PINE RIVER, Minn. -- The average library patron may see their card as a key to magical kingdoms or amazing vistas through books, but more and more library programs are connecting card holders to the real-life outdoors.

Perhaps the latest and most grandiose offering is this year's Minnesota state parks library program. This yearlong pilot program that started in June pairs the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources with the state's 14 regional library systems to provide state park passes to 71 libraries throughout the state.

For example, the Kitchigami Regional Library System, based out of Pine River and serves five counties, has state park passes at six of its locations. The program has already proven to be immensely popular.

"In June, ours was gone every week," said Tami Beto, Pine River Public Library branch manager. "We had people coming and calling numerous times to get it."

"They're constantly out," said Laurel Hall, library assistant at the Brainerd Public Library. "We're always having people call to see if they are in, or running in to get them. They are pretty much out all the time."

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The program offers library card holders the chance to make trips to state parks more affordable.

"Typically, they started it to really help lower-income families," Beto said. "Because maybe that park fee is too much for them. They aren't putting income requirements into using it, but that was just kind of the main goal, to make it accessible to everybody. That's why they partnered with libraries, because libraries are accessible."

It also helps those who are on the fence and are just not sure whether an annual pass is worth it.

"It's a great program," Beto said. "We had one couple meeting their grandchildren to go to a state park for the weekend. Another couple went camping and needed a park pass so they could go through the state park while they were camping. I think it's great. You can visit as many parks as you want or just visit the same park."

That's how Jane and Joe Styndl of Backus initially used the pass.

"We had a birthday and decided to visit the state parks," Jane Styndl said. "We didn't know if we'd like it. We saw in the paper that they had a park pass available on Monday. We were leaving that day so we picked up the park pass."

They used the pass to great effect, visiting more than just one or two parks for the week they had the pass.

"We were around Mankato and the state parks there are absolutely stunning. The waterfalls in the spring are unbelievable. There's two levels, so it's incredible. We went to Nerstrand State Park towards Rochester," Jane said.

Since then, the Styndls have been inspired not only to buy an annual pass, but to put it to constant use.

"We visited so many," Jane said. "We're continuing to do it about every week."

They have been to Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton, Minneopa State Park in Mankato, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park near Faribault, Itasca State Park in Park Rapids, Banning State Park in Sandstone and Charles Lindbergh State Park in Little Falls. They had nothing but good things to say about the program.

"I would encourage everybody to give it a try," Jane said. "It isn't just good for young people. Every age can enjoy it. There's something for everybody. The waterfalls are incredible. You have to go east and west, but my overall impression is it's great for families."

The park pass program is just a pilot program this year, but Beto hopes the immense success will make it an annual program. She hopes more passes would become available since each system only has a limited number of passes available at any time. Pine River Public Library, for example, has only one pass, meaning it can only be used by one person or group per week.

"We're pretty sure it's going to be a program that continues. It's working. It's getting people out there," Beto said.

"I think it would be wonderful," Hall said. "The more people we can get into the outdoors and accessing our state parks, the better. They're for everyone. It can only be a value added situation."

And that's not all. The Pine River Public Library doesn't just have park passes. In addition to all the books about outdoor activities - including nature guides, tree identification guides, bird guides and books and magazines about hunting and outdoor living - a Kitchigami library card can grant holders access to outdoor gear.

For those who can't completely disconnect when they are at the cabin or camping, there's the mobile Wi-Fi hotspot.

For more traditional outdoor enthusiasts, the library has long lent life jackets.

"It's mainly the children's life jackets that have been used," Beto said. "Grandkids are coming up and they are going to take them on a boat, so they come up and use a lifejacket. It's great because that's what they're here for."

This program, which Beto said has been at the library since long before she started as branch manager, may have been the inspiration for the library's goal of expanding its outdoor gear supply. They have written grants and are awaiting new opportunities to apply for funding to provide card holders with access to items like GPS devices for hiking or geocaching, fishing rods, tackle, camping supplies and possibly more.

The Pine River Public Library is not alone in this effort. The Bemidji Public Library not only has a park pass, but outdoor story time, a gardening club and is partnered with the city's parks and recreation department.

The Brainerd Public Library has monthly presentations by local master gardeners, sidewalk chalk, a garden with edible fruits, an outdoor story walk, outdoor musical instruments and maps for self-guided outdoor tours.

The Walker Public Library is part of the Walker Rocks program, similar to the national Kindness Rocks program, which encourages children to hide painted rocks outside as they travel. The library also distributes historic walking trail maps of the area.

The Park Rapids Public Library features an annual storytime with an Itasca State Park ranger; the Longville Public Library has life jacket checkout; and the Wadena library not only has life jacket rental, but also helps connect patrons to the outdoor facilities, including the local bike trail, campground and disk golf course.

That's not all. Aside from the state's official regional library systems, there are independent libraries throughout the state with outdoor programs and offerings as well.

The Crosslake Area Library, which has an affiliation with the Kitchigami system, has a sitting garden right outside the building. It's also the gateway to outdoor athletic fields and wilderness trails useable throughout the year.

"It's called the Nordic Ridge Trail," said TJ Graumann, Crosslake parks, recreation and library director. "It's north of the community center and library. We have a ski trail, hiking trail and snowshoe trail. We groom the ski trail in the winter. We also have the hiking trail that serves our summer residents and guests in the winter. They can hike on the snowy trails as the snowshoe trail. The ski trail is 5.8 miles, the hiking trail is 2.2 miles and the snowshoe trail is 1.4 miles."

The Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library in Crosby has taken a whole different approach to providing for outdoor reading. With the George F. Crosby Park right outside, it's the perfect accessory for library card holders to enjoy the park on relaxing days, whether they want to read or just nap.

"We have hammocks people can check out for use in the park," said Abby Smith, head librarian with Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library. "Then we try to use the park for different programs. For example, the summer reading program this year was outside as much as the weather allowed."

Libraries like the one in Crosby also tend to be the jumping off point for outdoor community education or library programs, including bird watching, among other activities.

The Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library is delving into the experiences and expertise of its volunteers.

"One of our volunteers is a master naturalist," Smith said. "We're working with her to make adventure packs that kids and families can check out with different things they can do outdoors, like looking for different bugs and different things like that. We're hoping to have those added by the end of the year."

Libraries have long been known as the place to go if you want to mentally go on an adventure. But more and more, that little membership card that many people take for granted is enabling people to really get out and have fun in the sun.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.