Uffdah. Uffdah?

By Jerry V. Haines
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 18, 2000

Just when you think you have Minnesota figured out, it slips away from you--like a sunfish flipping out of your rowboat. To kids my age growing up there, the state could pretty well be summarized as taciturn Lutheran elders and Spam casserole. To the nation at large, we were known mostly for cold weather and were indistinguishable from Iowa and the Dakotas, except that we had Hubert Humphrey, who, truth be told, embarrassed us because he was just so . . . chatty.

Then Sir Tyrone Guthrie founded a world-renowned theater there, Mary Tyler Moore set her TV program there, the Twins went to the World Series, and Garrison Keillor built a national radio program around us. National magazines talked up Minneapolis as a city that really worked. In nearby Bloomington, a developer built the Mall of America, which inexplicably drew shoppers and gawkers from around the world. Formerly merely cold, now we were cool, sophisticated, enviable.

And then Minnesota elected Jesse "The Body" Ventura.

The one constant is the water. In Minnesota, when life seems too much to ponder, you head for the lake--any of the 10,000. (Actually, Minnesota has more than 10,000 lakes, but we wouldn't want people to think we had the big head.) Just as Texans buy ranches when they get a few dollars together, Minnesotans build lake cabins. Let the Texans lasso the dogies; we'll spend our summer Saturdays drowning worms, swatting deer flies and cannonballing off the pier, exclaiming when we return, sputtering, to the surface, "Uffdah! That's cold."

"Uffdah!" is a multipurpose regionalism connoting dismay, surprise or sensory overload. It is particularly useful in commenting on the weather, the Vikings or recent gubernatorial pronouncements. Or, in the case of my wife, Janice, and me, in deciding which lakes to visit during our recent trip.

But we didn't even have to leave "The Cities" (the collective noun for Minneapolis and St. Paul). We just went out Lake Street to Lake Calhoun on a breezy Sunday morning. Sailboats slipped along the downtown skyline, migrating birds lowered their flaps for landing, and now and then a show-off fish noisily broke the surface of the water. And the stress washed right out of our bodies.

Joggers and cyclists circled the lake--indeed, the path around the lake not only is paved, it is divided into lanes like the George Washington Parkway and has roses growing in the median strip. You can rent a canoe and navigate from Calhoun via a channel to Lake of the Isles (the one Mary Richards used to walk along in the credits), then to Cedar Lake. Catch some rays back at Calhoun Beach (yes, a beach in Minnesota). Or go to a concert at nearby Lake Harriet's band shell.

The big-time lake, though, is out in the southwest suburbs. Lake Minnetonka is full of picturesque coves and inlets and is surrounded by expensive homes, but it's not merely decorative. It is a real, functioning lake where weekend fishermen pull sunfish and bass out of the water, notwithstanding heavy cabin cruiser traffic. The attraction of fishing may be a generational thing, however, as Minnesota last year felt compelled to create special "fish for free if you're with a kid" weekends to pull the youngsters away from MTV and encourage family bonding over the bait bucket.

There probably was bonding going on during our visit to Minnetonka, but people were too intent on their fishing to mention it. These weren't fancy-pants fly fishermen looking for trophies; they were just folks thinking of supper--which is, of course, what one calls the evening meal in Minnesota. While they threw a lot of the catch back as undersized ("Aww, keep it, Donny--you can use it in the parking meter!"), much of it likely made it to local tables that night.

A threat--even more ominous than MTV--to water fun is the growing problem with Eurasian milfoil, an exotic species of thick aquatic plant for which there is no known preventative. Boaters exiting an infected lake must carefully wash their boats and trailers before hooking them up.

Life in the Cities inevitably involves the Mississippi as well. The river comes down from mallard and muskrat country, forms the eastern edge of downtown Minneapolis, and then cuts east and becomes the boundary with St. Paul. Some students at the University of Minnesota have classes on both sides of the divide and cross it via an enclosed walkway (much appreciated during winter semesters).

We found a good place to experience the river: right in the middle of it. The Nicollet Island Inn is a little too big to be a B&B (and, by definition, it can't be--it serves dinner), but a little too small to be a hotel. Long ago--and before a thorough face-lifting--it was a Salvation Army shelter. Now it is a quiet shelter from the busy workaday world of modern Minneapolis.

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