Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Minnesota's Great Northern Festival


For me, the Loppet began unexpectedly on Friday evening, when I emerged from the basement wearing my headlamp (I'd been looking for a book) to the sound of explosions. Having examined the Loppet schedule in detail earlier that day, I knew immediately what it was. They were shooting off fireworks down in Theodore Wirth Park, a mile from the house, and I could see the colorful bursts of light through the trees from the darkened dining room window.

The moon was out, somewhat more than a quarter, and Venus was still bright in the western sky, but the fireworks were more colorful—garish reds and greens—though fairly low in the sky and partially obscured by the naked trees. I was tempted to run and get my camera, but then I realized this was the grand finale! The fireworks were scheduled to commence at 8 p.m. It was now 8:10. A brief display, which is all anyone needs, and a perfect introduction to a weekend of winter fun ... with or without much snow.

You could explore the website associated with the City of Lakes Loppet for quite a while without coming upon a succinct definition of what a loppet is. By definition, a loppet is a long-distance cross country skiing event. In these parts it's also an organization devoted to winter sports, and it seems that the Loppet has established a large degree of control over the real estate on which the Theo Wirth Par 3 golf course is located.  It's in charge of making snow at the site all winter, and it hosts quite a few national and international ski events, not to mention frequent high school tourneys. I have already skied the trails six or seven times this winter and I can attest to their quality, even in times of meager snow. This winter they rearranged some of the loops, making them better than ever.


An abbreviated lists of the events sponsored by the Loppet this weekend would include the Speedskating Loppet 25K National Championship Event on Lake Calhoun, a set of sprints sponsored by local vendor Sisu, a classic marathon sponsored by Hoigaard’s, a telemark clinic, a snow sculpture contest, and an evening luminary loppet on Lake of the Isles that we've joined a few times.

There is also a Kubb tournament out on Lake Calhoun, the Puoli Loppet Classic, the Pearson’s Crew Ski Loppet, a Ski-O Loppet, Speedskating Loppet, the National One-Dog ski jouring Championship, the Rossignol Junior Loppet, various Short Skate and Long Skate Speedskating Loppets, a Snowshoe Loppet, a Fat Tire Loppet, Chuck & Don’s Point-to-Point Loppet and Subaru Two-Dog National Championship, and a Dogsled Loppet.

In order to ramp up the excitement and create an even more impressive display of winter energy and craziness, the Loppet has teamed up this winter with the St. Paul Winter Carnival and the National Pond Hockey championships under the rubric of a single moniker—the Great Northern.  I don't imagine it can do these events much harm, but I doubt whether people will be more likely to visit a frigid part of the country to see some ski races at Wirth Park if a Red Bull Ice Crashed Ice event (also a part of the new consortium) is going on later that day in St. Paul, on the other side of town.   

 Saturday afternoon I wandered down the hill along Bassett Creek to the Loppet event center. You could hear the voice of an announcer over the loud-speakers a half-mile away, but when I turned the corner leading up to the Surley beer tent and the racing headquarters I heard a new and unexpected sound—a chorus of barking dogs. I'd lucked into the ski-joering competitions. 


One race was underway, but there were forty or fifty skiers standing in the broad starting lane, trying to keep their dogs under control as they awaited the mass start of the next race. Spectators were lined up two and three deep all along the snow fences on either side of the track. A lot of handsome dogs were yipping and pacing, bewildered to be in such a large crowd of fellow canines, probably, and eager to get going.  it all seemed a little awkward and silly, but also very sporting and colorful.


The snow wasn't good, but it was good enough, and there were howls and shouts of encouragements as the skiers competing in the previous race sped down through the trees in the distance, made the corner and continued up the slight incline to the finish line. Theirs was a two-lap race, however, and after disappearing behind the announcer's booth, they reappeared and headed back off into the wooded hills again. Most of the skiers were going faster than their dogs at this point, and it became obvious to me that the art of ski-joering involves not only getting pulled by a dog at twenty miles and hour, but also making sure you can control the slack on the reins at those times when the dog takes a breather and you find yourself speeding ahead of him.


Finally the new set of racers was given a countdown. No gun was sounded. A man with a megaphone simply gave the word, and they were off. Most of them, anyway. A few ran into each other and tumbled into the icy snow, causing further difficulties for the competitors coming behind them.

Once most of the racers had disappeared around the bend, I wandered back the way I came, enjoying the smell of the wood fires burning in the plaza, admiring the stuffed waffles for sale at the food truck, then wandering through the beer tent, which was packed with skiers in tight blue and black ski suits emblazoned with brand names: Rossignol, Atomic, Fischer, Sisu.

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Later than afternoon we drove to St. Paul. We had tickets for a concert at the Ordway Concert Hall, and arrived early because Hilary had spotted an item in the newspaper. The Original Coney Island Restaurant & Bar—the oldest commercial structure in either of the Twin Cities—would be opening its doors at 2 p.m. The building dates to 1858, and it's been a Coney Island restaurant since 1923. When I was a kid (back in the 1960s, that is) we used to ride the bus downtown and wander the streets, going to Musicland, Bridgeman's, Daytons, and occasionally the Coney Island, which was around the corner and halfway down the block. It seemed a little seedy even then to an impressionable fifteen-year-old, but the coneys were cheap.


The restaurant is still owned by the same Greek family who opened it in 1923, but it's been closed since 1994. In the last few years Mary Avanitis, who's now in charge of operations, has opened it on rare occasions for private parties and, even less often, to the public.


The place was lively when we arrived. I had anticipated a line stretching out the door, but we found a booth easily and walked up to the counter to order some coney islands. A waitress came by later to retrieve our plastic basket, and when I asked her if she was the owner, she sat down to chat. No, she wasn't the owner, but she and Mary had been friends since grade school. They had grown up on Watson Street, in one of the many St. Paul neighborhoods that I'd never heard of—and don't remember now. "People think of it as part of Highland, but it's not," she said.


A few minutes later Mary herself came by and joined us in the booth. She told us that they closed the restaurant because her brothers got sick and they weren't making money. Once the city forbade them to rent rooms upstairs to boarders, it was all downhill. "I can't even come out ahead on St. Patrick's Day," she said. She wasn't complaining, but it was obvious she enjoyed seeing customers in the place and would like to be open more often.

The Coney's were fine. And the juke box had offerings such as Dean Martin"s "That's Amore," Patsy Cline's "San Antonio Rose," and tunes by Jimmy Dorsey, Percy Faith, Enoch Light, and the Platters. No rock'n'roll in sight.


Back out on the street, we were immediately immersed in commotion. The Torchlight Parade had just passed by. Beer-drinkers were enjoying the bonfire pits at Great Waters Brewing, and romantic couples were slurping oysters next door at Meritage. A throng had wandered out into Rice Park where the battle between King Boreas and the Vulcans was about to commence. Most of the hoopla seemed to be taking place at the public library at the other end of the park, however. Flames were shooting twenty feet in the air, fireworks were exploring, and I could see quite a few Vulcans in their red outfits hanging around on the library steps.


We ran into the brother of King Boreas later in the upstairs lobby of the Ordway Theater. I forgot to ask him how the battle turned out. He gave me a button which I'm sure will be worth a lot of money some day. However, I gave it to a little girl who was passing by with her mother; she seemed to be more interested in costumed figures than I was.


The concert? The modern pieces were "interesting," due to the energetic performance of flautist Clare Chase and the deft Couperin arrangements by Thomas Ades, and the performance of Respighi's The Birds was delightful. As we left the hall, a Price cover band named Chase and Ovation was just wrapping things up out in the park. The only food booth still open was selling deep-fried cheese curds.

We passed the Coney Island joint on our way back to the parking ramp. Peering through the window, I saw Mary standing at the counter in the half-dark inside, doing a final tally with a pencil and paper. 


1 comment:

ivoryresearch discount said...

Skiing is really on peak these days as in many parts of the world the winter season was at its peak and with heavy snow. i like this time of the year and love skiing as well. i liked your post...