COLUMN: The gift of skills

This is my Sunday column for the Dec. 16, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired Dec. 8 on Northern Community Radio’s “Between You and Me.”

The gift of skills
By Aaron J. Brown

Life in northern Minnesota isn’t easy. You have to identify trees, drive through snow and pronounce the word “sauna” correctly just to function in public life. If you want full acceptance, you have to speak in a congratulatory manner about dead deer, eat ethnic food of dubious preparation and have built, or at least winterized, something on your property.

Born and raised in northern Minnesota, this challenge is part of my life, but it is a struggle. I was a book kid. A band kid. A writer kid. I avoided lessons on field dressing a deer and eating lutefisk, largely for the same reason: they smelled bad.

That’s why it was a treat to come across a new book, “The Minnesota Book of Skills” by longtime outdoors writer and northern Minnesota native Chris Niskanen. In this book of skills, the author details scads of how-to stories, some essential to life in these north woods and some merely helpful to fit in among the flannel shirts and long white beards found at your finer back woods filling stations.

The book is a rickety ride through a wide-ranging field of Minnesota facts and traditions. Early on you are greeted with tips on extracting ticks from your body and knocking rice into your canoe. Niskanen gives a helpful description of how to build a quality ice rink in your own yard, though he fails to explain how an overfed smarty pants overcomes the shame of never learning to skate as he approaches middle age.

Naturally, sauna etiquette comes up, something that many old Finns hope their ne’er-do-well sons-in-law from the suburbs read twice before their next visit. Soon after, a surprisingly moving passage on building your own casket out of local lumber might bring tears to your eyes and macabre plans to your bucket list.

Several short field guides dot the “Minnesota Book of Skills.” For the botanically challenged, a very simple set of drawings explains Minnesota’s five most common trees, though it does leave out several species found in my yard.

An essay on the history of snowmobiling reminded me that I was once hired to give a talk about snowmobiles even though I knew almost nothing about what Niskanen clearly explained. I showed pictures of old snowmobiles and compared them to the contraption in the movie adaptation of Jules Verne’s “The Time Machine.” Alas, some lessons too late.

The most jarring transition in the book comes when Niskanen segues from explaining exciting new technology in female field urination to a guide on home pickling. I like pickles, or at least I did. And the section demonstrating how to field dress a deer reminded me why I shall always buy hamburger from the store instead, so long as I am gainfully employed.

Having watched many an otherwise self-reliant chap try to back up a trailer, Niskanen’s related tutorial will be of great help to some. And apparently today’s popular music can’t be much bawdier than the French chanteys sung on our nearby rivers during the days of the Voyageurs.

Sure, the pronunciation guide to Minnesota towns could have included more Range towns. I’d really like to avoid hearing the mangling of “Bovey” or references to a place called “Mount Iron.” Former President George W. Bush probably could have used even more help in avoiding referring to the whole place as the “Iron Ridge” back in 2004. Still, Niskanen includes “Taconite,” which has been called “Taco Night” by far too many passing strangers.

Published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, “The Minnesota Book of Skills” may be found at your local book store, or – should you visit my home – wrapped in the orange coat I keep to ensure no hunter shoots me before my time.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. Hear the recent holiday episode at

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