14 of My Favorite Outdoor Blogs, Vlogs and Podcasts to Follow

I am constantly yearning for another trip, another adventure. For me, the mountains are always calling. Only lately, it’s more like a high-pitched ringing or a noisy alarm clock that doesn’t have a snooze.

I have a few trips planned out, but the anticipation is getting intense. So, to alleviate the restlessness, I’m often looking to others’ adventures for ideas, for inspiration and — simply — for a good story, because who doesn’t love a good story?

While I’m waiting for the launch date, I’m hunting around the internet and social media to get an outdoor fix.

I’ve compiled some of my favorite blogs, vlogs and podcasts to follow while I’m experiencing abnormal levels of FOMO and waiting for the day to finally come so that I can revisit the wild.


You’ll find resources for …

  • Outdoor Gear
  • Inspiration
  • News and Learning
  • How-tos

For Outdoor Gear

1. CleverHiker

The whole idea behind this digital backpacking resource is fantastic if you ask me. Dave and Annie, the duo behind CleverHiker, produce a range of content on backpacking and camping gear, outdoor ethics, and wilderness trips.

For me, this site really fits into every category listed, but CleverHiker has been a go-to for me mainly for gear reviews. They are comprehensive and cover a broad scope, which saves precious time surfing the internet when in need of solid outdoor gear.

Check our CleverHiker’s 2018 Gear Guide >>

2. Backcountry

Backcountry’s blog is a newer discovery for me. Traditionally, Backcountry is just the main spot for a wonderful selection of outdoor stuff that I sometimes need and often just really want.

When diving into the reviews of some products, you’ll find reviews from Backcountry’s Gearheads. Those reviews can be helpful in a pivotal way when you’re all but spent from searching through endless digital aisles of gear.

Backcountry’s blog is no different. I recently read about choosing the right snow helmet, since I’m in the market. The post was a good read, with valuable information to help point me in the right direction.

Thanks for that!

3.Outdoor Gear Lab

Much like the folks at CleverHiker, the Outdoor Gear Lab has been a savior for me. The focus of this site is on reviews — serious reviews.

Everything from pocket knives to sleeping bags, tents, camp kitchen stuff, and everything else you can think of for backpacking, climbing — anything outdoors related really. The reviews and guides are comprehensive, taking into account price, the pros and cons, specs, weight, and much more.

Instead of spending way too many hours sifting through online gear reviews — which can get pretty sketchy at times — the Outdoor Gear Lab is a one-stop shop.

Check out the best backpacking tents of 2018 >>

For Outdoor Inspiration

4. REI Co-op Journal

“At the end of the day, it’s undeniable: Emily Noyd craves wilderness.”

The REI Co-op Journal featured a story about Emily Noyd, a backcountry ranger in Yosemite National Park. You learn about Noyd, her history, her passion for the outdoors and helping others experience these cherished wild places too.

It’s stories like these that inspire me to get outside and help others do the same.

This was a great story. Read it here >>

5. The Outbound Collective

“I saw a chance to break away from my desk job and comfortable life in San Francisco and strip myself down to the bare bones of what I was,” Morgan Woodhouse wrote in an article for The Outbound Collective.

Woodhouse chronicles 18 days of pure wilderness, backpacking the John Muir Trail.

Always a good spot for inspiration. Check it out >>

6. Dirtbag Diaries

I started cycling to work once, twice — and if I’m lucky — three times a week. It’s a solid 50-minute commute and the whole time I have the Dirtbag Diaries going.

Quick alert: I’m not all the way caught up. But, I’m working on it.

As much as I love getting up way earlier than normal to bike to work, I think I looked forward to this podcast just as much. The storytelling is phenomenal, and it speaks some serious truth to what it’s like being in love with wild places.

My favorite episode? Hard to say. But, I enjoy ghost stories around Halloween a bunch.

Check ’em out here >>

8. Chris Brin Lee, Jr.

If you’re reading this, you’ve already heard of this guy.

Anybody who’s remotely interested in the outdoors — or at least likes to look at really cool pictures — has admired Chris Brin Lee, Jr.’s Instagram account.

I mean, seriously though, this is amazing.

For Outdoor News and Learning

*For the record here, Outside and Backpacker Magazines are by default on this list. That goes without saying.

9. Leave No Trace

The guiding principles of outdoor stewardship in my life were engrained in my head when I took my first Wilderness Experience class in high school.

Here’s the code:

The Seven Principles

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Enjoying the outdoors and all its glory can be restorative, healing. I need it. I know others do too. That’s why — among many other reasons — we need to care for the land. You can learn how to do just that through LNT. The organization has resources on their site if you’re interested.

In the meantime, check out this awesome video by LNT:

10. Grist

With all the doom and gloom that surrounds climate change and the politics around that, it’s nice to hear a different tone of voice delivering the news.

Grist is a non-profit news organization that takes a less, well, doom-and-gloom approach to covering this pressing topic. Every day there’s a newsletter that goes out. (It’s called Briefly. Check it out here.)

Sometimes, I can’t help but laugh out loud at the way they cover the day’s news. What’s nice about Grist — other than getting the facts right, covering the news fairly, and telling underreported stories, and more — is that they often use humor to talk about typically serious topics.

Simply put, they lighten the mood and I like that.

11. Climate Cast

When you’re gridlocked in traffic and Climate Desk comes on, I get stoked — really.

Climate Desk is a podcast by MPR, or Minnesota Public Radio, that covers the big issues relating to the environment, and more.

I love that they bring on local folks to talk about the way big issues are affecting all of us, near and far. The local stuff is mixed in with international and national stories, so you get a range with this show.

I dig it, and if you’re still reading this blog post, I’m sure you will too.

Check it out here >>

For Outdoor How-Tos

12. Fjallraven

The Man in the Fjallraven Shirt is pretty knowledge, and if you check out the YouTube channel, he’ll teach you how to stay safe if you’re lost, among other things.

Editor’s note: I’m mildly obsessed with Fjallraven. You’ll likely see gear reviews and photos of admiration on Instagram. 

13. MCQBushcraft

Bushcraft is a newer concept to me. I didn’t really know a whole lot about it before this year, and so far I dig it.

Although, I don’t really practice bushcraft. That’s just not the kind of camping or backpacking style I have as of now.

At any rate, MCQBushcraft is where you can learn a whole lot about bushcraft. Michael McQuilton is the founder of MCQBushcraft and its successful YouTube channel that has all you need to know and more about outdoor skills, techniques, and best practices.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time perusing through his channel, taking in the knowledge as it’s given.

Check out his YouTube channel here >>

14. TA Outdoors

TA Outdoors caught my attention with the recycled wood pallet cabin. That in itself is totally awesome (that’s what the “TA” stands for by the way).

Mike Pullen, the host and wood pallet cabin builder, has now completed the cabin. Watching how it’s all come together has been some of an inspiration for me.

I have hopes for a little cabin one day.

So, it’s been cool to see somebody go off and build one with minimal resources, also as a way to spend time with family. Oh, and the rest of his bushcraft camp is solid.

Go check out his Instagram feed. >>


Feature Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

Lessons Learned from Winter Camping in the Boundary Waters

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

But, I didn’t realize how hard it would actually be.

I’d only been winter camping once before. It was at Lake Maria State Park, not far outside of St. Cloud, Minnesota, where I went to college.

That time, I think the overnight low was only supposed to be about 20 degrees. Nothing too bad, really.

This past weekend, the overnight was expected to dip to zero degrees. And, it did.

Although, it wasn’t the cold that proved most challenging.

It was the heat.

I couldn’t stop overheating. That wasn’t all, though.

I think I could’ve packed more efficiently, trained ahead of time, and dressed a hell of a lot better. Here are my lessons learned from winter camping in the BWCA.

Related:My First Time Winter Camping in the Boundary Water Canoe Area 

Overheating: 10 Steps, Pause, 10 Steps, Pause …

Our hike was about five miles. We entered in at Moose Lake, crossed over the portage to Wind Lake, and we found a site. It was about 15 degrees hiking in.

Looking at the route on the map, not so bad. (Isn’t it always like that, though?)

I felt prepared. I mean, really confident.

I packed gear enough for the three of us — Ben and Mack Caruso — and had plenty of warm clothes to keep even the coldest bite of wind at bay. Only, that also proved to be my downfall.

But, I was a bit sketched out if I’m being honest. You hear all those horror stories of people getting the tips of their noses chopped off because of severe frostbite and all that.

That wouldn’t be a good look for me.

I was thinking cautiously. That’s how I am. I’m not a huge risk-taker and I don’t like going into stuff half-cocked. It’s dumb.

But, I thought too hard about it — as I tend to do.

Here’s what I took for clothes:

  • Two pairs of long johns
  • Two base layers
  • A sturdy button-down
  • A wool sweater

(Sweating yet?)

  • Two pairs of wool socks
  • My down jacket
  • My snowboarding jacket and snow pants
  • Snowboarding goggles
  • Wool hat
  • Gloves
  • Face mask
  • Hiking pants
  • Sorel Caribou boots

Obviously, the goal was to stay warm. I achieved it, tenfold.

Hiking out, I wore most of these clothes. Rookie mistake.

Not even halfway through, I shed both of my jackets and open the vents on my snow pants. That helped, but I was still pretty warm. Although, I wasn’t sweating anymore, which was the most important part.

If you sweat, you’re dead. 

What I should’ve done was halve the number of clothes I wore while hiking in and out. The hike in, I could bear it. The hike out, I just couldn’t keep going.

The hike in was tough because we were hiking against the wind in vintage snowshoes from the ’50s. (Ben rented them from the community college for $10 for three sets.) Add to that a 40-pound-ish pack and way too many clothes.

With every step, those bit ole Sorels got heavier and heavier.

The biggest challenge was the hike out.

Now, we were sore from yesterday’s hike in and looking forward to a non-dehydrated meal. Oh, and a winter storm was on our heels.

I thought I could just push through the hike out, but I couldn’t. I had the hardest time keeping up because I through most of my clothes on because I didn’t have space in my pack.

The second half of the hike out, I felt like every 10 steps I took, I needed a break.

I’d take 10 steps, break. Another 10, break. 10, break.

But, that was the only challenge.

Get Yourself a Quality Compression Sack

I put it off before this trip.

I knew I needed one, but I just didn’t bother. I just thought since it was only an overnight trip, I could go without.

And, I did. But, it cost me.

Right now, I’m rockin’ a North Face Aleutian 0/-18 sleeping bag. It’s my first zero degree bag. (I plan to review it soon. Stay tuned for that. For now, know that it held up very nicely.)

In short, the thing is giant. I mean, really giant. It took up nearly all 60 liters of my pack.

If I had a compression sack, I could’ve shrunk that sucker down and made room for my wardrobe. If I end up hiking out with my pack again, I’m definitely getting a quality compression sack before going out.

Although, I saw a few folks pulling sleds out there. That seems like the way to go.

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The Lighter, the Better

Man, I really missed the mark on this one.

I packed too much for an overnighter. Or, it wasn’t evenly distributed between us. At any rate, I brought too much — particularly in the kitchen department.

I updated my camp kitchen this year, adding the GSI Outdoors Bugaboo Camper Cookset to my arsenal. (I plan to review this too.) But, in short, it’s a larger cookset for multiday trips, for multiple hikers.

Really, it’s a car camping set.

Although, I think it does break down well in a way that can be used for backpacking. Only, I didn’t do that.

I just threw the whole set in my bag and went on. One of the main rules of backpacking — that I tend to break time and time again — is bringing only what’s needed.

More often than not, I end up bringing things that I just don’t need or that I don’t use. When it comes to winter camping, this rule becomes so much more important.

Every time I go out, I take stock of what I brought along and what I didn’t use, making mental notes of all of it. 

I ended up using half of the cookset, and I could’ve done just fine with half of the clothes.

Snowshoes from this Decade

No disrespect, Ben, but the snowshoes were a bit too cumbersome for me. But thank you for renting them out for us, they did help considerably in the snow.

After this trip, I’m making an honest investment in some snowshoes that are built, well, not like the ones we used.

These were some old school, 1950s tennis-racket-style snowshoes that were standard issue for the military, Ben told us. They were durable. I mean, you could’ve fended off a bear with these.

img_4868

But, with today’s technology, there are more effective models out there. Based on this experience, I’m going with something that has the following:

A Heel Lift

Going over any sort of hills or portages, a heel lift would save your calves for the rest of your trip. These old school snowshoes didn’t have the lifts and I felt it.

Serious Traction

I went to a winter camping clinic at Midwest Mountaineer in Minneapolis earlier this season. The instructor had a wealth of knowledge to share, and I wish I would’ve taken his words more seriously.

He said that snowshoes turned into skis on the descent. Right he was. So, if you manage to find a pair of snowshoes that have a good e-break or traction bars built in, you won’t be sorry.

Shorter, slimmer

What was really hard for me was getting adjusted to walking in them. (This was also my first time snowshoeing — like really snowshoeing.)

Since they bowed out, you had to almost swing your foot up and over with each pass. Plus, you had long tails in the back.

If you crossed those, you were either going to flail or fall.

All in all, I Can’t Wait to Get Back Out

I made some rookie mistakes.

That’s okay.

I’m still a rookie.

The trip was a bunch of fun and an amazing experience. Being out there in the wild with a few good friends was a time that I won’t forget.

I’m grateful for the experience and totally hooked on the place. I cannot wait to go back.

And, now I know what I’m in for next time.

My First Time Winter Camping in the Boundary Water Canoe Area [Video]

Sporting a pair of snowshoes from the ’50s, Ben, Mack and I hiked into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Wilderness for an overnight stay on Wind Lake.

Our Trek

Moose Lake entry point to Wind Lake (about 5 miles).

About the Trip

This was my first time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, proper. (I’ve been to Voyageurs National Park.)

It was an experience I won’t forget and one that I’m very proud of.

Not only was it one of the tougher trips I’ve taken, but it was an excellent learning experience overall — both in terms of learning about the land and what’s included with winter camping in the north woods.

A big thank you to the Caruso bros for your patience and support during this trek into the wild. I’m hoping for a repeat trip this summer.

2017: A Year in Review

I started 2017 off a little rocky.

Two weeks into the new year, I got laid off from my first professional job outside of college.

I was working at a tech startup as a content writer. Only nine months into the gig, they decided to eliminate the junior position for something more senior.

Eh, that’s okay.

It happens.

But, man, being out of a job is not a good feeling.

Luckily, things started looking up almost immediately thereafter. Before I knew it, I started at a new company, where I currently work full-time as a content marketing specialist.

As I creep up on my one-year anniversary of starting at this absolutely awesome company, I can’t help but think about everything else that was packed into 2017 — at least, until my head starts hurting.

There was so much that went into this past year. I mean, so much. I wouldn’t even attempt to address it all here. Although, there are a few things I’d like to call out.

2017 Brought Love, Travel, and First-times

The ‘Love’ Part of 2017

Before going any further, I have to say the highlight of the year was getting engaged to Ashley Elizabeth Perron — a beautiful and strong woman, with whom I’ve already spent seven years of my life. Most of that time has been spent laughing, traveling, and figuring out this convoluted world.

We got engaged on the North Shore this past June, just after my 23 birthday. I had been telling her over and over that I had this plan.

Naturally, she didn’t believe a second of it. To humor me, she would say nod and look at me with a mix of disbelieve and cynicism. In most cases, that would be fair I’ll admit. But, this time was different.

I worked with the fine folks at Knox Jewelers to craft a ring that I thought would be worthy of a “yes.” For the record, it definitely was.

Overlooking Lake Superior on a sunny June day, I knelt down on that hard granite palisade and shakily proposed my question. Thankfully, she agreed to marry me.

We finished out the day walking along the shore before making it to Cascade River State Park, where we camped for the weekend.

The ‘Travel’ Part of 2017

Basically, any time we have time off and the money to go, Ashley and I are traveling. Sometimes it’s “locally” and other times it’s somewhere far, far away.

In 2017, our bigger trip this year was to Portugal, but we also visited about a dozen of Minnesota’s state parks, and I took a few trips on my own to bear witness to some of the spectacular views this Earth has to offer — along with one other-worldly sighting.

As for Portugal

Portugal is so underrated, it’s not even funny.

Before we got started planning a trip, we kicked ideas back and forth as to where we wanted to go. A lot of it came down to timing. We only had about 10 days to travel.

When you’re spending over eight hours of that time in an airplane each way, it goes fast. Too fast.

I talked to my older sister about Portugal. She had been a number of times with her husband who’s a native of Spain. (They met during her time studying abroad in college.)

With nothing but great things to say about the culture, the food and the sights and sounds, we booked our tickets. Only, we still didn’t really know what we were getting with Portugal.

Since we only had the 10-ish days, we decided to basecamp in Lisbon and day-trip elsewhere. That was the way to do it.

Getting around the city was a cinch. Public transit was easy to navigate and cheap too, especially if you had the Liboa Pass. But, for much of the city, we simply walked, which was time and energy well spent because it gave us the opportunity to see a lot more of the city and learn about its history.

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Ashley is standing just outside of the main entrance to the Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. When you entered the palace, the fog — which was blown in from the Atlantic Ocean that morning — was so thick that you couldn’t see across the courtyards.

We also went to Sintra, which was magical (literally, I’m not even exaggerating), drove around the countryside and stopped at a fair number of towns, including Fatima, Nazaré, and Óbidos — all of which I would revisit in a heartbeat.

Portugal had some of the coolest museums I’ve had the pleasure of moseying through and some of the most amazing buildings from times long past.

I published a blog post about my time in Portugal. You can read more about it here.

As for Minnesota’s state parks

I’m working on visiting every one of these parks, and I covered a fair amount of ground this year. Let’s see, here’s a list of the parks I visited for the first time in 2017:

  • Cascade River State Park
  • Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
  • Tettegouche State Park
  • St. Croix State Park (<– A quick guide to the park)
  • Wild River State Park

(I also completed two new sections of the Superior Hiking Trail with my good friend Macklin Caruso. Cheers to that.)

I plan to post reviews and guides to these parks in 2018. But, for the time being, you can’t go wrong in any of these parks. Only, each one offers something better suited to what you’re after.

Cascade River State Park, for example, was excellent for car camping. The sites are spaced out and divided by a good deal of nature. On a quiet summer evening, sitting out by the fire, you’d think you were alone out there. That’s saying something for car camping.

But, the Superior Hiking Trail also runs through the park. And, there’s catch-and-release trout fishing too. So, anglers, backpackers, this park is for you.

The same could be said for Tettegouche and Splitrock Lighthouse. Although, full disclosure, we didn’t camp at either this year. We only visited for the day.

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on the North Shore in Minnesota, USA.
The Splitrock Lighthouse on June 23, 2017

The main thing to take away from the North Shore is it’s an amazing place to be. People from all over fall in love with it and for good reason. You confront the beaches of the Lake Superior and feel each wave bring that calming sense of the outdoors to your presence.

Hiking through Superior National Forest is a magical place too, with big, gnarled trees, dense brush, and protruding granite. It’s an immersive experience, and it’s rejuvenating.

But, if you’re based in southern Minnesota or the Twin Cities, you might be looking for something closer to get your fix for the weekend.

Both Wild River and St. Croix State Parks are good for that. They are an hour to an hour and a half away. They both have campgrounds, many trails, and enough river to go around.

These parks might appeal more to kayakers or paddlers of some kind, anglers included in that bunch, and bigger groups.

St. Croix State Park had a wide open campground that catered to young families, with the option of tent or cabin camping. The sites weren’t so sharply divided, so you had a bunch of running around the room and a clear view of your surrounding.

And, in the likely case that it rains, there was a pretty cool nature center less than a mile away.

For me, all of these parks helped me hike off steam, reset my mind and find balance, and get closer to the outdoors. I had great memories of each park, and I’m looking forward to revisiting some of these this year.

The ‘First-Times’ Part of 2017

Mountains

Forewarning, it’s going to sound corny.

When we moved into our current place in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, after college, my parents bought me these word magnets for the fridge. You’re supposed to make poems with them.

We’ve mainly used them to write out inappropriate sentence fragments and funny, almost incoherent prose. But, I made productive use out of the words. I spelled out: Climb a Mountain.

Mountains to me represent this mystique, this draw, this idealistic wild place that both welcomes and rejects us. Only, before this year, I’ve only seen a handful — none of which were like the snow-capped peaks in the Rocky Mountains.

Living in Minnesota and growing up in the Midwest, we’re deprived of mountains. Lakes, yep. Rivers, yep, got some of those. Forest, yes, thankfully. Corn fields, don’t get me started.

The Sawtooth Mountains of the North Shore are as close as I’ve really gotten to mountains in my adult life. (Although, the volcanoes in Costa Rica were unreal, no doubt about it.) And while there’s nothing bad about the Sawtooth Mountains — they’re really quite amazing during the fall — they’re not the snow-capped beauties often displayed in National Geographic.

Given this lack in high peaks, I’ve been craving them. For months I wouldn’t shut up about it, much to Ashley’s annoyance I’m sure.

Finally, I threw my hands up and marched over to my computer one late-summer morning.

“Wanna go to Colorado,” I said to Ashley.

“Um, sure,” she said. “When?”

“This fall,” I replied. “We can camp too!”

The rest of the conversation and my talking points didn’t quite convince Ashley that the fall was a good time to go — especially now that we have a wedding to plan.

So, we didn’t go in the fall. But, I didn’t manage to go in December.

My friend Macklin and I managed to get the time off and booked a very inexpensive flight out to Denver.

We had two goals in mind: Stand on a mountain and do it on a budget.

For the most part, we accomplished both of these goals. All in all, the trip set me back about $600, which included lodging, airfare, food and a bunch of other random stuff like an awesome hoodie from Rocky Mountain National Park.

And, most importantly, we stood on top of a mountain!

Win. Win. Win. Win.

Alec Kasper-Olson is on the summit of Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, USA.
Me on my first mountain, ever. Deer Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA.

We humbly asked the Midwest-native park ranger which would be friendliest for low-elevation dwellers like ourselves, and she happily pointed us to Deer Mountain, a 10,000-foot mountain that offers a panoramic view of the park.

And what a view it was.

I’ll write more in another post.

Hunting

I’ve been hunting in Lodi, Wis., since I was 15. In high school, as much as I dreaded — absolutely dreaded — getting up at the crack of dawn, it was all worth it as my boots crunched on dead leaves as I entered the woods.

Every year since has been something of a call of duty for my stepdad Brian and I. Our mission: Bring home dinner.

For those who go deer hunting in Wisconsin, you know that some years the woods crawl with them. Others, nothing.

I ended up missing a few years while I was in college. The timing just didn’t work out for one reason or another — midterms or whatever.

Last year, like many before it, I didn’t see anything — but I only went out a few times. This year was a similar story. I only had a short window to go, but I could just feel that I was going to get one this year.

Up long before the sun, I took my first post in the morning overlooking “The Big Hayfield.” We had it pretty good and covered.

We waited for hours. Nothing. Not until… damn, too quick.

A doe slipped into the field and out before I could blink.

They do that.

It was a missed opportunity, maybe. But, at least I knew they were around.

Well, that and the day before my stepdad shot a buck in a cornfield we sat in during the morning.

Eventually, the afternoon came on. Brian dosed off. I ended up taking a break by the truck before wandering around the farm.

The day grew on, and if it was going to happen, it was going to be soon. I woke Brian up. We decided on a change of scenery.

Into the swamp we go.

We posted up at the edge of the cornfield that hugged the swamp. Time dragged on and I was ready to pack it in, but I knew if I did I’d be mad for not sticking it out. Good thing.

Standing about 150 yards away, we saw a doe grazing. The sun seemed to buy me just enough time. I took the shot.

We were late for dinner that night.

Freelance Project

One of the things I loved most about working for the newspaper in college was running around like a maniac with 100 different assignments vying for priority in my mind, with six different bags attached to me somehow, with a notepad hanging out of every pocket and a clunky DSLR repeated hitting my chest as I went.

It was mad.

But, it was pretty fun.

In college, I was a reporter and editor for the University Chronicle, an independent newspaper ran solely by students (don’t let anybody tell you otherwise).

What I loved most was digging deep into a story. Talking to sources. Organizing my notes. Typing my story out. Slashing it with red ink. Typing some more. Taking photos, and dreaming of a killer video to pair with it all.

Reporting gave me the opportunity to learn about my community and about things I would’ve never run into otherwise.

For example, I would cover some of the culture nights at the university, like Pakistan Night or Japan Night. At those events, you learn about the culture through food, dance, dress, and insightful presentation.

I would also cover public affairs and environmental issues, which gave me a greater understanding of the solutions people are working on to better the lives of the greater community.

To me, it was always fascinating; there was never a dull day.

Street art in Uptown, Minneapolis
A mural in Uptown, a growing neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

This year, I had a chance to relive my days as a student report when I picked up my first freelance writing assignment for a blog aimed at restauranteurs. I wrote a story about Uptown’s (Minneapolis) competitive restaurant market and the impacts that come along with that.

You can read the whole story here.

Working on that story was great in so many ways. It gave me a taste of what it’s like reporting as a professional writer in a big city. More importantly, though, it gave me a greater understanding of what the local market is like, what struggles restaurant owners face when they enter a market like Uptown’s, and much, much more.

Hmm, what else?

Let’s see. Ah, right.

I tried sushi for the first time. Tried duck and pheasant for the first time too. I went to Boston, Mass., for my first Inbound. That was, wow — as in, a good ‘wow.’ I bought my first tent as a grown up, carved my first spoon, began work for a video game, and so much more.

This past year was definitely one to remember. A whole lot happened, as it often does in a year’s time. But, much of it felt like it was building me up for more adventure, more time on the road, more time learning and trying new things, more time with Ashley, and more confidence to embrace the future.

As 2017 was closing, I felt good and ready for the New Year. And now, a few weeks in, I’d say I’m off to a pretty good start.

Although, the trick is to keep the good going, right?

 


*Disclosure: The opinions expressed in this article are mine and mine only. Nobody else’s, including past and present employers, friends or family mentioned.

Where the St. Croix Meets the Kettle

St. Croix State Park offers views of the fast-moving St. Croix and Kettle Rivers, along with opportunities to travel downriver guided by local outfitters for whitewater adventure.

Getting into the park, you notice the trailhead is a bit of a drive from the road. Take that as a sign.

St. Croix State Park is Minnesota’s biggest state park, which means that some sights and activities are far apart from one another. (While driving toward the infamous fire tower, you’ll see signs encouraging you to check your gas tank. It’d be a long walk back.)

Aside from taking your chances on the river, the state park has a lot to offer hikers, backpackers and campers alike.

The Riverview Campground

My fiancé Ashley and I stayed at the Riverview Campground. Pulling in, you get a view of almost the entire campground. It looks a bit bare and awfully flat. Granted, we were among few who dared go camping on a weekend it was expected to rain, and rain hard.

But, even if, the campground doesn’t offer much exclusivity between campsites. You’ll have a clear view of neighbors on either side of you, with limited tree cover overhead.

If you’re hoping for a site that offers such amenities, opt for a walk-in. The so-called walk-in sites in this campground have a designated parking lot, which would fit about a dozen cars, and the sites are a short — as in, less than 50 yards away — walking distance from the lot.

These sites were more secluded, offered more privacy and coverage, with thick foliage and tree density. There were a few of these sites all lined up, so if you have a group that’s into the outdoors, this might be a good option. When I go back for more car camping, this is what I’m looking for.

St. Croix State Park is Minnesota's biggest state park, offering views of the St. Croix and Kettle Rivers.

What to do

This state park is big, and that means a lot more driving than what you might expect at a state park.

When you visit St. Croix State Park, there are a number of things you should make time for. Among them, you should check out of the fire tower, which was built in the early 1900s by the Conservation Corps to keep tabs on forest fires, as well as the joining of the St. Croix and Kettle Rivers.

Both of these activities are, I think, about 7 miles from the Riverview Campground.

A quick checklist:

  • Pack a day bag before going out.
  • Have back-ups of batteries (camera), clothes, etc.
  • Make sure you’re fueled up.
  • Drive slow.

St. Croix State Park is Minnesota's biggest state park, offering views of the St. Croix and Kettle Rivers.

Heading out, the paved roads turn to gravel quickly, and they stay that way. In wet conditions, the roads can get a bit slippery and flooded. It’s best to take your time and drive slow. Also, pay attention to large rocks and trees that encroach on the road.

But once you arrive at the scene, the 100-foot fire tower is something I’ve not seen before this state park, and if you’re okay with heights, it gives an expansive view of the many acres that make up this beautiful park.

A few words of caution:

The stairs are very steep and narrow. On a windy day, it’s easy to feel unstable and insecure. There are many landings that give you space to catch your breath, look around and read about the different stories of the forest. However, continuing higher and higher, the wind can seem unforgiving if the conditions are right (or, wrong, depending on how you look at it).

Don’t worry, though, if you can’t make it all the way up, there are many other activities that keep you much closer to the ground — like the Kettle River Highbanks Trail.

St. Croix State Park is Minnesota's biggest state park, offering views of the St. Croix and Kettle Rivers.

The Kettle River Highbanks Trail runs parallel to the river, with many points to look out high above the river to see its fast-moving current, sharp bends, and natural features, as you hike through a forest full of red pines and paper birch trees.

Despite having to drive a ways to reach these trails, the views and experience are well worth it.

Quick facts from the DNR

  • 34,086 acres
  • 187,891 annual visits
  • 50,579 overnight visits

I’m getting married!

 

We had this planned for months.

The weekend after my birthday, Ashley and I were going to the North Shore to do some sightseeing and camping.

On June 23, we woke up real early, finished packing the car, stopped for McDonalds breakfast and shot straight up to Lake Superior. And, we made excellent time.

Along the way up County Road 61, we pulled into Split Rock Lighthouse State Park to see the iconic building and learn about its history.

At least, that’s what Ashley thought.

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on the North Shore in Minnesota, USA.

Walking in, we veered left, away from the lighthouse to hike along the bluffs. We stopped after a short time to look out at the great lake and the tall bluffs that formed caves along the rocky shore.

Ashley said, “It’s beautiful,” as she clinged to the chain link fence, facing away from me.

I got down on one knee as she scanned the shoreline. She turned around. Nervously, I made a brief speech and stretched out my shaky hand with the ring. She accepted it (thankfully).

Ashley's ring from Knox Jewelers in Minneapolis, Minn.
Ashley’s ring from Knox Jewelers in Minneapolis, Minn. 

We spent the rest of the day driving north, pulling off to gaze out at the water, the forest and the rugged shoreline.

We ended our night at Cascade River State Park, where we sat for a while and watched the waves.

It was one of the best days I’ve ever had in my entire life.

How Restaurants Survive Uptown: Consistency, Fair Prices, Fitting Concepts

Editor’s note: A version of this story originally appeared on Upserve’s blog.


Not everyone is cut out for Uptown’s restaurant scene. With challenges that restaurateurs can’t change, many flourish while some have to close their doors for good.

All year, swarms of people spend their time around Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, while others cycle or stroll around town visiting the diverse mix of restaurants and shops. In the last five to seven years, more and more people, and restaurants, have flocked to the area.

The population in Minneapolis has increased about 7 percent from April 2010 to July 2015, according to Census Bureau population estimates. In 2015, the total population was estimated at 410,939. In Uptown alone, there are over 30,000 residents.

With an increasing population comes its benefits and challenges, said Maude Lovelle, executive director of the Uptown Business Association.

Rent, parking and city regulations have affected the restaurant scene in Uptown, but at the end of the day, which restaurants prove most successful comes down to what people are craving and the service they receive.

Joe Sipprell, general manager of the Uptown Diner, believes that continued success in this area is about customer satisfaction. “For us, especially at this location, we’ve been able to consistently put out quality product for the price,” he said. “And that’s how I get people to come back in.”

“We offer a great work environment, and we’re all really happy here. I work for some really good guys.”

The diner has been at its current location at Hennepin Avenue and 26th St. W. for about the last 12 years. In that time, Uptown’s local scene has changed.

Sipprell, who has been working on Hennepin Avenue for almost 30 years, said that Uptown was the “cool” place to be, because “everything was so independent.” But, after attracting the attention of national retailers, “the money rolled in and everything changed.”

Many business owners and restaurateurs left over the years to set up shop elsewhere. The changing climate has left the Diner seemingly untouched.

That’s partially because the Diner is small, so it’s able to compensate its employees more and give out more hours, Sipprell said. “We get little to no turnover,” he said. “We offer a great work environment, and we’re all really happy here. I work for some really good guys.”

The Diner’s overall concept, service and prices have been the biggest factors in keeping things running.

A restaurant’s concept can make or break business, said Lovelle, with the business association. In an area as competitive as Uptown, being the right fit can determine just how long you stay open.

“[Some restaurants] have not made it,” Lovelle said. “I think probably, most likely, their concepts or price points were not a match, so of course, there have been some that haven’t worked out.”

Of those who haven’t worked out it in the area is Prairie Dogs. Co-owner Tobie Nidetz said he found two main factors that led to the restaurant’s closing this December: The menu wasn’t large enough, and the physical location.

Prairie Dogs, known best for its handcrafted hot dogs and sausages, moved out of its location at 610 W. Lake St.

“Even after the accolades of the patrons, food writers and a national television network, we found the curse of location to be too strong.”

On Dec. 21, the restaurant posted an announcement on its Facebook page titled “THE CURSE OF LOCATION.”

“In the two years since [opening], the restaurant has seen a lot of ups and downs…but a little too many downs,” Prairie Dogs said in the announcement. “Even after the accolades of the patrons, food writers and a national television network, we found the curse of location to be too strong.”

Prairie Dogs has been praised by local and national outlets, including Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.”

“I don’t attribute [closing] to our product,” Nidetz said. “We got great reviews on Yelp and our other social media.”

In the comments section below the announcement, customers left imploring remarks and some called for a suburban location, citing issues parking in the area. But, parking wasn’t the only reason for declining foot traffic.

The farther you travel from the center of Uptown, the density tapers off. “By the time you get to Lyndale, it’s really the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “It’s a desert at that point.”

But, this wasn’t the end for the restaurant. Prairie Dogs moved into the Viking Bar on the West Bank not long after closing their doors on Lake Street.

“It’s a personal thing,” he said. “I can’t tell somebody that their concept isn’t going to work there, unless it’s totally off the meter … That’s the odd thing about the restaurant business, there are hundreds of different ways to do what we do.”

“Don’t be afraid to work. Restaurants are tough.”

The revenue Prairie Dogs sees from the Viking Bar allows them to keep things running. And, now in its second month, their customer base is growing.

Looking ahead, the future looks bright for Prairie Dogs. Nidetz said the restaurant should be at hoped-for revenue levels by this summer, at which time they plan to launch a joint festival with other bars and restaurants to bring in business.

In the meantime, Prairie Dogs is looking for a new home, including in the nearby suburbs, like Hopkins, Minnetonka and Richfield.

“Hopefully, we find a location that’s not cursed,” he said.

Other restaurants in the area have faced similar challenges, and with more foot traffic going downtown and to Nicollet Avenue, some restaurants have had to rethink their approach.

Uptown gained a reputation for being the “cool” place in town. And, for many, it still is. Only, it’s not the same type of cool. Shifting trends have moved things around and left restaurants to adapt, or move on.

The shift in local trends is something that restaurants can’t always control. But, that doesn’t mean it’s all over.

For restaurants considering breaking into a market like Uptown’s, Michael Giacomini, director of finance with the Red Cow, said, “Don’t be afraid to work. Restaurants are tough.”

The Red Cow, with locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, has grown increasingly popular in recent years, receiving local and national attention from USA Today, Pioneer Press, Thrillist, Nightlife & Bar Media Group, powered by Yelp, and more for their gourmet burgers, drinks and casual atmosphere.

Their rise to the top of the Twin Cities’ restaurant list wasn’t without its challenges, though. “There were a few scary nights, where we were like ‘we can’t have these sales,’” Giacomini said, explaining that it was partially due to lacking service.

But, those service issues didn’t last long after Josh Hoyt, now director of operations, was hired as the Red Cow’s general manager. Hoyt was brought on to “fine tune” the service, making the restaurant’s atmosphere into a welcoming, casual setting with a fine-dining standard for service.

“There were a few scary nights, where we were like ‘we can’t have these sales.’”

The two main things that have helped the Red Cow achieve its successes, Giacomini said, have been their locations, and “enhancing the guest experience” year after year. Even being in charge of the finances, Giacomini said that the numbers come second to the people who keep things running smoothly, and the guests who come back for more.

“That’s our number one goal, that’s always at the top of our list,” he said. “Basically, what I always say is the second you walk in our door and see the host stand, you feel welcome. You feel welcomed right away, it’s a place you want to be.”

To complement the service, there is a strong importance placed on consistency in what arrives at the guests’ tables. Each ingredient is taken into account – many being locally sourced – and “intense” training programs help clearly outline what’s expected of each and every employee.

To stay competitive and find balance in these often chaotic restaurant markets, Giacomini explained that consistency and great food are a must, but hospitality is number one, followed closely by creating a unified culture and running the numbers often.

“Uptown has fallen behind in the curve in progressive restaurants.”

The Red Cow expects to open its fourth location in Uptown this June, giving the family-owned company access to yet another highly-coveted territory in the Twin Cities. Their new location will be in place of the old Green Mill, which had a 38-year run before closing its doors this December, the Star Tribune reported.

Giacomini, who lives in Uptown and grew up in nearby St. Louis Park, said he’s excited about the potential for the area. He believes the trends are starting to favor local restaurants that are close to home, with high-quality ingredients.

“Uptown has fallen behind in the curve in progressive restaurants,” he said, explaining that districts like the North Loop and Cathedral Hill have outpaced Uptown’s restaurant market in recent years. But, he said, it might not stay that way.

“I think Uptown is looking to have a competitive comeback,” he said.