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Camping made easy and dry

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NEW LONDON -- Three different waves of thunderstorms raged through the night, soaking Brian and Paula Sahlstrom and their three young children in the tent they pitched at William O'Brien State Park on the banks of the St. Croix River.

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With the first light of day, the family packed up and made a bleary-eyed drive back to their home in Foley.

"We don't tent anymore,'' said Brian Sahlstrom with a smile. "That was it.''

They may no longer tent, but the Sahlstrom family still loves to camp. The Sahlstrom's made Sibley State Park their destination for two nights of camping earlier this week.

They unrolled their sleeping bags in one of the park's four new camper cabins, and enjoyed a noisy but dry night as thunderstorms rolled over the park on Monday.

They were fresh and ready for a day of bicycle riding on the park's trails and an afternoon on the Lake Andrew beach on Tuesday.

The Sahlstroms are among a growing number of state park visitors who are taking advantage of the camper cabins now being erected in state parks.

Sibley State Park opened its new cabins for the first time with the start of this camper season. It's a rare day indeed when at least two, three or all four of the cabins aren't occupied, according to Gary Bullemer, assistant park manager.

Sahlstrom said they used the state park reservation system and jumped at the chance when they found one of Sibley's campers open for two nights.

In the camper cabin next door, Steve and Avis Gasch of Litchfield were enjoying their first stay in a camper cabin, and the timing couldn't have been better for them.

It was their 29th wedding anniversary.

"This is the way we want to camp from now on,'' said Avis Gasch. She described the camper cabins as "clean and family friendly.''

The Gasches have done lots of tent camping in state parks, but decided to give the camper cabins a try after a relative with a physical handicap recommended it. The camper cabins had opened up camping opportunities for their relative.

Making it possible for those with physical handicaps to enjoy camping is just one of many benefits the state park system believes the camper cabins offer. The cabins also make it possible for people who do not own tents and camping equipment to give camping a try, said Bullemer.

He noted that many people do not have the money to invest in camping equipment, while there are also many who are unsure of whether they want to make the investment needed. Camper cabins offer a convenient and easy opportunity to test the waters while also discovering what state parks can offer, he noted.

The camper cabins are also expected to increase revenues for the park system.

Camper cabins are cozy and Spartan by design. There is room in most to sleep five. They do not offer running water, but the cabins at Sibley State Park have electricity. Small electric heaters in the cabins will make it possible to use them year around.

Bullemer said the park is anticipating winter use of the cabins by those coming to the park to cross country ski or snowmobile.

The cabins at Sibley were made possible when then-State Senator Dean Johnson included language in 2006 legislation to set aside $150,000 in funding for four cabins.

Campers are charged $45 a night for the cabins with electricity, and $40 for those without.

Sibley's four cabins are located on the edge of Oak Ridge Campground, where the cabin users have access to the bathroom and shower facilities built for the campground. The location also puts the cabins in close proximity to the Interpretive Center building and the flush toilets available there in the winter.

The Gasches do not have any plans for winter camping, but after their first night in the cabin, they are ready to return. They said Sibley State Park is one of their favorite destinations. They lauded its trails and how well the park is cared for, while adding that they also enjoy visiting nearby New London and Spicer and the attractions available.

Steve Gasch said the state parks deserve support for what they offer. "There are lots of hard working people who can't spend and arm and leg to stay at a resort,'' he said. State parks make it possible for many people to enjoy Minnesota's outdoors who would not otherwise be able to do so, he pointed out.

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