If you’ve been to Thief River Falls, you likely noticed the Norwegian-style trolls. There’s 18 of these chainsaw-carved statues around town; they’re large and small, cute and homely and have names like Gustav, Snorre and Haakon. That’s not a surprise in a town where, according to Wikipedia, 50% of the residents identify themselves as Norwegian-American. It’s also no surprise that snowmobiling is a big deal in this town, because Arctic Cat, one of the world’s top snowmobile brands, was born here in the 1960s. To see what else is waiting for the outdoor enthusiast, we spent a weekend in northwestern Minnesota, where, as they say, two rivers meet.
Friday night allowed us just enough time to grab a bite to eat at the Black Cat Bar and Grill, a neighborhood joint. If you’re into snowmobiling, this is your place. The pine-clad walls and ceiling were full of photos, newspaper clippings and paraphernalia about Arctic Cat snowmobiles, which are made in the factory right across the street. Throw in a couple of hockey sticks and the Stanley Cup finals on TV and this was the best place to be on a Friday night.
Our food came hot and fast. Jen’s Goober Burger with peanut butter and bacon hit the spot. My Crusty Turkey Melt, which gets its name from the parmesan-crusted bread slabs that hold everything together, was equally good. The chipotle mayo it came with was no joke, either.
If you feel up to a little competition you can try your hands (and mouth and stomach) at the Challenger Challenge at the Black Cat. All you have to do is finish a burger with four patties, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo and a pound of fries, and you get your picture on the wall of fame. The current record is seven minutes and nineteen seconds, set by Big Eater Mike in 2021, and your meal is free if you beat that. Maybe next time.
Before our trip I reached out to Glen from Bike Thief River Falls
, a local bike advocacy group. He helped me put together a nice route around town on a combination of trails and roads. On a pleasant Saturday morning we hopped on the bikes and rolled down the bike trail along deserted Greenwood Street, toward our first destination, Wired Bean coffee shop
. It’s a small, comfy space that does a brisk business on a Saturday morning, inside and in the drive-through. While we were waiting for our breakfast sandwiches I felt life flood back into me with every sip of my special elixir, that is coffee with a shot of espresso. Wired and ready, we continued our trip.
Our route hugged the Red Lake River through residential neighborhoods with nice riverfront properties and eventually crossed it at First Street East. We were now on the west side of the river and went north on the River Walk. This bike and pedestrian trail follows the Red Lake River’s north-south path through town and connects nine of the city’s parks like pearls on a string. Interpretive signs along the way tell the story of this town at the confluence of the Thief River and Red Lake River. The north-south part of the River Walk is only about three miles long, but if you add the natural surface trails at Oakland Park, Greenwood and Northland College and you’ll have about seven miles of trails with the river as a backdrop.
We entered the River Walk at about the halfway point and passed the brand-new Rivers and Rails Brewery
, which was on the agenda for later. It was good to see a historic building put to use as we passed the old Soo Line Depot turned city hall and at the #TRF sculpture at Red Robe Park, we stopped for a selfie. The Red Lake River makes a horseshoe bend here and is joined by the Thief River from the north. This spot is likely the area with the highest concentration of parks you’ll find in the entire town. You’re standing in one park, looking across the river at two other parks (Centennial and Lafave) across the water from each other.
I realized later that when we crossed the river again to get to Northland College, we had the Thief River on one side and the Red Lake River on the other. Unfortunately, the natural surface trails at the college where too wet to ride from recent rains, and we turned back to finish the southern half of the River Walk. At Mill Yard Park, we parked the bikes and walked across the narrow dam to watch the waters of the swollen Red Lake River froth and churn on their journey south toward Red Lake Falls. Call it foreshadowing, but it wasn’t looking good for a kayak trip on this visit.
Of course, no bike ride is complete without a stop at the local meat market and there happened to be one right on our route. At Michael’s Meats,
the cases were filled to the brim with all kinds of delicious things, but beef jerky always travels best and fits in any jersey pocket. The next stop led us to Tonnabell’s
. Owner Kelly Thygeson offers a nicely curated list of handmade items by local and regional artists in her small downtown shop. Just look for the brightly colored angel wing mural on the outside. Once inside, it didn’t take long for the souvenir wheels to start turning and as Jen had a phone conference with her parents about what mug to get, I shopped the hand carved wooden spoon display. We both walked out happy.
The flash of primary colors immediately drew us across the street to Ingram’s Candy Store.
It’s a tidy store packed full of the most orderly collection of sweets you’ll ever see. Chocolates, jelly beans, taffy, cotton candy, ice cream, pop rocks, swizzle sticks, a self-serve gummy bar and even candy-coated scorpions, it’s all in there. Owner Scott Ingram was stumped when I asked how many different types of sweets he carries. “I’ve never counted them,” he said and smiled. I headed straight for the impressive licorice rack because I had a hankering for some hardcore European stuff. I was not disappointed. Jen thought it was hilarious to buy her two nieces a bag of rock candy, looking forward to their reaction when they find out you can eat them.
For lunch we chose another downtown Thief River Falls classic, The Rusty Nail.
They do a brisk noon business, but my sources told me we were there about 12 hours too early. According to the locals, the Rusty Nail is the place to be any time after midnight, but us staying up that long is a tale from another, younger life. The Rusty Nail’s daytime cook made history, however, and reset Jen’s parameters for patty melts. According to her, that perfect combination of crunchy bread, gooey cheese and juicy hamburger with onion made it the best one of her life thus far. I was lured in by the eight-penny burger which comes with a secret sauce that set it off from just a regular sandwich. Our waitress was tight-lipped about the recipe, so this one will have to remain a secret.
We got back on the River Walk and rode the bikes to the Peder Engelstad Pioneer Village on the grounds of the Pennington County Historical Society (PCHS)
. The Historical Society has been recording and preserving local history since 1938, but it wasn’t until 1976 that they moved their growing collection of artifacts into the current location. They’ve since saved nineteen historic structures from around the area and have assembled a Pioneer Village that allows a glimpse of what life might have been like a hundred or more years ago. There’s a blacksmith shop, a gas station, the old Sons of Norway Lodge, a barber shop, a mansion and two train depots. You can now rent the former church of Asphult, MN for your wedding upstairs or a game of glow-in-the-dark mini golf in the basement.
After a quick introductory tour by Director Jamie Bakken, we were on our own to explore. Just when we had wandered around and realized just how much there is to see, we stepped into the Inga Geving Museum and found out there was even more, and we hadn’t even been to the large, main collection of the PCHS, yet. That warehouse-like space housed a dizzying number of antique vehicles and farm implements as well as high school memorabilia and other witnesses of life in Thief River Falls from decades ago. Jen and I were separated as I headed straight for the fire truck. I later found her playing Oregon Trail on a working 1980s Apple Macintosh, re-living her youth and happily bathing in the pixelated flicker of low-res images. Sadly, Rick drowned while crossing the river, and with him went 54 bullets, 656 pounds of food and various wagon parts.
We said goodbye to the Pioneer Village, refreshed at our hotel and biked back to town to visit Rivers and Rails Brewing, which had just opened its doors ten days prior. Every time we come across a cool, old building I think “This would be a great place for a brewery,” and it looks like someone finally listened. The squat, brown, brick building of Rivers and Rails Brewing is literally at the intersection of both, as their spacious back patio overlooks the Red Lake River and a railroad bridge across the water. We sat down on the patio and dug into a flight of beers, which all had had names related to either the railroad or the river. Jen and I rarely pick the same beer, but this time the Sperry Car Witbeer was a clear winner for both of us. This wheat beer was an easy drinker with 5% ABV and 22 IBU, just right after a day of riding bike and sightseeing. We were also lucky to be there when they tapped their new Guava Sour and nabbed one of the first tastes of that.
We moved on to Fozzie’s BBQ
, which, like everything else, was easily reachable by bike. The restaurant is on the second floor of what was once the Elks Lodge on 3rd Street East. We noticed the delicious smell of wood smoke as we climbed the “Stairway to BBQ” and that’s exactly why we came. The Monster Nachos and Monster Fry Burrito (with mac and cheese) were delicious and really topped off the evening well. This won’t be our last visit to Fozzie’s because there’s still a BBQ Sundae I haven’t had, yet.
And, just like that, another easy bike ride later, we were back at the hotel, where we turned in after a long and eventful day.
Before our trip we had arranged to rent kayaks at Wild Side Kayak Tours and explore the river system in Thief River Falls. Owner Christina was very helpful and suggested several areas we should visit. Unfortunately, we had to change our plans. Recent rains had left both rivers swollen and running high and fast and Sunday, the day we had set aside for kayaking was very windy. We decided to play it safe and stay off the water.
We were bummed to not be able to go paddling in a town with two rivers and the kayak launches would have made it even easier to enter and exit the water. Instead, we opted to go for walks at the Greenwood and Northland College Trails, just before we headed home. Luckily, those natural trails had dried enough for foot traffic and made for a wonderful walk through the woods. We’ll have to ride the mountain bike trails at our next visit.
With Thief River Falls in the rearview mirror, we began talking about our next visit and some of the things we missed out on this time. When you go, make sure to bring your bike, kayak, walking shoes and a lot of time. You’ll need it.