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Jim Essig eased the lurching Jeep to a stop. The state park manager wanted me to see something beyond the overgrown mining road that we bounced along on our tour of Minnesota's newest natural prize, Lake Vermilion State Park near Ely.
We took a short hike up to a rock outcropping rimmed by blueberry bushes and pine trees, and Essig pointed to jagged dark lines in the stone. "That's banded iron; 2.7 billion years ago, it was an ocean floor," he said. "This is one of a few places in the world where you can see pre-Cambrian rock like this." Other places have it, he said, but it's mostly buried deep underground.
I looked up from the ground beneath us and took in an expansive view. From where we stood atop Lander Mattson Peak, island-dotted Lake Vermilion sparkled in the sun and its distant shoreline of pine and maple danced in the wind. Behind us were other rich environments, from wetlands to mixed forest, home to wildlife from warblers to bears.
The history Essig pointed out is impressive, but the land's future promises something even more striking. As it evolves ever more into the kind of state park that planners at Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources envision, it will protect a swath of pristine northern forest, secure public access to one of the state's most cherished lakes and, they hope, entice people who may have never before visited a state park.
Ron Potter, DNR's project manager for the park who helped guide my tour, called it a "next generation" park.
Someday, a marked trail will wind its way up to the spectacular vista offered at Lander Mattson, the highest point in the park at 1,589 feet.
In addition to a trail system, the first major state park to be created in more than 30 years will provide a wide range of activities and amenities. According to Potter, building a state park from scratch allows the DNR to provide what citizens want: campsites far from RV hookups, bike trails, even Wi-Fi.
Lake Vermilion State Park's master plan includes treehouses, an "adventure trail" with a ropes course, a lakeside campground, hike-in campsites, camper cabins and equipment rental. It could be like a visit to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- which is just a few miles to the north and has a similar landscape -- but with no restrictions on motors.
Lake is focal point
From Lander Mattson, Essig, Potter and I headed down to the park's most eye-catching attraction: Lake Vermilion. The 40,000-acre beauty -- with its narrows, bays and nearly 400 islands -- looks more like a collection of lakes than the singular body of water it is. Of its 340 miles of shoreline, 10 belong to the state parks of Lake Vermilion and Soudan Underground Mine.
We hopped on a pontoon boat at Armstrong Bay in Vermilion State Park, on the southeast shore of Lake Vermilion, and began our water-based exploration. Charming specks of islands, little more than giant rocks with two or three trees, jut up from the water. On larger islands, cabins hid behind curtains of leaves. Loons dived below the surface. A hawk circled above.
At Stuntz Bay and Cable Bay, we cut the engine to glide past primitive campsites, which are marked by small wooden docks. The sites are available to boaters on a first-come, first-served basis. A testament to their remoteness: they offer only a fire pit, a biffy -- and a bear box in which to stow food.
As befits a park designed in part to showcase Lake Vermilion, access this summer has been almost exclusively via boat. There are the campsites, plus a day-use area at Armstrong Bay, where we began and ended our pontoon boat ride.
The spot had made for a bucolic stop for a picnic during a day out on the lake. It is closed now, since work is underway to improve it. An Aug. 3 groundbreaking ceremony marked the start of construction and refurbishing there, and the start of the first phase of development. When work is complete, possibly as early as November, there will be three picnic shelters, fire rings, a reconstructed open-air fireplace, toilets and a parking lot.
In early 2013, crews will begin constructing a road that will lead from outside the park to the Armstrong Bay day-use area. It could be completed by mid-summer next year.
For now, visitors can access the park in several ways. There is geocaching at Lake Vermilion State Park. Hikes beginning at the adjacent Soudan property wind through parts of the Vermilion land. This winter, snowmobilers and snowshoers will be able to traverse parts of the park.
The park that almost wasn't
The land that makes up Lake Vermilion State Park is nearly untouched because for 128 years it had been owned by U.S. Steel, a company more interested in what was beneath the surface than on it. Not many years ago, when the economy was booming, developers eyed the property and platted it for private homes. Then, in 2008, the Minnesota Legislature set aside $20 million to purchase, plan and develop Lake Vermilion State Park. U.S. Steel sold the 3,000 acres to the state in 2010, and the park has been open ever since, even before development was fully underway.
Now all Minnesotans can enjoy the land that may have been the purview of merely 150 homeowners.
As we rumbled down an old dirt road on our way out of the park, I spied a beaver dam. Its intricate weavings of sticks and mud had created a pond where, I imagined, frogs flourished. The dam, nearly at the edge of the road, stood taller than me.
Seems there have been a few home builders on the land all along, in the form of semi-aquatic rodents.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282