Published April 10, 2010, 08:00 PM

Of parks and people: New book tells stories of Minnesota state parks

Published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, the glossy, hard-cover book features photos and stories from each of Minnesota’s 66 state parks. With more than 200 color photographs and 16 essays, the book is far more than a travel guide.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Writer Chris Niskanen and photographer Doug Ohman have just released “Prairie, Lake, Forest: Minnesota’s State Parks.”

Published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, the glossy, hard-cover book features photos and stories from each of Minnesota’s 66 state parks. With more than 200 color photographs and 16 essays, the book is far more than a travel guide; it’s a window into the people who work and play in the parks, a story of their experiences and what makes each park such a special place.

Ohman and Niskanen are no strangers to Minnesota’s wild places. Ohman’s photography has been featured in the Historical Society’s Minnesota Byways book series, which includes “Barns of Minnesota” and “Cabins of Minnesota.” Niskanen, who is outdoors editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, reports on hunting, fishing and natural resources issues across the state and also is a contributor to the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine.

Niskanen recently talked about the new book with Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken:

Q. How did the idea for this book come about?

A. The book photographer, Doug Ohman, had the idea to do a book on Minnesota state parks that captured not just the beauty, but the history, adventure and people at the parks. The Minnesota Historical Society Press contacted me and said, “We’ve got these wonderful pictures, could you write some stories?” I said yes, but only if it is not a guidebook.

Q. The book is about more than the parks — it also features experiences from people who use the parks. How did you go about finding these people?

A. The beauty of not writing a guidebook is I went out and found the most interesting people who knew something about the parks. I sought out managers, photographers, bird watchers, biologists, rock climbers — anyone who had a fascinating story to tell. What’s it like to see a mass of spring ice go over Gooseberry Falls? Climb the face of Shovel Point at Tettegouche? Live among bison at Blue Mounds? I had a lot of questions.

Q. Featuring 66 state parks, and doing justice to each of them, is no small task. Where do you begin?

A. It was fun finding things parks had in common. I had a list of themes, like prairie restoration or the Dakota War, and I’d find all the parks with those things in common. There is at least one picture from each of the 66 parks in the book.

Q. How much time did you spend at each state park?

A. I didn’t get to travel to each park, but I spent a year traveling, researching and writing. Sometimes, I would just show up at a park on a mission to find a good story. I never left disappointed.

Q. How many of the state parks had you visited before you started the book?

A. I’d only been to a handful. I think I’ve been to 50 now. I met one couple who went to all 66 in 12 weeks.

Q. How many miles did you log in your travels?

A. I put about 5,000 miles on my truck, but the photographer, Doug Ohman, probably did triple or quadruple that. He might have gone through a transmission for this book.

Q. Looking back on the journey, was there any one experience that stands out as “the” highlight?

A. The cave tour at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in southeastern Minnesota is wonderful. There is a lake down there. The trout fishing in the nearby Root River is pretty fabulous, too. I highly recommend both.

Q. What do you remember most about northwest Minnesota’s parks (Zippel Bay, Old Mill, Lake Bronson, Hayes)?

A. Zippel Bay might be our least appreciated park, but a terrific place for solitude. Grinding Days at Old Mill, held in August, is a great place to take the family. You get to eat bread made from freshly ground wheat. Lake Bronson is steeped in history with many old buildings from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) era. The world-record jack pine is also at Lake Bronson. Who knew it?

Q. Did your research change your perceptions of state parks and their importance?

A. Everyone I met had a favorite state-park story. A woman my age — mid-40s — told me how meaningful it was to her, as a young girl, that her stoic father took her camping at the parks. It changed her life. She bought a book for her dad, and I autographed it, “To Joe, thanks for taking the kids camping.” State parks are pretty important, and not just because they’re pretty places.

Q. What are your thoughts on the state of Minnesota’s state park system?

A. I haven’t been to every state park, but here’s what I learned from many visitors: Minnesota’s state parks are the best maintained in the nation. I never heard a single complaint.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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