KNIFE RIVER — After getting a fresh group of passengers aboard, a train sounded its horn on Saturday and began to churn its way along the Lake Superior shore, toward Troll Canyon.
Along the way, passengers were regaled with facts about trolls, troll history, and so on, before a pair of “troll patrol” officers from the Knife River division of Minnesota’s Department of Troll Control, which regulates and monitors the mythic creatures, boarded to explain recent troll activity in the area.
Their timing was impeccable: a pair of trolls were lounging in a field not far from where the agents had hopped on. A gentle game of catch between the beasts grew physical, the officers suspected, because the trolls, sensing the Scandinavian connection, had been watching Minnesota Vikings football games. The train promptly reversed course back to the station, and the officers distributed bells, which are a traditional troll repellent, to the dozens of people onboard.
On the return trip, passengers heard tales of Gunny and Tor, a pair of Knife River boys who outran and outwitted a lake troll before, naturally, living happily ever after.
The “troll train” is a big draw at the annual Julebyen — “Christmas village” — Scandinavian cultural festival organized each year by the Knife River Recreation Council. The all-volunteer festival, whose name is pronounced somewhat like “you’ll be in” in English, is in its ninth year.
Folkloric jargon aside — “officers” Mary and Bob McDonald are an accountant and doctor by day, and Gunny and Tor are the creation of local author Lise Lunge-Larsen — it’s the centerpiece fundraiser for the recreation council, which helps pay for a nearby public beach, tennis courts, and a trail named after the Huldrefolk — “hidden folk” — of northern European lore.
Beyond the train
, the yearly festival also includes carolers, puppet shows, lefse-making demonstrations, accordion performances, and a “herring run” that seeks to determine which local child can run the fastest while carrying the Scandinavian staple on a spatula.
Helene Hedlund, who chairs the festival, said the multi-generational aspect of the festival makes it special.
“Not only is it multigenerational for the attendees, but also for the volunteers,” Hedlund said Saturday. “We have volunteers of kids, moms, and dads and grandparents that worked together as volunteers to put this on, and I think it makes it really special, unique and different from maybe some of the other winter festivals.”
The ride out to Troll Canyon and back was the first train trip for Sherri and Tom Steck, who drove up to the Duluth area from the Twin Cities. Their daughter bought them tickets for the train, which also transports festival-goers in from Duluth and back once each day, for the couple’s 41st wedding anniversary. The Stecks planned to check out the Bentleyville holiday displays in downtown Duluth later that evening.
“The best gift you can give to someone is to give to someone who can’t pay you back,” Paul von Goertz, the depot agent at the only station on the troll train’s line, told the News Tribune. “That’s, I think, what’s rewarding here. To see all these families here. Happy families, everyone in a festive atmosphere, and that’s what makes the work that we’ve done here…all worthwhile.”