Freelance writer Tom Watson proclaims in his guidebooks what’s best in the Minnesota outdoors, from hikes to tent-camping. With that as a baseline, he beat the street for another good idea, and has hit on camper cabins.
Released early this month, his new book “Best Minnesota Camper Cabins” can be traced to a presentation at the Midwest Mountaineering Spring Expo several years ago about the cabins in the state parks system. Sitting in, Watson was intrigued, and saw an opportunity.
There are camper cabins and the likes of yurts at 27 state parks. Watson gives them attention, but he has turned an eye, too, in his tidy book to dwellings in national forests, county and regional parks, and at a resort or two. Regardless, all are simple structures that have a dual purpose, he writes: “cushy upgrade” for the seasoned tent camper and an opportunity for beginners “to test your camping mettle in stages” with a roof and a bed as a backstop.
But Watson stays focused on the cabins and not the camper, ranking the structures on their setting, privacy, security and their quiet. There are “Tom’s Tips,” too, helpful extra bits that illustrate his knowledge of the cabins’ locations.
“It’s a little more involved. A lot of guidebooks tend to be glorified phone books. They just take everything and compile it. It’s a great compilation, but it’s not really detailed,” said Watson, who went to every location and looked over the units — even if he didn’t stay a night in every cabin.
Watson is a regular contributor on the websites sportsmansguide.com and paddling.com, and currently is working on new editions of “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “Best Tent Camping-Minnesota.” Both will come out next spring. In a recent conversation, Watson said he is hoping his newest project launches camper cabin guides by state. He sees the beginnings of a market: Wisconsin and Michigan have their versions of camper cabins, too. Below are edited excerpts:
On making clear his perspective
Part of the thing that we try to do is offer a personal sensibility. I let readers know that I am a birder. I let them know that I am a photographer. I let them know that I prefer to camp alone to group camping.
On taking on a seemingly vast topic
Part of it is having the knowledge ahead of time. I grew up in Minnesota. I was a Boy Scout. I graduated in forestry. To do any sort of a story, say, on like Jay Cooke (State) Park or Savanna Portage, if it’s about tent-camping there, if it’s about canoeing there, I’ve already got a good sense of background on what that area is like. Having that background made some of these trips a lot shorter and some of the time spent there unnecessary because I’d already been there before. It’s kind of done in spurts. You decide on what ones you are going to cover.
On logistics of documenting a state
I’ll usually do a routing book. And I’ll go on a road trip with a buddy, and will go camp out as we go to these places. So one might be up on the North Shore for three or four days, the next might be down southeast to Winona. That’s another two-three day trip. So, collectively, you are probably on the road for a good 2½ weeks for the process, but that process can take a whole summer and one or two seasons.
On book idea
I thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool, and there are enough of these.’ If there are eight or nine, that is not going to cut it, but if you’ve got to do a typical formatted guidebook than you have a sense of how much coverage you’d need and what kind of depth you’d need. I thought this camper cabin thing could be cool. It was actually the yurt thing that I wanted to do, but there wasn’t enough of them from around the state.
On his favorite cabins
Sometimes I am hesitant to get too overly excited about saying [a favorite]. It’s kind of like telling someone where your honey hole is when you’re fishing. You can give them an idea: It’s on that river, but I am not going to tell you what bend it is. … It’s hard to say because some of the settings are just so nice. All of these cabins pretty much look the same.
On the remoteness of one of his favorite spots: Hayes Lake State Park
You have to want to go to Hayes Lake (south of Roseau). There are some areas around it that are kind of neat. Every time I’ve been to Hayes Lake, I’ve seen sandhill cranes in the area. It’s a really, really cool area, but …
On the value of guidebooks
They are always going to be handy. Granted, that can all be done on an app, but it’s just nice to have something in your pocket, it’s nice to take notes on the margin, it’s nice to throw it in the glove box and leave it there. Batteries aren’t going to wear out, and you throw [a guidebook] in a zip-lock bag and it’s going to stay pretty dry and clean. You are out in the fields with people, and they whip out an old, crusty guidebook, and it’s like, ‘Yeah, this person has been there; done that.’ It still has its place I think.