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'Rural by Choice,' even in winter — Hepola returns to Otter Tail County for season 2 of hit docuseries

Season 1 of the docuseries "Rural By Choice" starring Perham-raised Cory Hepola aired in 2021 with great success. Now, the series is returning with a second season.

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Adan Abarca (left) and Cory Hepola (right) hold up their catch from ice fishing in "Rural by Choice" season 2.
Contributed / Cory Hepola
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PERHAM — Over a year ago, Perham-raised and Twin Cities-based Cory Hepola returned to Otter Tail County to film "Rural by Choice," a hit internet docuseries that explores the reasons people choose a life in greater Minnesota . Recently, he returned to write, host and produce season 2 alongside Erik Osberg with Otter Tail Lakes Country Association and directors Micah and Jenna Kvidt of Kvidt Creative LLC. This season, however, has a bit of a twist: what about those notoriously harsh Minnesota winters?

"One of the comments we got after season one was, with it being set in summer and in fall, was like 'We haven't told the full story,' and 'What about winter?'" Hepola, known for his time as a WCCO radio host and his candidacy for Minnesota governor, explained what will set season 2 apart. "I think in Minnesota, we don't really want to talk about something that may be uncomfortable."

Hepola's goal from the start of this series was to discuss these uncomfortable topics, such as the misconceptions about rural life. When season 1 aired in fall 2021 with those discussions, it was met with interest and success. The episodes, which can be found on Otter Tail Lake Country Association's Facebook , averaged about 30,000 views each.

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Cory Hepola (left) goes snowshoeing in Otter Tail County alongside Betsy and Nick Roder of New York Mills.
Contributed / Cory Hepola

In season 2 — which will premiere on Sunday, Nov. 27 at 7:27 p.m. — Hepola continues to approach these topics through interviews and exploration throughout Otter Tail County. He's found people in urban areas tend to believe that they have to give up their dreams to live rurally or that winter will be several months of boredom.

"For a lot of people who are not from here, winter is a barrier," Hepola explained. "They're like, 'I don't understand. It's three months where you don't leave your house.' And what we want to do is just take that head-on and say, 'Actually, there's a lot of goodness and great things that happen in winter here. And, in actuality, winter is an asset in Minnesota.'"

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When Hepola was growing up in Otter Tail County, his parents would have to drive all the way to the Twin Cities to take him to a museum. If the winter was bad and they couldn't drive far, that trip would be canceled. In 2022, however, this is no longer the case. Hepola explores indoor fun for kids at the Otter Cove Children's Museum in Otter Tail County's Fergus Falls.

Otter Tail County residents don't stay inside all winter either, Hepola's found. Winter brings its own set of fun outdoor activities: snowshoeing, winter cabins and even ice fishing.

"I mean, you look at the economic industry here in Minnesota, and fishing is enormous, right?" Hepola said. "And it's not just in the summer or spring or in the fall."

In season two, he meets with Pelican Rapids resident and ice-fishing expert Adan Abarca. He, much like Hepola, also considered leaving Otter Tail County when he grew up, but Abarca realized he had everything he needed right in rural Minnesota.

"He also talks to family members from down south, and he's like, 'Have you ever talked to somebody and tell them that we drive these huge vehicles and just park them on the ice?'" Hepola shared about his time ice-fishing. "Like, it blows their mind. They can't even deal with the thought of driving a huge pickup, pulling an ice castle behind it on a lake."

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Cory Hepola (left) sits with Katie Ganoe, the executive director of Otter Cove Children's Museum while filming "Rural by Choice."
Contributed / Cory Hepola

This is just one special piece of Otter Tail County, and Hepola spends all of season 2 continuing to explore why people choose to live there and what sets it apart. He reconnects with an old classmate and Perham Health surgeon Dr. Brett Glawe and chats with his sister, Chelsea Marthaler, a fourth grade teacher at Perham's elementary school. He even spends an episode with Betsy Roder, the executive director of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, and her family.

Through these interviews, he explores why people choose to return to the rural life in which they were raised. He discusses and shows the way people don't have to "give up on their dreams" to live a rural life. Successful careers are available. Health care is available. A quality education is available. Hepola lets Otter Tail County residents show this through their own personal stories.

"(This series) is not just about me; this is about the people of Otter Tail County, and I hope the people feel that," he said. "This has never been done before. Instead of a little 30-second tourism video, we explore and we tell authentic true stories about our county and exploring all these different ideas. But it's also about staying curious and compassionate."

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While Hepola still lives in the Twin Cities, Otter Tail County will always hold a special place in his life.

"Otter Tail County is my forever home," he said. "My family's still there. We are there a lot … I'm caught up on how the schools are doing. I root for the sports teams. It's my forever home. To be able to represent and tell these stories has truly been a dream come true."

"Rural by Choice" season 2 is brought to you by Otter Tail Lakes Country Association and written and hosted by Cory Hepola. It's produced by Hepola and Erik Osberg, and it's directed, filmed and edited by Micah and Jenna Kvidt of Kvidt Creative LLC. For more information on Otter Tail Lakes Country Association, go to ottertaillakescountry.com .

Season 2 will premiere on Sunday, Nov. 27 at 7:27 p.m. "Rural by Choice" episodes can be found on Otter Tail Lakes Country's Facebook page and their YouTube channel .

"A huge thank you to Otter Tail County," Hepola said. "I'm so thankful for them, and that goes for Erik Osberg — an incredible leader — and then our team Micah and Jenna. What they pull off for this to happen, it's a unique talent. There's not many people that could do what they do, and yet they pull it off."

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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