Itasca, more beautiful than ever

Minnesota’s First State Park is still a blue-ribbon winner in our adventures-close-to-home book. Greg and I camped there as kids, and it was one of our first biking trips, then camping trips together.

We returned there last week with another great camping family and again soaked it all in! Bonus: Sue is an a.m.a.z.i.n.g. photographer, and she’s letting me share some of her shots here. Thanks, Sue. We’d camp anywhere with you guys. And thanks to you and your lens, Itasca is more beautiful than ever!

Here’s their clan:

Don't they look like Happy Campers?!
Don’t they look like Happy Campers?!

There’s so much more than the Mississippi Headwaters, but since that’s the origin of this gorgeous park, it’s a good place to start, too.

The Mississippi Headwaters

Photo cred: Matt!
Photo cred: Matt!


Our family, plus nephew Adam who joined us for part of our time there!
Our family, plus nephew Adam who joined us for part of our time there!
Just days before, the rocks were covered due to all the rain. We made it just fine!
Just days before, the rocks were covered due to all the rain. We made it just fine!
He does alright on melted ice, too.
He does alright on melted ice, too.
Way to go, Adam!
Way to go, Adam!
And she didn't even need her mobile to cross. No app for that, lovey!
And she didn’t even need her mobile to cross. No app for that, lovey!


rock on, babe (Loving his new collection of Life is Good Tshirts for camping)
rock on, babe
(Loving his new collection of Life is Good Tshirts for camping)
Our water bug.
Our water bug.
We all crossed the rocks. Cara, of course, went right in. We told her again this year we'd pick her up in New Orleans in a few weeks.
We all crossed the rocks. Cara, of course, went right in and started down the river. We told her again this year we’d pick her up in New Orleans in a few weeks.
And so it begins...
And so it begins…

Perfect harmony

Itasca has somehow managed to keep a balance of its natural beauty (incredible white and red pines, rare flowers, charming loons), with ways for us to enjoy it (pontoons, kayaks and other water toys, bike trails).

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A little less nature, please?

Our hike to the Fire Tower could have been without fewer mosquitos, but the views and experience was worth the itches!

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New faces at The Old Barn

The Old Barn is one of our family’s Top Three favorite campgrounds. (I’ve blogged about it before.) Our annual Kind Family Reunion is one of our fave times of year.

We combined the two! We had 15 people at The Old Barn, ages 19 months to 69 1/2. Most of our clan had not been there before.

It’s a great spot because everyone gets to do what they want — and there are things everyone can do together.


The golfers golfed.
The golfers golfed.
Great golf specials on Wednesdays and Mondays. So our boys golfed LOTS.
Great golf specials on Wednesdays and Mondays. So our boys golfed LOTS.
The girls can use the golf cart to get to the river.
The girls used the golf cart to get to the river.
The tubers can tube.
The tubers tubed.


The crazy people can jump off cliffs. This was not Elizabeth-approved but man did it look fun.
The crazy people jumped off cliffs. This was not Elizabeth-approved but man did it look fun.
Crazy people can also jump off rope swing. Also not approved. Also looked like amazing fun.
Crazy people also jumped off a rope swing. Also not approved. Also looked like amazing fun.
And we all biked! Destination: Pie shop in Whalan.
And we all biked! Start: Lanesboro. Destination: Pie shop in Whalan.
Me, sis Kris, bro Dave and his wife Amy. Just a little bridge break on our bike ride.
Me, sis Kris, bro Dave and his wife Amy. Just a little bridge break on our bike ride.
Caroline and cousin Allie shared the pedaling.
Caroline and cousin Allie shared the pedaling.
Matt and Cousin Justin, road warriors on a not tuned up ride.
Matt and Cousin Justin, road warriors on a not tuned up ride.
The Reward. Sour cream raisin pie with a mountain of meringue.
The Reward. Sour cream raisin pie with a mountain of meringue.
Justin, Allie, Grandma and Matt, mmmmm.
Justin, Allie, Grandma and Mmmmmmatt.
Cara, Eric, Howie, Kristina, Grandpa, double mmmmm.
Cara, Eric, Howie, Kristina, Grandpa, double mmmmm.

Wait. We have to bike BACK to Lanesboro?

There’s a (root)beer waiting when you roll in.



Back at the campground, lots of time to swim, picnic together and play football.



What a Vikings fan and a Packers fan can do...
What a Vikings fan and a Packers fan can do…

Most of all, we just loved being together.

All my parents' grandkids.
All my parents’ grandkids.

Four of those kidlets above have birthdays within one month of each other. So we celebrated!

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We had a Talent Show.

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The eventual champions for a beautiful acapella performance.
The eventual champions, who won hardware and bragging rights for their beautiful acapella performance.

And as we packed up on Sunday, images of happy campers…

old barn kind fam

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A Minnesota State of Mind: Camping at Itasca

Two years ago, we had the +perfect+ Itasca camping trip planned. Then, the State of MN shut down. Including the state parks.

I was heartbroken. See, Itasca has always been a special place for me and Greg. When we lived in North Dakota, it was an easy day trip to bike, hike, canoe, eat at Douglas Lodge and enjoy this amazing gem of red and white pines, gorgeous lake, wildlife, Pink Lady Slippers and of course the very start of the Mighty Mississippi. We’d camped there when our eldest two kids were younger.

Just before this year’s Independence Day, we returned!

Itasca is even more magical than I remembered, and in true MN style, offers something for everyone’s state of mind, from water to history, wildlife to wild flowers. Most of all, this is a place to experience our great state as God created it. High-five, Lord, you made yet another corner of unmatched beauty! Thank you.

Pines, flowers, wild friends


Our state flower, the showy pink lady slipper.
Our state flower, the showy pink lady slipper.


Loon family. As spotted by our loony family.
Loon family. As spotted by our loony family.
Julia finds a friend.
Julia finds a friend.
Our home. One of the most gorgeous camping sites we've had (and we've had lots!).
Our home. One of the most gorgeous camping sites we’ve had (and we’ve had lots!).
Pretty nice kitchen/dining room, huh? Love the lighting.
Pretty nice kitchen/dining room, huh? Love the lighting.

Water bugs

We spent much of each day in and on Lake Itasca, diving in for a swim in the middle of the lake (love the smell of wet dogs!), fishing, watching loons, reading, making sandwiches and…did I mention fishing?! Cara was her typical Mermaid. See a whole post on that here.















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Ah, Mollie.
Ah, Mollie.

double catch


Take a hike

Amidst genetically modified mosquitoes (seriously, I’m STILL itching), hidden lakes and beautiful MN trees, we had the trail to Aiken Fire Tower completely to ourselves one evening. It was a great hike, and I was so proud of the kids for climbing the tower. That takes nerve. I made it further than before, but the top perch still awaits my shaky tennies. It’s so wonderful to see our kids conquer their hesitations. Hiking is a great way to do that.





Cheers! to conquering fears.
Cheers! to conquering fears.
The hidden lake Greg and I visited long ago, which inspired the name of our beloved first "baby," yellow lab Kasey.
The hidden lake Greg and I visited long ago, which inspired the name of our beloved first “baby,” yellow lab Kasey.

And of course we crossed the Mighty Mississippi and ate wild rice pancakes with fresh blueberries at Douglas Lodge!



Best part of a Minnesota state of mind? It sticks with you.




Ah, Lanesboro: Camping at The Old Barn

We spent a long weekend at The Old Barn Resort, and my talented mom was good enough to join us, plus take and share photos:

Lanesboro is full of adorable stores.
Gram and Matty relax outside the ice cream shoppe.

Best buy: Greg’s hat!

(…warning, there is a certain je ne sais quoi that comes with this chapeau.)

The Amish market area in the park was full of homemade goodies.

Best buy: Black Raspberry pie!

Fresh air, clean water

We spent plenty of time biking the Root River Trail and tubing the river (lost a few items in the river, however… ask Jules about her brand new sunglasses and Greg about his one sandal.)

Caroline and Julia climbed a hill above the bike path.
Tandem biking! (For once, I’m steering this thing Greg and I have goin’…)

A first with our third: Girl Scout Day Camp

Little Caroline, our third child, blazes her own path. She’s tried many things the other kids did not: cutting her own hair, cutting the dog’s hair, collecting gum wrappers, playing softball–and Girl Scouts. This week, she is spending three days at Girl Scout Camp. So of course mom chaperoned day one. Highlights:

Camp songs haven’t changed (much)

There are a few new verses to Princess Pat, but all the words come right back when the bus singing begins!

Caroline & neighbor/fellow Girl Scout Ella
Flag raising
No breeze, notice. Not a whisper. No air at all.
Learning a new “Do as I Do” ditty

Record-heat in a day away from a/c

This may be the time to share that this was not an ordinary day at Girl Scout Day Camp. The temperature hit 96 degrees F, the heat index 115 and we were not near a lake or any air conditioning. In fact, the temps, heat index and humidity levels hit record levels all over the state.

Of course we were outside all day. I can honestly say I have never been that hot in my life. And I’m an outdoorsy girl. I lived and worked at a camp for 4 summers. I grew up without air conditioning. But this was debilitating. The staff members did a great job improvising to keep the girls safe and (relatively) cool.

Our #1 activity

We drank water, we re-filled our water bottles, we turned on the hose to play in water and every activity included the instructions every few minutes: “Take a drink of water.”

... "old" friends ...
... New friends! ...


Orienteering: Find Antarctica and let's go THERE, girls!
Building a shelterTrying not to giggle while playing Sleeping Lions.

On this day, the girls learned they can handle heat. Won’t that serve them well as students, professionals, spouses, friends and moms themselves someday?! Just don’t show your sweat, ladies.

I’ll always remember a very cool day with our neat little girl. Thanks for the experience, Caroline honey.

What never washes away

Is there anything better than the first at-home shower after a few days of camping?

As I washed away the layers of campfire soot, Root River water, sunscreen, biking sweat and pool chlorine (I think there’s still a bit of marshmallow on my ear), I thought back to what even my trusty bar of Ivory can’t ever erase:

5 kids = 5x more fun

Sidetracked from a state park because of the government shutdown, we trekked back to The Old Barn Resort with my bro-in-law Curt, his wife Janelle and their little Adam, age 8 (going on 15). Julia also had a friend, sweet Taylor, accompany us.

Tent zippers are a joyful noise

All the kids slept in the tent one night. The raccoons stayed out. And the only ghost stories they told were in the morning under the warm, bright safety of morning light.

Missed exits are good

We tubed on the gorgeous Root River, right from our campground. We missed our intended exit. Had we not, we also would have missed a little fawn playing in the river and the most beautiful summer river scenery. And the boys wouldn’t have perfected their deep, dark Coppertone tans, er, sunburns.

Wild tastes great

Raspberries, growing alongside a hiking trail, were a delicious afternoon treat. We left some for the deer.

1 part fresh air, 2 parts water

The best thing you can “feed” your kids and yourself is long, heavy doses of fresh air. The second-best is water — to drink and to swim in. We all got healthy helpings of both. Which makes for happy campers.

photo credit: Lanesboro Chamber

Simple is usually better

We again visited the Amish stand at the Lanesboro Park. I envy their simplicity and calm yet bright demeanor. Plus, it got the kids chatting about life without TXTing, which horrified them … as I wistfully recalled life before TXTing …


Home is the best

Even after our great river, bike trail, Lanesboro and other adventures, the sweetest sight of all is home. And a shower.


Venting about Closed MN State Parks

We made the reservations in February. Site 66E at Itasca State Park over Independence Day. Greg and I have treasured memories of the gorgeous bike trails and special moment of carefully escorting our kids over the rocks in the Headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi. The kids don’t remember their first visits there, so we were all thrilled to return.

Not to happen. The MN State Parks were all shuttered June 30 when the Gov and State Legislature could not agree on a new budget.

I got to vent on ABC Nightly News.

Watch it here:

This came about though my friend Mary: her cousin’s husband is a freelance photojournalist and asked on Facebook about an unhappy MN camper. She connected us and there you have it.

What you don’t see in the clip is that I’ve always been a very proud Minnesotan. I haven’t always lived here,  but I’ve always extoled the beauty of my home state, especially the forests, streams, vibrant big cities and of course the lakes. Right now, I’m a sad Minnesotan, hoping our leaders can sort this out soon. For far larger reasons than empty campsite 66E at Itasca.

North Shore Camping – Labor Day 2010


If scenery like this was just 3 hours away, wouldn’t you go? Especially if you had a great guide (aka my Mom)! This is Gooseberry Falls, just north of Duluth, Minn., where we camped over a long Labor Day weekend. It was a great wrapup to summer and made for glorious memories as our autumn school, sports, activities schedules began.

Best of all, we did have a great guide: My Mom has spent lots of time “up north” and added her joy, stories and beautiful view of nature to our trip.

Caroline and my Mom enjoying blueberry pancakes at our campsite

Pack the sweatshirts

It had been a sweltering summer, but we dug deep and added sweatshirts to our camper lockers since the forecast called for chilly days and nights on the North Shore. Is it ever warm up there?! … Actually it was a welcome change. 

Thursday evening, we made the easy drive to Cloquet while listening to the Twins game. (Again, my Mom is a big fan, too!) We camped at Cloquet’s KOA Kampground. It was fun to see the cute little town this time of year, since last time we were there, for Matt’s hockey tourney, it was the ice/snow/bitter chill of February. (sorry, the Cloquet rink still a dump)

As promised on our last trip, I got Greg a pull-through campsite, so even though it was getting dark, there was no swearing from the Mr.

Shoreline and ship wrecks

Friday morning, we indulged in a restaurant breakfast and followed the drizzle into Duluth. Lake Superior is fascinating to watch. It’s as if she has moods and a personality of her own. The kids were intrigued by the ships, water, shoreline, ship wrecks and so much more. Luckily my Mom the teacher answered all their questions with great stories.

First stop: Glensheen

The night before, we’d talked about the Congdon’s mansion. All the adults had toured it several times before, and the kids were curious about its size (15 bedrooms?!), gardens and of course the murder story.

Great tour: If you haven't done so, take it. If you have, I promise you'll notice something new.

It’s a beautifully preserved estate and a well-paced tour that really allows you to appreciate life back then. I imagined Christmas dinners and summer gatherings, quiet moments and lavish parties. We had a tiny tour group and good guide who even addressed the murder after the official tour ended.

Caroline, Julia, Matt - looking pretty comfy on the mansion grounds

Some of the kids’ impressions:

“Well that Clara Congdon sure got what she wanted.” — Julia

She was one innovative, particular woman (just like Julia, frankly) who used incredible materials and techniques throughout the home. My fav: The faucet in her breakfast room that fed directly from one of the streams because she’d heard that water was healthier for her indoor plants.

Glensheen Green Room (check out the priceless tile)

“This would be my room.” — Each of them at separate times

“Those are blood stains.” — Matt, on the front stair landing. He’s right, you know. I’d love to go back and see the ghosts of Elisabeth and Velma

The front staircase: notice the incredibly intricate carvings

“Well that lady wasn’t very nice to her mom.” — Caroline, upon hearing my simple version of the story of Elisabeth Congdon’s death

In my favorite area of the Congdon estate: the formal gardens; with my fav 12-yr-old

Up the Shore

We drove the scenic route north, along the ever-changing shoreline, contemplating teachers, friends and coaches who have run Grandma’s Marathon. We enjoyed Russ Kendall’s smoked whitefish and of course Betty’s Pies. A few of our other stops:

Climbing the rocks near the Two Harbors Lighthouse
Hiking around Gooseberry Falls

Artists in action

Photographer Julia gathered some images for my Mom to use in her latest venture: watercolor paintings, printed onto greeting cards and available here in her etsy shop. Shameless plug: Check out her dozens of gorgeous creations. One of these may soon be part of her collection:

“Goodnight, John Boy”

Back at camp Friday evening, we enjoyed a nice dinner. I tried a new salmon recipe and new arborio side dish. Mmmm. The kids tried out the pool (brrr!), playground and helped Mollie meet her four-legged neighbors. The game room had the NFL edition Monopoly game and we had fun playing like NFL owners while watching the Twins.

Back in our camper, we watched episodes of The Waltons from our dvd set. Always charming, with messages that transcend generations. Lately, Grandpa Walton’s wisdom resonates with me. Like when Grandma is complaining that Mary Ellen is forever primping in front of the mirror and he says, “Someday she’ll have her own mirror in her own house and you’ll wish she was back here.” Amen.

Shipping News

Friday, Greg cooked us a big breakfast and we went to Canal Park. I still get excited when the lift bridge operates and the barges are on the horizon. Some images of our day:

Captain Matt at the Museum

Lunch at Grandma's with Grandma (!) | When in Duluth with Grandma, really, where else can you go?
From the harbor rocks to the sandy shores of Minnesota Point
A boy and his dog
Grandma sorting agates from other "pretty rocks"
Our Julia (when did she change from a little girl splashing in the waves?)
Too much fresh air and Lake Superior water swimming
Hay rides and ice cream
Back at camp, we savored the late summer evening with a hayride and ice cream social.
The hayride was fun, including a mystery man who popped out of the woods and showered us with candy

Sunday morning, we were on our way back….home.

Visited the North Shore? I’d love to hear your memories and tips for our next trip up there. Feel free to leave a comment.

Baylor beckons: Camping in central MN

We left home to go home.

See, Baylor Regional Park Campground was the very first spot we ever camped as our family of 5. That was a few summers ago. We’re much better prepared campers now, but the spot still feels as familiar as home. It’s tough to get in, with only 50 sites, so I got online in February to book a prime site. The entire park is full of huge old oak trees that offered welcome shade during the steamy weekend.

Deep roots

Actually I have a family connection to the park. My mom’s family once farmed there, and the home and barn remain. I like thinking of them milking cows, growing corn and probably a huge garden, weathering the winters and beginning each spring with renewed hope.

The barn still stands (now the campground office)
Matt, Caroline, Greg, Julia and of course Mollie (I doubt my ancestors had a labradoodle on the farm back then, God help them)

Wild life

The boardwalk hike is one of the fun hikes around Baylor. The boardwalk, surrounded by cattails, attracts garter snakes, which are fun to watch. Two ponds hold “millions of froggies,” according to Caroline.


view from our campsite; our old lab Kasey dove in for a swim here and now that she's in dog heaven, I like thinking about her while I'm perched here


The pond above was our “backyard,” so the kids had fun finding frogs, toads, crayfish and other little friends. But the wildest life of the weekend was cousin Adam, who joined us to camp. He and his mom Janelle, my dear sis-in-law, came down from Grand Forks. Dad Curt (Greg’s brother) stayed home to keep finishing things to get their home sold before a fall move to Fargo.

Friday night, my mom, aunt and uncle came for a campfire visit. Aunt Carol and Uncle Rich live in Arizona and it was lovely to catch up and laugh with them. 

Friday night gave way to a rainy morning, which dispersed the all-night partiers with “not mom-approved language” (Matt).  I love the sound of rain on the tent canopies of our camper, and I’m always happy to find our camper has no leaks. Watching the tenters hang up everything to dry, I’m reminded what I don’t miss about more rugged camping…

Breakfast at a very exclusive restaurant

Saturday, we had the only reservations accepted at a wonderful restaurant (otherwise known as my mom’s home, just a few minutes away on the other side of Eagle Lake).

Grandma Donna and her famous buttermilk pancakes
fresh blueberries, of course
Jules, Caroline, Adam, Matty
Matt mans the grill; he's becoming an excellent cook this summer and I think he wanted to show off his skills to Grammy
Viewing Grandma's photos from her recent Alaskan Cruise

Clear skies

What a wonderful way to spend a dreary morning. As we headed back to camp, the skies cleared for a hot, humid day. We spent the afternoon at the beach, paddle-boating, fishing, swimming and just relaxing.

If summer was a person, it would look like this. Caroline, full of bug bites, sunkissed, bleached hair, sandy toes and pure joy. (apparently I was really relaxing at the beach as this is the only photo I snapped...)


One of the coolest advancements in camping is the programs offered at campgrounds. Saturday evening’s feature was an Archery Session with great teachers and not many students, so our kidlets had ample opportunity to try out their bows and arrows.

Go Adam Go
Julia was really rockin' this sport
I'm going to have her meet Katniss in The Hunger Games books now, who is a master archer

Even Matt got in on the action after a killer game of croquet with Greg kept them back at our campsite

Wickets rule
At the last moment while packing on Thursday, I grabbed a long-forgotten Pottery Barn Kids croquet set and packed it. When Julia and Matt were little, we played it four hours in the backyard. It was a neat addition to the weekend. Matt still has to be green; Julia still has a left hook. To me, they are still 2 and 4, carefully planning their shots. Happy memories.
We ended the night with more croquet, critter-searching by lantern and flashlight and of course s’mores.
Sunday morning, it was time to leave home and go…home. Another lovely weekend in the great outdoors.
Camped Baylor? I’d love to hear about your camping adventures in central Minnesota.

Old Barn Resort Camping Trip

“You have to camp at The Old Barn Resort.” “You really should go to The Old Barn Resort.” We heard it from colleagues and hockey parents who also camp, so we listened. And we’re thrilled we did.

The Old Barn Resort is off GPS in the southeast corner of Minnesota, surrounded by glacier-carved bluffs and the Root River.

First impressions:

Swallows! Caroline wondered: How do they know which one is their nest?"
Ah, the things this door has seen…
The barn’s history, according to the resort’s website: In 1870, Milwaukee entrepreneur Edward Allis, founder of the Allis Chalmers Machinery Co., decided that his playboy son, Jere, should settle down. Edward purchased the land and the wheat mill. Jere farmed, ran the mill and raised Poland China hogs, then purebred Holstein cattle–which is why he built The Barn. Jere later added 20 race horses and a tack room to the barn, plus two private race tracks to the acres. Word is The Barn was a center for dances, basket socials, ball games, then winter ice skating and skiing. The socializing must have gotten out of hand because Jere and Emma were divorced in 1889, the same year his father died. Edward didn’t leave the farm to his son, but Jere and his second wife, Gladys, eventually gained control of the farm, then were forced to sell it in 1906 for a mere $15,000! Vernon Michel purchased the farm in 1988, just before the Root River State Trail (biking) opened, restoring the barn to its former glory and developing a campground. We’re thrilled he did!
Highlights of our time there:


Instead of cooking at our site this time around, we savored dinners at The Old Barn’s restaurant. Saturday afternoon, Julia and I sat at the bar and watched World Cup soccer, er, football! (We were the only ones. Everyone else was watching golf. America’s heartland, indeed.) Above is a view of Friday’s sunset through the original barn windows, which was pretty much all we saw of the big, red fireball all weekend.

Items we forgot this trip: Matt swimsuit, Mollie's leash. Nothing a WalMart stop can't cure.
Dam in nearby Lanesboro, of the most lovely towns I’ve ever seen More on this quaint village
Auntie Terri joined us Fri night and all of Saturday!


"Mom, I'm going in!"
The kids were fascinated by the Amish culture (the area is home to about 100 Amish families, who settled here starting in 1974. We saw some at the Farmer's Market, intrigued by their craftsmanship, ancient German dialect and of course different appearance. I'm envious of their simple lifestyle.
Perhaps I was a tad crabby, because Greg steered us into a winery. Terri and I sampled and shopped!
Incredible biking trails include bridges with real character and every level of biking challenge

Julia with Terri's little guy, Riley Julia with Terri’s little guy, Riley
Matt tries out his new fishing pole and gear. The area has terrific river trout fishing, plus this bass pond right in Lanesboro. Did I mention it's a lovely little town?
Cleverly hidden (REALLY hidden) is Mystery Cave State Park. We found it in time for a 1-hour tour underground. We hear Niagara cave is also impressive.

 A+ Geology Students

Turquoise Lake
Artwork at Mystery Cave Visitor's Center - we didn't see any bats as they only reside in the cave in winter.

 As we headed home, we started making plans for our next visit to the area. An Amish tour, more fishing and biking. Matt says he’ll remember (at least one of) his swimsuits. Meanwhile, we all have happy camping memories of the area around The Old Barn.

Have you visited the Lanesboro/Harmony/Preston area? Must-sees?