In the waning days of August in 2015, my family and I trekked northwest to Glendalough State Park. Formed in 1991 with acquired private land, Glendalough is Minnesota’s youngest state park and one of the few to feature the rolling prairie that dominates much of the state. Situated next to a few small lakes, the campgrounds feature a lovely mix of water, woods, and endless fields of grass and black-eyed susans. It is also popular with bicyclists due to its well-maintained and fully-paved trail system.
Those are not the reasons we traveled there. We went to go stay in a yurt.
A what now?
A yurt is a Mongolian-style semi-permanent tent structure traditionally fashioned from wood and canvas. If you were in a Mongol caravan, I suppose the yurt was a little like a pop-up camper: slightly better than a tent, but you wouldn’t want to grow old in it.
That description is more or less what we found after hiking for a mile on a rolling trail. Glendalough features two modern yurts, built with layered canvas, a solid wooden floor, and a conical roof terminating in a small plastic dome (that can be raised and lowered to regulate airflow). The one we stayed in was furnished with three bunk beds, a small family table in the center, and a wood-burning stove.
We arrived on the windiest day of the year, and were pleased to find the yurt was both comfortable and unmoving in the violent drafts. The effect was not unlike being in a deluxe treehouse, but on the ground. I half considered hanging a sign on the door that said “MARTIN KLUBHOUSE: NO ADDMITTENSE,” but didn’t think the park rangers would appreciate it.
Roughing it (sort of)
Since the site was at least a couple of miles from the nearest flushing toilet, my family discovered what kind of sad city-slickers we have all become. We drew drinking water from an iron pump a hundred yards away from the yurt. This exercise created a fondness for tap water I have never, ever felt. After three days we all had bulging biceps and a ringing in our ears from the under-greased iron contraption.
The bathroom facilities were generously entitled “vault toilets.” This is a euphemism of Shakespearean proportions. “Stinky shack built over poop chasm” is a more accurate description. The facility made relieving one’s self in the woods seem significantly less barbaric than usual.
Those features aside, the yurt experience was a lovely one. Since the wind gusts would have sent our regular tent vaulting over the treetops with us still inside, the solid structure made welcome shelter. The bedding was very comfortable, and the “YURT MANUAL” told us everything we needed to know to keep our temporary home in good repair.
The Swear Boat incident of 2015
Recreation itself was more eventful. Annie Battle Lake lapped against a shore not fifty yards from our front door. Once the wind died down, we tried our hands at canoeing and row boating. My wife took our two daughters, ages 12 and 14, in a rowboat, while I canoed with my ten year-old son.
Now Toby and I are no great shakes at canoeing, and with our conflicting personality types it took us quite a while to negotiate a peace treaty. Once we got going, though, we couldn’t help but notice that the rowboat was still close to shore while we had made it nearly to the middle of the lake.
We turned around and closed in on the rowboat, which seemed to alternate between going in circles and somehow moving backwards. Once we were close enough, we heard a profusion of swear words clouding the air. Now, since my wife swears like a sailor, this wasn’t too shocking.
On this boat, however, EVERYONE was swearing.
Not only could the three of them not figure out rowboating, Steph had decided that the humble craft was now dubbed “Swear Boat.” As long as the three of them continued to circumnavigate a stubborn patch of weeds close to the shore and no further, swearing was fair game even for the younger two.
“Can we make this a swear boat, Dad?” asked my son.
“No,” I said. “Doesn’t seem fair. Things are going too well on our boat.”
In time, they reached the shore and swapped out “Swear Boat” for “Swear Canoe,” which was a much more pleasant experience for them.
Our nautical mishaps notwithstanding, we all agreed that yurt life gave us a comfortable base from which to slowly erase our ignorance of the great outdoors, and to spend time together as a family. I highly recommend the experience (though boating lessons ahead of time may help).