For Minnesotans, camping is a rich tradition that is ever evolving

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2014 - 2:26 PM

Minnesotans will flock to campgrounds this Labor Day weekend, continuing a beloved outdoors tradition with a long history and evolving future.


Camping at Itasca State Park, 1957.

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Humans have been sleeping under the stars in what is now Minnesota for thousands of years.

Of course, in the early days, “camping” wasn’t done for fun. It was survival.

But soon after European explorers mapped the region, people started camping for pleasure. We’ve been sleeping outdoors for recreation since the mid-1800s, and although the equipment and means of getting to campsites have changed dramatically, camping itself hasn’t.

Today’s campers still stir crimson campfire embers with a stick, listen to owls hoot-hoot-hoot in the darkness and gawk at a coal-black sky splattered with stars — just as early campers did nearly 200 years ago.

“Exploring eventually became camping,’’ said Pat Coleman, 62, an outdoors enthusiast, camper and acquisitions librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society. The society’s Minnesota History Center in St. Paul houses hundreds of photographs documenting Minnesotans’ long love affair with camping, such as the one from 1895 showing campers decked out in suits and dresses near their canvas tents at White Bear Lake (see Page OW2).

Nowhere is the lore of camping and the outdoors stronger than Minnesota, Coleman noted, where authors including Sigurd Olson and Calvin Rutstrum helped spread the fever, and outdoor gear peddlers such as Gokey’s and Herter’s sent campers into the woods fully equipped.

“It’s a ubiquitous part of Minnesota’s culture,’’ Coleman said.

The entire country embraced the new recreation. President Chester Arthur took a camping tour of Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s first, in 1883.

And a fellow named G.O. Shields wrote “Camping and Camp Outfits’’ in 1890, a book billed as a “manual of instruction for young and old sportsmen.”

He wrote: “More people are learning every year that the fashionable summer resorts, where they must live in hotels or boardinghouses, hampered by strict rules of etiquette and dressed in the height of fashion, are not the best places to rest, but that perfect rest can only be had in their own little tent.’’

He added: “Men, women and children [are] coming to love a camp in the country as a place to spend their summer vacations; and more of them will learn it each year, as the world grows older and wiser.’’

They did.

Minnesota’s first state park, Itasca, was created in 1891. By 1900, 364 visitors were counted. Fueled by the advent of the automobile and, later, the expansion of highways, interest in parks and camping snowballed. Last year, Itasca counted 500,000 visits.

By the mid-1920s, the construction of Hwy. 61 provided access to the North Shore of Lake Superior, and parks — and campers — soon followed. By 1935, the campground at Gooseberry Falls State Park — then the only park on the North Shore — was jammed. Other parks were created as the state tried to feed the growing appetite for the outdoors. Cars helped drive the demand for camping, and campgrounds were built to accommodate drivers.

But by the time Crosby Manitou State Park was established on the North Shore in 1955, officials were looking for ways to make camping more of a wilderness experience. Instead of the typical drive-in campground, officials decided to offer primitive campsites scattered through the park, accessible by trails.

That concept has been repeated in recent years with the addition of cart-in campsites and rustic camper cabins.

“There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to camping,’’ said Brett Feldman, executive director of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota. “There used to be one way to do it. But people now are looking for different camping experiences.’’

Pat Arndt, state Department of Natural Resources Parks and Trails Division outreach manager, said officials are thinking differently about the camping experience offered at state parks.

“What does this next generation really want? They’re not as engaged in the outdoors as baby boomers. That’s why we are adding Wi-Fi to parks and adding camper cabins and yurts. We’re looking at more walk-in and backpacking sites. People seem to want more seclusion.

“We don’t know what will happen to car camping. I assume it will continue at some level, but it’s likely in the future we will be giving people more a sense of wilderness or adventure.’’

Regardless, camping is expected to remain a cherished Minnesota tradition.

“Camping creates memories in a way that a day trip just doesn’t,’’ Arndt said.

A camping tradition

Pat Coleman remembers his first camping trip to northern Minnesota’s boundary waters.

“We had a canvas pup tent,’’ he said. “It had two interior poles, and every time you rolled over in your sleeping bag, you knocked a pole and the tent collapsed.’’

But there were advantages to sleeping beneath canvas.

“It’s the most fragrant smell in the world,’’ he said. “If they could bottle that in a cologne,” he added, trailing off.

That was more than 40 years ago, and nylon long ago replaced canvas. Modern materials have created better sleeping bags, cooking equipment and clothing. And, of course, the advent of recreational trailers and vehicles has allowed campers to bring the conveniences of home to a campground.

But despite the improvements, camping remains, well, camping. The allure is strong. For Coleman, an annual trip to the boundary waters is essential. “It’s something you have to do,” he said, “or you feel you’ve missed something.’’


Doug Smith • 612-673-7667


  • related content

  • The Jerome Segals of St. Paul pitched their tent at one of Minnesota's private campgrounds in 1970.

  • Men posed outside their tent circa 1940.

  • From Minnesota Historical Society: Tent mounted on top of a station wagon, Sportsmen's Show, 1958.

  • From Minnesota Historical Society: Camping scene, White Bear Lake, 1895.

  • From Minnesota Historical Society: Camping out near Moose Lake, east of Ely, circa 1947

  • A woman demonstrated the latest in wilderness comfort circa 1968: collapsible cooking gear and an easily erected tent. Modern materials continue to create better tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and clothing.

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