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State Park statesman: John Fylpaa to retire after 3 decades at Lake Bemidji State Park

John Fylpaa, Lake Bemidji State Park naturalist, plans to retire after working for more than 30 years at the state park. An informal gathering will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday, March 30, in the visitor center at Lake Bemidji State Park. (Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 4
John Fylpaa, naturalist at Lake Bemidji State Park, points toward erosion on the shores of Lake Bemidji. Ice ridges were caused by the lake's ice sheet being pushed up against the shore in February 2015. Pioneer File Photo2 / 4
Lake Bemidji State Park naturalist John Fylpaa and assistant manager Susan Olin snow shoed out to the Bog Walk at Lake Bemidji State Park in January 2015. Pioneer File Photo3 / 4
Lake Bemidji State Park naturalist John Fylpaa leads a group of snowshoers on a tour of the park in January 2011. Pioneer File Photo4 / 4

BEMIDJI—John Fylpaa was cleaning out his desk at Lake Bemidji State Park's visitor center when a years- or decades-old scrap of paper fell from a pile of documents he was tossing into a recycling bin.

"You will enjoy life and share it with others," the scrap reads. It was from a fortune cookie he had opened after some lunch during his 38-year career as a park naturalist—a career that he plans to retire from early next month.

In broad terms, a naturalist helps acquaint state park visitors with the 1,700-acre park and its resources, acting as kind of a tour guide and teacher. Fylpaa might be best known for leading the park's "bog walks," a trail hike he's led countless times through the park that takes visitors through a kind of visual cross section of its history, including areas that were logged heavily decades ago.

"Now they're being reforested," Fylpaa said. "And we also see areas where the park is changing even now because resource management, the land management, has to occur."

Fylpaa has had a hand in Mardi Gras celebrations at the park—which sits a few thousand miles upstream from the concurrent one in New Orleans—candlelight skiing events, and the relatively new "fat" bike rally.

A suburban Chicago native, Fylpaa studied field biology and limnology—the study of lakes and streams—at Luther College in Iowa and Mankato State.

Naturalist John Fylpaa passes out bait during a fishing program for kids program in July 2015.

"We look at lakes for swimming, for fishing, but we don't really understand the whole seasonality that a lake has," Fylpaa said. "Just as the forest goes through changes, the lake will go through changes. You talk to anglers, and they fish different in the wintertime than they do in the summer because the fish are in different areas, the plant life is different."

He spent the first three years of his career at a state park near Mankato and another in the Albert Lea area before moving to Bemidji and the state park here, which had recently added a year-round naturalist job and a brand new visitor center.

Fylpaa stayed, he said, because he liked the community here and wanted to raise a family. He lives about half a mile from the state park, and has kept records of the lake's ice-in and ice-out days for decades.

"I like winters," Fylpaa said. "Skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, are all much more enjoyable without mosquitos."

Park staff also take pontoon boats full of kids onto Lake Bemidji to fish, and Fylpaa said that program is one of the "joys of the job."

He's been doing it long enough—and has seen enough kids exuberantly catch and eat a fish after swearing them off hours before—that he's had a few pint-sized anglers return, years later, with their own children in tow.

Fylpaa's last day at the state park is April 4, but he said that just marks the end of his time as a paid naturalist.

"That's what I did," he said, remembering the fortune that sat undetected in his office for however-many years. "I enjoyed doing what I do and I've really enjoyed sharing it with others."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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