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Grand Portage to Blue Mounds: Lester Prairie couple adventures through MN’s State Parks
Nov. 29, 2019

Heidi Mirth
Staff Writer

LESTER PRAIRIE, MN – Brian and Jill Duncan were both raised in Minnesota; Jill, in Duluth, and Brian, in Minnetonka. But that doesn’t mean the state can’t still hold new experiences for them.

In 2016, while hiking up a trail in Zippel Bay State Park, on the northern border of the state, Brian and Jill abruptly came face-to-face with three black bears.

“They were about 30 feet away,” Jill said, and hadn’t seen the Duncans yet.

“We said, we should let them know we’re here, because they were getting a little close. So we just said, ‘Hi, Bears!’ and they were gone in the brush. That was a thrill,” Jill recalled fondly.

The Duncans, who have lived in Lester Prairie for 33 years, both agree that this was one of their most exciting moments at a state park, which is saying a lot, as they have spent more time in state parks in the last few years than most people have in their entire lives.

“Visiting the state parks is something we can do as a couple and enjoy together,” Jill said.

The Duncans took up camping after their two daughters married and moved away from home.

“Being empty-nesters, we took the opportunity to get out and about in our camper, and we kind of got hooked,” Jill said. “Being out in the woods is a healing kind of thing. There’s just something about it; it feeds you and it heals you, and it’s a wonderful experience.”

They started getting serious about camping in 2012, when they purchased their little pop-up camper, but it wasn’t until 2014 when “we really started in earnest to visit all the state parks.”

That’s when they found out about the state park Passport Club. By paying a small fee, club members are able to start accumulating stamps in a “passport” booklet at each park they visit. The goal? To get a stamp from every park in the state.

After obtaining 25 stamps, members are eligible for a free night of camping, along with other bonuses, but the perks aren’t what inspired the Duncans.

Rather, it was the challenge itself that inspired the couple, especially Jill, who has a self-proclaimed “problem” with checklists.

“We started in 2014, and kind of went from there,” Jill said, and “by July of the next summer, we’d been to [all the parks].”

That’s quite a feat, as there are 75 state parks in Minnesota, and the Duncans didn’t just stop in to get their stamp and leave again. Instead, they made a point of doing something meaningful, to get to know each park, including picnics, hikes, and sometimes camping.

Originally, “we would plan to camp at one park, and then make day visits to other parks in the vicinity,” Jill said, but once they’d accomplished the Passport Club, they came up with a new challenge.

“We decided we were going to camp at every single park you can camp at,” Jill said.

There are 61 state parks in Minnesota that allow drive-in camping, and as of this past summer, the Duncans have “camped at every one of those 61 state parks with our camper.”

During this time, they set themselves yet another goal.

“One year, we stayed overnight at a state park every month of the year,” Brian said.

“Another one of [my] lists,” laughed Jill.

Depending on the weather, the Duncans usually rent camper cabins when they visit parks in the winter months, which can add whole new experiences. One December, the couple camped in a wood-heated yurt at Afton State Park, by the St. Croix River in eastern Minnesota.

“That was fun,” remembered Jill.

Brian said he enjoys visiting the parks year-round, because at different times of the year, “you see things differently.”

In the summer, their travels bring them more adventures, including standing at the source of the Mississippi River in Lake Itasca State Park, and into Ontario and Wisconson on the Circle Tour around Lake Superior.

Despite that, “we think of ourselves as homebodies,” Jill said.

In fact, after they completed the Passport Club, they had no plans to make a return visit to some of the farther-flung parks.

“But, we’ve been back almost every summer,” said Jill, and, now, “most of the parks we’ve been to more than once, and many of them numerous times.”

When planning trips for the upcoming camping season, the Duncans note which parks they’ve visited least often, and make sure to incorporate a few of those into their schedule.

There are now few parks they’ve visited only once, and they hope to return to each of them in the future.

Garden Island is one of those, Minnesota’s northernmost state park, 20 miles off the shore of Lake of the Woods. It can only be reached by a two-hour boat ride, in summer, or by snowmobile in winter.

“When we accomplished the Passport Club, we had not been to Garden Island, and I felt bad about it,” said Jill. The Island is so hard to get to that, along with one or two other difficult-to-reach parks, it’s not actually a requirement for completing the Passport Club.

But the next summer, “we came back, and we found a way out to Garden Island, and I’m so glad we did,” Jill said. “It’s just wild,” she added, of the pristine island.

The Duncans like wild places, prefering campsites in the woods, among the trees and away from crowds.

There, they’ve had their fair share of camp visitors, including a raccoon who insisted on drinking out of their water bucket, and a mysteriously tipped-over trash can that ended up containing an adventurous skunk, who evenutally “just toddled away” on his own, after the Duncans wisely left him to it.

They also see a lot of birds, which they love to watch, and squirrels and chipmunks, who “tend to love Brian,” Jill said.

Of course, camping isn’t all peaceful glades and chipmunk watching, even for the most experienced. It takes some knowledge and planning, and has its share of frustrations.

Even so, the Duncans are overwhelmingly positive about their experiences in the state parks, noting that they are quiet, clean, and well-maintained, and that the biggest problem they’ve had so far was caused by the weather, when the awning on their camper ripped off in high winds, not once, but twice.

“You’d think we’d learn,” Jill laughed. “But if that’s the worst, that’s not so bad.”

They said they haven’t encountered many bad storms, though once, they remembered, “We were outside, hanging on to the posts of our awning as the wind was blowing at us, and I said, should we be out here?” said Jill.

“It was just adventurous,” countered Brian.

Other than the obdurate awning, simplicity is important to the Duncans. “Our guiding principal is to pack as light as we can,” Jill said, though she noted her many bird and wildflower identification books as a necessity, a fact which Brian gives her a hard time about, but doesn’t dispute.

Jill is on a quest to find all the wildflowers she’s “never seen before,” and she said “the parks are a great place for that,” among so many other things.

“We’re always encouraging people to visit the state parks,” Jill said, adding that the parks offer so much in the way of history and notable scenery, and contain “layer upon layer of interest.”

“We have a lot of favorites for a lot of different reasons,” Jill said. “They’re new every time.”

That sense of newness seems to appeal to the adventuresome Duncans, who are always on the lookout for unique state park experiences.

Most recently, Jill signed up for the Hiking Club, which is similar to the Passport Club. Each state park has a designated Hiking Club trail.

“Most of them really give you a feel for what about that park is special,” said Jill, who has gotten her 25-mile patch, and has completed 18 out of 68 hikes so far.

“I don’t have a 25-mile patch,” said Brian, who joins Jill on some of the hikes, but didn’t officially join the club.

“Well, it’s ours,” said Jill, encapsulating their relationship, and their camping experience, in three words.

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