The waterfront in Lake Shetek State Park was humming on a sunny evening last summer. Boaters crisscrossed the expanse of the 3,600-acre lake, the largest in southwestern Minnesota. Bikers coasted along the park’s paved roads, meandering through the campground loops. Canoeists paddled along the shore of the 1,109-acre park. Bathers basked in the warm sun on the park’s beach.
Loon Island, though, was devoid of human sound. That doesn’t mean it was quiet. The 45-acre island, connected to the park by a 1,000-foot causeway, is a bird sanctuary full of life. The rat-tat-tat of a redheaded woodpecker, the scolding of a squirrel and the slap of a beaver’s tail hitting the water along the shore punctuated my solitary stroll on the island’s guided nature trail.
Pioneers named the island for the large diving birds that they took for loons but were really double-crested cormorants.
The park and lake are also named after birds. “Shetek” is derived from the Ojibwe word for pelican. White pelicans still frequent the park.
WPA projects, fish, trails
The park boasts a handful of handsome projects of the Works Progress Administration. The beach house, for example, features finely executed stonework on a series of stairways, terraces and retaining walls.
Lake Shetek is the headwaters of the Des Moines River and a popular fishing spot for walleyes, northerns, bullheads and crappies. Located in northeastern Murray County, the park is about 13 miles equidistant from Tracy to the north and Slayton to the southwest.
The park features four camping cabins, 8 miles of hiking trails and 6 miles of paved bicycle trails. Visitors can rent rowboats, canoes or kayaks. Navigate two short portage trails and you can row or paddle on Smith and Park lakes, within park boundaries. Both lakes offer a quieter, more intimate outdoor experience than the hubbub of the big lake.
Lake Shetek lies on the Coteau des Prairies, a plateau 200 miles long and 100 miles wide at the juncture of Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa. Buffalo Ridge, a 60-mile-long expanse of windy, rolling hills in the southeastern section of the Coteau des Prairies near the park, separates the watersheds of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
Its persistent wind speeds have attracted an alternative energy industry, with more than 200 turbines standing like sentries along the crest of Buffalo Ridge.
History’s sad saga
In the summer of 1862, about six settler families (maybe 50 adults and children) had formed a small settlement along the eastern banks of Lake Shetek. Tempers spiked in the August heat among the native Dakota people as treaty violations and the actions of dishonest Indian agents spawned hunger and hardship.
On Aug. 20, two bands of Dakota swept through the settlement, killing two settlers while letting the others flee. The settlers headed east and took cover in a nearby slough, where they were attacked again.
When the last shot was fired, 14 settlers and an unknown number of Dakota had died in what is now called Slaughter Slough. It would take 10 years before permanent settlers returned to the area.
The Shetek Monument in the park is the final resting site for the 15 settlers killed that day. Four pioneer cabin sites are also in the park. The Koch Cabin, moved to the park in 1964, is open to visitors.
What to do
Geocaching: Lake Shetek is a geocaching “demo park.” Bring your own GPS unit or use one of the park’s hand-held units for free.
Take a drive: Southwestern Minnesota is prairie country. To catch glimpses of the expansive prairie that was home to the Dakota and that drew the European settlers here, consult a map and strike out in any direction. County roads inspire a slower pace and a better chance to feel like part of the landscape.
Park interpretive programs: Learn the legend behind the American Indian dreamcatcher and make your own on Aug. 15. On Aug. 16, meet “Lavina Eastlick,” one of the 1860s settlers, as she recounts how her dreams of a new life at Lake Shetek were shattered when the Dakota and settlers went to war.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum: Enjoy the story of the Ingalls family in nearby Walnut Grove at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Store. If you visit in July, attend the famous Wilder Pageant, a family-friendly outdoor drama based on Laura’s life in Walnut Grove (July 11-12, 18-19, and 25-26; www.walnutgrove.org).
Casey Jones State Trail: The 6-mile paved Currie Loop links Lake Shetek State Park with the village of Currie.
End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum: Evokes the spirit of a frontier railroad town in an open-air setting (in Currie; 1-507-763-3708; www.endoline.com).
Murray County Classic: Highlights the beauty and sheer force of draft horses (July 12-13 in Slayton; www.mcdrafthorseshow.com).
Murray County Fair: This classic rural county fair features food, entertainment, rides, animals, antique farm machinery and more (Aug. 13-17 in Slayton; www.murraycountyfair.com).
Jim Umhoefer is a travel/outdoor writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.