Determined North Shore state parks visitors ignore Minnesota government shutdownThe lingering state government shutdown has had its effects on Lake County, especially at the state parks connected by Highway 61.
The lingering state government shutdown has had its effects on Lake County, especially at the state parks connected by Highway 61. As the shutdown entered its sixth day, more and more people are simply parking outside of places like Gooseberry Falls and hiking in.
All of that activity is legal as long as drivers don’t park in areas marked “no parking” and keep entrances open enough for emergency crews to respond to accidents.
There were two accidents at Lake County parks over the weekend, a broken leg in Gooseberry and three people swept into the river at Tettegouche State Park.
Adding insult to injury Thursday, traffic was backed up through the new portion of 61 near Split Rock Lighthouse State Park Thursday.
Because of a washout on the temporary gravel surface there earlier in June, road crews rushed to pave the highway before being forced to end any reconstruction work because of the Friday shutdown. The Minnesota Department of Transportation feared it wouldn’t be able to fix the gravel road again if the shutdown lingered.
By Friday, the blacktop was on and two-way traffic was restored.
“Ghost town,” that’s what Gooseberry Falls State Park assistant manager Shawn Donais called the park’s campground late Thursday afternoon. All 69 sites had been cleared of campers by 4 p.m.
The last ones out were Leah Burch and Arben Polo. Burch said she knew when they checked in Wednesday the odds were they’d have to leave earlier than they had planned. “We went and checked out the falls,” she said. And then it was time to go.
An eery sight is the lakeside of Gooseberry, in the middle of summer, completely devoid of people.
Save for a few staff and at least one family from Michigan enjoying some final moments on Lake Superior, most of the park was empty past the rest area. One couple from Wisconsin leaving the Lady Slipper Lodge area wondered aloud what had made them so lucky to catch the popular park on such a slow day.
The rest area near the interpretive center remained a beehive of people eating out of the back of their vehicles, taking a rest from the road. For them, the stop at Gooseberry was temporary. They were headed “north,” “to the Gunflint,” or to a “national forest.” The center and rest area closed at 8 p.m. Thursday, meaning every part of the park was closed for the Fourth of July weekend.
“We’re turning off the waterfall,” park manager Audrey Butts said.
The shutdown means no buildings or facilities at parks are open to the public. The entrances to all the state parks along 61 are barricaded. Butts said it’s a safety consideration at Gooseberry to keep the wayside rest closed because there won’t be any staff to direct traffic or respond to potential emergencies.
Butts pleaded to no avail for the public to help her staff by staying out of the park until the shutdown ends. If a deal were reached, she said the park would slowly begin to open and campers would be notified and welcomed back.
“We’re unemployed as of midnight,” Butts said Thursday. DNR conservation officers will watch over empty state parks. State trails aren’t necessarily shut down, Butts said, and if someone happened to end up on a park trail of the Superior Hiking Trail it would be OK.
Two Harbors station conservation officer Dan Thoma-sen said parking was an issue at the some of the state parks Friday and into Saturday but got better as the weekend progressed. Hikers and bikers can still use the state parks from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The problem was that people were parking along Highway 61 and blocking the park entrance, which needs to be kept clear.
Those areas have been marked with cones, and no parking is being allowed near the entry to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, where large road construction equipment is located and some road work is still ongoing.
Butts said most Gooseberry campers were well aware of the potential shutdown and few were surprised to learn the park was closing. She said there has been good communication with DNR officials in St. Paul on where the negotiations are at and what the shutdown plan would be at the park.
Gooseberry staff had been recommending non-state run camp sites and other options, at least for Thursday. Butts said the economic impact on the North Shore is obvious with the popularity of all the state parks along Highway 61. “The local community knows it,” she said. “We are part of the economic engine.”
Kelly Kluver found himself at the Burlington Bay Campground in Two Harbors Thursday. He’d been spending time at state forest lands north of the city but was told in the morning he needed to move out. Kluver and his dog, Nephie, have been camping most of the summer since Kluver moved out of Duluth this spring after losing his job last fall.
“I’m more fluid than anyone else around,” Kluver said, meaning he’s ready to pick up any time to find a new spot. He felt for one couple with children he met at a state forest who were from Indiana and looking for options. Kluver plans to find some friendly faces in the Two Harbors area who will let him use some yard space.
Radio news was blaring from his picnic table but he said it’s been difficult to get any news about the state shutdown. “It’s this cone of silence,” he said. “It’s like when they elect a new pope – white smoke or black smoke.”
Inside the campground office, Cindy Schroeder was “ready to throw the phone into the lake.” She’s been bombarded with calls about openings (there are none) and about the shutdown, the intricacies of which she knows about as much as anyone else. Others are calling to ask if the municipal campground is closing as well (it isn’t) or for “secret spots” where people might camp.
There were a few openings for campers Thursday night but nothing for the holiday weekend. Still, Schroeder expected more calls as state-run recreation areas remain closed. “I had 15 messages waiting when I came in this morning.”
Gordy Anderson, president of the Two Harbors Area Chamber of Commerce, lamented the obvious economic impact of not having one of the Shore’s biggest draws closed over the holiday weekend and into this week. He said all his staff can do is try to direct people to non-state run facilities.
Anderson said he fears that people will get upset with the situation and a negative experience in the area could have long-term consequences for return customers.
He said he has emailed local representatives in the state Legislature urging them to get a deal done. “Aside from that, there isn’t a whole lot we can do.”
“We’re 400 miles away from home,” said one father at the entrance to Gooseberry Falls State Park at midday Friday as his children piled out of a van ready to walk down to see the falls. The family, not willing to identify themselves, said they had been in the region this week and were stationed in Duluth with plans to see the falls.
When asked if there was concern about parking just off Highway 61, which is what at least 25 other drivers had done to that point, the mother of the family from near the Iowa border simply said “well, they shouldn’t have blocked it,” meaning the entrance to the popular wayside rest area that leads to the falls.
Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson said his main concern was having enough room at the entrance to allow for emergency vehicles in case of an accident or fire. He said it was up to the State Patrol to police the roadside and DNR to patrol the parks.
No officers of any kind could be seen around noon Friday. A handful of people frolicked at the falls, posing for pictures or hiking through. There were also several cars pulled to the side of 61 with bike racks and people heading out on to the Gitchi Gami Trail that runs from Gooseberry, through Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and to Beaver Bay.
Sen. Tom Bakk, who has played a key role in the budget negotiations that failed to avoid a government shutdown, said keeping the parks open was never an option.
No matter what
For Andrew Martin and sons from Columbus, Ohio, and grandmother Janice Martin of Barnum, it meant a long, hot walk Tuesday from Highway 61 to see the falls at Gooseberry. “I think it’s shameful the government did this. I think they (state lawmakers) should all be fired,” Janice Martin said.
The Arthur family of Tucson, Ariz., said they made their planned trip to the North Shore even after learning of the state government shutdown. They were going to visit as many state scenic sites as possible but planned to stay at a private resort.
Gooseberry “was one of our destinations, one of the places we had on our list to see, so this isn’t that big of an issue” to walk a little farther, Tami Arthur said.
The Ferrian family from Brainerd said about the same, saying they decided to make the trip after learning they could still get into parks.
“It’s good they aren’t locking people out just because they are shut down,” Kurt Ferrian said. “It was important for my dad to be here with our kids, just like I came with them when I was little.”