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Monday, September 15, 2014

Beaver Creek Valley: Camping (um, Cabining) in Minnesota's Driftless Area

This beautiful summer is coming to a close.  September is here.  We have started school.  My birthday is around the corner.  But for the sake of making and keeping memories,  I should say a few words about our family camping trip.

This tradition is ingrained enough that we still call it camping, even if we find ourselves in a cabin (or a tipi, as we did last year).  It was also clear this year that the kids were not content to go along with our plan to camp in the back yard.  So with a little luck, we booked a cabin in the Driftless Area of Minnesota, not far from the Mississippi river valley.  I chaperoned Solomon's Sunday School group on a weekend trip to the area back in May, and knew our family would love it.

Not many think of Minnesota as a land of towering bluffs and winding rivers, and soaring eagles.  The national image is more one of pines and lakes and deep snow--maybe a loon or a moose.  But this hidden pocket of land is worth visiting.  We took the Great River Road (aka highway 61) most of the way down.  Starting at Red Wing, the landscape changes dramatically.

Beaver Creek Vally State Park includes several of these unusual creek fords.

 Knowing there would be no swimming beach at Beaver Creek Vally State Park, our ultimate destination, we stopped to swim in Lake Pepin on the way down.  The huge yawning lake bordered by big emerald bluffs is actually a dramatic widening of the Mississippi river.  Readers of the Little House books might recognize it from Little House in the Big Woods.  The current is very slow, so swimmers and sailboats can enjoy the 'lake.'

Hok-Si-La Municipal Campground in Lake City provided the perfect place to stop, right off Hwy 61.  The kids had a great time playing with a huge driftwood log that had washed up in the swimming area.  It was at least eight feet long with smoothed knobs where the branches had been.  They took turns turning it over, trying to knock each other off, playing a sort of aquatic 'king of the mountain.'  Then they would work together to swim it to a different area of the beach.  Nova made several friends in the hour or two we were there.  Solomon was playing with them too before we left.  Charlotte had me tow her out to the log with her life jacket on so we she could join the fun.  A sail boat was anchored just outside the swimming buoys, giving the whole scene a Mediterranean feel.  Ariadne spent a little time in the water, but mostly looked for shells on the beach.  In the distance we saw one bald eagle steal a fish from another, just a few feet above the water.

 We stopped in Wabasha for dinner, eating outside near the water.  Ariadne danced to 'Love Potion Number 9', performed by a live all senior singing group across the street.  The kids tried fried cheese curds--three out of four thumbs up (Charlotte was the dissenter).  The National Eagle Center and Lark Toys were places we thought we'd stop as well, but the sun was setting, so we will have to save them for another time.  I have fond memories of Solomon and Nova seeing live Eagles up close and riding the spectacular carousel at Lark back in 2006--before blogging days for me.  That was our last family trip to the Driftless Area.  We stayed at White Water State Park that year.

It was well past dark by the time we got to our cabin, and we were very grateful that all we had to do was roll out sleeping bags and blankets.  Upon waking we were able to appreciate how nicely our cabin was situated.  Just a few yards away from us was Beaver Creek.  We could hear its gentle babble from inside.  A large lawn and water pump were adjacent, with the trail head for the big spring trail just beyond that.  The water was remarkably clear, and the drinking water was the best I've ever tasted at a state park.

Rain the next morning meant that plan A--biking on the Root River Trail, would have to wait.  Luckily we had a plan B--Mystery Cave!  Meandering over we finished up our audio book, Road Trip by Gary and Jim Paulsen.  By the time we got to the cave it was sunny.

On our way into Mystery Cave we met some serious spelunkers who had been underground for three hours.  Also note--we entered the cave through a big metal door.  

Ariadne was excited to see a bat in the cave.  We had seen a few on twilight bike trips at home and she has become fond of them, believe it or not.  She had a different opinion of flow stone "Poop!" she declared, every time.  Flow stone has always looked smooth and beautiful to me, but once she remarked upon the resemblance, I saw it too.

The tour guide overheard me telling the kids not to monopolize the tour with too many questions.  She figured out this meant inquisitive kids and let them completely steer the tour, encouraging all questions. Charlotte wanted to know about the rock formations, Solomon remarked on the carbonic acid that ate away at the stone, Nova wanted to try out seeing what the cave was like with all the lights turned off. They were all on a first name basis by the time we got out.

We stopped in Lanesboro on the way home for fresh fish and Amish preserves and pie.  There was a mysterious telephone booth, ringing and ringing on Main Street.  I almost let the kids answer it.  I should have.  Charles succumbed to curiosity and answered it himself on the way back from getting pie from a roadside stand.  It was the town's welcoming committee!  Next time, we will know.

When we returned to our cabin Solomon got a fire going for S'mores.  We all took turns going for walks by the Beaver Creek in twos and threes.  The high humidity lead to a constant mist above the water.  Dusk was falling and fireflies began to come out.  It was magical.

The next day Solomon and Nova went fishing, and Charles taught Charlotte to play GO.  It turns out our five year old loves the game almost as much as her dad!  They had three games before the trip was over.

Pie for breakfast
Charles cleverly engaged the children in packing 'challenges' and soon we were ready say good bye to our little cabin.  On our way out of the park we saw a doe and two fawns right in the road.  We stopped at the Root River Trail head in Houston for a picnic and a short bike ride, then headed for home.  Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Tikki Tikki Tembo, Curious George, Nate the Great and many more audio books saw us safely home, bikes and all.

The trip must have made quite an impression on Ariadne.  When we got home she woke up from a nap and said 'But where's our little cabin' holding out her hands, palm up in a gesture of confusion.  And the next morning the first thing she said when she woke up was 'We have a cabin!'  Maybe some day Ariadne,  but for now we can continue to enjoy cabins in State Parks all over Minnesota.

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