Posted by: Cynthya | April 12, 2010

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Posted by: Cynthya | April 7, 2010

Eat your heart out, New York City

So I just came back from a trip to New York City and all I can say is wow, Winona, you’ve got it going on.

I know what you’re thinking – New York is so historic, so iconic, so… New York City, how could Winona or anywhere else possibly compare?

Well I’ll tell you:

Statue of Liberty, meet Princess Wenonah, a beautiful carved sculpture of a Dakota Indian maiden who stands in the center of Windom Park downtown. With an arm raised to shield her eyes from the sun she wistfully scans the distance for what is said to be her true love, and she represents the very underpinnings of this historic Native American land.

Broadway would do well to have a production company like the Great River Shakespeare Festival, a seasonal theater company that brings in actors from across the country for world-class performances each summer. AND, the very cheapest nosebleed seats in the back of most theaters on Broadway are going to set you back more than $70, with good seats topping $200. At GRSF, the very best seats in the house are $37, and you can see any show for the pocket change of $20.

Orchestra Hall boasts some of the best classical music performances in the world, but so does the Beethoven Festival each summer in Winona. Seriously. But you say you can see Yo-Yo Ma at Orchestra Hall? Yeah, he’s coming here too.

Metropolitan Museum of Art gets a serious run for its money from the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, a graceful museum on the banks of the Mississippi River where visitors can see the work of some of the undisputed best artists in the world. Stand three feet away from Monet, wonder at the use of light and color by Renoir, marvel at works by Homer, Glackens and Bellows. If this museum was in New York City it would be packed full of gawking tourists every single day.

And people pay a small fortune to go to the top of Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building for a view that sweeps for miles, but gazing for miles from the overlook of Garvin Heights is absolutely free, and incredibly beautiful.

Ellis Island documents the history of immigrants, but so does the Winona County Historic Society in their lovely building downtown. I absolutely swear that square foot for square foot, the historical society has more exhibits, more resources and more information about life in this corner of the world and beyond. The building is nearing the end of a $4 million addition and renovation that will make it a showpiece in Winona, and you don’t even have to take a boat to get there.

And you won’t have to mortgage your house to eat and drink in Winona. A meal at a diner near Time Square that included a hamburger and fries, a chef salad, macaroni and cheese, two sodas and a beer rolled in with a tab of $86. No kidding. It was enough to make me choke on a fry. In Winona at a vibrant and historic eatery like Bub’s Brewing Co. that meal would have been less than $30 with an extra tip for the friendly waitress.

Sure, New York City has some charms that you can only find there, and millions of tourists a year flock to the Big Apple to take them in. But if you are looking for a vacation in a place steeped with history, rich with culture and that won’t set you back an arm, leg, house payment and your next two vacation budgets, allow me to suggest Winona. I promise, you’ll see once you get here why we really are our own small charming version of the best New York City has to offer.

Minnesota Marine Art Museum

Lake Winona Bandshell

Posted by: Cynthya | March 30, 2010

The birds are back in town…

So I woke up this morning with the song, “The Boys Are Back In Town” going through my head, except I was inserting “birds” for no apparent reason. After some reflection, I think it must have to do with having just seen my first great blue heron for the season the day before. But really, is that the kind of thing that can change song lyrics and make me wake up singing? Well, yeah.

I guess I need to accept the fact that I’m kind of a bird freak. I learned that about myself when I was sorting through some 10,000 photos in my archives, and I realized that 9,000 of them are of birds. Okay, not quite, but there was a clear imbalance towards winged creatures (except bats, which I hate, but that’s another story).

But let’s face it, if you’re going to be a bird lover, you really can’t do better than this stretch of the Mississippi River. Winona is blessed to be on a main flyway for migrating birds, many of which pause for a while, or for a season, to enjoy our beautiful river.

Winona loves its blue herons – a stroll through town will reveal a sizable number of six-foot-tall heron statues artistically painted and set outside storefronts and homes for passersby to enjoy. Part of the Blue Heron project a couple of years ago, the statues represent not only Winona’s deep arts culture, but also the fact that more than 1,000 nesting pairs of the regal birds call this stretch of the Mississippi home from spring till fall.

Their distant cousins, gorgeous white egrets, are nearly as plentiful, and a walk or paddle along any backwater offers a pretty stunning display of groups of birds sunning themselves, fishing and preening. My favorite place to take pictures of egrets is the Verchota Boat Landing on the Prairie Island Dike, though you have to walk a little bit to get to their hiding spot. From the boat landing, a little deer path cuts along the shore to the left leading to a small, shallow inlet hard to see from the boat landing itself. I can’t remember how I found it originally, I was probably lost or something. But there had to be 20 or 30 egrets back there that day and I was mesmerized. I haven’t been back there yet this year, but I believe the egrets have a rookery there and I think they’ll be back.

I know. I  just told you all a secret and now there will be 200 birders back there that I’ll have to climb over for a shot. But you know what? I don’t care. It’s a secret too good to not share, and anyone who would slog along the shore on a deer path is okay in my book. Bring your camera, and pack a lunch. You’re going to want to stay for a while.

Posted by: Cynthya | March 22, 2010

Hellooooooo Shakespeare!

Now listen, those of you who are about to stop reading because you think this is going to be a blog about Shakespeare and you’re not into that, well, hear me out. Those of you who like Shakespeare, I have some good news.

Sunday night was kind of the unofficial kick-off for the Great River Shakespeare Festival season with its annual preview at Visions Event Center. Half social mixer, half pep rally, the event draws together festival organizers, past patrons and even a few of the actors to start building energy for the coming season.

But the thing about Great River Shakespeare Festival is that each year that “energy building” event gets easier and easier, because as the festival has grown in the community, so too has the amount of energy left behind until the next season starts. Writing for the newspaper it used to be in the beginning that we were reeducating the community each spring about what GRSF was, why it was in Winona, why it was special, and why people should get off their duffs and go see a play.

If you build it, they will come. I can’t help but think of this Field of Dreams saying when it comes to Great River Shakespeare Festival. Seven years ago the festivals founders were definitely met with some head scratching and blank stares when they said they were going to create a world-class Shakespeare festival in Winona. It’s funny that they could see something in this charming river town that even some of its own residents could not: In this beautiful historic setting midway between the two biggest cities in the Midwest, fueled by warm river breezes and proximity to everywhere, arts flourish.

Believing alone may have been what lifted this festival up in the beginning, but it wasn’t long before the festival could rest comfortably on its jaw-droppingly good performances. Critics from big places far away are raving – it’s that good. I’m completely embarrassed to say that I did not see a full play until last summer… it just always seemed like I was really busy during their season and I kept meaning to go and didn’t. I know. Terrible. BUT – last year I saw The Tempest and completely fell in love. It was so good I saw it twice – each time transfixed by a story that was easier than I expected to understand and characters that seemed as real as Shakespeare no doubt intended them to be.

Founders Paul Barnes and Alec Wild made good on their promise – they built it, and people came. And it was good, and they are going to come again. This year Othello and The Comedy Of Errors are on tap, as well as The Daly News, an original production by one of the festival’s longtime cast members. Tickets for the summer season are on sale now, and soon cast members from around the country will be spotted walking in our parks and noshing in our cafes as they prepare to mesmerize us again with the words and wit of Will. Come June 23 there will be a whole lot of Shakespeare going on in Winona… you can read about it yourself here: Hope to see you there 🙂

Chris Gerson and Kim Martin-Cotten stump for Season Two at Shakespeare and Chocolate

Posted by: Cynthya | March 14, 2010

A Homecoming for the Dakota

Friday morning I had breakfast with a very hard working group of people doing something truly unique for the Winona community – they are building the bridge that welcomes the Dakota Indian population back to their homeland, now known as the city of Winona.

Now when I say I had breakfast what I mean is I sat there and freebased coffee, because it was 7:30 in the morning and frankly I’m not much of a thinker at that hour. But I went because the group asked me to be a ‘friend’ of the committee as they navigate the world of media and marketing and hey, I need friends.

I remember when the Dakota Homecoming started up as a fledgling idea six years ago to take place along side the Grand Excursion, an event that celebrated the white man’s settlement of communities along the Mississippi River. A few big picture thinkers, namely Lyle Rustad and Ed Lohnes from the Diversity Foundation and Eric Sorenson from the city of Winona, recognized that to settle in Winona, white people had to displace those already living here, namely the Dakota Nation. That first event was  cobbled together by the efforts of a few volunteers, a few donors, and a handful of connections in the Dakota tribe who agreed that perhaps it was time to mend the fences broken more than a century ago when the Dakota Nation was stripped from this land. The event received a financial boost from the City of Winona, something that ultimately made the gathering possible and a stalwart few pieced together three days of what they billed as reconciliation.

That year was a success beyond anyone’s expectations, particularly because of the number of Winona community members who came to the event to see, listen and learn. The Dakota who came from their homes across Minnesota, the Dakotas and Canada admitted that at first they were wary – they did not want to come be a spectacle for Winona’s entertainment, and no community had ever approached them and said, “Hey, we want to say we’re sorry for the sins of our ancestors and invite you to come to a home that we know is as much yours as ours.”

The Dakota I talked to that year were surprised to see so many families sitting in the grass, so many people who came to the sunrise ceremonies, who shared meals and listened quietly and apologized sincerely in truth telling circles. It opened a doorway that had been closed for 140 years and by the weekend’s close a lot of people’s perceptions had been shifted on both sides of the homecoming.

The homecoming has only picked up steam since then – more Winona community members and more Dakota families come each year, a beautiful and kind of magical feeling place called Unity Park has been constructed at the base of Sugar Loaf, and organizers have begun to spotlight various aspects of the Native American culture to celebrate them more completely. From this event college scholarships, outreach efforts and a Winona-Dakota Unity Alliance have been spawned, each serving to solidify the bonds between the Dakota Nation and the city of Winona.

This year the Dakota Homecoming will honor Dakota children, a generation that exists in duality between the modern pulls of society and the deep roots of their heritage. Within their own communities the Dakota are working to keep that heritage alive, passing down the oral traditions of the Dakota language once illegal to use when Dakota were corralled onto reservations, and passing down the integral spiritual and cultural beliefs that make up the Native American legacy.

Winonans will once again be invited to join in a celebration of this culture – the event is always the first weekend in June and this year promises to be bigger and better than ever.

And if you go, don’t miss the sunrise ceremony held each morning on Saturday and Sunday. It is a solemn, magical and moving half hour standing over a fire while a Dakota holy man thanks the earth and welcomes the sunrise with traditions that are thousands of years old. Even my daughters, who are teenagers and too cool for everything, are profoundly touched by this ceremony and now beg  me to get them up at 5:00 a.m. to go. Seriously. You know it has to be cool.

Folks, the Dakota Homecoming is the only event of its kind in the Midwest, and just another reason why there really is nowhere quite like Winona. Hope we see you in June 🙂

Beautiful dancing at the Dakota Homecoming

Posted by: Cynthya | March 6, 2010

Thank you Winona 360!

I got a call last week from a young lady named Christina McDaniel, a Winona State University student working for a WSU online publication called Winona 360. She wanted to talk about the blog and write a little something for their community newspaper found at Whooooooeeeee! That was exciting~

Now, first of all, when I say “young lady” I mean like younger then me, although I admit I was called “young lady” not very long ago when I was over at Watkins Manor, but the person who said it was probably about 100. Anywhoo… Christina is a journalism student who heard about the blog and we had a nice chat about my ramblings here.

But I was doubly excited about the interview because I think it just illuminates one of the things that is so great about Winona – our vibrant universities. Blessed by not one but two four-year institutions and one technical college, Winona is infused year round with youthful energy and the signs of it are everywhere, including Winona 360.

I had to admit I had no idea what Winona 360 was when Christina called, but I looked at the site after we were done and I have to say BRAVO! It is an enterprise that takes bright minds, curious souls and great writers and melds them together into a website that celebrates Winona much as this blog does. It is an online newspaper produced largely at the hands of journalism students, and I have to say it is constructed as well as professional enterprises I’ve seen, and in some cases better.

But we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Winona State University has a long history of elevating this community, and even owns a piece of the credit for making this town truly a great tourism destination.

Take, for example, the Great River Shakespeare Festival. It is a world-class festival that draws thousands each summer, but were it not for WSU’s Performing Arts Center we’d all be sitting on the grass in the park to watch these unforgettable plays. Can you imagine Hamlet’s gripping battle with Laertes and Claudius punctuated by the sound of a car horn somewhere and a gaggle of angry geese who want their grass back? Yeah.

Winona State, with its 8,600 or so students, can also take a lot of credit for the existence of hip little coffee shops like Blooming Grounds, Mugby Junction and Acoustic Cafe, for trendy pubs like Ed’s No Name Bar, and for the fact that you really can’t swing a stick in this town and not hit a great artist performing somewhere.

In fact, it would be pretty hard to imagine what this river town would look like without that beautiful campus and the vibrant energy that flows into Winona from it. So in case no one has told you lately, thanks, WSU, for helping make this town so awesome, and thanks, Winona 360, for helping to tell people about it.

Young Floutist

Posted by: Cynthya | February 26, 2010

The Thaw Is On

If you live anywhere south of, say Des Moines, 30 degrees has probably never been called blissful, but in Winona this time of year it is like an all-out heat wave. I know, it’s all so relative. If it was August we’d all be pretty unhappy. If it was Florida, iguanas would be dropping out of trees. But this is winter in Minnesota, and most days anything above five degrees feels like winning the lottery.

For the past week people have been shedding their jackets as the balmy sun melted through the thick snow crust and warmed up our cars, kitchen windows and hearts. I don’t even think calling it blissful gives the sunshine enough credit, because frankly people are getting downright giddy. I am personally so excited I can’t breathe, because this great thaw, Mother Nature’s annual blessing to the north, means one thing: Good bye hat hair.

Okay seriously, spring in Winona is absolutely my favorite time of year.  As the last vestiges of winter melt away the sidewalks and bike paths are once again filled with walkers and Rollerbladers, and the bluffs literally burst with the color of budding trees and spring green prairie grasses.

Winona is blessed with an abundance of fragrant flowering trees that dot boulevards through town, and bright tulips light up parks and flower boxes downtown. Our historic buildings are beautiful all year, but when they are lit up by spring they are especially beautiful.

Soon the pond that surrounds Princess Wenonah in Windom Park will flow with water, and delicate buds will appear on the roses in Winona’s rose garden, and Winona will be gracefully stepping into its most beautiful time of year when people travel from all over to soak in the charm of this historic river town.

To catch spring in full swing, these things are my favorites:

Wander around East Lake Winona then walk across the street to the Lakeview Drive Inn for one of their killer root beer floats.

Catch a few rays on a bench in the tiny city park behind the Post Office where red and yellow tulips brighten planters around Winona’s downtown American flag.

Stop into the Winona County Historical Society and ask about the walking tour, which will guide you past Winona’s famous and infamous landmarks.

Head down to Levee Park on the Mississippi River and watch some of the season’s first barges chug by loaded with grain.

This list could go on forever – there is so much to do here when the weather is warm enough to wander. But whatever you decide to do, what you don’t want to do is miss this town when it comes alive after a winter sleep – you’re guaranteed to come away feeling more alive too 🙂

The winter freeze is nearing an end in Winona

Posted by: Cynthya | February 18, 2010

Eagle Watching in Winona

The other day I was driving south from Minneapolis towards Winona on Highway 61 when a bald eagle whizzed over the top of my car clutching its river bounty: a hapless looking fish having the worst day it ever had.

It was one of those freeze-frame moments when your mouth drops in awe of the majestic six-foot wingspan, piercing gold eye and deadly talons just a few yards away, the kind of moment that makes you want to cry into a cup over the fact that you’re driving 60 instead of holding a camera.

I pulled over for a minute, mostly to thank God that I didn’t crash or end up with an eagle and a fish in my lap, but also to scan the trees nearby to see if I could still manage a photo of the eagle, even if it would have been kind of gross with a half-eaten fish and all.

With a tingle produced by more than the chilly February breeze I realized it is TIME, and this stopping and scanning and jaw dropping is a scene that will be replicated over and over and over for the next couple of months on the stretch of highway above and below Winona.

Eagles love it here, but then again why wouldn’t they? Our Mississippi River is in many ways as unspoiled for eagles as it was in 1782 when they narrowly beat out the wild turkey for designation as our national symbol. And on a side note, what were they thinking putting a freakish looking, nubby headed, wattle-necked turkey against the magnificently elegant, powerful eagle when they had that debate? Seriously. And listen, turkey lovers, don’t send me angry letters. I like turkey. With gravy even. But if we’re going for an image here, I’m just saying.

Anyway, the open water created by dams and swift current leave an abundance of fish looking for a little oxygen in these parts, and this stretch of the Upper Mississippi is home to hundreds of pairs of nesting eagles who come back to the region between February and March to take up roost.

As residents we sometimes get desensitized to the glory of seeing eagles soaring overhead – for us it is part of everyday life all year round thanks to the stalwart few eagles that never leave. But when they flood back en masse, even the most seasoned Winonan can’t help but stand in wonder for a bit as the spectacular bird decorates our waterfront.

Soon we will see fuzzy white heads popping above the rims of our massive nests, and eagles will be joined on the river by a symphony of graceful water birds like egrets and great blue herons who also call Winona their three-season home.

It’s a great time for a road trip, folks, and you’d better bring your camera. Keep a look out for me though, because I’ll be the one driving with a camera on her lap.

A beautiful eagle along the Mississippi near Winona

Posted by: Cynthya | February 3, 2010

Winona = Wine Country

I like wine. In fact, I like wine enough to have visited California’s famed wine regions more than once to sample the fare at legendary wineries. A few years ago if you visited a ” wine trail” it almost certainly meant you were out west somewhere, because it was the only place temperate enough for the grapes.

Well not so fast. Winona, Minnesota is on a wine trail too. For real. I had no idea.

This revelation came as I sat across a table from Marvin and Linda Seppanen, a couple who lives atop the bluff on the fringe of beautiful Winona. I had heard about a couple of wineries in the region, but the only products I’d sampled had been that sweet fruit wine that I don’t especially love. (Okay listen, don’t send me angry notes – I know lots of people love apple wine and cherry wine and plum wine and revel in its sweetness, but I happen to be more of a chardonnay and cabernet type of girl).

Anyway, we were at a cocktail party and engaging in the normal chatter: Them: “Your name sounds familiar. Are you the Cynthya Porter that writes for the paper?” “Yes, that’s me.” “Oh, that makes you Porter the reporter.” Laughs all around. sigh. If I had $1 for every time I’ve heard that… well, I’d have a lot of money, so anyway, they were probably laughing a little harder than I was.

Me: “So what do you do?” “Oh, we own a winery.” Which of course made me spit my pinot noir. “Really? Where?” “Right on top of the hill.”

For the next half an hour I got a wonderful education from the Seppanens about grapes and wine making and how the University of Minnesota has spent 30 years tweaking grapes to make them not only survive in this climate, but thrive. The results go far beyond those sweet fruit wines that I won’t bring up again, producing lush, complex wines that would rival a lot of wineries out west.

But wait, there’s more.

The Seppanens with their Garvin Heights Vineyard aren’t the only ones doing this. They are on something called the Great River Road Wine Trail, which snakes down the Mississippi from Prescott to Marquette. The wineries on this trail are a bit more spread out than the wineries in Napa Valley, but the drive is arguably more beautiful here and they have products that are every bit as interesting to sample.

How could I not know this? I’ve written about wineries in Door County. I’ve photographed wineries in Monterrey. Here, in my own stomping grounds, these wineries have been quietly springing up, even selling their products at local stores and I’ve never visited them.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for summer, when I will open the windows, fold a map and set out on the Great River Road Wine Trail to see this for myself. If you’ve been to one of these wineries I’d love to hear what your favorites were.

Ready to pick...

Posted by: Cynthya | January 26, 2010

It’s show time in Winona

A bubbling stream in Winona even in winter

The somewhat aptly named Frozen River Film Festival starts Wednesday, and I’m excited to see who exactly will be following the frozen river road to Winona. The frozen river road is, of course, Highway 61, and in no way similar to the yellow brick road,  which reportedly has flying monkeys.

No flying monkeys in this little corner of Minnesota, but there is a heck of a big frozen river right outside, and though we do have a lot of great trails for winter sports it seems like an awfully good time to sit inside and watch a movie. Or 50. No kidding – I read today that Frozen River Film Festival will have 50 films showing over the next five days, it’s like movie night on steroids. Films are coming from all over the world. I wonder if we will someday have people from all over the world too. Right here in Winona. It’s pretty enough, even in January – I hope they come.

The one I’m most excited to see is Big River Man – a full length documentary about Martin Strel and his Fountain City sidekick Matt Mohlke. I interviewed Matt a few weeks ago for a newspaper story about the movie, and in case you missed it, here’s how it goes:

Martin is a lunatic. And an extreme swimmer. He swam most of the world’s monstrous rivers, including the Mississippi, which is how he met Matt Mohlke. So Martin decides to swim the Amazon River and asks Matt to be his navigator – the guy who sits in the front of the boat and keeps snakes from biting Martin and such. And they have to have armed guards with them all the time because of pirates. And they all get dysentery. Oh yeah, and Martin drinks two bottles of wine a day, some of it while he’s swimming, and he thinks he’s communicating with piranhas and animals and such, and that he can travel through space and time… like I said, pretty much a lunatic. But he’s the kind of lunatic who is doing some pretty incredible things and doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and this movie sounds like an awful lot of fun. As Matt put it, “He’s the last superhero in the world. He’s a fat 53-year-old alcoholic, but that’s the way the world works these days.” Man, what a great quote.

Besides films, Frozen River has speakers and workshops and kids stuff included in the ticket, along with an enormous Fringe Festival roster that sounds as big as the festival itself. A pass for the whole shebang is $50 – a dollar a movie. Even my grandmother would be jealous.

Time to get some popcorn cooking Winona… it’s movie time~

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