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Exodus of campers leaves Minnesota state parks as gates close

Jon Wigen and his daughter Krista, 13, of Minneapolis take down their tent before leaving the campground at Jay Cooke State Park Thursday afternoon. Like other state parks, Jay Cooke was closing due to the state government shutdown. Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Lady Slipper Lodge at Gooseberry Falls State Park northeast of Two Harbors had a closed sign at the door Thursday afternoon in advance of a pending state government shutdown. (Mike Creger / Lake County News-Chronicle)2 / 2

Two little girls wore sad faces Thursday afternoon at the Jay Cooke State Park campground near Duluth.

Little Katie Wigen, 4, and her sister, Kasi, 5, couldn't figure out why their family had to leave its campsite sooner than they had planned.

All of Minnesota's 74 state parks and recreation areas were closing as of 4 p.m. Thursday because of a budget impasse and an impending state government shutdown.

"Why do we have to go?" Katie, clutching a red stuffed animal, asked Jay Cooke State Park manager Eunice Luedtke.

"We have to close," Luedtke explained as gently as she could. "The park is out of money."

"I can give you money," Katie told Luedtke. "I have lots of money."

So, while Katie and Kasi played in the car, Jon Wigen and daughter Krista, 13, of Minneapolis took down the family's tent.

"We're trying to explain to our kids that we're still on vacation. We'll find another place," said Tracy Wigen, Jon's wife.

Campers across the state faced the same dilemma Thursday afternoon as negotiations between legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton continued with no budget deal made.

"We're kind of bummed, actually," said Traci Veek of Elk River, Minn., as she prepared to leave another Jay Cooke campsite. "Like, c'mon, just one more day. Our families go camping every year to a different state park, and this year we picked Jay Cooke."

But Veek and her camping crew had heard about the potential state government shutdown and knew they might have to leave early. Most campers at Jay Cooke seemed resigned to the shutdown on Thursday and didn't blame Luedtke as she made her rounds, notifying all campers of the closure. By early afternoon, many of the park's campsites already were empty.

Eighteen camping groups had to cut short their stays at Jay Cooke, Luedtke said, and many others who had reservations for July 1 and beyond were told not to show up. The park has 82 campsites.

Demand shifts

Many people who had planned to camp at state parks in the area are now looking to U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, private campgrounds or Wisconsin campgrounds.

"Instead of going to Jay Cooke (State Park) or up the North Shore, people are making reservations here," said Barbara Higton, owner of the Cloquet/Duluth KOA in Cloquet. "We've gotten those calls in the past two or three weeks. We're basically full now."

The campground has 60 RV and tent sites, she said.

The Forest Service is gearing up for an expected increase in demand at their campgrounds, especially on the North Shore, said Steve Schug, assistant ranger for recreation and wilderness at Tofte and Grand Marais.

"We kind of figured it would impact our Forest Service offices big time," Schug said Thursday.

The agency will keep in close contact with its campground concessionaires to keep tabs on campsite availability, he said.

"The last thing we want to do is send a forest visitor 50 miles up a gravel road to a campground that's already full," he said.

Pattison State Park in Wisconsin has received many inquiries from would-be Minnesota campers, said Nicole Farmakes, visitor service representative at the park.

"But we've been booked since May, so we can't help those people," she said.

The Wigen family from Minneapolis had to leave Jay Cooke but vowed to keep the vacation going.

"We'll go find a hotel in Duluth," Tracy Wigen said. "We can't go home now."

Re-opening process

State parks and recreation areas are prepared to re-open as quickly as possible if a budget deal is reached, said Chris Niskanen, DNR director of communications.

"It might be simple, or it may be more difficult, depending on the park," Niskanen said late Thursday afternoon. "We have a contingency plan for reopening the parks. We'll have to turn on the water, turn on the electricity. ... This is not a latch-key operation. These are complex facilities."

Meanwhile, unless 4-year-old Katie Wigen bails out the state with all her money, no woodsmoke will be drifting through the campground at Jay Cooke for the foreseeable future.

Situation at Gooseberry Falls

The rest area near the interpretive center at Gooseberry Falls State Park remained a beehive of activity Thursday afternoon, with 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 were set to close at 8 p.m., the last parts of the park to shut down. Campsites were cleared by 4 p.m.

"We're turning off the waterfall," park manager Audrey Butts said.

A shutdown means no buildings or facilities at Gooseberry will be open to the public; the entrance on Highway 61 was to be barricaded by nightfall. Butts said it's a safety consideration to keep the wayside rest portion of the park closed because there won't be any staff to direct traffic or respond to potential emergencies.

Butts pleaded for the public to help her staff by staying out of the park until the shutdown ends. If a deal were reached today, she said the park would slowly begin to reopen, and campers would be notified and welcomed back.

For more information

Although the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources closed down most of its website Thursday afternoon because of the state government shutdown, one page will remain available, said Chris Niskanen, DNR director of communications. That page of Frequently Asked Questions will include the latest information on what DNR operations will remain in service during a shutdown. To reach that page, go to www.mndnr.gov. The page will offer no links to other parts of the DNR's website.

The Lake County News-Chronicle contributed to this report.

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