Brownielocks and The 3 Bears


A Newcomer's Guide to Northwoods Etiquette
Written by
Becca Colebank © 2005 





 Above all, never tell anyone "I'm not from here." Never admit that you have no kin in the North woods, or you will remain "that there girl from Omaha who married that Jensen boy" or "that new guy from California " for the next twenty years.  If you must, invent a shirttail relative so that when someone asks "Who are you?" you can answer "My Aunt Lena's cousin Peter Olson was originally from Gonvick."  Be sure to throw in a few Scandinavian names and you'll be fine, because no one would admit not knowing Peter Olson from Gonvick.


  Use "that there" to modify all nouns and as a pronoun for everything, such as 'That there was an Alberta Clipper' and 'Pack that there license plate with snow so you can't see that there tag is expired.'   You must also tack the word "then" on to the end of every sentence, as in 'I blew that there porcupine out of the tree then.'  A common expression is "uff-da", which has a myriad of meanings, including 'It sucks to be you.'  If you wish to add emphasis to your uff-da, add "my-ah" as in "uff-da my-ah!' which means 'Unbelievable!' or 'Hogwash!' . If you wish to convey empathy, say "ta heck", drawing out the heck slightly, as in 'Ta he-e-e-eck you say.'  It is well to learn which words are relatively unknown in the area and avoid them lest someone label you as 'not from here'. These words include "HIV Positive", "consensus' and 'suburbia.'  (Note: See our page on Minnesota Talk)


  Familiarize yourself with the terms lefse, lutefisk, hotdish, wild rice, and potato klub.  Potato klub is served only on a certain day of the week, and is at its tastiest when a Norwegian name is placed in front of it in the cafĂ©'s ad such as 'Wednesday:  Oscar's Potato Klub, 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.'  Lutefisk comes to the local store in a wooden barrel directly from Norway without any preservatives except for vinegar, hence its resemblance to congealed wallpaper paste.  Some locals have given lutefisk the honor of being the dish served exclusively on Christmas Eve.  This is a great way to avoid eating it the other 364 days of the year.  Lefse is merely a tortilla disguised with butter and sugar. 


This is the number one conversational lead-off.  It's a sign of machismo to have a lower temperature than your neighbor.  Start with boasting how cold you had it at your place last night, and your chit-chat partner will parry with a temperature that is at least ten degrees lower.  This is a good place to try out your first 'Uff-da'.   Always curse the radio stations for giving the milder airport temperature and not the 'real' temperature or Bemidji will never regain its 'Icebox of the Nation' status from International Falls . 


It's in good taste to bring 'hotdish' to church suppers and potlucks.  Hotdish is the Minnesota term for 'casserole,' which is just too snooty a term for any Jackpine Savage.  Hotdish is defined as a pasta, potato or rice dish with exactly one pound of hamburger and at least two varieties of Campbell 's soup added.  Yes, it's 'hamburger' and never the also-too-snooty 'ground beef'.  Hotdish tastes best served in dented dark blue spatterware.



If you want to find a logger, don't look in the woods. Look down at the local cafe where they'll all be sitting in oil-stained Carhartts at the big round table drinking coffee, chewing snoose and bandying about words like 'stumpage' and 'skidder'.  If you sit with them, never say anything pleasant about the County, Environmental Services or the Land Commissioner.  'Popple' means aspen, which is logger's gold, and 'bombagillyard' refers to popple's cousin 'Balm of Gilead,' a weedy, no-good tree.  Logger's wives run for skidder and loader parts and vigilantly watch for the check from Potlatch to come so they can distribute it (See 'Learning to Live With the Economy').  Logger's kids are mechanically inclined and wear caps to school with 'Husqvarna' logos.  Some loggers log to support their farming habit.  By the way, don't refer to them as loggers.  They 'work in the woods'.


 If you must drive down Highway Two on Saturday morning, never look right or left because it is a big nuisance to have to wave at all your relatives on the way to Bemidji .  Keep your neck stiff and your eyes glued straight ahead.  It is customary to drive in the passing lane at least ten miles per hour slower than those crazy North Dakota drivers.  Once you pass Solway you can even cease steering because the deep grooves in the blacktop from the logging trucks will hold your wheels on a steady course.  Never leave home without the customary go-cup of coffee.  There are "way stations" all along the route, known in the big city as convenience stores, which will keep your cup filled free of charge all the way to Bemidji. 


If you want rid yourself of all obvious "outsider" traits, avoid ordering wine or fancy drinks. The bartenders can't make them anyway.  It is well to remember that no respectable bar patron dances until at least the band's second set.  The first set is reserved for surreptitiously noting who is there with whom.  If you absolutely don't want to dance, avoid eye contact with anyone in the room.  If, God forbid, someone should still start toward you with dancing in mind, hurriedly get up and head for the bathroom.  It is mandatory that you yell for one more song and refuse to leave the floor after the last song or the band will be hurt.   When the bartender yells 'Last Call', quickly order five drinks.  When the bartender yells 'Let's go!' he or she doesn't really mean it until he/she turns out the lights and locks the door.


There are good and bad aspects to living in the North woods.  The good news is that recessions and depressions virtually have no effect on this permanently depressed economy and land is still cheap compared to urban areas.  The bad news is that if you want to live here, you will probably have to work somewhere else.  If you find yourself unable to pay a bill on time, it is customary and proper to lie and cheat. Tell the telephone company "I sent it last Thursday" and curse the post office roundly; send the check but forget to sign it, or send it made out to the wrong company.  All methods work equally well to delay payment for a few days until your check from Potlatch comes.  Farming is an expensive hobby here and if you intend to farm, find a real job first to support your farming.




There are three types of bait:  night crawlers, leeches and minnows.  There are two fancy types of fish:  walleye and northern.  Jackpine Savages spear suckers in the local streams in the spring and can them, then serve them to unsuspecting company as 'salmon'.  If you accidentally spear a fancy fish when sucker spearing, stick it in the bottom of the gunny sack and stall the game warden with Ole and Lena jokes.  For a real taste treat, take the gunny sack home and smoke the suckers in your old refrigerator behind the garage.  A rule of thumb to remember is that the best fishing lakes are those kept purposefully inaccessible to motorboats. The more brush-filled and muddy the access, the better the fishing. 


'Deer hunting' is a traditional holiday in Minnesota, even more popular than Christmas.  As a rule, there will be only three days of school the week of deer hunting. No teachers assign homework during this most important time of the year, and 'Johnny went hunting' is an acceptable excuse for absence.  Hunting season begins in September and continues until Christmas, accompanied by the constant blaring of 'Tirdy-Point Buck' on the radio. As soon as the leaves begin to fall it is customary to start remarking on the lack of big bucks in your area. Wives should start searching out the blaze-orange jackets, hats and gloves long before deer season because there is nothing more irritable than a hunter with a wardrobe malfunction just before dawn on opening day.  Deer hunters have an unwritten code of honor.  All local hunters have unmapped 'territories' on state and county land which are earned by longevity or proximity.  If you accidentally put your deer stand on one of these territories, your deer stand will invariably accidentally burn down.  Older hunters use tirdy-tirdies but younger hunters and women must be saddled with .410s because they probably can't hit anything anyway.  Deer hunting stories should be repeated time and time again until every one of your friends knows every move you made when you shot that there tirdy-point buck then.  Each time you tell it, make sure your wife can hear it because she enjoys it so much.  Note: If you don't get your deer during season, it is customary to make a road kill with your car. This way you get your deer and a new hood and fender or even a new car.





A sympathy card is a must; the bigger and the more flowery, the better. There is a certain rule of thumb to follow in giving money memorials. If you don't know the person well but are attending out of a sense of duty, give $5. (Fixed Income--$2). If you know the person well but didn't particularly like him or her, give $10 . (Fixed Income--$7) If you wish to impress the bereaved family with your generosity, give $20 . (Fixed Income--$15). When you walk up to look at the deceased (who has invariably been stowed at the very front of the church so that everyone can watch your reaction to the gnat flying in and out of the deceased's nose) just before the funeral begins, you must remain in place for at least 10 seconds.  It is customary to comment on "how nice she looked" or "what a good job they did on him" to the family.  The singer must be a middle-aged plump church lady, perhaps giving credence to the belief that "it's not over 'til the fat lady sings".  Most funerals have an 'after party' for family members which takes place at the local bar. These "after parties" are great places to settle family quarrels.



Everyone knows that the decision of the referee or the umpire is never correct unless it goes your team's way. If your team is losing, start cursing the biased refs. If your son or daughter's team is losing badly, the best thing for him or her to do is to feign injury, thus deflecting any of the blame from themselves. A common rule of thumb to follow concerning playing time is that your child will invariably be allowed to play only half as much time as the coach's son or the principal's daughter. It is perfectly permissible to grouse loudly about this to your friends.



There are four meals in the Northland:  breakfast, dinner, supper, and 'a little lunch'.   'A little lunch' is the stealth meal served to unsuspecting coffee guests from out of town.  Be warned that if a local invites you to 'a little lunch' you should fast for several days first.  You will be lavished with lemon bars, chocolate chip cookies, cakes, sandwiches, and a 'dab' of every single thing in your host's refrigerator.


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