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Outdoors guidebook author finds the devil is in the details

November 8, 2018

Story by JEFF MORAVEC Illustration by KEVIN CANNON, Special to the Star Tribune

Its presumptuous, but Im mentioning my forthcoming Minnesota outdoors guidebook in the same sentence as Bob Woodwards Fear, the mega-bestseller about the Trump presidency. There, Ive done it.

Whats the connection?

Im confident one of Woodwards challenges was that no matter how much research he did, he knew he would end up with conflicting versions of facts, which hed have to sort out before publication. That the joy of writing about an area of interest would brush against the real challenges of the work. Yup, same problem here. The only quibble you might have with that comparison is that while Woodwards issues concerned topics like colluding with the Russians, mine, for example, were trying to figure out why no one could seem to agree on the actual length of the Twin Lake Trail on the North Shore.

Ill grant you Woodwards topic is just a bit weightier than mine of course, thats why his book will sell several million more copies. However, I can say that I did approach my task with the same zeal for getting it right.

But that wasnt yet on my mind last fall when I agreed to write and photograph the guidebook, which will be called Minnesota Adventure Weekends. Its a compendium of outdoors activities in 12 areas of the state and is scheduled for publication next spring by Menasha Ridge Press.

A set of hurdles

When I accepted the assignment, my first reaction was a bit of giddiness. I was going to actually get paid for doing what I would do anyway in the course of any given year visit the best locations in Minnesota for camping, hiking, biking, paddling and climbing. I figured the hardest part would be simply narrowing down all the great places in our state to an even dozen.

My editors instruction was really simple and direct. The book needs to be authentic it cant sound like, or be, a guide that was researched primarily from in front of a keyboard. No problem. Id rather be on a ridgeline on the Superior Hiking Trail than on a computer any day.

But it didnt take me long to discover that writing a guidebook presented a set of hurdles Id never encountered in all my years of making a living with words.

I did know from dabbling in travel writing (which this is, when you get right down to it) that even if you have visited a place many times, you need to look at it differently if you are going to describe it for someone else especially if part of the goal is to entice the reader.

I found familiarity to often be a liability. I needed to look at these locations with not only fresh eyes, but with the eyes of the people I would expect to use this book. Ive seen the waterfalls at Temperance River State Park at least a dozen times, but I had to be careful not to miss aspects that would be important to a first-time visitor. I couldnt skip things because I personally wasnt interested in them.

I was struck by the responsibility of asking readers to take a leap of faith that the places I suggest, and the activities I recommend, will be worth their valuable time (and money). Weve all seen a movie or visited a restaurant on the advice of a friend only to wonder afterward what they were thinking when they offered their review. So whats a writer to do?

This is a guidebook after all, and people do want recommendations, especially in this era of social media when it is so easy to crowdsource them. Many of us dont explore any more; we follow instructions. I decided early on that I must select areas and activities that would have broad appeal, then give enough options to satisfy individual preferences and be comfortable that Palisade Head or the Blue Mounds would inspire some people more than others.

In addition, while some of the book requires precise directions, I tried to make clear that much of what I offer is a starting point. I want people to go, use the book as a guide, not a bible, make their own discoveries, improvise, be surprised.

Rabbit holes

Now, about my original point about facts. The most difficult thing about putting this book together was the little details specifically, getting them right. If I suggest you explore a specific section of a hiking trail, you want to know how long it is, right? But when fact-checking yes, some of that was done on the computer I came across one trail that was listed by various sources anywhere from 6 to 6.5 miles which may not seem like a big difference from home, but it is when youre out trekking. I also found trailheads that were one place on Google Maps and another on official websites and so on.

Usually, after spending too much time going down various rabbit holes, and after phone calls and e-mails to people who should know, I could figure out why there were discrepancies and account for them. But not always which explains why in the book youll occasionally encounter a trail described as about 6.5 miles long. I apologize for that imprecision.

I sometimes would revisit locations for information I decided I needed but had missed. Usually I didnt mind having to pitch a tent for another night just to confirm some details about the campsites at a certain park. On the other hand, as my deadline loomed, the 850-mile drive I made to and from the northwest corner of the state in just 28 hours was not my idea of leisure. Still, it was close.

As I drove through the campground at Gooseberry Falls State Park one weekday afternoon last summer, I thought of the road trips my family took around Minnesota when my kids were young. They knew any time we were close to a state park, Dad would insist on a detour to check it out, forcing them to listen to me judge the relative merits of the campground and picnic facilities and the swimming beach.

I thought it was fun; they thought it was an obsession. Either way, though, now its a book.

Jeff Moravec is a writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at jmoravec@mac.com.

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