Finding Your Hygge
Grand Marais’s Annual Antidote to the Winter Blues
Photo by Rich Hoeg
WRITTEN BY MOLLY BREWER HOEG | PHOTOGRAPHED BY RICH HOEG
Sitting by a warm fire, sharing a meal or a glass of wine with people you cherish, taking time out from the frenetic pace of life to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. It’s not hard to embrace the Danish concept of hygge, even if it’s challenging to pronounce (hoo-gah).
A formal definition of hygge is elusive, perhaps owing to the lack of a direct translation. Long ingrained in the Danish national culture, it may best be defined by its mood—coziness, relaxation, and conviviality—and the feelings it evokes—wellness, contentment, and gratitude. Hygge has only recently come to be recognized in our part of the world, but given that we share the same long, dark winter days, it’s not surprising it has taken root here.
In fact, in Grand Marais and the rest of Cook County, hygge has been elevated to festival status. The Hygge Festival, held at the beginning of February each year, was initiated in 2017 (the same year hygge was added to the Oxford English Dictionary). Since then, it has continued to grow and attract followers every year. “Hygge is happening in Cook County constantly. We are just putting an umbrella over it for ten days,” says Nick Cusick, events and marketing coordinator for Visit Cook County. “It is totally community organized. We just put the pieces together.”
This explains the distributed and diverse offerings that span the North Shore communities from Tofte to Grand Portage and up the Gunflint Trail. A lengthy online schedule of events reveals a combination of outdoor winter activities for all levels of fitness as well as indoor options for crafts, music, and—of course—food and drink to encourage comfy socializing. Cusick admits that the festival has put its own spin on hygge: “That feeling of being warm and cozy is best done after getting out and embracing the season.”
Erin Belby enjoys a solitary trek through the silent woods on snowshoes.
Betsy Coughlan (front left) and Madison Bowman (front right) handle the horses for a sleigh ride offered by Gunflint Lodge, a popular offering during the Hygge Festival. Riders here include Sarah Olsen (looking up between the two drivers) and her college friends who gathered for the festival.
Cusick’s description resonated with me, and I enticed my husband, Rich, to join me in checking out the festival and its array of offerings.
Our first stop was Caribou Highlands Lodge, which offers a variety of guided hikes on frozen rivers or on trails that pass near frozen waterfalls, as well as introductory sessions on hok skis. According to guide Jake Neprud, “Hok skis are known as ski snowshoes. They make it easier to get around, and on the flat or downhill trails you can get a good push with them.” We met Leticia and Bruce Blommel, who were there to try hok skis for the first time, eagerly taking in the instructions. “Anything to get out on the North Shore,” she explained. “This is a surprise Valentine’s trip for us. Bruce planned it all.” They anticipated following up with music that evening.
On the same trail, we met Erin Belby, who had just arrived and was putting on her own snowshoes, demonstrating that it doesn’t require scheduled activities to be hygge. “I just love being out in the quiet—it is so serene. Especially being by myself, time with my own thoughts. That doesn’t happen often.”
Many lodges offer hygge packages, listed on the festival schedule. At Gunflint Lodge all meals and activities are included, which ensures a relaxing, pampered stay. In addition to guided hikes and cross-country skiing, their frequent sleigh rides have become a favorite attraction. Traversing the woodsy environs of the lodge, two large but gentle Clydesdale horses pull a wooden sleigh that seats ten riders for forty-five minutes of winter bliss accompanied by tinkling sleigh bells. Sarah Olsen boarded the sleigh with a few friends from her college days who had met her there for the weekend. “We’re all about cozy, that’s why we’re here. We like to snowshoe and cross-country ski, then do puzzles by the fire.”
Jake Neptrud leads Leticia and Bruce Blommel on hok skis, instructing them in how to use the “ski snowshoes.”
By late afternoon, a stop at the North Shore Winery was in order. There we found outdoor firepits and hot mulled wine on special. Inside, the seating area was lined with wine casks on the wall. More casks served as table bases. The place filled quickly as local singer/songwriter Boyd Blomberg set up to perform. When asked what hygge means to him, he responded quickly. “Hunker in and take care of yourself. A sauna. Sharing meals with friends.”
As we savored the local ciders, produced—like their array of wines—on-site, it was easy to chat with folks at nearby tables. Luke Sabal and Sierra Sachtjen had come up from the Twin Cities with friends for a ski weekend at Lutsen. Their version of hygge, in addition to the winery? “We like theme nights. A ski theme wearing crazy ski clothes, or comfy night.”
One of the festival’s premier attractions is the Fireplace Tour. Embodying the central concept of hygge, sitting hearthside is a natural for the festival. Lodges, restaurants, pubs, and retailers participate throughout the month of February, offering an open invitation to sit by the fire in a wide variety of settings, including spots that are normally exclusively for guest use. We chose to head over to Lutsen Resort to sink into the deep leather couches adjacent to the enormous stone fireplace in the lodge. Decadent hot chocolate and a fireside menu offered tempting fare to encourage lingering by the fire.
Boyd Blomberg shares his original pieces and other folk/Americana songs while patrons relax over the variety of wines and ciders produced at the North Shore Winery.
Sierra Sachtjen and Luke Sabal try out the wine flights to sample different North Shore Winery varieties.
Store manager Gwen Danfelt points out the display of books featuring hygge themes at Drury Lane Books (photo by Molly Brewer Hoeg).
Local merchants also get into the hygge spirit, particularly Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais. Nestled among its enticing shelves of books I found a display dedicated to books about hygge and its ambiance. “We get people who are happy to come up to the North Shore and read by a fire,” explains Gwen Danfelt, store manager. She also took time from her duties to fill me in on their annual event that kicked off the 2023 Hygge Festival.
Drury Lane Books hosts monthly Full Moon Readings on the grounds between the bookstore and the shore. The event is essentially a gathering around a large bonfire. It’s billed as one-part literary slam, one-part music and song gathering. Young and old alike are encouraged to read a favorite passage or poem, sing or play a favorite tune, present original material, or tell a story. Participants are encouraged to bring musical instruments and hot drinks.
In February, the Full Moon Reading is combined with the Many Tiny Lights fundraiser put on by the District 166 PTA to support local schools. Parents and teachers make ice globes, which are available for participants to sponsor for five dollars apiece. “The moon comes up right over the water. It’s dark and the globes are all lit, which draws passersby,” says Danfelt. “The globes remain on the shore until they melt” as a memory of a magical evening of shared stories and songs.
Down the street, the North House Folk School Store was filled with handcrafted items made by the school’s instructors, arousing visions of quiet hours of skilled crafting and also kindling inspiration to do the same. A collection of hygge books was on display to enhance the theme. Their popular Fiber Week overlaps the festival, with a number of free speakers and community events covering topics such as spinning, knitting, sewing, weaving, and other fiber arts. These free events are in addition to the ticketed weeklong workshop. How I would have loved to hunker down to learn a new craft.
Throughout our two days there, it became increasingly clear that the Hygge Festival is as loosely defined as the term hygge. With no central gathering or even visible banners or signage, the festival, too, offers options. Each person may choose to take in a different set of its offerings. Cusick reinforces this with the festival’s goal: “We want anyone to feel welcome. We strive to have something to appeal to everyone. So many options.”
If You Go
Dates for the upcoming Hygge Festival: February 3–14, 2024 (the first Saturday in February through Valentine’s Day).
Festival schedule: visitcookcounty.com/event/hygge-festival/87 (If this leads you to the 2023 schedule, keep checking. The link will be updated soon for 2024.)
Most guided activities require reservations in advance and a fee.