On any given weekend, the Turtle River State Park, west of Grand Forks, is as big as many small towns. Larry Hagen is the head park ranger there. He is a lifelong devotee to the outdoors, public-access park life, and running and maintaining wild places groomed for a bit of civilization. His job description is long. He lists customer service, trail grooming, educating, enforcing and peace officer on his duties list, among others. He’s worked and lived at five state parks in North Dakota and has learned how to balance the duties of running parks that can be as busy as a small town, to enjoying the solitude and peace of a cool, quiet summer evening that comes standard for those that live and work at some of the state’s most beautiful and unique settings. He’s been living or working in the state park settings since 1978. At Turtle River, he has a house that comes standard for all head park rangers. When he isn’t at the park, he’s probably enjoying some kind of outdoor activity somewhere else. “Living in a park is a good thing,” he says. “And, when you look across the Red River Valley, you just don’t find places and parks like this.”
Hagen has seen change across the outdoor scene since his early days. People want different things now and different experiences, he says. But, there is no denying the power of the camp fire, he explains. It brings people together and unites them around the simple, common elements of our lives that can draw us all into the current moment, and provide the type of wonder that no screen can ever match, he explains. The camp fire has stood the test of time and will continue to do so as long as state parks exist, he says. It shouldn’t be a surprise then, that the item his office runs out of most is still the fire starter.
More than 80 percent of the park is impacted by trails. Hagen and his team take great pride in the complexity of the trail system. They work hard to keep them groomed at all times of the year. Mountain bikers and skiers have taken notice. Scheels has donated a bike maintenance station due to the high-volume of bike users. Fat-tire bikers have come to love the rides in the winter. Hagen hopes to host more events at the trails, including a stop on the International Mountain Bikers tour.
Find Your Spot
For tenters, spots along the river allow patrons to fall asleep listening to the babble of the river. Look out for deer shuffling by, along with other animals and birds in the distance. Campers can still see wildlife from their upgraded spots. They can also listen to the sway of cottonwoods around them. The park has the only river in the state park system that can boast trout fishing. The North Dakota State Game and Fish department stocks the river at various times throughout the year. During certain months, don’t be surprised to find fly-fisherman wading the river.
For those looking to partake in the beauty and tranquility of the park for just a day, Hagen and his team make sure dream weddings or corporate outings are all possible. A few years ago, the park hosted 38 weddings. Hagen’s daughter was married at the park. Cabins and renovated buildings that come with commercial kitchens, Wi-Fi and an undeniably cool woodsy feel, can hold 400 people. A step dam along the river lets visitors rest and enjoy day trips. Bridges and fields give photographers unlimited settings to shoot.
Park Life Changes, Park Life Stays the Same
Hagen has seen a transition from park goers and campers throughout his years across the state. Today, the demand for infrastructure upgrades like showers, camper and recreational vehicle hook-ups, including sewer and electric at every site, and certainly dependable Wi-Fi, is mostly a must. Camping units have become luxiurous and efficient. Most people don’t tent anymore, instead opting for the outdoors if it comes with air conditioning, heat and shelter if the rain comes.
But, even with the changes, Hagen says there is always one constant. “Everyone wants a bit of freedom. If they go somewhere and they don’t like it, they want to be able to hook up and go. Camping in some ways has always been about being self-sufficient.”
Enjoying the breeze in the trees or the hum of nearly nothing is also still alluring to campers, Hagen says. “That will never change. People want solitude at times.” G
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PHOTOS BY: MANSTROM PHOTOGRAPHY
From Issue 4, 2019