WILD RIVER STATE PARK
Barely an hour north of the Twin Cities, and consisting of 6,800 acres of woods, prairies and oak savannas, together with 18 miles of St. Croix River frontage, this park exemplifies the breadth and quality of outdoor experiences available to Minnesotans.
Granted, last week, visitors were few. This is a "shoulder'' season, after all, neither winter nor summer, nor even spring.
So in the park's many loops of campsites, no tents were pitched, nor RVs parked. Similarly, its equestrian camping area was empty, as were its primitive campsites.
Yet the park was alive.
Migrating Canada geese honked overhead. Swans also were in the air, chasing the snow line north. And over the St. Croix, a flock of goldeneyes banked low to the water before cupping their wings and splashing into a swirling eddy.
The park's naturalist, Kacie Carlson, was at home amid the action.
A day earlier, she had bored small cylinders into a handful of maple trees, tapped spouts into the holes, and was anticipating the first drop of sap to plunk into waiting buckets.
In days ahead, as the drops become steady streams, filling buckets and then 35-gallon containers, a phalanx of weekend woodsmen and women will descend on Wild River to produce yet another big batch of sweet maple syrup.
"We boiled 350 gallons of sap last year,'' Carlson said. "It's all done by volunteers.''
As Carlson spoke, in a part of the park a mile or so distant, Ivan Bartha -- coordinator of experiential learning and outdoor programming at St. Cloud State University -- and a small bunch of the school's students carved out a park experience of their own.
Ensconced in hard-sided cabins that were T-shirt warm, these outdoor student leaders were safe from the raw elements of early spring.
But looks were deceiving.
For three days, they had been in Wild River's back country, honing their woodsmen's skills, fine-tuning their compass work, and sleeping in makeshift lean-tos and snow shelters.
Snow and sun greeted them first. Then rain pelted them so steadily that when they finally arrived at one of the park's "camper cabins,'' and at a larger cabin known as the Wild River "guest house,'' they were soaked.
And ready for a couple of nights with a roof over their heads.
"This is our spring break,'' said one student, Joe Hoffman.
Issued wryly, the comment yielded a chuckle from buddies Nick Goldsmith, Jeff Bias, Zak Aubol, Matt Coleman and Cory Mooney.
Warm as the cabin was, after all, it was no Daytona Beach.
Or any beach.
Yet staying in the cabins, the St. Cloud group had become, albeit unwittingly, part of a growing trend among state park campers nationwide.
Tenting and RV camping are still by far the most popular ways to enjoy overnight park visits. But increasingly, "campers'' young and old are sharing park experiences while roughing it less than overnight visitors did a generation ago.
"We have six camper cabins here at Wild River, along with the 'guest' cabin,'' said park manager Paul Kurvers. "Two of the cabins have been here 15 years or so, while the other four were added about three years ago.
"The cabins are rented every weekend of the year.''
Wild River's newer cabins -- fee: $50 a night -- are part of a building trend. In 2004, When Courtland Nelson became DNR parks and trails division director, Minnesota was late coming to the camper-cabin concept.
South Dakota, for example, had more park cabins than Minnesota.
"South Dakota built their cabins in a correctional facility in Springfield, S.D., and that was the model we initially copied,'' Nelson said. "We built our cabins at the [correctional] facility in Red Wing.''
Paid for largely by state bonding, park cabin building in recent years has continued apace. Three year-round cabins with electricity were constructed last year at Lake Shetek State Park. The year previous, three similar cabins were added to Maplewood State Park, while 11 were built in 2008 -- four at Sibley, four at Wild River and three at William O'Brien.
In all, 42 camper cabins -- each can sleep six people -- have been constructed statewide since 2008.
This year, Gov. Mark Dayton's bonding bill includes $400,000 for more cabins.
"The cabins tend to attract a different kind of visitor than we might otherwise get,'' Kurvers said. "These are people who in many cases haven't previously been to a state park.''
Said Nelson: "The cabins also cater to older people who perhaps don't want to sleep on the ground anymore. We've also found the cabins are popular among people who don't want to buy camping gear.''
There's been one rub.
In some parts of the state, resort owners worry that a proliferation of park cabins might hurt their businesses. But Nelson said the cabins don't compete with the private sector.
"These are very spartan facilities that give Minnesotans a chance to get outdoors,'' he said. "We're strongly in favor of building more cabins in a variety of parks."
Bartha and his student outdoor experts -- each of whom is an employee of his program -- would favor the idea.
"Generally we don't use camper cabins,'' Bartha said. "But on trips like this, where we've worked on our skills on the trail for a few days, they're nice. Similar cabins in Michigan have been a big success. And in Wyoming, they have yurts.''
That night, the students planned to cook chicken alfredo for dinner, followed the next evening by a pork roast.
In between, they'd snowboard at nearby Wild Mountain.
"Students in our program graduate with a lot of skills employers are looking for,'' Bartha said. "We've had tremendous luck getting them jobs right out of college. One reason is that while learning outdoor skills, they learn good decision-making.''
On this trip, the students' decisions had all been excellent -- especially their choice of warm and dry sleeping quarters on the final two nights.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org