Through the lens of Star Tribune photographer Brian Peterson and the writing of Travel editor Kerri Westenberg, four corners of Minnesota and their natural beauty — and relevance — came to rich, colorful life over four parts in the pages of the newspaper and online. Now, State of Wonders has a new manifestation: coffee table tome. Talking back roads taken and possible “wonders” to explore anew, Peterson and Westenberg, below, look back on the yearlong project that culminated in the release of “Minnesota State of Wonders.” Arguably, Minnesota has never looked so good.
You traveled a lot of back roads. Any outing stand out?
Brian Peterson: Every time you travel off the main highways you reap the rewards of slowing down and experiencing a place.
The intention of this project was to experience many places that were off the beaten path and not as well known. I enjoyed every region, but my trip to Big Bog State Recreation Area was probably the most awe-inspiring. The sheer size of the big bog makes you feel so small. Known as Minnesota’s last true wilderness, the 500-square-mile peat bog is the largest in the Lower 48 states. A mile-long boardwalk allows you to experience the plant and animal life in this rare landscape.
Kerri Westenberg: When I was reporting the fall State of Wonders story, I went from the Weaver Dunes near Kellogg to Whitewater State Park in Winona County. At the Dunes, I plugged Whitewater into my map app and it took me on a dirt road that felt like pure magic. It wound past ponds, bunches of cattails and bluffs topped in gorgeous fall colors. I wish I could name the road. I tried to recreate the route on my phone and even studied the Minnesota Atlas & Gazetteer, but no luck. Just trust me: Turn down any dirt road in the area around Whitewater State Park, and you’ll be happy even if you get lost.
In words and photos you told stories of different regions in different seasons. Was any one part of the series particularly arresting?
Peterson: All four corners of Minnesota are so different and all very interesting. It’s really hard to compare. That’s what made this project so fascinating. No other state in the country has the convergence of four distinct and diverse biomes. Certainly the winter shoot in the Arrowhead region was the most challenging for me as a photographer. If you remember, the winter of 2013-14, it was a good ol’ fashioned Minnesota winter. I think every visit I was shooting in snow, subzero temperatures or both. There is something magical about the cold, silent months in the depths of winter that are only appreciated by Minnesotans.
Westenberg: I was blown away by the Big Bog State Recreation Area in Waskish. It is such an unusual landscape: Beautiful little tamarack trees, pitcher plants and delicate flowers. Moose footprints I saw on the spongy peatland had been there for years. The bog covers 500 square miles, so the mile-long boardwalk the state completed in 2005 only scratches the surface. I was drawn to the story of the people who once tried to drain away the water to create rich farmland; they gave up. I also liked hearing about how the boardwalk was built — one board at a time. The materials and machinery were moved out on the walkway as it was constructed, so nothing except the pylons ever disturbed the bog. Because the park is so far north and so new that not many people have been there, I hope our story did a small part to increase visitation.
Any “wonders” left behind that you wish you could have covered?
Peterson: There were many. I would have loved to have spent more time in the far northwest Aspen Parkland (Biome). Many people don’t realize we have elk in Minnesota, and they are in the far northwest. We also didn’t spend much time in the central lakes region. That is an area we deliberately avoided because it is so familiar. But we could do a whole book on the beauty of the Lakes Region.
Westenberg: The Iron Range and Lake Country come to mind. I mean, really, Minnesota is the land of 10,000 wonders. That’s part of what’s so great about this state. I feel like I could spend all my vacation time in Minnesota and see something new each time I hit the road. We really have a wonderful and unique range of landscapes to explore.
Brian and I have dreamed about teaming up to cover the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands. Early next summer, we’ll both travel to Voyageurs National Park for an upcoming Travel story on the only national park in the state.
Being native Minnesotans, how did what you experienced change your view of the state?
Peterson: I was born in Duluth and have spent the last 30 years in the Twin Cities. When I travel out of the city on weekends I generally head north. But this project has opened my eyes to the distinct beauty in all four corners of Minnesota. They all have something to offer, from the big open sky of the prairie southwest to the dense boreal forest of the northeast.
Westenberg: All those road trips and adventures deepened my appreciation of the state and all it has to offer. Minnesota covers a lot of territory, and as you travel beyond the metro area, you realize that much of it is still covered in wilderness and forests, with a vast range of landscapes and opportunities for exploration. And we have a really robust series of state parks that open that land up to all of us. The beauty of Minnesota is a true gift.
You can have only one season and destination. When and where do you go? Why?
Peterson: Everyone should experience Minnesota’s Arrowhead (Region) in winter. I would head to the National Forest Lodge for a weekend of skiing or snowshoeing, bask in the heat of a traditional Finnish sauna at the end of the day and take a dip in the frozen lake to cleanse the spirit. Every Minnesotan should put that at the top of his or her bucket list. We should be proud of living in the north, and celebrate the seasons to their fullest.
Westenberg: Because my family sprung from the farmland of the southwest, I feel a deep resonance with that region. Winters there can be spectacular, with snow blowing across the flatlands. But I like it especially in summer, when those fields are green and lush. But I have to say, a close second is the Arrowhead in winter, for cross-country skiing, snow-covered trees and the wild, icy beauty of Lake Superior.