Lake Itasca is Minnesota’s treasure

Published 8:52 am Friday, August 22, 2008

When I was 18, my family and other relatives headed up north to stay at a resort on Two Inlets Lake. On one of the days, we all headed north on U.S. Highway 71 and walked across the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park.

I had a little freestyle bike back then, and I bike a little bit near the headwaters. We had to head back to our cabins, so I didn’t really get to see much of the park.

I am 37 now. Planning our summer vacation, I decided to skip my usual ride on Ragbrai — that big bike ride across Iowa — and take the family up north to that gem of a state park I never got to explore when I was young. Also, Lisa — most readers know she is my wife — had never been there. It was pretty easy to pick our July vacation.

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We drove north, stayed a Saturday night at Crow Wing State Park, then entered Itasca on Sunday. This was July 20.

I had hoped to camp the week, then stay at Douglas Lodge in the park the last two nights of the week, but you have make camping and lodging reservations way ahead. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources lets you book up to a year in advance.

So even though Douglas Lodge was out of the question, about one-third of the campsites at Itasca are first-come, first-served. We arrived at 11 a.m., right when they start assigned sites and we got one at Bear Paw Campground. The site had uneven ground, so our 1 1/2-year-old son, Forrest, ended up falling all the time. However, during the week he became good at walking on uneven ground and bumpy, rough surfaces. He’s a tough kid.

Lisa was impressed with the park. She commented that it seemed like a national park because of its bigness, old-growth trees and many amenities, such as paved bike trails, backwoods hiking trails, boat and bike rentals, Douglas Lodge, visitor centers and nature programs.

Thank you, Jacob V. Brower, for getting the state to save these trees in 1891. All of Minnesota owes you a debt of gratitude.

Lisa and I brought the Burley bike trailer. On Monday, we went for a bike ride on the Wilderness Drive, with Forrest in the trailer. He loves bike rides. The bugs love Lisa — something about her pheromones — and because she didn’t bring bug spray, they spoiled the bike ride for her. We enjoyed it anyway and visited Elk Lake, which is one of about 100 lakes in the park. We then stopped at the Douglas Lodge and rested on the deck. Here, the bugs left us alone. We drank wine, snacked on cheese and watched the hummingbirds flutter about.

On one of the days, our dog, Alta, and I went for a 10-mile hike on the Brower Trail and the Dr. Roberts Trail. It reminded me how much I enjoy hiking. I’m good at it, too.

We headed to Bemidji for coffee on one morning and visited some stores before slipping back into Itasca State Park. The city is beautiful.

There were days where I’d spend large chunks of time with Forrest and other days where Lisa would. On one day, he and I walked across the Mississippi River and later spent time at the beach. It was precious. I could tell we all grew closer on this vacation.

However, nights proved to be difficult. During camping, all your parenting skills — or perceived lack thereof — are on display for other campers, particularly in the dark of night when the campground is calm and quiet and your toddler is screaming his head off. It seemed we alternated good nights and bad nights.

Finally, after a bad Wednesday night, we headed into Walker for coffee. I could see Lisa was dead tired, and I put her in a hotel with Forrest to get the sleep she failed to get that night. (I am better at snoozing through a crying child than she is.) I drove back to the campground, loaded up the stuff, then met her at the hotel.

We went shopping in Walker — including a shirt for our toddling toddler that says Walker — and the next day we headed off for two nights at a cabin we had reserved in Park Rapids (in lieu of the Douglas Lodge). We biked on the Heartland Trail and very much enjoyed that. We really liked the little town of Dorset, a great place for an ice cream cone.

We decided that next year, perhaps a cabin would work better than a tent. Maybe, we are getting soft. Parenthood does that, huh?

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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