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Published June 17, 2007, 12:00 AM

Discovering what makes nature tick

Renting an area cabin can force you to soak in joys of wilderness living
If morning’s first stop in front of a mirror reveals a tick guzzling on your chin and all you do is squeeze it off, shrug and move on to frying the bacon, congratulations: You’re in cabin mode.

By: Dave Roepke, The Forum

If morning’s first stop in front of a mirror reveals a tick guzzling on your chin and all you do is squeeze it off, shrug and move on to frying the bacon, congratulations: You’re in cabin mode.

It’s an abrupt adjustment, but hey, if you don’t like nature so in-your-face, stick to your living room. It’s bound to be more comfortable.

But it’s probably not nearly as relaxing, tick-fueled hypochondria aside.

Scores of locals already know the joys of cabin life, but not all of us are blessed with the funds, family or friends needed for private lodging. So my girlfriend and I drove to Turtle River State Park on a recent Friday to rent a cabin for a night.

The 12 rental units at the park, which is a little less than a half-hour west of Grand Forks, N.D., are cabins in the loosest sense. The six buildings, which in a past life served as barracks for kids attending various summer camps, are nestled at the edge of a tree line near the creek-like Turtle River.

They are split into duplexes, each with six beds on three bunk frames, electrical outlets, a private bathroom with a shower and that’s it. There is no indoor cooking allowed. No chairs or tables are provided and don’t bother bringing any. There’s no room.

Park Manager Steve Crandall admits the cabins aren’t perfect for either of the two groups they’re designed for, families or groups – too few beds for the groups and too short on amenities and long on bunks for families.

“When you’re doing both, you don’t do either well,” he says.

This isn’t meant as a knock. You don’t rent a cabin to hang out inside it. You rent a cabin to force yourself to enjoy what’s not within its walls.

What’s outside the cabins at Turtle River State Park has been in flux for a little more than a decade. It started in 1995, when the park lost its swimming pool. That hurt, says Crandall, the park’s manager for 15 years.

Children can only fish (the river is stocked with rainbow trout) and mountain bike (we’ll get to that in a bit) for so long, Crandall says.

“Then they’re right back in mom’s face, saying ‘What do I do? I’m bored,’” he says.

Two years later, the park lost its horseback riding rental business when the man who ran it – who also owns the stables and the land they sit on adjacent to the park – returned to carpentry in the wake of the 1997 flood that heightened the demand for that line of work.

Park officials held public meetings to see who wanted to take over the former horse trails, with the preference going to whoever put in the most “sweat equity,” as Crandall puts it.

It was mountain bike buffs who won out. They designed and helped build numerous serpentine single-track loops throughout the park. Windier and narrower than those meant for horses, the bike trails also double as secluded hiking paths.

“We’ve got trails. Lots of them,” Chad Taylor said as he checked us in at the newly opened visitor center on Friday night.

Then in 2000, flooding affected the park more directly when the Turtle’s crest crept up nearly to the roof of Woodland Lodge, the park’s centerpiece dining hall and camp headquarters. It’s since been rebuilt, board by dried-out board, but now functions more as a meeting place and wedding venue.

To put it mildly, the park is in transition. Said less kindly, it’s seeking an identity.

“We’ve got lots of ideas. We just don’t have the money,” Crandall says.

Crandall envisions the park – with its diverse range of riparian land, wetlands, native prairie and wooded areas and proximity to Grand Forks – as an educational destination. Already, a part-time naturalist leads children’s programs on weekends.

After cooking up burgers on the grill pit outside our home for the night, Cottonwood B, and hoping for privacy’s sake that no one booked Cottonwood A, we went to the amphitheater to take in a presentation on urban wildlife.

The kids in attendance – whose names I recall as Bailey and Cassie because we were forced to do that icebreaker where you match up a gesture with your name – seemed to enjoy the mix of cheesy animal jokes, bird-feeder construction tips and animal origin trivia. Not so much on our part, though it was neat to find out starlings were introduced to the U.S. by a Shakespeare enthusiast who wanted to make sure America was home to every variety of bird the Bard ever mentioned.

It is, however, charming to see the kind of idealism that let the naturalist, Melody Ross, say things like this with a straight face: “We’re kind of all one. We all want food and shelter and space.”

Post-presentation, we went on a twilight hike on a bike trail. We saw what I thought would be the weekend’s most intimate brush with wildlife: a half-dozen young deer frolicking across a prairie, two of them stopping to stand on their back hooves and playfully swat at each other before sprinting into the darkness.

That was before I woke up with the tick on my chin.

Luckily, I had taken the time right before bedtime (buy firewood at the visitor center if you want to stay up past sunset because collecting firewood is prohibited) to sit out in the darkness and ponder the majesty of trees.

This is not something I can accomplish on my balcony and even if I had one, I don’t think it would be as easy in a backyard. The time in the dark made me realize you pay for the space as much as the shelter. A cabin gives you a feeling of seclusion impossible to achieve in a site marked off by rope surrounded by dozens of others just like it.

So the chin tick didn’t bother me. I chalked it up to wilderness living and we marched out on a lengthy, late-morning hike on the bike-free nature trail that begins near Woodland Lodge. The trail smells like a well-stocked spice cabinet and meanders by a dam area that serves as a de facto pool in defiance of the signs that warn visitors of the lack of swimming areas. Good times.

No, that first tick didn’t bother me. It was the four I discovered when we stopped to eat in Grand Forks on the way home that I found unsettling. That’s the sort of thing that worries a guy, cabin mode or not.

Next time? Cuffed pants.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

If you go

  • What: Cabin rentals at Turtle River State Park

  • Where: Near Arvilla, N.D. on Highway 2 west of Grand Forks

  • When: May 1 through Sept. 30

  • Info: $45 per night, plus an entrance permit for $5 per day or $25 for the year

  • For more information: (701) 594-4445

  • Related Web sites: http://www.ndparks.com/Parks/TRSP.htm