Paul Bunyan Looms Large in Bemidji

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

Expect a dose of “Say cheese!” as visitors hit Bemidji’s lakeshore, where historic statues of Babe the Big Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan loom large. Long before “Super Size Me” became a catchphrase, this larger-than-life plaid-shirted lumberjack starred in tall tales from the north woods.

Paul Bunyan and Babe BemidjiStep into the visitor center across from Paul and Babe, and you’ll see his alleged baby shoe and other souvenirs of legendary size. Even beyond folklore, you can bet on a lot of big things in this corner of the state.

Pine trees up to 300 years old tower 100 feet tall at Itasca State Park, one of Minnesota’s most-visited parks. Here you can walk across the humble headwaters of the Mississippi River—the world’s fourth-largest river system—as it starts a 2,500-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico by flowing north to Bemidji.

The community of 30,000 residents and about 5,000 Bemidji State University students can claim to be the first city on the Mississippi River and is nestled within the curvy, rolling beauty of this pine-moraine region. The name “Bemidji” derives from the Ojibwe word “Bay-me-ji-ga-maug,” which refers to the river “flowing through or across” the lake.

At 6,765 acres, glittering Lake Bemidji takes center stage upon arrival, with downtown, the university, resorts and a state park hugging its shore. Bring your own bike or rent one from the Nice Ride station at the visitor center for a short spin or the full 17-mile loop around the lake.

Heartland Paul Bunyan Trail bikeWant to go big? Really big? Tackle the 115-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail, Minnesota’s longest continuously paved trail, stretching all the way from Brainerd’s Crow Wing State Park to Bemidji.

The Paul Bunyan Trail, which also opens to snowmobiling in the winter, runs along the eastern shore until reaching Lake Bemidji State Park, home to scenic hiking trails and 95 campsites. Hike to the quarter-mile boardwalk into a tamarack bog. It lets early summer visitors enjoy one of the best places to spot Minnesota’s state flower—showy pink lady’s slipper—in addition to other wild orchids, pitcher plants and insect-eating sundews. (It’s also a teaser for Minnesota’s Big Bog for anyone continuing north.) Fall visitors can admire tamaracks blazing bright gold against crisp blue skies.

Rent a boat or canoe to get onto Lake Bemidji at the state park, or head to Diamond Point Park and get a canoe, kayak, pontoon with a guide, mountain bike or camping gear through the university’s Outdoor Program Center (open May-October).

During the day, sculptures throughout downtown beckon visitors down the streets, while at night music flows out of bars and restaurants. Look for the luminous marquee of The Historic Chief Theater, home to Minnesota’s oldest summer stock theater and a year-round hub for performances. The community’s also known for its Concordian Language Villages, which offer immersive Finnish, French, Spanish, German and Norwegian cultural and language experiences on Turtle River Lake.

Bemidji Chief TheaterYou can also find signs of Ojibwe and tribal influences from the surrounding Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth Ojibwe reservations throughout the community. Look for traditional crafts and artwork in downtown shops and traditional foods in local restaurants, such as locally harvested wild rice served in morning pancakes, warm winter soups and gracing a steaming platter of walleye.

If you need extra warmth for late-season camping, hunting and chilly fall nights, don’t miss Bemidji Woolen Mills, a downtown landmark since 1920. You’ll find everything from Norwegian sweaters and warm boots to wool blankets that replicate the Hudson Bay blankets used during the fur trade.

Even better, you can go for a heritage look with plaid wool coats manufactured by the mill. Opt for the black-and-red pattern and you’ll feel like Mini Me standing next to Big Paul. The mustache and big blue sidekick are optional.