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Ribbon is cut on North Country Park’s new Natural Playground

The people who helped bring the playground to life were on hand on Monday, Aug. 30, to help cut the ribbon on North Country Park’s new Natural Playground. The unveiling of the Natural Playground completes Phase 1 of the developments at North Country Park, one of the city’s 24 parks, which is located at 1001 30th Street. This phase has been in development since it was brought before the city in 2019.

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Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince and Bemidji Rotary Club President Ashley Stevens cut the ribbon on North Country Park’s new Natural Playground on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- From sandcastle making to fort building, folks of all ages are now able to get more in touch with nature at the city’s newest playground.

The people who helped bring the playground to life were on hand on Monday, Aug. 30, to help cut the ribbon on North Country Park’s new Natural Playground.

“I just want to thank everyone and welcome everyone to this ribbon cutting as we officially open our newest city playground,” Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince said at the start of the event. “The Natural Playground at North Country Park has been many years in the making and will connect our children with nature in fun and innovative ways.”

The unveiling of the Natural Playground completes Phase 1 of the developments at North Country Park , one of the city’s 24 parks, which is located at 1001 30th Street. This phase has been in development since it was brought before the city in 2019 .

The Parks and Recreation Department partnered with the Bemidji Rotary Club to open the playground. It features native plants and flowers, butterfly houses, insect hotels, a sand and water area with water channel and pumps, fort building stations, a play kitchen and lab, a whale drum and more, most of which are made of natural elements.

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Cash Bender, 4, builds a sandcastle on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, ahead of a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Natural Playground at North Country Park. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

“The Natural Playground represents a true community effort as our Parks and Rec Department partners with the Bemidji Rotary Club, some of who I know are here today, homeschool groups, Eagle Scouts, and countless community members who each donated their time and resources to make this playground a reality for all of Bemidji to enjoy,” Prince said.

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The Rotary Club raised and donated $36,000 in funding to help bring the playground to fruition. It also spent 75 hours of volunteer time dedicated to constructing the water table, work table and planters.

In total, the playground represents a total investment of more than $100,000 into the community, Prince said.

“What an awesome investment this is in our kids,” Prince said. “It’s also a great testament to the great partnership between the city, private citizens and community organizations like the Bemidji Rotary Club.”

It was also an opportunity for two Bemidji Eagle Scouts to complete projects and earn their titles. Max Brown donated more than 150 hours of service toward the construction of the water channels, while Aaron Heger spent more than 200 hours constructing the three bridges stationed over rock trenches throughout the park.

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Aaron Heger donated more than 200 hours to build three bridges at North Country Park as part of his Eagle Scout project earlier this year. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Prince said that a Bemidji homeschool group also donated countless hours building the insect hotel.

“We also say a huge thank you to the Natural Playground Committee for spearheading this project and spending countless hours hosting design meetings, fundraisers, recruiting volunteers, organizing and planning this playground,” Prince said.

For Bethany Wesley, co-chair of the Parks and Trails Commission, the park holds a special meaning beyond simply a project to tackle.

“This is my neighborhood park, I’ve been raising my kids just a block or two from here, and it is so moving to see this day finally arrive,” Wesley said. “I’m so excited for the neighborhood kids and that they now have so much more to play with. But I’m absolutely thrilled that they still get to engage with nature.”

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Bethany Wesley, co-chair of the Parks and Trails Commission, speaks during a ribbon cutting ceremony on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, for the new Natural Playground at North Country Park. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

She explained that natural playgrounds have benefits more traditional playgrounds don’t offer.

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“Natural playgrounds get kids outdoors interacting and experiencing, playing with nature. It’s a different sensory experience than what they can get playing with a plastic or metal play structure,” Wesley said.

She said it was an addition badly needed in Bemidji, not just because North Country Park needed a play area, but because it expands upon the offerings already included in the Parks and Rec system.

“I’m not unique, my kids spend way too much time on screens,” Wesley said. “Coming here expands their curiosity, it will get their imagination going, their wonder and their discovery. That’s what this park does. And it’s not that they can’t do that at other parks, but here it’s immersive.”

‘Just Phase 1’

Wesley said that the park was created through conceptualizing with the company Learning and Landscape Design, which took ideas from the Natural Playground Committee, and then Frenzel Construction brought it to life.

“We are excited to say that this is just Phase 1 of the park,” Bemidji Rotarian Deb Pfaff said. “We received news just a couple of weeks ago from the Neilson Foundation that we have received grant funding for Phase 2 and so we are excited to see that continue and grow into more advanced features in addition to what we have here right now, which will be part of next year’s plan.”

The community helps support projects like the playground when they participate in fundraisers such as the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival, and the Bemidji Rotary’s annual blood screening event and annual rose fundraisers .

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From left: Bemidji Rotarians Lynn Eaton, Deb Pfaff and current Rotary Club President Ashley Stevens speak about the involvement of the Rotary Club during a ribbon cutting ceremony on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, for the new Natural Playground at North Country Park. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

“In the Rotary we put service above self, and I think most of you know that Bemidji Rotary Clubs have had their hand in just about every park in this community and we are happy to do that,” Bemidji Rotarian Lynn Eaton said. “And we have been happy to continue our involvement in this park and the expansion that’s going to come in Phase 2.”

“I’m so proud not only to be a part of the Rotary but also of this community,” said Ashley Stevens, current Bemidji Rotary president. “The genuine concern and care for one another is truly unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. So thank you for having us and letting us be a part of this amazing project.”

Annalise is the editor and a photographer at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is a Mass Communication graduate from Bemidji State University. Her favorite pastime is exploring the great outdoors and capturing its natural beauty on camera. Contact Annalise at (218) 333-9796, (218) 358-1990 or abraught@bemidjipioneer.com.
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