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Exploring Itasca State Park

A new guidebook for Itasca State Park is written by local author Deane Johnson.

Since childhood, Deane Johnson has been intrigued by Itasca State Park, his introduction to the buffalo that once “roamed” a vivid memory.

Home on the prairie (Grand Forks) heightened his “longing for the trees and hills.” Years later, a Memorial Day walk on Dr. Roberts Trail with wife Jill and friends revealed flowers and trees native to this neck of the woods. He was enamored with the small yellow lady’s slippers, ferns and lichens.

The park’s proximity to Park Rapids was a “deciding factor” to move here a few years later, the retired physician said. Years of snowshoeing, skiing, biking and hiking in the park ensued.

In 2011, Johnson completed a Master Naturalist course and began to restore plant identification stakes along Dr. Roberts Trail, “the same trail that had captivated me decades earlier.” The initial 100 stakes identifying flora had diminished to 35.

He determined the park held territory he’d not yet explored and headed into the gift shop to purchase a trail guide.

None existed.

The original spiral-bound collection of monographs on trails and wildlife had met extinction.

The photographer for wife Jill’s book, “Little Minnesota: 100 Towns Around 100” decided to pick up the camera once again ­– and the pen.

Two-and-a-half years of “intensive work” began, including 120 trips to Itasca, camera in hand.

The recently acquired LaSalle State Recreation Area is featured, Johnson hiking around the lake with a friend, leaping over a beaver dam at the conclusion of the journey. He speculates they may be the first to hike the trail, with the exception of the Department of Natural Resources personnel.

Initially, he planned to simply compile a trail guide for all-season sports. ­But at the urging of his publisher ­– and his curiosity aroused ­– Itasca’s rich history was also to be explored.

The book begins with the “best of Itasca,” focusing the park’s natural wonders as well as its hospitality role. The guide then takes readers across the park on foot, cross country skis, bikes and auto, the sections providing info on distance, difficulty, facilities and more on each.

The manual offers info points of interest along each trail, as well as GPS readings at the trailhead.

Vibrant photos engage the imagination. (He shot an estimated 5,000-plus, approximately 200 appearing in the book.)

He explores the natural history of the land and its preserved ecosystem as well as the characters who defined the park’s inception.

“It’s designed for the backpack,” Johnson said.

The work holds appeal for those who’ve spent countless hours in its forests and those contemplating a first visit.

Deane Johnson will be signing copies of the book at noon Saturday, May 10 at Beagle Books.

“Improve your life,” the author advises. “Connect with nature at Itasca State Park.”

He speaks from experience.