The sun rose above the tree line as I drove down the deserted park road and along a large, perfectly calm lake matted around its edges with floating vegetation. It was lovely and peaceful, with a familiar solitude that reminded me of our own Milwaukee River Greenway, a similar natural refuge surrounded by an invisible city. Then I heard a low, guttural rumbling, which grew suddenly into an earsplitting roar as a jet appeared over the tree line opposite the dawn as if rising to meet the sun.
This was not unexpected. I had arrived in Saint Paul the day before the City Parks Alliance biannual national conference was to begin there. I immediately opened a map on my phone to look for a likely green spot and latched onto Fort Snelling State Park. Nestled below the flight path of Minneapolis—Saint Paul International Airport, it clearly lay in the river bottom at the confluence of the region’s two major waterways, the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.
Looking for remote sections of the park, I drove to a dead end in the shadow of the freeway bridge I’d driven over to get there. Along the way I saw exactly one fisherman. From the boat ramp at the end of the road another was setting off down the river. I stepped into the woods. How often, I thought, have I had this experience in Milwaukee parks? Being essentially alone in the most densely populated part of a state. Footprints in the sandy riverbank, however, proved to be an omen for an imminent surprise.
Long story short, within an hour I found myself on a wide, hard-packed earth trail around Pike Island being passed on both sides by joggers and dog-walkers. Although the island, accessible by a single footbridge, appeared to be the most remote part of the park, it was proving to be far more popular than I had imagined. By nine o’clock the now numerous fishermen were joined by a diverse army of people out enjoying the paths and beaches that circled the island. Welcome to Saint Paul, I thought. What a fitting introduction to a conference about city parks.
This essay was published by Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue reading.