what are you most excited about?

JOVAN SPELLER: OK, I can't just pick one event, but I will say the one event that we haven't mentioned yet. We have to talk about Ice Bar and really encourage people to come to this seriously monumental event. We are mounting a 100-foot ice bar on Nicollet Mall. It is family friendly.

The event goes from January 26 to 28 and then again from the 31st to the 4th. And January 31 is National Hot Chocolate Day, and Caribou will have their booth truck there and will be offering free hot chocolates, which I'm super looking forward to. But we have some wonderful partners for this bar, and we're celebrating the best mixologist and beverage director Adam Witherspoon, who's put together an incredible menu for people to enjoy of non-alcoholic kids beverages and, of course, cocktails as well. So we encourage everybody to come out and celebrate downtown Minneapolis and this incredible venture for the Great Northern as well.

CATHY WURZER: Jovan, thank you so much. And, of course, Kate, always a pleasure. Thanks for your time. Good luck, by the way.

JOVAN SPELLER: Thank you, Cathy.



CATHY WURZER: We've been talking about the Great Northern Festival. Of course, you can check out their website for the best places for locations, and schedules, and all of that. Thank you so much for joining us here on Minnesota Now on MPR News.

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