New state parks don’t come in a box. If they did, the new Lake Vermilion State Park would come in a large puzzle box with thousands of pieces.
The box cover would display a panoramic picture taken from one of the park’s rocky peaks, capturing a bird’s-eye view of the 40,000-acre lake, complete with 368 islands and 340 miles of pine covered shoreline, demonstrating why Lake Vermilion is listed as one of Minnesota’s ten largest lakes.
Project Manager Erika Rivers and a cadre of experts are charged with putting all the pieces of the Lake Vermilion State Park together in a plan by the end of the year. Earlier this year, the state purchased the 3,000-acre plot of land-directly east of the 900-acre Soudan Underground Mine State Park-from U.S. Steel for $18 million.
Before the first campfire is lit, civil engineers, botanists, archeologists, historians, wildlife specialists and user groups will gather all the pieces in piles, one for the lake and sky, another for the land of trees, rock, trails and camping possibilities and a third for the cultural and regional possibilities of this new venture.
A big piece of the puzzle is the 10 miles of shore on the southern edge of Lake Vermilion spreading across Swedetown, Stuntz, Mattson, Cable and Armstrong Bays. Stuntz Bay, located in the Soudan portion of the property, has a popular and historic boat landing with 144 corrugated steel boathouses listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The boathouses were built in the first half of the 20th Century, and since they became part of Soudan Underground Mine State Park, questions have arisen about how these man-made survivors fit into the mission of the park. Are they quaint representations of the lake’s history or an obstruction to the shore’s natural beauty?
Hundreds of motorboats launch from Stuntz Bay every weekend, and the park is expected to become a destination for thousands of boaters using the lake. One piece of the Vermilion puzzle will be how to provide camping accessability for motorboats and paddle craft. Planners envision shoreline campsites for boaters, hikers, skiers or dog sleds. Another possibility could be camper cabins or yurts at some remote sites.
Most pieces of this puzzle display rock, marsh and hills.
The rock can be found at the top of the many tall peaks overlooking the lake like the 1,589-foot peak overlooking Mattson Bay. Three rock formations converge at this site, mixing with the remains of a dramatic volcano some 2.7 billion years ago and making rare rock formations.
Before the underground mine was built, hundreds of 8- to 10-foot deep test pits were dug on the property, offering interpretive opportunities, but also strange obstacles to building campsites and trails.
For decades beavers have built 10- to 20-foot dams, creating large ponds and marshlands throughout the center of the park. Visible from the peaks, these are good for wildlife watching.
“These rocks, marshland and hills give the park its beauty, but they also make it hard to plan campsites, toilets and trails,” said Larry Peterson, a civil engineer and park developer.
“This causes us to be more creative in the design and layout of the facilities. You can’t expect beaver dams to look and function the exact same way-even over the course of a ten-year period, so you have to work within the naturally changing framework of these structures,” added Peterson.
Peterson notes while campsites need level ground, they aren’t built in the wide spaces once used.
This 3,000-acre piece of land doesn’t have the pristine, untouched beauty of the Boundary Waters. It’s tall white and red pines were logged off like much of northern Minnesota around the turn of the century. Thirty years ago, much of the property was logged again leaving a terrain of aspen, birch and rough-cut logging trails.
Fortunately, a 300-foot strip of pines has been left along the shoreline and many large pines remain in the park.
The legislature mandates each state park reestablish plants and animals that existed during pre-settlement conditions. Regional Resource Specialist Tavis Westbrook has been surveying every corner of the new park and believes the forest may partially return to its original condition in a few generations.
“Logging can mimic natural forest disturbance much like a forest fire by setting the clock back to zero. The first growth comes in aspen and birch. If enough seed trees remain, a growth of pine, balsam, spruce and cedar could follow. We can help the return of conifer trees in selected areas where regeneration is not happening with select plantings. For now, we are just seeing that initial cohort of species typical of a younger forest in northern Minnesota. With that said, parks will manage this land quite differently than how it’s been managed in the past. By allowing natural processes to occur and encouraging older forests, many areas of the park will succeed without much intervention. Either way, it would take generations,” said Westbrook.
Now that the U.S. Steel land is in public hands, two regional trails can be worked into this park puzzle.
The Mesabi Trail running from Grand Rapids to Tower can soon be extended through the park, on to Bear Head Lake State Park and then to Ely, allowing bikers to span the 18-mile addition.
“This is a wonderful thing. We just have to figure out how it is going to fit. The trail from Tower into the park is about seventy percent clear. We now need to find a way to cover the remaining thirty percent without disturbing trees. The state may also be moving Hwy 169 to the south, giving us an opportunity to use the old Hwy. 169 if possible,” said Bob Manzoline, Executive Director of the St. Louis & Lake Countries Regional Railroad Authority that oversees the Mesabi Trail.
Manzoline also said they have records of an old portage trail through the area that archeologists are trying to locate.
He added a group of Ely dog sled enthusiasts would like to ride the new Mesabi trail (which may follow an old portage trail), to the park, stay over night and return the next day.
The Taconite Trail has brought snowmobilers through the area for many years. A spur cuts through the southern portion of the park, which could be used to bring snowmobilers to the mine or a visitor’s center.
Park Manager Jim Essig believes the Soudan Underground Mine could be open for tours in the winter if trail users increased.
No picture of Lake Vermilion would be complete without snow, about 52 inches a year to be exact. Rivers sees the park as a year-round destination. Many of the logging trails are over easy rolling hills just right for Nordic Skiing.
The people in this puzzle are as varied as the park’s history. Dakota and Ojibwa used the area to hunt, fish and gather berries and herbs. Voyageurs out of Montreal came to trade for beaver pelts some 350 years ago. Miners came in the middle of the 19thcentury to extract iron ore.
Each group of people has left a significant mark on this parkland. How to interpret that mark will be an important part of the Vermilion puzzle.
There are also many types of people wanting to use the park, from backpackers to RV campers, from skiers to snowmobilers, from kayakers to houseboaters and from rock hounds to mining tourists.
“We know many people will want to use this park in many ways,” said Park Manager Essig. “Our challenge will be how are we going to accommodate them and preserve the natural resources at the same time.”