Friday, August 16, 2013

Forestville State Park

In contrast to our last trip, this one went off without a hitch. We had the best weather and camping conditions we have experienced in a long time. Temps in the 70s, sunny skies, no bugs and an interesting place to visit. All we could ask for.

A panorama of the sky and fields in Southeastern Minnesota.
(Click photos for a larger version)

The destination was Forestville State Park, about 125 miles southwest of Minneapolis. We had a leisurely Monday breakfast, packed up and hit the road about 11 am. As is our custom, we looked at the map for the smallest roads we could find going in the general direction of our goal. We were driving through some of the prettiest parts of Minnesota farm country and with abundant rain this summer, the fields were in fine shape. We passed through or near towns with evocative names- Northfield, Hayfield, Blooming Prairie, Brownsdale, Grand Meadow, Spring Valley- arriving at the park mid-afternoon. Being Monday, we had our choice of campsites. We picked one closest to the river. Fishing was on my mind and the sound of the running water was nice to hear in camp.

South Branch Root River

Forestville State Park is known for 3 things: the abandoned town of Forestville; Mystery Cave, the largest cave in Minnesota; and trout fishing- 3 of the state's top trout streams converge in the park. Kathy and I both remember childhood visits to the cave, and we took our kids there as well. So that was not on the agenda this time.

We made camp in record time. We placed a few leveling blocks under the front wheels and pitched the awning and screen room. We took a short hike to check out our surroundings. We had this section of the campground all to ourselves. The river was flowing well. There were no bugs! It was time to test out the hammock that was a gift from my sister in Spain on our visit last summer.

The hammock is a great addition to our camp setup.

We didn't need the screen room this trip- no bugs.

A plate of Frank Raymond's flies.

After dinner, I decided to try my luck at fishing. I am a novice fly fisherman, having just picked up the sport again in the last year after inheriting my uncle's fly collection. Frank Raymond was a well-known fly tyer in Northern California back in the 60s and 70s. Kathy and I had a memorable trip in 1974 with him and his wife to the Mcloud River Conservancy which he helped to set aside. His daughter gave me his flies on the condition that I use them. So I have taken up fishing again. 

The park contains a section of the south branch of the Root River. The south branch gathers runoff from the fields west of the park before sinking into the limestone underlying the region. Its path through the rock serves to chill and clean the water. It flows through Mystery Cave, emerging downstream at Seven Springs as a cold water trout stream. Just inside the park boundary, Canfield Creek flows into the south branch, creating the most productive stretch of the river. Forestville Creek enters 2 miles further downstream. Both creeks flow from caves at 47 degrees keeping the south branch cool and ideal for trout.

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Our camp was on the bluff above the river. I scrambled down the bank to a point where I could walk across the stream to the far side. I had scouted the river from above before hand. I wanted to cast back across to some deeper water along the bank under our camp. There was no surface activity. I had a good time practicing casting but caught no fish. I stepped into a hidden deep hole trying to pass a branch sticking out into the stream. Suddenly, from water that had been at my knees, I sunk like a rock up to my chest and water flowed into my waders. It was cold! I managed to regain my footing before it became a serious situation, but that and pending darkness put an end to that fishing session.

If you look closely under the big log you can see some nice fish hanging out.

I went back to camp and changed into dry clothes. I hung the waders to dry. We took a walk in the dark to look for shooting stars. The dense forest canopy offered few glimpses of open sky but what glimpses we got were filled with stars. We saw fireflies and heard owls hooting. Back in camp, we started a fire and dried my clothes while we watched the flames. Campfires are an integral part of our camping experience. With all the concern about invasive insects, state rules no longer allow you to bring firewood into the parks. It must be purchased on site. This adds a bit to the expense but I guess it is worthwhile to help save the forests.

The next morning, I resolved to have better luck fishing. I decided to fish upstream until I reached Canfield Creek. I would return in time for lunch. I left  Kathy in camp and proceeded to the river. I walked quite a ways upstream looking for good trout water. When I finally found some, there was already a guy fishing. Since the river was taking a turn there, I decided to cut around him through the woods thinking there would be a path. No path. The brush was thick. I went to the base of a ridge thinking it might be easier walking. I ended up taking an extended bushwack to get back to the river. With no compass and no map, I could have gotten myself good and lost, but I knew I had the park road somewhere on one side and the river on the other. I figured I would run into one or the other eventually. As it was I managed to find a pretty deep bramble patch, some deer beds and some pretty nice forest openings. Eventually I found my way back to the river and some nice spots but still no hatching insects or even many flying around. I eventually reached Canfield Creek. There was a large tree down in the river at the junction and I climbed out on it to see what I could see. There were large trout again hanging out under the trunk and no way to get a fly in there. Along the way I tried every kind of fly I had- cahills, tricos, midges, nymphs, ants, beetles, and more, but again was not successful in landing a fish. I think they just weren't eating. But that's what all the unsuccessful fisherman say. In truth, the disappointment was not too deep. I had a great time trying.

I walked back to camp with my waders over my shoulder and enjoying the beautiful summer day. Kathy had had a good time in the hammock and walking Rocky. We ate our late lunch and settled in for a lazy afternoon of reading and hammock testing. I had a cold beer from the fridge, a much appreciated camping luxury! The campground had filled up a bit during the day. We now had neighbors consisting of a grandpa and four boisterous teenaged boys. This is the hazard of camping in state parks and why we much prefer wilderness settings. But they are few and far between here. A spirited game of football was soon underway in the campground road. It was not a quiet afternoon. But they eventually wore each other out and things quieted down. We had a good dinner and relaxed with another nice campfire.

Rocky chillin in the sun.

The next day we had to pack up and head home for those darned responsibilities like jobs (Kathy's) and home maintenance (mine- never quite accomplished though). We decided to visit Forestville and take a long scenic drive home.

Forestville is an interesting place. It was founded in the 1850s by William Meighen beside the Root River. Meighen opened a fine brick general store in 1857. His son, Thomas Meighen worked in his father's businesses. The town thrived until the arrival of the railroad. When the railroad bypassed Forestville in favor of other towns, the town slowly declined until the store closed in 1910 and Forestville as a town ceased to exist.

While this is probably a common story for small towns of the time, what makes this one interesting is Thomas Meighen's dream to see the town site become a state park. He was a successful businessman. Over the years of decline, Meighen had become the owner of the entire town. With the park dream in mind, he preserved the buildings and the store, including the inventory remaining in the store at the time it closed. It took until almost 30 years after his death in 1936 for his dream to become reality. The park was established in 1963. The Minnesota State Historical Society now operates a living history museum there on weekends in the summer, set in the year 1899.

We visited the site in the middle of the week and we were all by ourselves. We enjoyed poking around the town, imagining the life in the 1800s. I found a shutter to the store was unlocked which allowed a peek inside. Putting the camera against the glass, I managed to get a couple of dim photos. The shelves are stocked just as they were in 1899. The buildings are well-preserved with nice period details. It was a fun visit.
The Root River at Forestville

An historical view of the town.

The bridge is closed to vehicles and makes a nice entry to the town.

Meighen's Store.

A peek through the window into the store.

These bottles caught my eye.

The drive home took us through Minnesota Amish country. Harmony, Minnesota is the center of a large and thriving Amish community numbering several hundred families. The Amish practice a non-technological culture that preserves a way of life from times past. Their neat farmsteads and horse buggy transportation are a tourist attraction for many people. And the Amish benefit from the market for their crafts including quilts, furniture, basketry, produce and other items which they sell from their homes to people passing by. We took the back roads and enjoyed seeing the well-tended homes, fields and gardens. We pulled over to let a buggy pass on a very narrow road more suited to the buggy than our truck. We saw families dressed in the distinctive Amish manner. Generally we did not take photos as the Amish find photos offensive to their religion. We did take a distant snap of a buggy on the highway through the windshield, rationalizing they couldn't have been aware. I have to admit a certain longing for the simple lifestyle they practice, although I know little about their culture. The landscape and glimpses of a different culture made for a very satisfying journey.

Amish farm. Fun to see the handcrafted stacks- no machines.

Scenes of Minnesota bluff country.

We stopped for lunch at Beaver Creek Valley State Park. Beaver Creek emerges from the side of a limestone cliff making an instant creek. The water was cold and crystal clear. Evidence of a recent flood event was apparent throughout the park.

Cold, clear water- 4 feet deep here.
Beaver Creek

The creek flows out of the rocks on the right.

We drove through Caledonia, a small town where Kathy's grandmother grew up. We ended our trip by driving up the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River valley. It is a scenic drive of epic proportions, at least for the midwest. The various Corps of Engineers dams create vast pools and wetlands across the broad valley edged with limestone bluffs. Charming small towns with names like Alma, Pepin, Stockholm and Maiden Rock entice you with cute shops and tasty looking cafes. Most were closed by the time we passed on a Wednesday evening. We stopped for pizza in Prescott and made the last leg home. A good trip it was!

Mississippi River Valley

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