This morning I remembered some video footage I took last month. It was from Earth Day, and also the 50th annual meeting of the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society in Rothsay. Since it would be a shame to go that far and not make the most of it (and because the timing was perfect), I finagled a spot in a viewing blind that morning.Continue reading “Prairie Chickens: The Clowns of Minnesota’s Western Grasslands”
Foraging in Minnesota: Sand Cherry
A couple days ago, my daughter found a single cherry. I could not have been more elated.
It was our first Sand cherry. We’d been searching hard for two whole days, covering almost 10 miles on foot, in three distinct parts of Minnesota. The triumph was not so much the harvest (ultimately a couple dozen cherries) as it was the successful conclusion to our foraging quest.Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Sand Cherry”
Turkey Reigns King at Blackhawk Lake
I’ve been here since it was darn near dark. Literally tiptoed into place, if you can believe it. Heard every bird chirp and swish of leaves. Adrenaline has been on a steady drip for hours now.
I haven’t been so tense for so long in my life.Continue reading “Turkey Reigns King at Blackhawk Lake”
BWCA Entry Point 25: Winter Camping and Fishing
For years I have dreamed of camping and ice fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Biting cold and slush-laden lake tops have kept me home the last two winters. That was fine; I’m not one to press my luck. But the warmer-than-average weather we’ve enjoyed lately had me itching to get at it.
Entry Point 25, with walleyes in Newfound Lake and brook trout in Found Lake, was the perfect setting for my introduction into winter adventuring. Little did I know, however, that introduction would come with a sobering peek into my own psyche. Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 25: Winter Camping and Fishing”
The Year of Untouchable Bucks
Hanging some antlers on the wall is a dream that sparkles in every deer hunter’s eye. Unsurprisingly, big bucks dominate deer hunting marketing and media. I will admit I’m not immune to the images and hype.
But at this time in my life, my main priorities each deer season are observing tradition, pursuing new experiences, and doing all I can to secure meat for my family. My 2020 deer hunt embodied those three as much or more than any other, spread across two weeks and three distinct settings. Continue reading “The Year of Untouchable Bucks”
Do Something New: Minnesota State Park Deer Hunt
It all started about two years ago. My deer season had almost passed without a single deer sighting. I’d spent two rainy days in a deer stand on private property, then one especially frigid day hoofing it on state forest land. If it weren’t for the good fortune of my brother and dad, we’d have been short on meat for the year.Continue reading “Do Something New: Minnesota State Park Deer Hunt”
Trip Report: North Dakota Grouse Odyssey
I hit the road a little after 6:00 a.m. Fargo was my first real stop, for a PLOTS Guide and hunting license. Then it was a matter of winding through the countryside on the smaller roads, surveying some public parcels with the PLOTS Guide pages showing me the way.
Continue reading “Trip Report: North Dakota Grouse Odyssey”
Foraging in Minnesota: Blackberries
It’s blackberry season. While I sit here typing this out in mid-August, I have a hunch there are literally tons of them out there going unpicked. And while not every year is good for blackberry picking, we’ve had good rainfall in 2020, which is a good sign. It was the same last year, when I literally picked gallon after gallon throughout most of August and into September, within a mile of my home. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Blackberries”
BWCA Entry Point 52: Saved by Gillis Lake
What do you get when you take a pandemic-weary man, work him nearly to exhaustion, cook him in the sun, and feed him a couple fish?
A question for the ages, no doubt. In order to learn the answer, I left home hours before sunrise on May 18th. My destination was BWCA Entry Point 52, Brant Lake- somewhere I’d been trying to go for over a year. Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 52: Saved by Gillis Lake”
Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree
Normally I wouldn’t be thinking about our Christmas tree in October. In fact, we’ve had a hand-me-down artificial tree for about the last 15 years, so it wouldn’t occur to me at all. But some relatives were telling us they’d be at the cabin this year for Christmas, and I suggested they get a permit to take their tree from the woods for the occasion. So in the interest of encouraging others into the outdoors, I snooped around for information from Minnesota DNR and the Forest Service, and emailed them some web links.
What I found actually surprised me. As far as I could tell, the permit for harvesting a tree from Minnesota’s state forest lands would cost $25. That was a higher price than I expected. However, the permit for a tree from Chippewa National Forest costs only $5.
Yes, FIVE DOLLARS. Continue reading “Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree”
Minnesota Camping Online Resources
Camping on our public lands is not limited to state park campgrounds. Far from it. And that’s a good thing, because those campgrounds can get a lot of traffic. Trying to find information on camping opportunities across all the state and federal lands can be real work. Below are links to online resources I’ve found…so far. The more I look, the more I find. This is good news to those who wish to utilize our public lands to the fullest. But as always, wise and ethical use is crucial for ensuring these opportunities exist for years to come. Now get outside!
State Agency Resources
Minnesota State Parks offer an incredible diversity of camping experiences, including drive-in sites, backpacking sites, cabins, lodges, yurts, tipis, and more.
–MN state statute 6100.1250, Subparts 1 and 3
State Forests have developed campgrounds, and also allow dispersed camping for those who know the rules.
–MN state statute 6100.1250, Subparts 2 and 3
Wildlife Management Area camping is not allowed in most cases, but some primitive sites are available on large, more remote WMA lands. Call area wildlife management offices to determine availability and location.
-MN state statute 6230.0250, Subpart 7: “A person may not camp on or remain in a vehicle overnight in any wildlife management area, except by permit or where posted for this use…”
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is under federal supervision within the Superior National Forest, but the State of Minnesota has, interestingly, passed laws pertaining thereto.
–MN state statute, Chapter 6140
Federal Agency Resources
Chippewa National Forest has developed campgrounds, backcountry sites, and dispersed camping.
–Chippewa National Forest camping page
Superior National Forest has cabins, campgrounds (developed and rustic), backcountry, wilderness, and dispersed camping.
–Superior National Forest camping page
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a unique wilderness experience, open mostly to canoeing and backpacking. Permits are required, and necessary to maintain the wilderness for all visitors.
National Wildlife Refuges don’t generally allow camping.
–Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge allows what is essentially dispersed camping, with some restrictions.
Dispersed Camping in Minnesota
When you think of camping, do you think of campgrounds? I’m sure most people do. When I’m going somewhere and plan on camping, I usually look to see where the nearest campgrounds are and how close they are to my planned activities. The thing is, if there is state or federal forest land available, you can probably take advantage of a kind of freestyle camping, which offers much more flexibility and is free of charge. It’s called “dispersed” camping, and most people don’t even know about it.
Dispersed camping, in a nutshell, is camping anywhere you like, so long as you observe a few reasonable rules. I have been taking advantage of this allowance in the last few years, and it has added much value and convenience to my hunting and fishing excursions.
Now, dispersed camping usually doesn’t get much more than a mention in the lists of rules for users of state and national forests. Unless you dig around a bit, you may not know what is allowed and what is not. Fortunately, there isn’t much to know. The following is a summary of what I believe are the most important considerations; follow links to find information that is most location-specific and most complete.
Dispersed Camping in Minnesota’s State Forests
Let’s begin with Minnesota’s state forests, because rules and terminology are uniform across the state system. “Dispersed Camping” is defined as “camping overnight outside of established campgrounds or designated campsites.” The following is my summary of the rules. In the interest of being thorough, read the full state statute and consult the rules for each state forest unit to check for special conditions.
The first and most important rule is probably that dispersed camping is not allowed “within one mile of a fee campground,” nor is it allowed where “posted or designated to prohibit camping.” This is not usually a problem, because state forest campgrounds are typically few and far between. Also forbidden while dispersed camping are digging, constructing “permanent camping structures,” and placing “wood, nails, screws, or other fasteners in a living tree at a campsite.” Also, human waste must be buried “at least 150 feet from a water body, in a manner that does not endanger a water supply.”
What is allowed includes gathering firewood, as long as it is dead and on the ground, and used while camping in that location. Campers may also stay in one location for up to 14 days “from the first Saturday in May to the second Sunday in September,” and 21 days during the rest of the year. When you leave, however, you must move to a new location “at least 15 miles from the previous camp.”
Dispersed Camping in Minnesota’s National Forests
When it comes to gathering and assessing information from the Forest Service’s website(s), terminology can stand in the way of the user. Minnesota has two National Forests: Chippewa and Superior. Their uses of the term “dispersed camping” and others differ, however, dispersed camping is still available.
Superior National Forest’s website is informative and well-organized when it comes to camping information, stating, “Types of camping include Campground Camping, Dispersed Camping, RV camping, and Wilderness Camping.” Each type is given a separate web page, and information is laid out logically. They also offer a “Camping Recreational Opportunity Guide,” a 4-page document that displays camping opportunities with helpful maps and charts. At the bottom of the document is the section on dispersed camping.
It defines Dispersed Camping as “camping outside of designated sites,” which is the simplest and most widely accepted definition of dispersed camping. The relatively few rules pertaining to dispersed camping are also spelled out plainly: be aware of fire restrictions, do not park in a way that will impede traffic or damage vegetation or soil, no digging or cutting live trees, and generally follow the Leave No Trace principles.
Chippewa National Forest’s website, on the other hand, can leave you guessing with regard to terminology. This is puzzling to me, because in my experience national forests and grasslands have all used camping terms in ways that align with Superior N.F. Why “the Chip” should be any different is still unknown to me. I have made the following table to compare terms.
What Superior calls “Fee Campgrounds,” Chippewa calls “Developed Campgrounds.” No big deal, really. But what Superior calls “Backcountry Campsites,” (single designated sites without facility beyond fire ring and pit toilet), Chippewa seems to call “Backcountry,” “Dispersed,” and even “Primitive” campsites. Yes, it seems all three terms are used interchangeably. Not only does it use “dispersed” for some designated sites— which in itself is a departure from the accepted meaning of the term— it doesn’t seem to even acknowledge the possibility of camping apart from designated areas.
I called Ken at the Forest Service office in Blackduck for some clarification. I explained the problems with terminology on Chippewa’s website, and its failure to even mention camping outside designated sites (with any term attached). He assured me that “…any place you decide to camp that’s not in a designated campground” is allowed, except in any location where posted signs prohibit. That is the rule basically anywhere else, so it was good to hear even though finding it in print/digital is presently difficult to impossible. When he added, “You can camp anywhere on this forest,” I was satisfied.
Dispersed camping is a useful recreational tool that every outdoor-oriented person should be aware of. As I’ve stated before, it can add convenience and cost savings to outings, especially when pursuits take us far from cities or campgrounds. With millions and millions of acres of state and federal lands available in Minnesota for hunting, fishing, foraging, camping, trail riding, and more, the opportunities for dispersed camping can influence and improve the way we plan our outdoor adventures.
Minnesota State Forests and our two National Forest Service entities allow dispersed camping with relatively few restrictions. As always, the onus is on the user to find and understand information and applicable rules, whether they be system wide, location specific, or temporary. Dispersed camping may be an under-utilized resource, but it is conceivable that misuse, especially by large numbers of users, could decrease or eliminate dispersed camping on our public lands.
Harriet Lake Rustic Campground
Most campgrounds way up in Minnesota’s northwoods offer a forest camping experience; it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that there will be plenty of trees, shade, and mosquitoes. Conversely, there are few opportunities to camp in places that offer meadow views or plants and birds that flourish in forest openings. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any mosquitoes, but I will tell you that if sunny open spaces are your cup of tea, Harriet Lake Rustic Campground (R.C.) should be on your list of destinations. What’s more, it’s one of several campgrounds in the Superior National Forest that are free of charge.
Harriet Lake R.C. is on the site of a former farm. Some remnants of its farming era can still be seen, including what looks like the foundation for a barn. While many such farms in the area have long since grown over and been absorbed by the boreal forest, this one has been maintained as a forest opening for decades now, for the benefit of campers and wildlife alike. When I visited in the spring of 2019, it had recently been blessed by a controlled burn.
Somewhat anecdotally, I was told at the boat landing by someone who identified himself as a Lake County employee that the campground is a well-known place to pick blueberries. I also noticed there were plenty of raspberry and blackberry canes growing on the fringes of the campground.
To the uninitiated, it might be hard to find where to camp at Harriet Lake R.C. There are, according to my count, only about 11 campsites (The official Superior N.F. brochure says 6), identifiable by fire ring and picnic table, and only 2 have typical parking spurs off the road. They are mostly approached via a dusty 2-track trail off the main campground drive; exercise caution, as they may be muddy or otherwise hazardous to ordinary passenger cars. Aside from the few near the toilet facility (in the boat ramp area), they are fairly spread out and inconspicuous if unoccupied.
You may spot the first couple on your left as you drive in off County Road 7. The next cluster will be at the northern end of the opening, on your left as the road curves to the right. One- which has a spectacular view of the lake- is more easily found, but is completely exposed to the sun, wind, and rain. Beyond it to the north are 2 more sites, 1 of which offers much privacy and shade in the small group of trees. You will soon pass another campsite on the left, which, I’m told, has its own carry-in access down to Harriet Lake (it was occupied during my visit).
The last 5 campsites are in the southeastern end of the campground, closest to the vault toilet. The 2 nearest the boat ramp area have the parking spurs, and may receive some shade early and late in the day. My wife and I set up camp not far away, in what is probably the most shaded and spacious of all the sites in the campground. A short distance across the field from us was another site with some late-day tree cover. The last site I found was to the southwest, tucked back in the woods; it was private and well-shaded, and would probably be the recipient of the least wind and most mosquitoes of all the campsites.
What You Need to Know
The campground at Harriet Lake is designated as a “rustic” campground because it does not offer electricity or water. This means you need to bring your own water or be prepared to collect and filter it from the lake. On the upside, there is still a toilet facility (not too shabby), and camping is free of charge. It was moderately busy in the middle of the week in May; I believe that was due in part to being a free campground. As a result, I imagine it would fill up on the weekends throughout the summer. Since it is a developed area, dispersed camping is not allowed, so you must camp where there is a site with fire ring.
There are several good fishing lakes in the area, especially for walleyes. Some of them have great boat ramps, including the one at Harriet Lake, which is right in the campground. Another good lake just up the road is Silver Island Lake, where another rustic campground with 8 sites might offer a place to stay if Harriet Lake R.C. is full.
This part of Minnesota can be a foraging paradise throughout the season. The entire region is productive for berries, mushrooms, and more, and most land is either owned by the state or the feds, so access is easy. With millions of acres in Superior N.F. alone, nobody can say there isn’t enough room to roam. All you need to do is drive another half an hour to leave the crowds behind you.
To read more firsthand descriptions of other state and national forest campgrounds in Minnesota, visit the Minnesota Public Land Camping page.
BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout
Way up north, in the far reaches of Cook County, hundreds of deep cold lakes lie hidden in the hills and shaggy conifer forests. This is the stronghold of Minnesota’s lake trout population, with dozens of lakes hosting populations of one degree or another.
There is a special place in my heart for lake trout, and an honored place on my table for any of the salmonid family. Since our trip to Crystal Lake last spring in the BWCA, I had been looking for my next opportunity to go after more of these delectable fatty fish. Also since last year, I had developed a deep burning desire to take a solo trip, which I had never done before. A permit for one person for Entry Point 44- with lake trout in Ram Lake and Little Trout Lake- seemed the perfect way to scratch both itches. Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout”