On Easter weekend, Tom and Julie Anderson of Inver Grove Heights visited a cathedral they knew well: Wild River State Park, along the St. Croix River.
The Andersons parked their home-away-from-home RV among statuesque red oaks before unfolding lawn chairs and lighting a fire. "We try to camp at least twice a month, and we prefer state parks,'' Tom Anderson said. "Last year, we camped in a half-dozen state parks or so.''
With record-high gas prices and a slowing economy, Minnesota state parks attracted 8 percent more campers in 2008 than in 2007, according to the Department of Natural Resources. "Camping is what we like to do,'' Julie Anderson said. "If we had to cut spending because of the economy, we would do less at home rather than give this up.''
Minnesota's camping uptick appears poised to continue this summer. Already, 95 percent of reservable state park electric sites have been spoken for over Memorial Day weekend, and 78 percent of those sites have been reserved for July 4th. And state park cabins, which sleep up to six people, are essentially booked for Memorial Day and July 4th, and 70 percent reserved for Labor Day weekend.
So is camping a recession-proof outdoor obsession among Minnesotans?
"Camping is still seen as a value vacation, a low-cost way to have fun and be outdoors,'' said Patricia Arndt, DNR parks planning and public affairs manager.
Even some state parks that require long drives from the Twin Cities recorded visitation increases last year. Blue Mound in the southwest saw a 16 percent visitor jump. The increase was 2 percent at Glacial Lakes in west-central Minnesota.
2008 tourism 'pretty good'
Camping isn't the only Minnesota outdoor activity that had a banner year in 2008. The DNR sold more resident individual and combination angling licenses than at any time in three decades. And the U.S. Forest Service reports that about 250,000 paddlers, hikers, boaters, dog mushers and other travelers entered the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 2008, up from 220,000 two years ago and 200,000 in the late 1990s.
John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism, believes high gas prices last summer helped persuade state residents to vacation closer to home.
"People who are concerned about their pocketbooks and the cost of bigger-ticket vacations tend to discover what's in their back yards,'' he said. "We started to see people cutting back last year. ... Overall, despite the gas prices, the year was pretty good for Minnesota tourism.''
Some Minnesota vacationers from the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin seem also to have made briefer trips here last summer. Seasonal Minnesota fishing licenses sold to residents of those states declined in 2008. But the losses were offset in part by sales of licenses good for only 24 hours. Example: Yearlong Minnesota fishing licenses sold to Wisconsin residents fell last year to 10,739 from 12,127. But 24-hour fishing licenses sold to Wisconsin anglers rose to 6,719 from 5,919.
BWCA paddlers strapped for time, money or both might also explain the higher visitation numbers in that wilderness area, said Kristina Reichenbach, Superior National Forest public affairs officer.
"What appears to be happening is that people are coming to the Boundary Waters for shorter trips, and they're not going as far into the park as they once did," she said. "Instead of taking two-week-long trips, some visitors are staying for only a long weekend. So the same number of permit days are being used by more people.''
Many state park visitors also are staying for shorter periods, the DNR's Arndt said, noting that the sale of $25 annual state park permits last year fell 10 percent.
So how did the number of Minnesota state park campers rise to 722,911 in 2008 from 672,352 in 2007?
"More $5 day permits were purchased last year, perhaps by people looking to save money,'' she said.
Some campers appear also to be economizing by forestalling purchases of new gear. Nationally, almost 50 million people camped last year, an increase of 4 percent. But camping equipment sales declined fractionally, to $1.4 billion, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
Sales reports were even worse for RVs. Shipments of camper trailers and motor homes tanked 33 percent last year, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, not only because of high gas prices but because of limited credit availability for would-be purchasers.
Similar economic bugaboos afflicted boat sales. Only 1,377 were added last year to the Minnesota fleet -- the largest per capita in the nation -- bringing the total registered with the DNR to 868,348.
Still, new boats or not, Minnesotans fished.
"I don't think you can put a finger on one thing to explain why we sold more fishing licenses last year,'' said C.B. Bylander, DNR fish and wildlife division outreach section chief. "It's a combination of factors. We have great fishing in the state, that's important. Also, we've been aggressively promoting fishing, and we will continue to do so this year. And sometimes when the economy goes into recession, fishing license sales increase. It's a low-cost activity that people can do close to home.''
Park activities a big draw
Not far from Tom and Julie Anderson's campsite last weekend at Wild River State Park was a small band of maple-sap distillers.
Bob Kessen of Stacy, Minn., a regular visitor to Minnesota state parks ("My favorite is Bearhead, near Ely,'' he said), has been a Wild River volunteer for 12 years. Coffee cup in hand and sprawled comfortably in a chair beneath a warm spring sun, Kessen was overseeing a small crew of fellow volunteers, including Mike Bares and Ginny Yingling, both of Maplewood.
Their intent was to boil 50 gallons of sap drawn from the park's maple trees, from which, by day's end, they and others would divide about 4 gallons of syrup to take home. It's an annual ritual at Wild River under the direction of park naturalist Dave Crawford that is open to the first 40 people who sign up.
Kessen said his state park visits weren't deterred last year by high gas prices or the slowing economy. Nor were Yingling's. "It's the one thing I'm still willing to do, despite the economy,'' she said.