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Minnesota State Parks: Book showcases Minnesota

Photographer Doug Ohman autographs his recent book "Prairie, Lake, Forest: Minnesota State Parks" for Georgia Erdman, center on Monday afternoon after a program at the Bemidji Public Library, waiting in line to get a autograph copy is Francis Keifer, left. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

From his Twin Cities home in January two years ago, Doug Ohman heard the evening newscaster announce the arrival of a "perigee" moon, the largest moon to appear in 400 years.

Ohman picked up the phone and called a friend of his in northern Minnesota.

What's the weather like, he asked. Eighteen degrees below zero, but clear. Crystal clear.

"I dropped everything and drove to the North Shore," Ohman said.

The Split Rock Lighthouse is the second-most-photographed lighthouse in North America. But the photo Ohman got that night was unlike any other taken of the famous lighthouse overlooking Lake Superior.

Walking out onto the ice, Ohman captured the lighthouse illuminated at night by the supersized moon, seemingly sitting right above its shoulder.

The image is included in Ohman's "Prairie, Lake, Forest: Minnesota's State Parks," a coffee table-style book featuring his photographs and narrated by text written by Chris Niskanen.

Ohman appeared Tuesday at Bemidji Public Library, speaking to about 20 people about the 2.5 years he spent working on the state park book.

His book is not a guidebook - he said there are plenty of those - but a "book that would really showcase Minnesota."

"I explored. I fished. I hiked," he said. "I didn't just drive in, grab a photo and drive out."

He even got lost, advising future backpackers visiting to George Crosby Manitou State Park to "always bring a trail map and a compass" to avoid his seven-hour tour.

Ohman said he opens his slideshow talks the same way: with an image of bright, fall-colored foliage bordering the winding road leading into Lake Bemidji State Park.

"You guys are really fortunate to have a real gem right in your backyard," he said of the local state park.

During his appearance, Ohman discussed the history of state parks, dating them back to the first - Itasca State Park - in 1891 and also highlighted the recreational opportunities Minnesotans take advantage of at the parks.

Itasca is "Minnesota's Yellowstone," he said, adding that the walk about the Mississippi Headwaters is a key milestone for every Minnesotan.

But he also focused on other areas of the park, such as Douglas Lodge, which, as built in 1905, is one of the earliest log buildings built in Minnesota.

Ohman said the building was constructed for the first park manager, who had to "really entice people to come to the Northwoods."

Just 126 people visited Itasca State Park during its first year.

Last year, the park welcomed more than half a million.

"It's a come a long way in is history," Ohman said.

The third-oldest state park is Fort Ridgely State Park by New Ulm, Minn., which is a historic park as the fort was constructed to protect settlers in the 1850s.

Twice, the fort was attacked in a Dakota uprising, he said.

"Most people visit Fort Ridgeley for its historical significance," Ohman said.

But the fort has its challenges in that there is no water - no river, no lake - which is one of the major draws of more typical state parks.

So the park entices visitors in other ways: with a live theater and a nine-hole golf course.

He also told numerous stories, including one about Savanna Portage, which features a 6-mile-long historic trail previously traveled by fur traders, Dakota and Ojibwe Indians, and explorers.

Ohman said he pulled up at 5 p.m. on a Sunday, and seeing the boardwalk up ahead for the six-mile walk, he was excited.

Little did he know the boardwalk ended a ways further, at the edge of the trees. In its place is a narrow, rustic trail.

Enter the mosquitoes.

"The mosquitoes came out the size of birds," said Ohman, who said they were as thick as he had ever experienced, covering his arms and legs.

After about 3 or 3.5 miles, he said he couldn't take it anymore.

"I ran back to the truck," where he found a nice large can of Off sitting between the two bucket seats.

As he drove away, protected by the truck and thoroughly enjoying his air-conditioning, Ohman said he thought of the French and Indians, who would have experienced such encounters throughout their time on the trail.

He also talked about Flandrau State Park, in New Ulm. The park sits on the Big Cottonwood River, but Ohman said he, himself, was taken by a set of buildings constructed in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration.

The buildings were used to house German POWs for the last nine months of the World War II. The soldiers worked for local farmers and Shell's Brewery during their time in the camp.

"Of the 179 men, no one ever escaped," Ohman said, adding that the guard also never had cause to remove his gun from his holster.

Once the war ended, the men were required to return home. But a number of them came back. They had gotten Friday nights free for movie nights and some had met local girls that drew them back.

As for recreation, Ohman showed photographers of all sorts of campers - RVers, pop-up-users, cabin-dwellers, those who carted-in, and of course, tenters.

"It's amazing how people connect while camping," he said.

While some could live in the same neighborhood for 20 years and still not know their neighbors, they go camping and almost instantly find themselves helping their nearby campers and getting to know one another.

"I met some great people in this project at the campgrounds," he said.

Other recreational shots included fishermen and kids, hikers, bog walks, cross-country skiers and shoeshowers.

He pointed out how confident he felt approaching Riverview Trail at John A. Latsch State Park, where a sign warned that the 450-foot trail would take about an hour to complete.

Ohman said he laughed that off, figuring he would finish it much sooner than that.

"I was soon corrected," he said, noting that he counted more than 700 steps that went straight up a bluff in Winona.

The view was awesome, he said, as it overlooks the Mississippi River Valley.

"I'm literally looking down on soaring eagles," he said.