Published April 18, 2010, 12:00 AM

New book connects state parks to people

When Chris Niskanen and Doug Ohman set out to write and photograph a book about Minnesota’s state parks, they took a novel approach.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

When Chris Niskanen and Doug Ohman set out to write and photograph a book about Minnesota’s state parks, they took a novel approach.

As a result “Prairie, Lake, Forest — Minnesota’s State Parks” is nothing like a typical guide book. Niskanen, outdoor editor for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, put his considerable reporting skills to work and wrote rich, readable stories about regular folks who visit the state parks.

Ohman, a professional photographer from New Hope, Minn., found plenty of beauty in the parks but, like Niskanen, also captured people in the act of using them.

The result is more like a Ken Burns documentary than a guide book.

We asked Niskanen and Ohman a few questions about the making of the book. Here are their thoughts:

Q: How did the two of you decide on the approach to the book?

Niskanen: [Doug] and I sat in a room one day and explored the common themes that the parks have — waterfalls, camping, trees, geology, Minnesota history. Once we had those themes, we decided we would pull together parks that share some of those themes and write the inside story of those parks.

Q: Did you visit all 66 state parks?

Ohman: This is two years of my life. I spent time at every park, hiked the trails, walked the campgrounds, went to the water’s edge. I climbed the rocks to really immerse myself into that park.

Q: Did you apply your reporting talents in gathering information for the book?

Niskanen: Yes. Once I drilled down into each topic, I found an amazing array of people who wanted to talk about these things. For example, I decided if I was going to write about kayaking, I needed to take a trip up to the North Shore and interview people as they came off the rivers. That was really a bountiful experience, because in one day I had an armload of great stories about people who have this passion for kayaking. It just so happens that some of the best kayaking rivers in the Midwest are in all these state parks.

Q: How did you approach the photographs for this book?

Ohman: I’m primarily a historic architecture photographer. I had to swallow hard and say, “Can I actually do this?” First, I talked to the park staff and asked them, “If I could represent your park in three pictures, what would they be?” Along the way, though, I was amazed at what they didn’t tell me about.

Q: How has writing the book shaped your view of setting aside public lands?

Niskanen: A lot of the parks were created through a lot of political wrangling. They’re the same battles we’re having today in the Legislature over wildlife lands. I think the lesson we can learn from the state parks we have now is that nobody has ever looked back and said, “Gee, I wish we hadn’t created Tettegouche State Park or … Temperance River State Park.”

Q: In addition to taking lots of gorgeous photos, you also captured people using the parks in your photos.

Ohman: I wanted people to understand that these parks are our playgrounds, and to show them without that misses that element. I photographed whitewater kayakers, people rappelling at Tettegouche, fishing at Glendalough. I was trying to capture the spirit of the human element.

Q: Were there any little-known parks that really surprised you?

Ohman: One thing that struck me is how little some of the parks get used. Everyone goes to Itasca. Everyone goes to Split Rock. Yes, go to them. But don’t overlook the little ones like Schoolcraft, south of Grand Rapids, and Buffalo River between Detroit Lakes and Moorhead. That’s what I hope this book will do, take people to places they’ve never heard of before.

Q: Can you give us an example of how people’s lives have been affected by state parks?

Niskanen: Here’s a quick little story about a book I signed. A middle-aged woman came up to me, saw the book and wanted to buy one for her elderly father. She told me how her father was a stoic guy who didn’t say a whole lot, but that she had gotten to know him on their many camping trips to the parks. I asked her how I should sign the book. She said, “To Joe — Thanks for taking the kids camping.” That made my day. It made my week.