ITASCA STATE PARK — Sometime during her 25-year career as an interpretive naturalist at Itasca State Park, Connie Cox asked a visitor from Slovenia why he traveled across the world to see the Mississippi headwaters.
His interpreter told her, “He wants to see in his life the most beautiful places in the world.”
“And he had a list of about 10,” Cox said, momentarily becoming choked up at the memory. “To think that Itasca was one of the 10 most beautiful places in the world he chose to see! To me, our park is way more special than just our own backyard playground. To share that with others is very meaningful.”
Cox first visited the park with her parents when she was just over a year old.
“My father used to love camping here,” she said. “I have one picture of me, when I was a bald little kid in a stroller.”
Her father died shortly afterward, and the family never came back until Cox got a job at the park.
“It’s just part of that legacy of people who make it a family tradition, and seeing that tradition,” she said. “People share stories of how they came as a child, and they got married and had their honeymoon here, and then they brought their children here. Seeing these legacies of 60-plus years in families, and to be a part of that, and to help make their legacy memorable, is very rewarding.”
One of two interpretive naturalists at the park, along with Sandra Lichter, Cox said their job is to develop educational programs and informative media for park visitors. These may include tours for school groups, lantern-lit hikes, campfires, music concerts, guest speakers, interpretive signage, printed literature, car-tours for spotting large-flowered trillium and the showy lady’s slipper, and outdoor activities for all four seasons, often requiring months of planning and the indispensable help of volunteers.
“Mainly it is telling the story of Itasca State Park, and why this treasure is here, and why this land and this park was set aside for all Minnesotans,” she said.
If trees could talk
Topics include not only Lake Itasca and the source of the Mississippi River, but also the park’s 80-plus historic buildings; other structures such as footbridges, fishing piers and stairways; wildflowers, birds, insects and other wildlife; and of course, those trees.
“When you look at old journals from the 1910s and 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, so many people have one version of the phrase being, ‘We came for the river; we returned for the pines,’” said Cox.
During a guided tour of some of the park’s scenic views, Cox showed off Preachers Grove – a sloping stand of tall, red pine sloping down to the lakeshore, where traveling ministers held camp meetings in the 1890s and where park visitors had picnics in the early 1900s.
Some of the trees may be close to 400 years old, she said, well past their life expectancy of 250 to 300 years. Many of them have distinctive “cat eye” marks, scars in their trunk from wildfires sweeping through, part of the pine forest circle of life.
“Standing under these trees,” she said, “I wish I could tell you what they had seen in their lifetime, with wildfires and droughts and flush years with moisture, and the people who have come and gone under their limbs, and the people who have had good memories.”
Cox earned a bachelor of arts with a wildlife management emphasis at St. Cloud State University, minoring in American studies. Before coming to Itasca, she worked eight years as a naturalist for private resorts along the Gunflint Trail in northeast Minnesota.
Along with Bruce, her husband of 23 years, she owns property north of the park where they enjoy hiking, biking, fishing and the company of three dogs and four cats.
Her relationship with Itasca has lasted even longer, though. One reason her job has stayed evergreen may be that every day is different.
“That’s the amazing thing,” she said. “You’re always discovering new things about this park. What happens is, you have one question. Then you get an answer, and all of a sudden, it creates, like, two or three more questions about the park.”
Augmenting her research among the park’s historic records and pictures are family memories that park visitors share with her.
“For example, I just got a phone call from a woman whose father had been an Eagle Scout in the 1930s,” she said. “The Eagle Scouts, in the 30s, developed the Eagle Scout trail within the park. She has photos and documents about that, and she wants to share those with the park.”
Stories passed on from parents and grandparents, then shared by visitors, continually open up more of the park’s rich history, she said.
Alone in a busy park
The park’s diverse landscape is also full of hidden surprises, waiting to be discovered.
In spite of having half a million visitors annually, up to 1,500 camping or lodging in the park at a time, and well-used recreational areas such as a swim beach and a playground, there are places in the park where you can lose yourself.
“Some of the trails closer to the headwaters can be very busy, but you can also hike on some trails such as Nicollet, which is a four-mile long trail,” she said. “Within a half a mile or a mile down, you might be the only person that you see for the rest of the day. … Even on a busy summer day, you can find very quiet places, where you feel like you’re the only person in the park.”
Walking along a trail overlooking the lakeshore, Cox is a constantly flowing fountain of information about the birds calling overhead, the wild rice poking out of the water, the hazel bushes, the wildflowers and more.
“We have black-backed woodpeckers in the park. This is the most southwestern range for that bird in Minnesota,” she said. A treasure trove for birders, the park also sees up to 20 species of warblers either nesting there or passing through during their migration.
Later, Cox pointed out a merlin – a small type of falcon – as it defended its nest from a turkey vulture, and recalled a time when a merlin snatched a songbird out of the air before the eyes of a birding class below Douglas Lodge.
“The little birds were flying around, and all of a sudden we saw something flash past us, and we saw a poof of feathers in the air, and the merlin flew away,” she said. “What better way to talk about nature than when it’s happening?”
Honoring the legacy
Also, she enthuses about the park’s natural history, where three different biomes came together 8,000 years ago, and where remnants of each can still be found, all mixed together.
Her feelings about the park are evident at every step. “I love the view on that trail,” she said at one point. “This spot right here is super pretty,” she added a bit later. She knows where the Civilian Conservation Corps built a stone wall in the 1930s, young men learning what to do from “local experienced men.”
Her eye is the first to spot swamp milkweed, yarrow, bedstraw and harebell flowers, and she knows a lot about them, ranging from the way bedstraw travels – a weak-stemmed, sticky plant that clings to passing creatures – to how harebells had a reputation in the 13th century for being used in witchcraft.
“You don’t have to drive or hike a long way to experience why Jacob Brower (the park’s founder) fell in love with this park,” said Cox while lingering under Preachers Grove. “When you stand in these big trees and imagine 32,000 acres of stuff like this, huge trees like this towering around you, it’s no wonder he fell in love and wanted to protect it. No wonder people keep coming back. Like today, the sound of the wind in the needles of the trees, that smell of wet pine needles – it’s just a memorable spot.”
She recalled the sacrifices Brower made to establish the park, and later park manager Mary Gibbs’ defiance of an armed logging foreman while protecting the park against being flooded by a logging dam.
“Think of the legacy of people who literally were giving of their energies, their money and possibly even their life to preserve and protect this,” she said. “That, to me, is such a legacy to keep living up to.”
Recalling the joy shown by visitors from around the world, Cox concluded, “It’s very special. … It doesn’t just touch the lives of the people in the Park Rapids-Bemidji area. It doesn’t just touch the lives of Minnesotans. It touches the lives of people in the United States and around the world.”