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First Day Hike

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The sound of aluminum snowshoes methodically crunching along the trail Sunday, Jan. 1 was amplified in the winter solitude of Itasca State Park.

Itasca lead naturalist Connie Cox led 39 people — and one dog — on a scenic snowshoe trek through the woods and along Lake Itasca for the First Day Hike.

The First Day Hike brought together snowshoers like Craig and Jean Nieman, who live on Boot Lake north of Park Rapids, and folks from Fargo, Minneapolis, and Bozeman, Montana.

Prior to departing, Cox identified some of the health benefits to hiking in the winter, including fresh air and psychological benefits of being outside during the winter months, Vitamin D from the sunlight, exercise and physical activity away from computer screens.

Craig Nieman commented during the hike it was a beautiful day to get out, exercise and enjoy what the park has to offer.

Shawn Preabt of Fargo spends a lot of time throughout the year at Itasca. Each time he makes the trip, Preabt says he enjoys the drive. He spends every weekend in the summer camping at Itasca, and this past year completed the 100-mile challenge on the North Country Trail, celebrating 100 years of national parks.

"I thought it was great," Preabt said of Sunday's snowshoe hike. It was the first time he participated in one of the group snowshoe hikes and enjoyed the day.

"I tried a few of the meet-ups last year, but this is my first organized hike. I've always done my own where you break trail and lead the pack. This is such a beautiful place. We love coming up here."

A couple from West Fargo had spent New Year's Eve in Walker and decided to break in their new snowshoes on Sunday.

North Country Trail veterans John LaFond and Carter and Flo Hedeen were along to provide their hiking guidance and expertise.

As the sun broke through the winter sky, Sunday's hike was about two miles on the La Salle Trail. Starting at the Pine Ridge Campground, Cox informed the group this used to be a veterans conservation camp. World War I veterans came out to Itasca to work as part of the Veterans Conservation Corps (VCC). The camp featured barracks and parade grounds, which is now full of playground equipment and picnic tables.

In 1942, the veterans camp was stripped down and shipped to Alaska for use during World War II. The well house is the only remaining structure today.

Cox called Sunday's First Day Hike a fitness hike, and not necessarily an interpretive hike but she did provide plenty of history along the way.

As the group walked along Lake Itasca, Cox stopped at Pioneer Cemetery overlooking Lake Itasca and told the tragic story of Mr. McMullen's death in 1898.

Was it an accident or foul play involved?

William McMullen first came to Itasca in 1889 and resided in the area when Itasca State Park was established in 1891.

McMullen passed away in 1898 under circumstances that were disputed amongst Itasca's early residents for decades to follow.

As the story goes, Mr. McMullen was hunting with Nelson Rust on the west side of the lake when they flushed a bear. Newspapers in 1898 reported McMullen went off through a thicket to scare the bear into the open and in so doing got ahead of Rust. Rust heard a rustling in the brush, and looking in that direction saw McMullen's white necktie moving. He thought it was the white flag of a deer and fired, the bullet striking McMullen near the heart, killing him almost instantly.

The situation was investigated and was taken to court. The defense was able to prove Mr. Rust's innocence and he was freed.

Friends of McMullen accused Rust of wanting McMullen's land, and others claimed that Mrs. Rust tied a scarf around McMullen's neck so that he could be easily spotted.

Rust was ultimately acquitted of the crime, but according to "The Itasca Story," the incident incited a feud between McMullen's supporters and Rust's family that lasted until the 1930s.

Cox, in telling an abbreviated version of the story Sunday, reiterated Rust was found innocent of any charges and conspiracies.

Also highlighted on the hike was the impressive stone CCC stone incinerator along the La Salle Trail. Impressive craftsmanship in this structure which was used to burn garbage during the CCC days.

"One of the finest incinerators you'll ever find," Cox commented.