The propane fireplace took a few minutes to kick in. But when it did, warmth crept across the cabin floor.
The mattresses on the two sets of bunk beds were bare and stiff. But with a little imagination, you could picture campers curled up in their sleeping bags, basking in the stove's glow.
A much warmer picture than the alternative - true winter camping. There is something to be said about roughing it in a tent below a canopy of snow-covered hardwood trees. But this winter, even the most hard-core winter campers might want to consider another option.
The camper cabins at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park are secluded, tucked in the far reaches of the park, with a picnic table and firepit right outside (left) - along with endless winter recreational possibilities. Brainerd Dispatch/ Brian S. Peterson » Purchase reprints of this photo.
Five of these simple, rustic cabins are clustered together near the far reaches of Mille Lacs Kathio State Park near Garrison. All are 12-by-22 feet with two sets of bunk beds - a single on top and double bed on the bottom - a simple wooden table/bench, electric lights and, of course, the fireplace.
Outside the screened porch is everything a winter camper could ask for - at least this winter: piles of snow and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing - the groomed trail starts near the first cabin as you come into this tiny winter colony.
And, unlike typical winter camping, camper cabins are much more children and family friendly.
"We get a lot of families," said Kris Erickson, assistant park manager at Kathio. "The ski trail comes right up to the cabins. We primarily get skiers in the winter, but we've had some snowmobilers, although they have to trailer them (the snowmobiles) in."
Kathio rents cross-country skis and snowshoes and features nearly 20 miles of cross-country ski trails, 6-1/2 miles of snowshoe trails and 19 miles of snowmobile trails. A winter camper's paradise.
According to Erickson, cabin rentals "are down a little this winter. I don't know if it's the economy or what. But it's good if you want to get in. It's more of the weekends in the winter."
The cabins, which sleep six - the one handicapped-accessible cabin sleeps five - rent for $50 a night.
For winter campers at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, each camper cabin includes two sets of bunk beds on which to curl up in toasty sleeping bags. Brainerd Dispatch/ Brian S. Peterson » Purchase reprints of this photo.
While the cabins help take off the edge for winter campers, there's still a sense of roughing it. Kathio's cabins don't have running water or indoor cooking facilities. Firepits and a picnic table are located outside each cabin, a vaulted toilet is within view of the cabins and the trail center - with running water and toilets - is a two-minute drive away, Erickson said.
"I can't think of anything negative that I've heard," Erickson said of the winter camper cabin experience. "Basically it's winter camping without all the gear. With a nice, warm shelter."
According to the DNR, 22 state parks have camper cabins for rent, including 13 in the winter. Like Kathio, Jay Cooke, just up Highway 210 near Carlton, has five cabins. Crow Wing State Park south of Brainerd has one, but it's seasonal, available April through October.
Kathio's cabins are eight to 10 years old, Erickson said. Jay Cooke opened its first cabin in 1999 and added four in August, according to Eunice Luedtke, park manager at Jay Cooke.
"It's taken a while to get people to know we have them," Luedtke said. "They've been occupied every weekend (this winter). During the weekdays, not as much. But on the weekend they are. And next summer, they'll be occupied every day.
"They're more of a hardshell tent," Luedtke said of Jay Cooke's cabins. "There's baseboard heating and lights for reading. The newer ones have lights above the beds. There's a table and two benches. You're allowed a coffee pot and crock pot (inside), but no frying pans or propane stoves. They have to cook outside for that stuff.
"They (campers) have really enjoyed them. It's really nice to have heat."
A propane fireplace. Brainerd Dispatch/ Brian S. Peterson » Purchase reprints of this photo.
Most state parks have snowshoe and cross-country ski events scheduled throughout the winter. Kathio has Snowshoeing for Beginners on Jan. 17, a candlelight ski Feb. 7 and Snowshoeing into Kathio's Ancient Past on Feb. 14. Jay Cooke will host Geocaching on Snowshoes on Jan. 17, Discover Winter Snowshoe Hike Jan. 24 and Feb. 7 and a candlelight ski and snowshoe Feb. 13. Some make a weekend of it, staying in the camper cabins.
"The snowshoeing and skiing have been great," said Luedtke, who added that those interested in the events should sign up ahead of time by calling the park office at (218) 384-4610. "We have 32 miles of ski trails and 10 miles for snowshoeing. We had quite a few people last weekend. We rented a lot of snowshoes. We have a good two feet of snow on the ground."
To reserve a cabin, call (866) 857-2757 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily or go to www.stayatmnparks.com.
BRIAN S. PETERSON, outdoors editor, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5864.
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