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Photo of state fair.

Fair Game

The State Fair is more than fried food and screaming rides. A volunteer dons a Smokey suit to explore the Department of Natural Resources' territory at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

By Mary Hoff

I can't see.

I can't see, and my nose is running, and my glasses are fogged up, and a 2-year-old is trying to feed me cotton candy. And there's not a thing I can do about any of it because all I have to work with are two Very Large Furry Paws.

It's opening weekend 2009 at the Minnesota State Fair, and I'm celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Department of Natural Resources' exhibit in style. Earlier this morning I pulled on a pair of 64 x 32 Wrangler jeans held round by a hoop, a thick shaggy coat, two Bigfoot bedroom slippers, and a grinning brown face topped with a ranger hat. On the inside, I'm just one of some 800,000 fairgoers and 800 volunteers at the DNR display during the 12 days of the fair. On the outside, I'm Smokey Bear.

"I love Smokey!" a child exuberates from the vicinity of my belt buckle. I feel my rotundness receiving a refrigerator-sized hug. Photo op. Squaring my shoulders, I flash my cheeky perma-smile. Shutters click. Facebook, here I come. "Oh, look, it's Smokey Bear!" (Good eye, buddy.)

"Hi, Smokey!" (Sorry, not allowed to talk.)

"Enjoying this cool day?" (Ha. Ha.)

Seems the icon of forest fire prevention is everyone's friend.

"Can you give Smokey a high-five?" I hear from somewhere near my starboard side. Uh-oh. I wonder if I can pull this off without inadvertently whupping someone upside the head. Blindly raising a paw, I hope the owner of the voice, whoever and wherever she or he is, has good aim—and no hidden grudges against large, half-clothed forest creatures. A solid but gentle thump reassures me. Life is good.

If you've been to the Great Minnesota Get-Together, you likely have a favorite destination—a booth or program or deep-fried food stand that you're not going to miss, that you're going to drag your kids and friends to and probably someday your grandkids and grandfriends too. The DNR exhibit, hands down, is mine. With its log lodge, edge-of-the-wilderness look, and CCC-era aura, it keeps me coming back. It's a rustic oasis of nature among the helter-skelter of cheese curds and radio celebrities and bleating animals and spin-art vendors that is our beloved, and at times bedraggled, State Fair. Here, more than anywhere else at the fair, I feel like I belong.

And so, it seems, do a whole bunch of other people. Though I'm the only one around in a bear suit, I'm far from alone. My able human assistant has her hands full keeping me from literally bowling 'em over as I amble along. People are walking through the biomes and seasons depicted in the Wildlife Forever wing, touring the State Parks camper cabin, seeing raptors fly and capture prey for the garden stage, listening to music and duck calls on the outdoor stage, watching DNR Minerals' meteorite-and-volcano DVD, and gazing at deer heads confiscated from poachers by DNR Enforcement.

Stroll Through the Park.

After my two-hour-long volunteer Smokey shift ends ("Sorry, kids, gotta go hibernate"), I stroll about fur-free to take it all in.

My first stop is the big, brown lodge, where thick walls provide welcome respite from the August sun. In one corner, visitors flock to a counter to request printouts of survey data from their favorite lakes. Along the walls, glass cases of minnows, frogs, toads, and turtles give others a chance to go nose-to-nose with nature. The been-here-forever bird egg collection reminds me, as it does every time I see it, of nature's astonishing ways with function and form. Multihued exhibits and kiosks offer insights, advice, or warnings about bike touring, emerald ash borers, water safety, amphibians, and a hundred other things Minnesotans really should know.

I notice some folks heading into a theater, so I follow in hopes of a good show. A good show I get. Thwup! A 50-something woman handily hits her mark as others line up to try their hand in the indoor archery range. It's a place to test one's markspersonship. On the other side of the room, a fellow in a blue baseball cap has racked up 9,150 points' worth of clay pigeons, targets, and virtual pheasants with a laser shot and is still going strong. Just like the midway, I think, except you don't have to haul a horse-sized velour octopus around with you for the rest of the day if you happen to do well.

Small Pond, Big Fish.

Ask your average Minnesota fairgoers what they know and love about the DNR exhibit, and chances are the responses will include the word fish. When the exhibit first opened in 1934, the layout included a massive lawn on the south side with formal gardens and a large fountain spewing water into the air. In 1970 the DNR replaced the fountain with a kidney-shaped fish pond, encircled by upended timbers just tall enough for 6-year-olds to rest their chins as they peer at the wonders of the deep. Today, some of those original visitors are still coming back to this small pond to see the big fish.

Almost magnetically, I'm drawn to join what seems like everyone else at the fair, crowded elbow to elbow along the log-pillared fence around the pit. Gazing in a heat-and-fried-food-induced trance down through dust-flecked water, we watch muskies, walleyes, bluegills, bass, trout, and more swimming in circles in the state's most famous fishbowl. The inhabitants, exhibit manager Donn Schrader tells me, are brought in each year in several big tank trucks, mainly from a DNR Fisheries holding pond and trout hatcheries, then trucked back out when the fair is over. A few are way up there on their frequent-flyer miles: the prehistoric-looking paddlefish have been making the trek since 1984, and the 50-pound sturgeon has a good 20 years under its fins.

With three dozen species sharing the same waters, I wonder why they don't eat each other. Schrader gives me the short answer: They do. If the piscivores swimming below me had to summarize their State Fair experience in two words, they just might choose the same ones I would for mine: Food Everywhere.

Top of the Tower.

On the northwestern corner of the DNR grounds stands a State Fair highlight for many: a 65-foot-tall fire tower, built just for visitors in 1966. At the top of its 84 steps (fewer than on a real fire tower, but still, I would say, plenty), you can stand in the 10-foot-by-10-foot cabin and (my inner Smokey shudders at the thought) scan the sky for wisps of smoke indicating the possible presence of wildfires over at Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar, say, or across the fairgrounds on Machinery Hill.

Or, better yet, from the tower top, take in some of the best people watching around. On this sunlit end-of-summer day, it seems we've hit a sea-of-humanity tsunami. Big people. Little people. People with back scratchers and campaign literature. People pulling red wagons full of little kids in hot pink pigtails and pickle hats. People with barbecued turkey sandwich juice dribbling down their chins. People in every stage of exhaustion and stickiness known to humankind. Oh, and our little secret: Minnesotans, it turns out, are a whole lot balder than we appear from a street-level view.

Island of Normal.

What is it about the DNR exhibit that I, and apparently many others, so greatly appreciate?

I suspect a big part is the out-of-placedness of it all. It's a wedge of the wild amid purple pandas and stroller parades and sweaty-backed, fanny-packed visitors—an island of normal in an ocean of something entirely otherwise. It's the lee of a point in a windy lake, trail lunch in the shade on a hot August day, a sauna after skiing when it's 10 below. Even in a sweaty Smokey Bear suit, I feel just a little bit calmer, quieter, and more comfortable here than I do in the rest of this boisterous Brigadoon.

But beyond that. Bottom line, I think it's a reminder of who, at our root tips, we Minnesotans really are. Of where, when it comes right down to it, we really feel at home. Of what it is that makes our great state a place worth Getting Together About. As much as I enjoy the exhibits here, I enjoy the people enjoying them even more. It's truly gratifying to know that so many share an appreciation for the wild things around us.

So, next time you visit the Minnesota State Fair, be sure to stop by. Learn your watershed address. Have a picnic under a white pine. Practice telling a muskie from a northern pike. And if you happen to see a very big brown bear wearing a ranger hat, be nice. He (or she) has had a long day.

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