As her heart thumped and her mind raced, Monique Weinandt couldn’t convince herself otherwise: She thought she and her husband, Mark, were graveyard dead.
It was last August, on an advanced hiking trail at George H. Crosby Manitou State Park in Finland, Minn., when the Weinandts of Shakopee stared down a charging black bear.
Monique Weinandt recounted the moment in vivid detail, right down to how her body involuntarily shook from the adrenaline surge and how she frantically talked to a 911 operator on a cellphone that didn’t have service at the trailhead. How they had no weapon or bear spray. How the sound of rustling leaves and breaking sticks was quickly drowned out by the bear’s huffing and snorting. How Mark, 57, yelled to reveal their presence. How she finally saw the bear on its hind legs, standing, and towering, tall. How, when it charged, it closed the distance between them faster than the Weinandts could have ever imagined. And how the bear finally peeled off and disappeared like a ghost into the park’s dense foliage.
“I really thought we were goners,” she said. “We heard the bear for the longest time before we saw it. It probably got as close as 10 to 12 feet from us. Too close. Its eyes were huge and it was super shinny black. Honestly, it was gorgeous.”
The Weinandts’ too-close-for-comfort encounter occurred on the final day of the couple’s eight-month odyssey visiting all 76 (there’s now 75) Minnesota state parks and recreation areas — an ambitious goal inspired by a motorcycle trip to Glacier National Park in Montana.
Their journey, which began last November at Fort Snelling State Park, was part adventure, part history lesson, part nature-appreciation seminar and part endurance test. Along the way, they experienced all of Minnesota in every “glorious” season, Monique Weinandt, 45, said. Over 40 individual days, they hiked more than 200 miles (96 hours total) and all 67 state park Hiking Club trails. They traveled 8,000 miles by truck and 1,000 miles by motorcycle. They spent two nights in state park cabins and 14 in their truck. They took roughly 10,000 digital photos to chronicle their visits.
“I really didn’t know a great deal about our state parks before we started,” said Weinandt. “We learned about Minnesota and how diverse the landscape is … going from steep climbs to thick woods, flat prairie, rushing rivers, springs, hardwood forests, peat bogs and volcanic rock. There is so much in Minnesota to experience. It’s more than just the Land of 10,000 Lakes.”
Reflecting on their accomplishment, Weinandt said it’s less about them and more about the parks themselves. Each, she said, provides a window into state history, a potential adventure waiting to happen. “Many were here before us,” said Weinandt. “Unlike today, Native Americans, explorers, fur traders and missionaries used rivers to move goods and people. Those days are obviously long gone, but it’s neat to think about the old days.”
At Savanna Portage State Park in McGregor, for example, she said there’s a sign describing how voyageurs more than 200 year ago carried heavy 180-pound packs to get from one river to the next and smoked handmade cigarettes — a nugget of history they wouldn’t have learned had they not visited the park.
A personal trainer and outdoor lover with a highly evolved adventurous streak, Weinandt seemed destined to take on such a challenge with her willing husband. A self-described tomboy and former emergency medical technician, she has a third-degree black belt in karate and has competitively raced BMX bikes and water scooters. She’s even plowed snow for 30 years.
“I think we’re meant to be outdoors, and the best way to get things done is to set goals and go after them,” she said. “I hope our example encourages others to get out and enjoy our state parks — they can be the most beautiful places to spend time, and all year long.”
Minnesotans love their state parks — all 232,700 acres, including 1,030 miles of hiking trails. Each year, state parks host roughly 9 million visitors, though very few visit all of them, said Patricia Arndt, communications and outreach manager for state parks and trails with the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
“Typically, it’s families or couples who visit all the parks over the course of several years,” Arndt said. “What the Weinandts did is very rare and very ambitious — visiting all the parks in eight months. It’s a great achievement. I got to meet Mark and Monique, and they’re great ambassadors for our state parks.”
Arndt said 954 people have completed the DNR-sponsored Passport Club — the only definitive measurement the agency has for documenting how many people have visited all of Minnesota’s state parks. Park travelers can buy a booklet, which can be stamped at each park they visit. “Of course, others could have visited all the parks and not been in the Passport Club — we just don’t know that,” said Arndt. “We do know that one person completed the Passport Club in 27 days. That’s pretty remarkable.”
The Weinandts received two congratulatory plaques for completing the Passport Club, as well as the Hiking Club. Sixty-seven of Minnesota’s parks have Hiking Club trails. At the end of each is a code or password, which can be documented in a special booklet.
“I like the Hiking Club because it requires you to get out and experience the state park, not just visit it,” Weinandt said.
Hiking each park, she said, presented its own unique set of challenges and potential adversities. Prepare for anything, she said, including aches and pains and suspect terrain. Her husband got Lyme disease, which was successfully treated, though the tick bite left a scar on his left calf. Raccoons pilfered the food in their coolers. Many of their hikes were in the middle of winter, in several inches of snow. Extreme cold and wind froze their extremities.
“Our eye lashes froze shut and my fitness watch stopped for a few hours, but we never quit,” Weinandt said, recalling a winter hike at Lake Shetek State Park in Currie. “I loved all the parks, but Mark’s favorite was Blue Mounds in Luverne. We both loved [bison] there.”
The payoff for such a hiking adventure over the course of eight months came in many forms: Such as the bald eagle gracefully perched on a log in a fast-moving river at Kilen Woods State Park in Lakefield — its wings outstretched as it waited for a meal to happen by.
Or, such as the charging black bear at George H. Crosby, a scary encounter they lived to tell about.
Said Mark Weinandt: “I thought it was cool.”
Added Monique: “We do recommend bear spray.”
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.