Brainerd author’s debut novel captures sense of adventure in the Northland

“Up in the land where Paul Bunyan statues are big and the tall tales about him are even bigger, lie some of Minnesota’s most beautiful resort communities. This is the land of 10,000 lakes and truly untouched wilderness surrounding Bemidji, Duluth, and Brainerd, among other towns, otherwise known as Minnesota’s Northwoods," the author describes her book.

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Julie Jo Larson sits at a table at Fancy Pants Chocolate on March 25, 2021, with her first book titled “100 Things to Do in Minnesota Northwoods Before You Die.” (Steve Kohls / Forum News Service)

A rural Brainerd woman may have been seen walking through the Minnesota Northwoods holding a walking stick, with Mukluks on her feet and a rusty-reddish shawl wrapped around her upper body.

Julie Jo Larson’s wanderlust and sense of adventure made her the perfect person to write “100 Things to Do in Minnesota Northwoods Before You Die.” Larson — a researcher, a public speaker, a presenter, a story catcher and a freelance writer — now can add author to her many titles.

Larson’s book, published by Reedy Press, was released on April 1. The rural Brainerd woman had no problem finding 100 things to do in the Minnesota Northwoods to write about, as she has explored many areas of the state for the last decade. In 2014, Larson formed a women’s history group called “The MsStorians.” The group has toured abandoned cemeteries, century-old buildings and vanishing communities. The adventurist then would write about the places she toured and call them “MsStorian Adventures,” which have appeared in the Lake Country Journal and other Northwoods publications.

Larson describes the Northwoods as the central and northern portions of Minnesota — from St. Cloud north to the Canadian border, including Grand Portage to the west from Moorhead to Duluth to Moose Lake.


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Larson said she hadn’t any plan to write a book for many years, as she was busy with myriad endeavors — she serves on the Crow Wing County Historical Society Board and the Humphrey Center for Native American Studies; is a member of the Crossing Arts Alliance and the Cuyuna Rock, Gem and Mineral Society; and she works full-time as the assistant director of TRIO Student Support Services at Central Lakes College. The TRIO program provides direct support for students to successfully complete their associate of arts degree and assist participants in a successful transfer pathway to a four-year college or university for a bachelor’s degree.

But then she got a call last spring from Krista Rolfzen Soukup, owner of Blue Cottage Agency, a business that represents and promotes literary arts. Soukup asked her if she was interested in writing a book as Reedy Press, out of Missouri, was seeking a writer to craft a book specializing in a 100 things to do book.

Soukup met Larson at one of the publishing and marketing workshops she taught through The Crossing Arts Alliance. She said Larson has been active in the writing community for years.

“As a follower of Julie Jo’s articles showcasing her love of history, nature and exploring, she was the first writer who came to mind when a large publisher reached out looking for someone to write this book,” Soukup said. “With Julie Jo’s zest for adventure, solid writing ability and an easy-going personality, I knew she would be a perfect fit and the publisher agreed.”

Larson said the idea for the book at first was 100 things to do in Brainerd, then the Brainerd lakes area and then it got bigger, and became a more regional book.

Larson said the timing to write a book was perfect as the pandemic hit last March.

“I thought why not in this time of COVID,” Larson said. “We needed something to do and this was a good thing to do. So, you know, you ask why write the book? Why not write the book? Plus I love the Brainerd lakes area, and the Minnesota Northwoods. I lived up in this area and have been visiting for over 30 years. I've been in almost every cemetery imaginable, old buildings and everything so why not share it with people who are visiting or people who have moved up here but don't know what's going on.”


Larson said she is thankful Soukup thought of her to have the opportunity to write her first book.

“Writing my first book and raising my first flock of chickens really helped me stay positive during the lockdowns,” Larson said. “I believe these opportunities also helped my husband through the year, he was my sidekick for a few trips. He's not a genuine ‘MsStorian,’ but he fills in when my team is away.”

The author has been to many places in the Northwoods so she already had information and photos of some of the places. Other places she went to visit for the book and other places she did her research by phone or email.

Larson said there are a 100 things to do in the book, but some places have more than one entry, such as wineries.

“You never think of wine when you think of ‘up north’ in Minnesota,” Larson said. “But there's wineries all over the place. We've got Drummond down here (in Brainerd), there's Carlos in Alexandria, and Forestedge Winery (in Laporte) south of Bemidji and another in Cushing.”

She also has a section about all the places to visit in Walker, which is “one thing” with several pieces to it.

Larson said her friend Vicki Foss was the photographer for her book and helped her brainstorm categories and ideas for the book.

Larson said each category in the book includes spots in the Brainerd lakes area, such as Roundhouse Brewery and the Last Turn Saloon under food and beverages. Other places include Safari North, Christmas Point, CatTails Books and Gifts and Fancy Pants Chocolates in Brainerd/Baxter and Victual, a homemade ice cream shop in Crosby that makes lactose-free ice cream.


Julie Jo Larson shows part of the brainstorming process when she was compiling research for her book “100 Things to Do in Minnesota Northwoods Before You Die,” while sitting Thursday, March 25, at Fancy Pants Chocolate in Brainerd. The book was released on April 1, and is available at book stores around the region. (Steve Kohls / Forum News Service)

According to a news release from the publishing company, the regional areas highlighted in Larson’s book include Alexandria, Baxter, Bemidji, Biwabik, Brainerd, Carlton, Chisholm, Cloquet, Coleraine, Collegeville, Crosby, Deerwood, Duluth, Ely, Eveleth, Garrison, Grand Rapids, Grand Portage, Hackensack, Hibbing, Hinkley, Ironton, Isle, Kettle River, Knife River, Laporte, Little Falls, Lutsen, Meadowlands, Moorhead, Moose Lake, Nisswa, Northome, Onamia, Orr, Park Rapids, Pequot Lakes, Pierz, Pine City, Pine River, Sandstone, Sauk Centre, Tower, Two Harbors and Walker.

In the book, Larson describes the focus of her work:

“Up in the land where Paul Bunyan statues are big and the tall tales about him are even bigger, lie some of Minnesota’s most beautiful resort communities. This is the land of 10,000 lakes and truly untouched wilderness surrounding Bemidji, Duluth and Brainerd, among other towns, otherwise known as Minnesota’s Northwoods.

“Though only the hearty live here year-round and the winter averse just vacation here in the summer, there’s still no shortage of activities and sights to fill your itinerary, no matter the season. Whether you use this book as a bucket list, tour guide, or a cure for cabin fever, we’ve got you covered. We’ll entice you to try new outdoor activities, such as wading across the headwaters of the Mississippi, eat unusual foods, and sip flavorful beverages. You’ll also find a plethora of things to do inside on rainy days, such as exploring the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum. Carefully crafted itineraries and seasonal — yes, there are four seasons here — activities will provide plenty of inspiration for visitors and locals alike.”

The book can be purchased through, Amazon, Reedy Press by calling (314) 833-6600 or emailing or retailers across the region.

Larson also is scheduling upcoming speaking engagements and events across Minnesota for 2021-22, which she began earlier this month.


Larson said she is proud of the book and she believes it showcases the Northwoods well, whether for a new visitor or someone who has lived up north their whole life.

“There's things in this book that you'll be like, ‘I didn't know that,’” Larson said. “And there'll be things that you're like, ‘Oh, I knew that, but I didn't know that piece of it.’ We tried to find old and new pieces and some novel things, such as the best chicken wild rice pizza is at Poor Gary's Pizza in a little town called Moose Lake. ... They also have a 1918 fire museum that really pays tribute to the time in Minnesota when fire and war and famine and flu, where everything just came together. ... That museum is beautifully done.”

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