Minnesota's state parks are coming back on line after being barricaded for nearly three weeks because of the state government shutdown.
Itasca State Park led the way, opening its gates to campers on Thursday. Many others will open to the public for day use and camping on Friday, but others will have to wait until crews clear storm-damaged trees and other debris.
The closures and ensuing confusion have meant that there's more room than usual at facilities like the Bear Paw campground in Itasca, which is typically full this time of year. By ate afternoon Thursday, the Van Eps family, of Hancock, was among only a dozen or so camping groups setting up for the night.
Earlier this week, it looked as though the family's traditional annual camping trip to Itasca would be another casualty of the shutdown. JoAnne Van Eps made reservations at Itasca a year ago, long before the budget showdown in St. Paul put the park off limits. But at the last minute, their plans changed.
"We didn't think we could get in, so we made reservations at another spot, and we were on our way up here, part way, everybody was, and one of them called the campground and they said it was open. So we had a bunch of turmoil," she said.
Most of the family was on the road, headed for their alternate camp site on Pelican Lake near Ashby; some had already arrived. Daughter Marilyn Hoge, who was driving in from North Dakota, says it took awhile for them to decide what to do.
"After about 10 phone calls back and forth to all of us, we were trying to decide if we should come here or go to the one at Ashby, which is a really nice resort, also. But we just love this place. We come back every year. It's just kind of like a homecoming to come back," she said.
Just before the state government shutdown began July 1, lots of people cancelled their reservations in state parks. For some, that created opportunities. Carl Korfmacher, of Evansville, Wis., didn't have a reservation at Itasca. But when he heard the park was open for camping, he and his 7-year-old son were able to grab a prime camp site with no neighbors in sight.
"I'm sorry for the employees that didn't get to work the past few weeks," he said. "I'm sorry for the people that had their plans screwed up, but for me today, it's just a beautiful day, and we're in this beautiful campground with all the resources at hand and not the crowd, so it's great."
DNR officials say some state parks will need more time to reopen. Afton, Lake Bronson and Blue Mounds are among a handful of parks that sustained facility and tree damage from storms. St. Croix State Park will be closed indefinitely while staff assesses widespread damage from a July 1 storm.
At Itasca State Park, there were only a few downed trees to clean up. Park Manager Matt Snyder says people were able to enter the park before 7 a.m. Thursday.
"Mother Nature treated us very well," he said. "No major storm damage. The few people that visited us over the three weeks took their trash with them. We're very happy, overall, with how the park looked when we came back after our shutdown."
Snyder guesses the campgrounds and cabins at Itasca will be full by Saturday, though it's unclear whether people with reservations will show up. The state's telephone reservation system won't be up and running until Tuesday. In the meantime, people hoping to get a campsite can call individual parks to see if there's space available.
Michael Kovacovich, the DNR's northwest regional parks and trails manager, says with so many cancellations prior to the shutdown, there may be lots of new opportunities for people willing to camp on short notice.
"This is our prime season, so hopefully people will still come out to state parks and trails and enjoy the great recreation and different things that we have to offer here, and we're glad to be back," he said.
The latest information on the status of state parks can be found on the DNR's web site. A red, yellow or green symbol will show whether the park is open or closed.