–By Gail Gates (Posted With Permission)

Okay.  Maybe it was a small pack.  As in four people, and one dog named Roxy that is maybe a second cousin, once removed, from a wolf.  And maybe none of us were actually feral or scary.  But there was some grey hair in the mix…does that count? Now that the truth is out, and my integrity restored, let me explain the rest of the story…

Last Friday I had the opportunity to visit Wolf Creek Falls, Banning State Park, just north of Sandstone, MN.

It’s not too far off of Old Hwy 61, and well worth a visit.  Oh yeah… one more thing…I’m embarrassed to say that even though I grew up in the area, I had never gone into Banning State Park before.  No particular reason, it just didn’t happen.  But the past is the past, and I now had a chance to make amends. The reason?  My husband and I recently joined the Northern Exposures Photography Club.

It’s a fabulous group of supportive photographers helping each other extend their artistic leanings.  Rex Lindberg and Martin Gilchrist, two NEPC members, mentioned that they were taking a field trip to Wolf Creek Falls, and I got that squirmy feeling that I needed to be there too.  My husband agreed and, a few days later, off we went.

Rex emailed that we were to meet at Banning Junction. I grimaced. Back in the day, when I had to walk uphill in a blizzard to school—both ways—Banning Junction was a well-loved destination. It consisted of a gas station, café, dining room, and an on/ off sale bar. The café and dining room were well known for good food and ample portions. But, as with many good things, that era came to an end.

The last time I stopped by—maybe a couple of years ago—things were pretty dire.  My husband and I were coming back from the North Shore, and I had just downed a bladder-buster sized Diet Coke.  A restroom was needed, stat!  I pulled into Banning Junction and discovered the café and dining room were closed.  Maybe it was my imagination, but a tumbleweed rolled by and buzzards were circling.  The gas station was still operating, however, and when I used the bathroom, well, it was bad.  Like I didn’t want to be there, bad.  Needless to say, since we would be meeting there for the Wolf Creek Falls jaunt, I wondered if conditions at Banning Junction had improved.  I swore off any liquids just in case.

To my delight, I’m happy to report things HAVE improved. My husband and I arrived early and sat in the café to keep warm. The restaurant is now named “Darlene’s Daughters,” and boasts homemade food. We told the cheerful waitress that we were waiting for friends, and did not intend to eat. Nonplussed, she brought us glasses of water and made us feel at home. Water. After downing mine, I decided to use the bathroom before heading to the park. I braced myself for the worst. Again, I’m happy to say things have improved! The bathroom was clean, bright, and well kept.

When Rex and Martin arrived, they invited us to jump in their vehicle. I slid into the backseat where Roxy, Rex’s dog, was hanging out. She seemed a bit vexed that I was intruding, but let it go. When my husband got in on the other side, she started a low growl. Rex pulled her into the front seat where Roxy stared at me for the entire ride into, and out of, the park. I choose to think we were mentally bonding.

The Banning State Park website says the loop to Wolf Creek Falls, and back, is 3.4 miles.  We grabbed our camera gear and headed out.  Rex and Martin have visited Wolf Creek Falls numerous times, and in different seasons of the year, in their quest for photographic opportunities.  They led the way.

I was excited to see the falls…how big would it be?…and followed the men with a bounce in my step.  All around us were signs that spring was waking up.  Rex pointed out a patch of Skunk Cabbage, orSymplocarpus foetidus, and told me it is related to Jack in a Pulpit, or Arisaema triphyllum.

Meanwhile, Roxy scared up a white squirrel and nearly ripped Rex’s arm off as she went in pursuit.  Gotta love life in the woods!  It’s a pretty walk to Wolf Creek Falls.  Some sections of the trail have large boulders scattered around as if God tripped and dropped his landscaping load.

A short while later I heard the distinctive sound of water bouncing off of rocks.  We were there!  Wolf Creek Falls drops about twelve feet.  It’s both charming and addictive.  The sun was shining, birds were singing, and we had the place to ourselves.  Just beyond the falls Wolf Creek empties into the Kettle River, which was calm and kayak-free on this day.   I could have lingered for hours.

After we had contented our hearts with umpteen thousand photographs, we headed back to the vehicle.  Roxy still wasn’t pleased about giving up HER backseat to interlopers, but by now she and I were nearing bestie status.  Our little group decided to have lunch at Banning Junction, and I was pleased to give business to Darlene’s Daughters.

I’m sorry I didn’t grab photos of our meals!  Duh!  But here’s the scoop…Martin and I ordered chef salads.  While I thought the salad was good, I can’t say it was special.  My husband and Rex ordered burgers and fries.  My husband said his food was yummy and wasn’t sharing.  I snitched a few of his fries when he wasn’t looking, and can say they were French-fry-licious.

If you find yourself on Old Hwy 61 just north of Sandstone, give Banning State Park a try.  Get your hiking mojo on, take photographs, kayak, camp, look for white squirrels, and feel assured that nearby Banning Junction will take care of your hunger and rest stop needs.

Choosing to be feral is optional.

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