By Gustave Axelson
Out of a crowd of red pines, I step onto a slick rock stage of basalt to behold a vista as grand as any I've seen.
I have summited Lander Mattson Peak in a moderately strenuous 200-foot ascent from wetlands to the south. Now I see all of vast Lake Vermilion below me. All 40,000 acres of boreal waters. All 340 miles of forested shorelines, a collage of aspen and birch in full golden fall glory on this mid-October day. From this vantage, motorboats look like waterbugs skipping across the water.
The wind blows, I breathe deep, and I get the power rush that comes from surveying a wild landscape from a high point. I imagine I am Meriwether Lewis, laying claim to all I see. Then my mind drifts back to reality, and I wonder: Who will ultimately claim this view? Will this spectacular north woods overlook be open for all Minnesotans to enjoy? Or will it become the private property of a lucky few?
Photo Gallery of Visions for Vermilion
More About the Proposed State Park
The answer depends on the outcome of a proposal by the Department of Natural Resources to create a new state park on this land. Last July the DNR announced it had begun negotiations to purchase 3,000 acres on the southeastern shore of Lake Vermilion from U.S. Steel. The funding for that purchase, and for the new park's development, is being debated in the current session of the Minnesota Legislature. The DNR has until July to reach a purchase agreement with U.S. Steel. If the state park deal falls through, U.S. Steel will most likely continue with previous plans for a subdivision with approximately 150 homes.
I have come here to see what Minnesotans would get from this proposed new state park -- the first in 25 years. Atop Lander Mattson Peak, there's just one thought on my mind: Every Minnesotan should have the opportunity to behold this view.
My tour of the proposed park began a day earlier when I met my guide, DNR Parks director Courtland Nelson, outside the gates of the current U.S. Steel land. Megan, his 22-year-old daughter, hopped out of Courtland's truck, unlocked the gate, and waved me through. As I drove by, I noticed a For Sale sign on the land immediately to the north.
Trailing Courtland's pickup truck, I wound along a gravel road with power lines running beside it. We passed a few old cabins nestled on a point by the water's edge. When we arrived at a small grassy field a bit farther down the shore, Courtland hopped out of his truck and pointed back at what he considers to be pre-existing infrastructure -- roads and electricity: "That's a huge cost and time savings when it comes to building a park. It would take us a year just to get the permits to do that."
Just about everything regarding this potential park gets Courtland excited. "It's an Itasca-like opportunity, a chance to add another icon to our parks system," he said with an uncommon lilt in his no-funny-business voice.
Like a cowboy, Courtland ambled with a bit of bow-legged gait as he and Megan set up their tent on needled carpet beneath a red pine. He spent the bulk of his parks career out West in Utah, but he grew up in Forest Lake, Minn. In 2004 he jumped at the chance to come home and become the state parks director.
With tents assembled, Courtland led me on a hike to explore what he considers the best opportunity for a state park he's seen in his 30-year career. "They're not making any more north woods," he said. "We'll never get another chance like this one."
We stopped to stick our heads in the old cabins by the lake before we headed into the woods. The cabins were empty and dusty, abandoned a few years ago when U.S. Steel cancelled the leases on them and closed public access to the land as the housing development plan emerged. U.S. Steel has owned the land since 1882, but never mined it. The forest was logged a few times over the past century, but today the woods look healthy.
Courtland, Megan, and I waded into a stand of birch and balsam. The rocky forest floor rose and fell in gentle succession. "These are like bunny hills," said Megan. "It'd be the perfect cross-country ski trail," Courtland added.
Trails are just what the area needs, say some local residents. "We sorely need good hiking trails around here," says Mark Ludlow, owner of Ludlow's Island Resort on Lake Vermilion. Ludlow sits on a DNR task force convened to make recommendations on the park proposal. He says the task force has discussed trails for every kind of recreation within the park. Extensive trail networks for hikers, bikers, and skiers would make the park a prime silent sports destination. For snowmobilers, who already enjoy lots of trails in the area, the new state park could provide winterized cabins and a convenient connection to the trails south of Highway 169. ATV riders likewise could enjoy cabins and a trail connection to the Gilbert off-highway vehicle park.
Most important, says Ludlow, the state park would ensure affordable public access to Lake Vermilion. "Over the last 15 years about a half-dozen resorts around the lake have closed because the owners sold out. The real estate value is more than the money to be made in lodging," he says. Ludlow says the result is fewer overnight accommodations on Lake Vermilion and higher prices for overnight stays.
"This is becoming an expensive lake to visit," says Ludlow.
After our hike, it was dinnertime. The Nelsons treated me to spaghetti and lefse prepared on a truck tailgate. We sat down to eat and Courtland recalled other times around the campfire with Megan.
"When she was a little girl, her mother and I dragged her all over Utah," he said. "By the time she graduated from high school, she had slept a full calendar year, 365 nights, in a tent. Those were some of our best family memories."
This state park will be a precious spot for future families to make such memories, he said. Courtland explained that by 2020 Minnesota will have another million residents. By that time gas prices, lodging, and everything else related to a family getaway will be much more expensive. State parks will be in even higher demand for budget-conscious vacationers. And already, a vacant state park campsite in northeastern Minnesota is a tough find in summer. North Shore state parks are booked at 85 percent occupancy from June through August. Nearby Bearhead Lake State Park is booked full most Thursdays through Sundays.
"Highway 169 runs right by [the proposed park], so we're talking about a tank-of-gas trip for the average family in the Twin Cities," said Courtland. "This will be an easily accessible, affordable option for families to get that classic lake experience."
But Courtland's vision for this state park goes beyond classic. "We have a chance to try something new in this first state park of the 21st century," he said. "Most of our parks were built in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s; and at that time there was an abundance of small family resorts that offered cabins. So state parks did camping, that was our niche.
"Now those resorts are gone, many lodges have gone upscale, and people are looking for something different from state parks. We need to get more into cabins." "Yurts are cooler than cabins," chimed Megan between bites of spaghetti.
Courtland turned to me: "See? This is the kind of thing we need to figure out. What do younger generations want out of parks, and how can we give it to them?"
Other next-generation amenities at the park could be wireless Internet access and information kiosks for visitors to download trail maps directly into GPS units. Facilities such as a youth outdoor skills camp could be included in the park too.
If funding for the park is approved in this legislative session, Courtland said the basic trails and campgrounds could be ready within two to three years. Almost immediately, he predicts the new park would be among the top 15 state parks in terms of visitation.
"It wouldn't take Minnesotans long to reap what we'll get in this park," said Courtland.
In the morning, while Courtland and Megan snoozed, I rustled up my campstove and went down to the lake to boil a pot of coffee.
Heavy fog sat on the still water. The rising sun cast rays above the fog. On the far shore, I could faintly discern the silhouettes of lofty white pines. My ears detected what my eyes couldn't see -- a pileated woodpecker cackled and a loon yodeled. A beaver floated by and regarded me with a mighty slap of its tail, shattering the calm with a cannonball splash. I decided to boil my coffee grounds in lakewater a minute longer.
As the fog began to clear off the water, I could see fish hitting the surface, and I regretted leaving my rod back at camp.
Fish will benefit from the proposed state park too.
"The shoreline waters here provide a striking diversity of quality fish habitat, with rocky rubble areas for spawning walleye, shallow bays for spawning pike, and bulrushes for muskies and panfish," says Duane Williams, DNR Fisheries large-lake specialist in Tower. Williams says this fish habitat would be susceptible to sedimentation and nutrient loading from increased runoff water if the shoreland were developed. He says fish habitat is being threatened all along Lake Vermilion's shorelines, which are 83 percent privately owned and 45 percent developed.
"This park proposal fits neatly into our own Fisheries plan for Lake Vermilion, which calls for preserving as much natural shoreland as possible," says Williams.
Geologists are another group keenly interested in preserving this land. "This is one of the few places in the United States where we can study one of the most important periods in the earth's history, the time when all the continents were made," says University of Minnesota, Duluth, geology professor Dean Peterson. He says the rocks here are 2.7 billion years old, among the oldest in the world.
The proposed park sits on a site where three rock formations converge -- the Ely Greenstone, Soudan Iron, and Gafvert Lake formations. The Gafvert Lake formation is actually an ancient volcano that was toppled by the convulsions of the earth's crust in the middle Precambrian super eon.
"Imagine Mount St. Helen's tipped on its side," Peterson says. "We can go to volcanoes today and stare down the cone. But this rock formation allows us to see cross-sections in a volcano, to see what it's really made of."
Peterson says geologists would flock to this new state park. He says the UMD Geology Department would conduct six-week field camps here every summer, and other universities would send geologists here as well.
"Geologists will come from all over the country to see these rocks," Peterson says.
I saw several odd-looking rocks -- banded with rusty iron and white quartz -- on a morning walk in the Lake Vermilion woods with Courtland and Megan. After lunch at the Good Ol' Days Bar & Grill in Tower, I bid them adieu and returned to the proposed park for a solo hike to the top of Lander Mattson Peak, elevation 1,589 feet.
I walked by a pond suspended above my head, its waters held back by a beaver dam. Midway to the peak, I caught my breath on a rock terrace overlooking two miles of muskeg. I noted a few scrawny northern red oaks eking out a living on the rocks, neighbored by jack pines, red pines, and beds of reindeer lichens. Blueberry plants grew wherever they found toeholds in cracks of the rock face.
The trail reached the turret of the peak, and I ascended through a stand of vigorous, naturally regenerating red pines.
Stepping out of these pines, I am presented with the grand overlook of Lake Vermilion. It's a vista that would have been appreciated by Judge Clarence R. Magney, the legendary conservationist who brokered deals to create several Minnesota state parks from the 1930s to the 1960s. Much of his work focused on the North Shore, where scenic real estate was being gobbled up by private buyers, and Magney worried there would be no scenery left for common folk. "State parks are everyone's country estate," he famously said.
As I stand and marvel at the immensity of sky, lake, and forest proffered to those who stand atop Lander Mattson Peak, I fervently hope that someday I'll be able to bring my two young sons here. If I can, it will be because Minnesotans decided to add a new room to everyone's country estate -- one with a spectacular view.