Jul. 20--Nudge aside just a bit, Mother Nature.
     You're not the only force with a hand in this summer's vacation and weekend recreation experience. Record-high fuel prices play a noteworthy role this year, too.
     OK, perhaps not nearly to the extent of that elongated chilly spring you handed us -- the one that scuttled or soured so many outdoor plans at state parks, lake resorts and other favorite recreational playgrounds.
     And, yes, Ma, while we appreciate the warm, sunny weather of late, your untimely windy and rainy Saturdays continue to be a real weekend buzz kill.
     But even with warm weather upon us, our pocketbooks are driving many of our vacation and recreation trip decisions. Thanks in no small part to gas prices near $4 a gallon, we're driving a bit less, or at least differently. We're also resorted to various measures to ensure a little outdoor fun in our lives.
     At least, that's the perspective of some people who manage some recreation destinations in northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.
     "It appears people are coming less often," said Henry Duray, the longtime North Dakota state parks veteran who's spending his first summer as manager of Grahams Island State Park on Devils Lake. "They're still coming, though."
     Ken Anderson, manager of Lake Bronson State Park in northwest Minnesota's Kittson County, said his park was busier by mid-June than it has been in several years, despite the lengthy cool spring. "If the weather cooperates," he said, "it looks like it's going to be a big summer.
     And read this from Matt Snyder, the new park manager at Minnesota's noted Itasca State Park southeast of Bagley: Itasca's gift shop sales have tracking slightly above 2007's sales, "and that's where people who are coming are going to have the discretionary spending.
     "Hooded sweatshirts right now, $60 a sweatshirt, they're buying them. They're buying the framed pictures and the different types of knickknacks that we have to sell ... You're not seeing people you know hanging on and grabbing their pocketbook with both hands once they arrive at the park."
     All over the region, Itasca's Snyder said, "people are basically changing their daily lives to cut back. But when it comes to vacation, this is what we do. We go on vacation. Even if we cut back on somewhere else in our daily lives, by god, we're going to do it."
     Seasonal camping, camper storage
     Many of the region's resorts and, in North Dakota, state parks have seen more inquiries than last year for on-site locations to keep campers, trailers, motor homes or boats rather than hauling them to and from home. Some private resorts have taken notice.
     At Devils Lake, the seasonal camping sites available for lease at the lake's several resorts are full, Duray said. "One converted overnight sites to seasonal sites and did not advertise," he said, "and they had 25 filled, just like that."
     Neither North Dakota nor Minnesota state parks allow seasonlong camping, park managers stress.
     But some North Dakota state parks -- Grahams Island and Icelandic near Cavalier included -- offer an alternative: designated storage areas where campers, RVs and boats can be left until their owners return to either drive or trailer them to a campsite or a boat access ramp.
     Grahams Island storage has room for about 60 units, and Duray says it's full: "That's a lot. Some even leave their boats attached to a camper -- fifth wheels with boats hooked up to the back of them ... I know there are people who are storing it here that have never done it before.
     "At least when you start doing that kind of thing, you're content with staying where you are."
     In years past, Icelandic park's storage unit area was used by fewer than 10 campers or boats the entire season, park manager Justin Robinson said. This summer, he said, about 10 to 20 campers and boats -- including many owned by people within 30 to 50 miles of Icelandic -- stay in leased storage space each week. Fees are $3 a day, $10 a week, $35 a month and $125 for the season.
     People driving RVs or hauling campers, boats and other recreational vehicles no longer are as mobile and moving from campground to campground, Duray said.
     Campsite reservation systems are welcomed by would-be campers who don't want to travel costly distances only to learn that no campsites are available, he said.
     Staying close to home
     "We're not seeing a huge spike of increase or decrease" of park visitors, said Itasca's Synder. About 70 percent of Itasca's use typically is by Minnesotans and another 20 percent by North Dakotans, many of them Grand Forks and Fargo residents, he said.
     Summer campsite use is down only slightly from 2007, but use of historic Douglas Lodge and nearby cabins has increased, Snyder said.
     At Icelandic, "there's a lot more local campers than we've had in the past, and we don't see as many people from a distance as we have before," Robinson said.
     And while the Canadian dollar is nearly on par with Americans' dollar bill these days, Manitobans still deal with gas prices that exceed prices in neighboring North Dakota and Minnesota. That's keeping some Canadian recreation seekers closer to home at parks just across the border, such as Icelandic and Lake Bronson, park managers say.
     Adjusting budgets,
     trip lengths
     Warroad and Baudette, Minn., area resorts on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River remain popular destinations that nonetheless require lengthy drives for many who fish there. From Grand Forks, Baudette is about a three-hour drive one way.
     Seasonal camper sites, when available, have been popular by the big lake for years. The drive hasn't gotten cheaper.
     Several resort businesses -- Sportsman's Lodge and River Bend Resort, to name two -- are offering travel incentives, such as gas cards or discounts for certain types of bookings.
     "Overall, for the whole summer, we've maybe had two cancellations due to gas prices," said River Bend's Judy Kasberger, who said it's been "pretty busy" for summer, considering it's a slower recreational season for the resort than winter.
     If pocketbook pressures have affected anything, Kasberger said, it might be the resort's restaurant and bar traffic. Resort guests seem to remain in their cabins "a little bit" more often, relying instead on food and beverages brought from home, she said.
     Denelle Cauble, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau, said more recent marketing efforts have targeted on Minnesota and the Dakotas, even though the lake's popular outreach extends from Nebraska to Indiana.
     "I think we do see that, instead of taking the five- to seven-day trip or taking multiple trips, we are seeing cutting back. ... They're doing one trip" and maybe extending that stay, Cauble said.
     The bureau has been "surprised" to see more inquiries about camping and campsites than in recent summers, she said. In addition to Zippel Bay State Park and a new Baudette park set to open next month, at least half of the area's 50-plus lodge and resort businesses can accommodate camping, she said.
     Brue is projects editor of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1267; (800) 477-6572, ext. 267; or send e-mail to mbrue@gfherald.com.


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