WHITEWATER STATE PARK – When Patrice Aubrecht and her friend Linda Luksan camped at this 2,700-acre southeast Minnesota playground last week, its namesake river bent and flowed as clear as gin. Chuckling, the water divided steep limestone bluffs as it spilled, ultimately, toward the Mississippi River.
Bracketed by tall hardwoods, the riverine scene invited visitors to skip a stone in the moving water, or, as Aubrecht did, to pitch a camp chair along the Whitewater’s banks and while away an early fall afternoon reading a book.
“This was my first visit to Whitewater,” said Aubrecht, of Shorewood. “I was told it is one of Minnesota’s most popular parks, and among its most beautiful. I would agree.”
Blessed with virtually encyclopedic populations of birds, ranging from Bohemian waxwings to peregrine falcons, the 99-year-old park also features a bevy of circuitous hiking trails as diverse as the Chimney Rock, with its appealingly broad views of the Whitewater Valley, to the more mellow Meadow Trail.
Serene, yes. But very different conditions confronted the park’s approximately 500 campers late Saturday, Aug. 18, 2007. Hurricane Dean was lashing Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula that night, and Tropical Storm Erin was drenching Texas and Oklahoma. When cool Canadian air bumped against the warm breezes swirling up from the Gulf of Mexico, torrential downpours resulted.
As much as 17 inches of rain pummeled southeast Minnesota in 24 hours, turning the otherwise placid Whitewater River into a raging torrent.
No campers were killed in the massive flood. But three of the park’s bridges were destroyed and camping sites, restrooms, a group dining hall, and septic and water systems were damaged. The park was closed for more than eight months for repairs.
Subsequently, river-level gauges were placed in the Whitewater upstream of the park to forewarn campground managers of future catastrophic events.
“Since the big flood, we’ve evacuated the park a couple of times, but we’ve never again faced the situation we did in 2007,” said park manager Brent Anderson. “The river gauges that we installed are valuable. But you can’t always trust technology. Should another big flood come, we don’t ever again want to put campers in a dangerous situation.”
On the cusp of celebrating its 100th anniversary, Whitewater State Park is fully operational. But due to flooding fears, the park’s popular Gooseberry Glen campsites have been converted to day-use picnic areas. And a new campground called Minneiska (“white water” in Dakota) with 40 electric sites, four nonelectrical sites, three group camps and four camper cabins has been christened outside the river’s flood plain.
Closing Gooseberry Glen wasn’t well received by everyone, in part because the park enjoys a loyal and long-standing following among campers who cherish falling asleep and waking up virtually alongside the Whitewater River.
“We understand that in some cases, generation after generation of the same families have camped at Whitewater, and many still do,” Anderson said. “We have a long history of people camping here not just in summer but in the ‘shoulder’ seasons of spring and fall. We want to keep those traditions alive while also moving the park ahead a little bit.”
As part of “moving ahead,” park planners designed Minneiska, the entirely new enclave of campsites across the road from Gooseberry Glen. Bearing a $7.4 million price tag, Minneiska features extra-wide campsites and a new bathroom building with individual showers and restrooms.
Jeff Broberg’s farm shares a quarter-mile-long boundary with Whitewater State Park.
“I spend a lot of time reading in the park, as well as fishing,” said Broberg, a longtime member of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). “For years, I would sit at a picnic table in the park and read through LCCMR research and habitat proposals. It’s an incredibly peaceful place, while at the same time one that is regularly visited by people from around the world.”
Founded in 1919 to protect the scenic Whitewater Valley, Whitewater State Park and many of its still-standing buildings were developed initially in the 1930s by workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.
Adding to the park’s rich history, some of its buildings housed German prisoners during World War II.
Arriving at Whitewater, Aubrecht and Luksan scoped out the park’s newest campground, but ultimately backed their travel trailer into the park’s older Cedar Hill campground. Its more established sites are nearer to the river, Aubrecht said, and surrounded by more mature trees.
Minneiska, by contrast, is positioned within a large grove of 20-year-old walnut trees, and thus lacks the broad, shady canopy familiar to many Minnesota state park campers.
The walnut trees, Broberg acknowledged, might not be ideal for a campground because they’re the first to lose their leaves in fall and the last to gain them in spring. Yet he remains a fan.
“The trees in Minneiska are dense enough in summer to provide good separation from one campsite to the next,” he said. “It helps also that those sites were designed with extra separation from one another.”
Anderson, the park manager, said more than 700 shrubs and trees have been planted in the new campground to enrich its foliage appeal. And still more improvements are planned next year, when the Cedar Hill campground will be closed for refurbishing.
Meanwhile, as part of the park’s 2019 centennial celebration, monthly themes will serve as year-round celebration guideposts for staff and visitors.
January’s theme? Candlelight snowshoeing.
Sounds great, Aubrecht said.
But April’s Whitewater trout fishing extravaganza and July’s Centennial Picnic and singalong with the Okee Dokee Brothers sound even better.
“I’ll wait for warmer weather when I can camp,” she said.