Northern Wilds Magazine
Barefoot playing by talented musicians goes on all night at Woolsock. | CHRIS PASCONE
Along the Shore

Woolsock: Minnesota’s most homespun music festival

Did you go to a small rural elementary school in the 1980s, like me? Did you have to do square dancing as an obligatory unit in gym class? Did you consider throwing yourself under a truck on the way to school for those three weeks every year to avoid the “shame” of dancing with 3rd grade girls?

That was my thinking during those miserable square dancing days each winter. It felt like a rare form of punishment, seamlessly worked into the public school gym curriculum. I could never understand it. Why not basketball? Or indoor soccer? Please, anything but that rickety old record player forcing those entirely awkward moments of elementary school hell on me. Our PE teacher was the “caller.” Listening to him joyously telling us to “do-si-do” around the gym floor is my worst childhood memory.

Thirty-five years later, I’m doing it. For fun. With my own family. What happened?

Two musicians—Kyle and Cooper Orla, of the Tamarack Dance Association in Duluth—created Woolsock Winter Camping and Dance Festival. This festival takes my most feared childhood memory—the round dances and square dances of my youth, and combines them with one of my greatest passions—winter camping. Imagine having your daughter pull you out of your cozy tent, dug deep into the snow, to go dance to live folk music with 125 other wacky people on New Year’s Eve? That’s Woolsock.

Woolsock is Minnesota’s Woodstock—in winter. Taking place December 29-31 this year, Woolsock is a two-night getaway hosted at YMCA Camp Miller in Sturgeon Lake. Kyle Orla describes Woolsock as a “weird idea,” but clearly the festival’s cult following is all on board. “It’s New Years, it’s this fun time of year, and this is just a special way to experience it, instead of watching the ball drop on TV,” says Orla.

Woolsock is about making new friends and dancing. |CHRIS PASCONE

The live music thumps literally 24 hours a day at Woolsock. There’s groups of people strumming traditional fiddle over coffee in the morning. There’s guitar players making music over lunch. And then the dancing begins in the evening and goes into the wee hours of the morning.

Woolsock is a collaborative festival where the participants also host workshops. Many of the workshops are about music, but choices range far and wide. If you’ve got a talent—shoot! Last year there were workshops like sock darning, beginner book binding, making seed smashers (“like a firecracker, but bird seed”), and “learn to ice fish” on Sturgeon Lake (zero fish were caught, but this year will be different…).

But it all comes back to the music. Workshops go on all day long in the Camp Miller dance hall. Learn dance calling, playing for dancers (“FAST!”), and waltzing for beginners. For Orla, “It’s important to know that music is 90 percent of the festival. It’s a music and dance festival that happens to take place in winter.”

Orla recounts how every year there are some people who say “Oh, I didn’t realize this was a music weekend.” Orla doesn’t miss a beat: “It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done it. Just know that that’s a big part of how our time is spent.”

So how does it feel to participate in this folk dance jam in the snow? Sam Karns of Duluth, who goes to Woolsock every year with his wife and daughter, calls it “incredible and unique,” and not without reason. “We don’t normally go cross country skiing on a frozen lake with 20 other people, or share a meal at a table full of strangers/new friends, or get to listen to amazing musicians play the night away, or do the New Year’s countdown around a massive bonfire under the stars—all in one place, over the course of a single weekend.”

Karns says that despite the spectacular nature of the event, “It all feels comfortable and easy. The organizers and attendees create an atmosphere without judgment or expectation (other than a little bit of volunteer time), so even though we’re not at home, we feel as if we are.”

The “family reunion” atmosphere makes Woolsock an amazing social event for Karns. “We get to see friends from all over the Upper Midwest, and for many of them, Woolsock is our one and only get-together of the year.”

If you’ve never tried winter camping before, this is your chance. | CHRIS PASCONE

Perhaps the best part of all is the kid-friendly spirit that permeates Woolsock. “It’s an opportunity for the little ones to be wild and free, and safe. Woolsock is the village we all dream about where the big kids watch out for the little ones, the adults help each other, and the spirit of camaraderie and care is truly present,” explains Karns.

More and more families are staying in the Camp Miller cabins (you don’t have to sleep in a tent to attend). Woolsock was originally held at the Clair Nelson Recreation Center, in Finland, but moved to Camp Miller in 2022 as it continued to grow. Now there are more housing options, instead of families all sleeping in one communal room. And when you need a break from the dancing and the cold, you can hit Camp Miller’s communal sauna, too.

Woolsock is still very much a homespun, word-of-mouth event. It’s capped at 125 people this year. For Orla, “Man, this thing’s been growing, but I kind of feel like it has some natural bumpers, because it’s not your average festival. Not many people want to go winter camping and party in the snow.”

If you’ve got kids, bring them too. Maybe they’ll be more willing to try square dancing than I was back in the day.

For more information, check out the Woolsock Facebook page.

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