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Camp Upon Quarry Island

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An Exercise in Contemporary American Airplane Watching – In Defense of Illegal Trespass – Tips from the Intoxicated Investigator – The Origin of Elevated Camping – 3 MSP Camping Islands & The FlightAware Drinking Game

 If you see something , say something. The mantra of War on Terror era citizen security. We were reminded to be on the lookout for out of the ordinary behavior even here, on the freeway outside the airport proper. We were just another car passing the ends of tarmac runways. Another aircraft rumbles overhead, above Gun Club lake and the tree laden wilds of the Minnesota River Valley. Nothing unordinary. Yet.

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Sharp and heavy, the aroma of a barbecue company hung in the evening atmosphere. We had parked nearby, now opposite the airport across the river valley. I had unloaded the provisions necessary for a night spent below and had gone to task assembling a secure package upon an ’87 Schwinn. The beautiful beast was burdened, but I was a framebag short of the space needed for a last few possessions. When the challenges of outdoor adventure arise, I sometimes harness the perspective of the Victorian era explorer to find a solution. What would Sir Burton do with this outstanding inventory? He would recruit one more native porter. I turned to my buddy. His expression made it very clear he was not for hire.

R abbits shot to and fro across the paved trail as we streaked downhill. They hate flowing streaks of red, don’t you know? We descended Big Rivers Regional Trail to a point down under the 494 freeway bridge, and peeled onto gravel, throwing up stones as we tore off towards Quarry Island. This is where the wild starts, a private patch of lakeside sanctuary behind a politically protected curtain. Be one with your surroundings, follow my instruction, and the wonder is yours.

1. Leave the gravel pullout aside the highway over the railroad tracks.

2. Go around the gate via the well trod footpath. That gate is for stopping vehicles. You’re not in a vehicle are you?

3. Let your curiosity lead you down the dirt road.

4. Reach a fork and choose correctly. Continue, across the marsh and onto the island.

5. Remain ignorant, enjoy your bliss.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.36.29 PMFor you are an honest wanderer in an available patch of wild.

You didn’t knowingly tresspassage the private property of the railroad, around a Sporting Club’s gate and deep into the day-use only territory of Fort Snelling State Park. Which belongs to you, taxpayer. If you have your state park permit, of course. You do have your state park permit don’t you? Yes, the one you’re required to adhere to the windshield of your vehicle. Are you in your vehicle? Oh, that’s right! The gate…

This is a place of incredible natural bounty, within tax payer subsidized state park property, complicatedly cut off by bureaucratic access and private landholdings.

Now, I have never encountered an authority attempting to bar entrance, save for the day use restriction of state park property. But I wonder which of the fishermen, bird watchers or dog walkers I’ve encountered on this path were those under the spell of adventurous ignorance, and which carried the burden of legal awareness. Which were consciously ignoring the establishment, following in defiant footsteps, throwing middle fingers for Thoreau? These are my perps, and yes, I’ll have some of that civil disobedience.


Idropped the fully laden bicycle off of my shoulder and leaned it against the eight foot face of a sandstone wall. This namesake quarry exposure spanned the northern tip of the island.  Rough stone, overgrown with skinny elm, various creepers and raspberry thorns tripled as a windbreak, a concealment and a defense against wandering critter & foe. Except from the south side, where anybody and their mother would spot our campfire beacon of brave résistance. Or defense from ourselves – the clumsy, the impatient, the underprepared.

Tickets, injuries, lost and never founds, broken property, broken dreams; I’m always waiting for the costs to rise. Here I had a broken phone screen, one bare foot wishing for wear, and a member of the party who must have taken a left at that fork…


 When things aren’t going according to plan, build camp. Just commit yourself. Like pythons, my legs strangled the knotted trunk of an old oak tree. Eager to get back to the ground, I forced the last cranks out of a Tentsile tree tent ratchet strap. Jeff found his way. Hammocks were strung and bug nets hung. Tonight we would be returning to the trees. A strange scene in the grand scheme; four pink primates far from their common ancestor on the Tree of Life, innately prepared their elevated nests so as to best enjoy views of their fellow species’ aircraft soar overhead. Tonight we were watching airplanes. The sun began to sink and I made my way to the fire place. Another painful sheath of raspberry thorns stabbed into my right foot. Where the hell was my other Birkenstock?

ASONY DSCnd who the hell brought saké??

Our impromptu camp bar increasingly impressed with each reach into pack & pannier. I rarely agree I should be forced to choose between options when offered more than one great thing. I usually end up paying for that.

Cultivating my buzz while scrolling through previously taken photos, I broke the case. I stared at an image of two sandals atop the rear rack as the bike leaned against a burly oak, 100 yards away. The search area was focused.

I triumphantly slammed a mostly empty but interrupted can of IPA into my pile of drinking detritus; more cans, an empty bag of boxed wine and an enamelware mug sticky with Coke and whiskey residue.

Into the friendly darkness I tromped. Brave and barefoot across the sandy stone outcrops, the broken branches and briars, I clicked on my bike torch and intensively swept the trail ahead. One step at a time. The tree where the photo was taken was just ahead and I had yet to, “Oh!”, just stepped on it.

My victorious war cry was returned by the distant fellows around the fire.

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When investigating the mystery of missing kit, consult the photographic record.

Retrace your steps. Get lucky. Keep drinking.

Because you are sticking to the rules of a wonderful game. The sear of jet engines overhead were felt as much as heard. The enjoyment of watching airplanes was amplified five fold by our companion’s flight tracking application. We had realtime data on the pinpricks of light growing out of the distant horizon. We would place bets to the minute on which moment the plane would land on the runways across the lake behind us. The duration it took to confirm this hosted more plane spotting competition. Who can identify the airline first? The type of aircraft? Confirm or deny with the mobile app data. And then, if you have visited the flight’s city of departure, pass a drink. International departure? Pass two.

Never before has there been a such a strange welcoming to airborne visitors of an international airport. Down there, a ways down, but close enough to see – a handful of dark figures moves about a campfire glow. On a dark mass, adjacent the luster of a lunar-lit lake surface, a tribe of wild lushes holler to the heavens and raise their drinks to the incoming adventurers, to the art of flight, and the magic of another night in the urban outdoors.

I was of that tribe. I spent the night on Quarry Island, and the experience was out of the ordinary. It was extraordinary. I may not be the most responsible citizen, but I respect my civic responsibility to observe and report.

I’ve seen something. And I’m saying something.

#GTFO and #KeepMSPWild with:


For a behind the scenes Adventure Challenge Guide to 3 MSP Island Camps join the UrbanWild Adventure Society and receive a password to the archives!


    Convinced his hometown of MSP is the world’s greatest balance of urban & outdoor recreation spaces, Joe Jackson continues to collect stories to support his claim.   @jaytothejack

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» Stories » Camp Upon Quarry Island
On July 16, 2015
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