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Lake Bemidji State Park - a treasure on the lake

Ben Miller and his daughter, Annie, 7, take a walk at Lake Bemidji State Park. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

The Minnesota Legislature established Lake Bemidji State Park in 1923 to conserve a remnant of uncut pine forest and provide public access to Lake Bemidji.

The park, covering 1,725 acres, is situated at the north end of Lake Bemidji and provides four-season recreation and education to visitors from the local area as well as from far distant points. In 2008, 18,153 overnight campers and 110,416 day-use visitors enjoyed Lake Bemidji State Park. Attendance at the interpretive programs rose to 6,768.

Paul Mork, park manager, said people from Bemidji regularly boated to the north end of the lake beginning in the early 20th century for picnics and other outings. Rocky Point, a bluff above the lake, and the natural beach also were attractions.

However, the site was in use for thousands of years prior to the development of the city. The ancestors of the Dakota fished and hunted around Lake Bemidji. Mork said arrow and spear points were discovered during the archeological survey prior to construction. Some of these artifacts dated back 7,000 years, he said. The Ojibwe reached the area around 1750.

Early trader records identify Lake Bemidji as Lac Traverse, French for "diagonal." The Ojibwe knew the lake as "Bemiji-gau-maug," meaning cutting sideways through or diagonally. This was a reference to the path of the Mississippi River through the lake, diagonally from Lake Irving in the southwest corner to the outlet on the east side of the lake.

The park landscape is the result of the last stage of glaciation in Minnesota. Sand, gravel, and rock material carried by the glacier as it moved south was eventually deposited as the ice receded 10,000 years ago. The park's rolling topography was created by uneven deposits of this glacial till. Meltwater from the glacier also played a role in creating the present shape of the land. Many of the swamps and bogs in the park were formed when chunks of ice separated from the receding glacier and left depressions which later filled with water. Lake Bemidji itself is the result of ice left behind by the retreating glacier.

The park contains a mixture of plant communities from the mixed red and white pine uplands to jack pine barrens. The park also contains fine examples of conifer bog that includes some of Minnesota's most unusual plants and animals. A quarter-mile long boardwalk leads into one of these areas so visitors can observe pitcher plants, insect eating sundews, orchids, and other plants. Most flowers are blooming in the bog during late spring and early summer.

The park offers swimming, boating, fishing, bird watching, hiking, camping, biking, picnicking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and year-round naturalist-led activities.

Current recreation opportunities include the family unit campground and two group camps, picnic areas and shelters, a dining hall built by the National Youth Administration in the 1930s, marina, visitor center, gift shop, fishing pier and 15 miles of trails for both summer and winter use.

A unique feature is the 1,200-foot interpretive Bog Walk featuring several varieties of orchids, carnivorous plants and other wild flowers. An audio podcast of the Bog Walk trail guide is available. Lake Bemidji State Park is also a habitat for a rare bog adder's mouth orchid, Malaxis paludosa.

Mork, who has served as Lake Bemidji State Park manager since 1987, said he has overseen many changes.

In 2007, Beltrami County abandoned a section of Lavinia Road, which the park took over and restored for wetland and forest. Volunteers planted 150 rescued orchid clumps on the abandoned road site, as well as tree seedlings and 6-foot to 10-foot pines in the reclaimed area.

The reclamation also removed a culvert to re-establish the natural flow of a stream running from Big Bass Lake to Little Bass Lake to Lake Bemidji.

"That whole hydrology has improved there," Mork said.

New facilities available for their first full season are the playground, which is a gift from the Friends of Lake Bemidji State Park, a handicapped-accessible fish-cleaning house and an improved marina.

John Fylpaa, park naturalist, described a new geocaching program that began May 2 in all 72 Minnesota State Parks. The theme is Wildlife Safari, and the program will run for three years. Geocachers will use GPS units, available from the park visitor center.

"You use a GPS unit to locate a cache, a small treasure," Fylpaa said.

In each state park, including remote Garden Island in Lake of the Woods, the cache will contain a different, secret Critter Card depicting local wildlife.

"We're not letting out any clues," Fylpaa said. "You can collect them from all the parks."

When they find the cache, visitors sign a guest book in the cache, and sometimes leave a small item of their own, he said.

As they collect the cards, geocachers become eligible to buy medallions indicating they have located and visited 10, 20, 40 or 60 park caches.

"The effort is to get more technology-oriented young people out using the parks," Mork said. "We're trying to re-interest our young people in our parks."

Fylpaa said geocachers' tradition is to keep their finds secret.

"They don't want to spoil (the fun) for others, so they keep quiet," he said.

He said there also is a geocacher first-to-find competition to garner the bragging rights as the first person to sign the guest book.

Fylpaa said the History Challenge geocaching adventure that concluded Dec. 31 drew about 20,000 hits, and he experts Wildlife Safari to be even more popular.

Special events

A spring tradition unique to Lake Bemidji State Park is Seniors' Day, held in June each year. The elders are treated to a day in the park with wagon rides by the Go and Whoa Harness Club.

Fylpaa manages a naturalist program including pontoon rides and fishing. Children and small adults can climb inside a replica beaver's lodge in the visitor center. There is a summer concert series in the amphitheater, as well as the Bemidji Community Theater melodramas in the amphitheater.

A special event initiated for the 2008 Minnesota Sesquicentennial event was a Head of the Lake Picnic.

That event will become an annual gathering July 11 when visitors bring their picnics to the park. The parks commissioner has waived the entry fee that day.

The Headwaters School of Music and the Arts has secured the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre for entertainment.