Who’s out there camping? It’s a growing tent

Nichole S. Gehr

CARLTON, Minn. — Memorial Day weekend was coming, and Jay Cooke State Park was setting up to celebrate it in full. All manner of recreational vehicles and other means to camp was settled in under the pines — from the smallest dome tents to the now ubiquitous compact campers like […]

CARLTON, Minn. — Memorial Day weekend was coming, and Jay Cooke State Park was setting up to celebrate it in full. All manner of recreational vehicles and other means to camp was settled in under the pines — from the smallest dome tents to the now ubiquitous compact campers like Scamps and “teardrops,” to travel trailers and motor homes that probably brought along the 55-inch Samsung TV. Camper cabins were full, too. Chris Goh, 58, of Chanhassen kept it simple: His site consisted of a small tent, small ice chest, a canister stove, and his lovable pit bull mix, Bruno. They’d just returned from a walk. Bruno was in the tent, away from the sun and the mosquitoes. Goh only planned to stay out for one or two nights. Yet, he embraced what more Minnesotans, in particular, and Americans, in general, are doing in the last year: Making time to camp.

Results from the 2021 North American Camping Report, an annual survey by Kampgrounds of America (KOA), attest to a base that is growing and changing. Some relevant takeaways:

• Households that identified as active campers hit 86 million in 2020, a 3 % increase from 2019. Additionally, 48 million households camped in 2020, an increase of more than 6 million since 2019.

• There were 10.1 million first-time camper households in 2020, and more than half said they were motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic to find solace and social distance in the outdoors.

• The survey found 60 % of the first-time campers in 2020 were from nonwhite households; 42 % of those first-timers said they planned to continue this year. That increase in diversity includes ethnicity and sexual orientation.

• Most campers stay within 50 miles of home. That changed in 2020, too, with more traveling 100 to 150 miles.

A state parks and trails spokeswoman said Minnesota tracks on some levels with the landscape nationally. The increased visits and overnight camping in 2020 have continued this year. Annual permit sales have increased this year, and last year the DNR sold 256,035 annual park passes — a 46 % from 2019. It’s not a leap to think Minnesotans behind that surge still are using those annual permits. Anecdotes suggest some of them are newcomers, too, said Rachel Hopper, who manages visitors services for the parks system.

“We have potentially engaged new park enthusiasts and recreation users, and that would be great to see,” Hopper said.

In a normal year, on average, a million campers stay overnight at Minnesota state parks. Goh was part of another uptick in 2020 from 2019. Generationally, baby boomers represented the largest increase in campers, followed by millennials. Still, overall, first-time campers continue to trend younger.

Goh recalled family trips to Glacier, Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks when his kids were young. Now, he said, with his children launched, there is time to explore Minnesota parks, and he was happy to have Bruno along. Most national parks have firm guidelines on pets. Jay Cooke fit the bill, at least for a day or two.

“You could be in northern California here, without the crowds,” Goh said, with a smile.

From couples to families to solo adventurers, below are stories of other campers encountered in mid-May in Minnesota outdoors.

Holly and Wendy Watson-Wetzel, North Minneapolis

Amid a few kayaks and tarps and gear bins, it was evident that Wendy and Holly Watson-Wetzel know their way around a campsite or two.

Still, the north Minneapolis women were in some new territory. They were breaking camp after a four-day trip to Moose Lake State Park, their first visit to the quiet grounds just 20 or so miles south of its better-known and bigger relative, Jay Cooke in Carlton.

They also were breaking in a new camper. The trip was just the third for them with their compact Forest River Flagstaff A-frame, secured with some money from Uncle Sam’s stimulus checks.

They considered refurbishing a camper before checking out new. At first, they had their eyes on a small Scamp camper, but the popular compacts made in Backus, Minn., didn’t fit their budget. The A-frame, about $15,000-$20,000, proved a great Plan B, with a water tank, sink, propane stove and a bunch of other amenities that the two are still trying out.

Wendy, 58, has camped for more than 30 years. Holly recalled growing up in northern Wisconsin around the family pop-up camper. They’ve shown an affinity for Up North, with visits everywhere from Gooseberry to Scenic near Bigfork and Hayes Lake near Roseau. They plan to explore some southern state parks in the years to come, but first they’ll venture north again at the end of summer for a special outing.

They still go old-school and group-camp (tents required) at one of their favorite state parks, Bear Head Lake near Ely, around Labor Day. It’s a trip that’s become an annual tradition with friends.

“We need to start writing them down, we’ve been to so many,” Wendy said.

Holly, 41, said they value some of the state parks’ proximities to the metro — the opportunity to get into different surroundings without a lot of effort. Moose Lake, with its lake, hiking trails and nicely buffered sites, amounted to the perfect getaway midweek in advance of the busy Memorial Day weekend.

“You don’t have to go far to unwind, and you are refreshed to go back to city life,” she said.

Holly is education supervisor with Animal Humane Society. Wendy is the intake foster coordinator for Carver Scott (counties) Humane Society.

Unwinding for Holly might be a good book and an afternoon nap, while Wendy heads off to explore.

Ultimately they come together for other things, like setting off in their kayaks or maybe wetting a line.

Camping has been a gateway to a sense of normalcy during the pandemic, Holly said. Like others, they were reluctant to travel far. They looked to county parks before the state park system came back online last June.

“It was so refreshing,” Holly said.

Brad Swenson, Moorhead, and Shelly Mahowald, Park Rapids

Brad Swenson celebrated his 70th birthday with a gift that gave for days. He and his partner, Shelly Mahowald, pulled together their mountain bikes, their boxed wine, their homemade spaghetti sauce, a few good books, and hit the road May 21.

Jay Cooke was stop No. 3 after two days at Bear Head Lake State Park near Ely, followed by two days more at Tettegouche near Silver Bay. They’d found their freedom, catching rays and soaking in the beauty of a bluebird afternoon just ahead of the Memorial Day weekend. A 13-foot Scamp was homebase. A growler of IPA from Junkyard Brewing Co. in Moorhead, where Swenson lives, awaited them in a cooler.

“[The circuit trip] really was just in celebration of what we like to do but also celebrating Brad’s birthday … doing the things we like,” said Mahowald, of Park Rapids.

Cooking well among them, she added, referring to that pasta sauce for tortellini and a chicken couscous with peppers and onions they knocked out another day.

“That’s a must,” Swenson said.

They needed the fuel. Both enjoy hiking and mountain biking, and even running. The pair were cutting the trip short so Swenson could make a beer running event put on in Moorhead.

Both are longtime outdoors people. Mahowald recalled growing up in Shakopee and “camping every weekend.” First in tents and later in a pop-up camper.

The two used a pop-up when they met in 2013; an upgrade to a Scamp followed in 2016.

“Have a little creature comfort,” said Swenson, who added that several friends had bought recreational vehicles in the past year and a half.

That comfort, though, runs deep. Swenson said he’s found refuge and grounding in the serenity of Minnesota’s outdoors the last four to five years. “It just brings some calm into a chaotic world.”

Mahowald recited tangible examples of that connection, often overmatched in a modern life of electronic gadgetry and excess. While out walking, she said she noticed people’s phones on picnic tables as they engaged in conversation. It seemed almost unconventional.

No doubt Swenson and Mahowald will discuss where to go next to take advantage of some of her long weekends.

“I like camping all year,” Swenson said.

The Holmes family, Spokane, Wash.

Merging home school with a five-week road trip has been an education for a young Washington state family of four.

They fit in well with the American masses driven to remote work and more time together outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also are among those who decided to upgrade their camping experience.

The Holmes family was traveling in “Harvey the RV,” a 24-foot Class C motor home found on Craigslist late last summer. They got in on something hot: The RV Industry Association said in April that manufacturers have hit shipment records in each of the past six months to meet the wild demand.

Monique Holmes said Harvey met two requirements: relatively inexpensive and small enough to park at trailheads.

After leaving their home in Spokane, Wash., the Holmeses had made stops at Swan Lake near Glacier National Park in Montana and at the Badlands of North Dakota.

Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton, Minn., was a two-day stopover in late May, and they were happy to make midafternoon s’mores and scramble over rocks near the St. Louis River.

They were en route to visit family in Indiana (next stop: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) before road-tripping back to Spokane, with some Western parks along the way. Five full weeks.

Accustomed to the old-growth pine and fir of the Pacific Northwest at places such as Olympic National Park, Monique said the “spring green” of Minnesota is refreshing. It was the family’s first visit to the state.

Monique said she’s been teaching their sons, Preston, 7, and Elias, 5, about the Great Lakes, and she and husband Ian intentionally charted a northern route to bring them to life — for everyone. They were excited about days to come along Lake Superior before camping near the Mackinac Bridge.

Harvey the RV was bought to allow them to visit family members during the COVID-19 pandemic but keep a distance. The RV experience has opened them to more travel, especially if they can connect to Wi-Fi for Ian’s job as a network engineer for Optum, a health care service provider.

“If he can work and we can still be out in this, that’s a different story,” said Monique, 43.

Monique said the pandemic nudged them to act on camping plans they’d long considered, and Harvey the RV hasn’t disappointed as a vehicle to the outdoors and, for all of them, to education.

“It is exactly what we wanted,” she said.

Harvey was stuffed with books and a few Road Atlases, with other markings of a family settling in. A sign that read “Explore” appropriately hung near a window.

Ian said at first it was stressful thinking about the expense of the trip, but they were convinced now was the time to road trip and learn about other parts of the country. The boys’ great-grandmother encouraged the parents to “make the memories now,” said Ian, 38.

“It is definitely something I want to share [with the boys],” Ian said.

Meghan Wellner, Coon Rapids

Meghan Wellner worked at planting a tent stake. Metaphorically it made sense because she is a person anchored outdoors.

With time off from work, she left her home in Coon Rapids and headed to Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton, Minn. From there, she planned to head farther north to Gooseberry Falls on the North Shore. Then, she’d return south to meet up at the family cabin in Kerrick.

“I’ve just been that kind of person who likes to be outside and travel,” said Wellner, who had lived in Hawaii for about a year before moving back to Minnesota this year. Already in 2021, she’s taken two road trips to snowboard in Colorado. She camps a lot with friends and recalled family trips, too, when she was younger.

“I love Minnesota summers. I have to take advantage of that,” she added.

Wellner downplayed a relatively uncommon site in Minnesota’s woods: a woman camping alone. She was content and kept a simple site: a portable music player, a good camp chair, a book, and plenty of food. Wellner planned to nab firewood later.

“I had time and I wanted to camp … I just decided to do it myself.

“People are like, ‘Why are you going alone?’ ” said Wellner, 24. “I’m like, ‘Why not?’ ”

She mentioned a female friend who at the same time was traveling somewhere out west. And also alone, which helped put Wellner’s trip in perspective.

“She’s in a different state right now,” Wellner said. “I think I can handle a couple days.”

Bob Timmons • 612-673-7899

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