Published July 26, 2010, 10:01 AM

Park manager shared his passion

TWO HARBORS — Paul Sundberg grew up as the seventh of 10 kids on a farm near McGregor. Money was tight. When it was time for him to leave home, his dad had a little talk with him. “I remember sitting with him on a haystack in a field in the moonlight,” says Sundberg, now 60. “He said he didn’t have any money for me, but that he had a calf. ‘You can raise that calf and sell it,’ he said.” So, Sundberg did.

By: Sam Cook, Northland Outdoors

TWO HARBORS — Paul Sundberg grew up as the seventh of 10 kids on a farm near McGregor. Money was tight. When it was time for him to leave home, his dad had a little talk with him.

“I remember sitting with him on a haystack in a field in the moonlight,” says Sundberg, now 60. “He said he didn’t have any money for me, but that he had a calf. ‘You can raise that calf and sell it,’ he said.”

So, Sundberg did.

“I raised the calf and sold it for $250,” Sundberg says. “It paid for all the schooling that got me to where I am today.”

At a tuition-free vo-tech school near Brainerd, Sundberg studied for two years to be a natural resources technician. The $250 covered all his books and other expenses.

On Aug. 3, Sundberg will retire after a 39-year career in Minnesota’s state parks and 28 years as manager of Gooseberry Falls State Park near Two Harbors, one of the state’s most popular parks.

He’s an icon among the state’s park managers, known for sharing his love and enthusiasm for the natural world with hundreds of thousands of park visitors.

“The one thing I love most about my job is putting smiles on kids’ faces,” Sundberg says.

He’ll often put on his stiff-brimmed park ranger hat and just mingle with some of the 600,000 visitors who come to Gooseberry and its famed waterfalls each year. When he talks to young children, he’ll kneel on the 1.1-billion-year-old lava flows so he can communicate with the kids on their level. If he knows where a ruffed grouse is drumming, where the showy lady’s slippers are blooming, where a pair of pileated woodpeckers can be seen feeding their young, he’ll direct park visitors to them. He may send 50 or 100 people a day to witness such a natural phenomenon.

“When you’re on vacation,” Sundberg says, “you always run into one person who makes a big impression on you. I try to be that person in people’s lives.”

But it’s not about him. It’s about the glimpses of nature that Gooseberry can provide.

SHARING COOL MOMENTS

Sundberg directs not only park visitors but his colleagues at Gooseberry to these cool moments of discovery. He’ll make sure that park employees get to see them, too, so they’re more likely to tell other park visitors of the event.

“If there’s a grouse drumming in the park, he drives everyone working in the park out to see it,” said Karen Frey, retail operations manager at the popular Gooseberry store. “It’s just because he’s so excited.”

Sundberg is an animated guy with a trademark smile and a familiar, high-pitched laugh. When he smiles and laughs, which is often, his eyes go all crinkly and his entire face becomes a big, happy place.

He started his career in 1971 at Savanna Portage State Park and became park manager at Cascade River State Park near Lutsen in 1976. In 1983, he became park manager at Gooseberry after the first two candidates turned down the job.

In 2007, Sundberg received the state Parks and Trails Division’s Mission Award, given to one individual or group per year. He’s featured on an Explore Minnesota YouTube video about camping in Minnesota. An acclaimed photographer, his work has been published in a popular book titled “North Shore Vision” and in DVDs. He has shared countless photos with the Department of Natural Resources for displays, websites, brochures and internal presentations. He sends out a weekly e-mail “Photo of the Week” with a short story about how he came upon the photo.

‘ICON OF PASSION’

“The first thing that comes to mind with Paul is passion,” says his supervisor, Paul Maurer, regional parks and trails supervisor at Grand Rapids. “Talk about an icon of passion for what he does. And humble. With anything he does and is good at, he’s humble. It’s not about him.”

Mark “Sparky” Stensaas of Duluth’s Stone Ridge Press published “North Shore Vision” and has worked closely with Sundberg in shooting photos.

“In our hobby or avocation of photography, sharing is not always the most common trait,” Stensaas says. “Paul will share his best spots. If he finds a pileated woodpecker nest with young ones, he’ll call all his photographer buddies and say, ‘Come on up.’ He’s got no ego. Zero.”

Sundberg cannot help himself. When he finds something revealing in nature, he wants to share it.

“One day he was out grooming ski trails,” says Retta James-Gasser, who was a naturalist at Gooseberry for 15 years. “He smelled an awful smell. It was a fresh deer kill. Paul came back to the office, picked me up, got his camera, and we went back to the kill. He talked about how the wolves took the deer down, so I could tell this story to park visitors. I don’t think people are aware how much Paul has affected them because it’s behind the scenes.”

ALWAYS ON DUTY

His ambassadorship for the natural world extends beyond park boundaries. Several years ago, on a family trip to Glacier National Park, Sundberg and his family spotted a grizzly and two cubs on a nearby mountainside. They stopped to watch the bears.

“People would come by, and I’d say, ‘Have you seen any grizzlies?’ ” Sundberg said. “They’d say, ‘No.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, if you turn around …’ After we had been there for a while, my son said, ‘Dad, do you realize you’ve directed 70 people to those grizzlies?’ Apparently, he’d been keeping track.”

Sharing nature comes naturally to Sundberg.

The toughest part of managing a park as popular as Gooseberry is when a visitor’s vacation goes bad, he says.

“It’s dealing with the accidents,” he says. “Gooseberry is not a dangerous place, but things can happen.”

That’s especially true in low-water situations, when visitors can scramble out on the river’s rocks and scale canyon walls, from which they sometimes fall.

“Our worst year, we had 26 ambulance calls and seven Life Flights,” Sundberg says.

Sundberg credits his staff for making his job easy through the years.

“They really take pride in their work,” he says.

He might have stayed on longer as park manager had it not been for a run-in with prostate cancer this past spring. He underwent surgery in April and is now cancer-free, he says. But the incident got him to thinking.

“It made me think, ‘No, I’ve got to spend more time with my family,’” Sundberg says. “I’m hesitant (to retire) because you hate to leave something you love. But I have a 3-year-old granddaughter who keeps asking me to take her outside.”

Chances are, he knows some good places to take her.

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