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Joseph Van Nurden

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Minnesota's State Parks
By Joseph Van Nurden
Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rated "G" by the Author.

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An essay about discovering Minnesota's State Parks

The State Parks in Minnesota became an incredible resource for my own personal growth and discovery once I began to explore them, and especially during the years that I lived in the Twin Cities.  I was a young history major with a strong tendency to wander- I would not say that I wandered aimlessly, just that I changed direction and plans quite often.  When I bought my first annual State Park Pass I set a goal for myself to visit twenty parks; by the end of the first month, with the aid of some needed vacation time, I had already explored the trails at ten parks, and by the time the first pass expired I had visited and explored 42 of the parks- many of them I had visited multiple times.  It became an obsession that helped me to really get to know the state better, in terms of the three major biomes that cross the state, the recorded history, and the flora and fauna found throughout.   The parks gave me a reason to hike, bike, fish, kayak and camp in new places every chance I got.  From CCC structures to bison, cactus, windmill, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, bears, moose, mines, caves, a historic town, fort,  and countless birds on my birding checklist, I had seen some very amazing things.

I grew up in Marcell, a very small town in Northern Minnesota near Scenic State Park.  I had been to Scenic State Park several times growing up and had taken a grade school field trip to Hill Annex Mine State Park, but other than that I really had no clue how many state parks there were until I had moved down to the Twin Cities to go to college. When I got down to the Twin Cities for school I started to feel more and more that something was missing from my life.  I went exploring with new friends along the nearby Mississippi River and some of the parks around the metro area and was always happy to do so.  When I returned to Marcell for visits it struck me how great it was to be back in the woods.  I continued to go to the smaller parks around the metro area with friends to go on hikes, but I began to wonder what else there was aside from the National Forests to the North and the parks in the metro.

Early one morning I went across the St. Croix to Hudson, WI on a drive and I stopped on the way back into Minnesota at the wayside rest and sat on one of the picnic tables looking over the Minnesota tourism brochures I had borrowed from the information kiosk.  I found a brochure with state parks.  I remembered seeing signs along the road pointing out some of the different parks but I had not made most of them my end destination. 

When I looked at the map I could see all of the out of the way places that I had not been to and I wanted to know what was there. There were roads criss-crossing around the southern part of the state that captured my attention;  they were close enough for day trips.

            It was at that wayside rest that I realized just how open my days were.  I could go anywhere, but instead I had been driving to the same nearby parks or when I had a few consecutive days I returned to the Chippewa National Forest.  I had passed a sign for Afton State Park along 94 on my way out and decided then and there to go and buy a state park pass and make an effort to really see the state and learn what was out there. 

I arrived at Afton State Park and bought a yearlong Minnesota State Park Pass.  I had a tendency to keep hiking boots, water bottles, backpack and camera with me most of the time and was glad that I did; once I got out on the trails that day I hiked fourteen miles.  I went on several of the different trails and took breaks to sit in amazement at the new world that had opened up.  The world was much bigger than any college campus and city.

            I had studied the Ojibway and Dakota, and I continued to learn about Minnesota’s pioneer history.  Things that I had only really read about in the national context before, sometimes in a very generalized fashion I was then  learning about through local history and the development of communities throughout the state and the growth of the Twin Cities.  I pictured the lakes in Minneapolis before all of the buildings.  At one time there had just been small seasonal camps of Dakota Indians that stayed there, and it really was not that long ago as far as history is concerned.

My next State Park trip was south to Sakatah Lake.  I woke up at six in the morning to get ready; I wanted to get in time there and try to take a drive to get to know the countryside a bit better, I had three days off in a row and aimed to make the best of them. 

It was strange pulling into the park and driving past the desk after being in neighborhood after neighborhood of private land, and driving through so much privately held land.  The realization hit me at Sakatah Lake, a widening of the Cannon River, that I had my pass and now I could go to any park I wanted on any day I wanted. I knew then that I would be exploring a lot more than twenty of the Minnesota State Parks that year.   I picked up a map of the park and went to a fishing pier to cast for a while.

Once I had enough of casting I put my pole away and took a hike along the lake and on the Timber Doodle Trail.  I returned to my truck and pulled out my bicylce to go out for a long ride on the Sakatah-Singing Hills Trail which cut through the park.  It was a great trail and for the first time since I had moved to the city I was able to pedal for miles and miles without watching for car doors being flung open directly in front of me or stopping at the end of each block.  I picked out a campsite and slept outside that night.

            The morning after, when I left Sakatah Lake, I still had enough time to go to Nerstrand-Big Woods.  The land south of the Twin Cities and extending toward Iowa from the Mississippi River had been a huge hardwood forest of oak, maple, elm, and basswood trees at one time, it was astonishing to look at the farm-fields that took the place of the forest as I drove around southern Minnesota.  I got a campsite for the night and set up camp.  It was strange camping in the Big Woods; this was the first time I had done it, it felt much different than sleeping in the coniferous boreal forest of the North.  I made my way around the park and went out hiking on the trails there. 

The James and Younger gang had rode through these woods when they rode to rob the First National Bank in Northfield, now  I saw a man out walking with his son and overheard their conversation; at that moment I thought more seriously about fatherhood then I ever had before.  The father was explaining the different trees to his son, and his son was filled with questions.  The exchange was inspiring to me.  I had never pictured myself as a dad before that, but I could imagine it was a great thing- you could see what it was like when you were younger and filled with wonder about the world.  The magic of discovery is forgotten as we get older and the questions tend to be set aside.  I had reawakened the questions from myself by going out to the parks and learning everything that I could at them, and about them.

I bought two field guides in the book shop at the park- one for birds and one for trees. I spent a lot of time afterward looking through them and they were a good introduction to some of things about nature that I had neglected learning when I was growing up in the woods.

I had never learned much beyond the normal things I picked up while living in northern Minnesota, although normal to me meant I was quite knowledgeable, but I did not know enough about it all- I did not have that thirty years of service park ranger type of knowledge, and that is what I wanted.  There would be more birds and plants that I came across that I had not seen before or never gave much thought to before I tried to identify them.  I did not realize how much I did not know until I really started paying attention.  I imagined having an inquisitive son to help me to learn those things that I passed by without giving a thought.  I decided that day that what really set a father apart from other men was really understanding and being able to explain the simple questions and the simple things in life as well as the ‘grown-up’ stuff.

            I continued to read while between trips so I knew as much as possible about the areas I was visiting.  The land took on new meaning when I learned of the people that had been there before and the hardships that they went through.  I will always be thankful for the things that the Minnesota State Parks conserved for me to be able to see and experience and for the possibilities they provide for others.  For those who have never been out to one of the State Parks all you really need to get started is a map and a willingness to learn.



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