Start your adventure at the end of the road

Start your adventure at end of the road

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2012 – 1:02 PM


Early Saturday morning on Crane Lake on the Minnesota-Ontario border, a peaceful place to fish walleyes was easy to find. The fish, anglers found, bit fairly often.

Sometimes the best destination is at the end of the road. This is no truer than at Crane Lake, Minn., the southernmost lake of Voyageurs National Park, which sits right at the end of the U.S. highway system. A sign towers over the last few feet of Hwy. 24, reminding that this is “The End of the Road.” But the end of this road is a good thing. And you don’t have to be a hard-core fisherman or camper to enjoy all that this area has to offer.


The first thing you’ll notice about Crane Lake is that the highway ends and the waterways begin. Literally. Crane is the closest entry point to Voyageurs for almost all Minnesota visitors. It’s connected to Rainy Lake, Kabetogama and Sand Point lakes to the north. To the east, Crane Lake is a gateway to the lakes of Superior National Forest, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and Quetico Provincial Park. From Crane, you can travel by water about 60 miles in several different directions. And if you’re up for a few portages, you can go at least 1,000 miles.


Fishing … fishing … and more fishing. Crane Lake is home to several fish species, including walleye, northern pike and bass. The bait shops are chock full of locals with advice. If you tune into your marine band radio each morning, you’ll hear up-to-date tips on fishing hot spots, as well as the nearest wildlife sightings. There are also local guides who can be worth their weight in panfish to folks coming into the area to fish Crane for the first time. Bring your own boat, or keep it simple and rent a pontoon, fishing boat or houseboat right on Crane. The Visitor Bureau website offers information on fishing and a list of outfitters and resorts that offer rentals.

Crane is also perfect for other water activities, including swimming, scuba diving, canoeing and kayaking. It’s one of the smaller lakes in the park, and one of the most rugged, with hundreds of sheer rock walls and picturesque narrows. Between Crane Lake and Sand Point Lake you’ll find narrows that are the most photographed spot in Voyageurs National Park. This early May, the water was already a crisp 62 degrees — warm enough for kids to launch themselves off the end of the docks, and calm enough to take an evening canoe or kayak trip along the shoreline in search of wildlife. Loons, eagles, deer and otter are seen frequently, while moose, black bear and wolves tend to be more elusive. Folks can bring their own kayaks or canoes, or rentals are available at several locations on Crane Lake.

If you’re looking for a hiking excursion, head to Vermilion Gorge on the west end of Crane Lake. The trail is 3 miles long, and after 10 minutes on the trail, hikers will run into Vermilion Falls, where the torrent of water is forced through a 10-foot-wide opening in the granite. Boardwalks around the falls offer breathtaking views. (

A visit to the Vince Shute Bear Sanctuary can make for a memorable outing. It’s a sanctuary to dozens of bears, operated by the American Bear Association, in the town of Orr, a 35- to 40-minute drive from Crane Lee. A large viewing deck allows visitors to observe the bears in their natural habitat (1-218-757-0172;

Scotts resort offers a charming one-stop shopping excursion for visitors and floatplanes. Owners Darrell and Carole Scott have created a wonderful shop packed with mementos and gifts, as well as products made by artists in the area. Don’t forget to say hello to “Norton” the northern pike, a local favorite who looms under the Scotts’ dock. (1-218-993-2341; http://www.scottsoncrane


There’s no shortage of places to stay on Crane Lake. Check for listings.

Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats has private lake cabins and is the only place that rents houseboats on Crane Lake (7576 Gold Coast Road; 1-218-993-2266; There’s a houseboat to fit any size, including a whopper Voyagaire 550, whose main deck is 990 square feet and includes a hot tub. All new houseboat drivers are trained by Voyagaire’s staff.

If pitching a tent is more up your alley, four outfitters offer camping and RV sites right on Crane Lake. For more rustic camping and some solitude, head deeper into Voyageurs Park. The campsites are accessible only by water, and classified as tent, houseboat or day-use sites. All are marked with signs. Permits are required for overnight stays, and can be obtained at any park visitor center or boat ramp. Find camping information at

Were to eat

If you don’t want to be hassled with packing staples for a camping or houseboat trip, Voyagaire Lodge offers food provisioning. There are a handful of restaurants on Crane, at Nelson’s Resort (7632 Nelson Road), Scotts Seaplane Base (7546 Gold Coast Road) and Trail’s End Resort (6310 Crane Lake Road, Buyck, Minn.). Voyagaire also has a restaurant on the main level of the lodge, offering fresh walleye and a superb margherita pizza.

Reminder: While dining in Mother Nature’s restaurant, be sure to pack your food away so as not to entice an unwanted guest to your table.


Find the Crane Lake Visitor & Tourism Bureau at and Voyageurs National Park at

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer based in Lino Lakes.

Toy Inventor is on a fun run!

West Lakeland toy inventor is on a fun run

  • Article by: KELLY JO McCONNELL , For the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2012 – 5:29 PM

Tony Morley of West Lakeland Township has had a successful — and fun — career as a toy inventor.


Tony Morley at his home shop in West Lakeland Township. For Fisher-Price he has invented Block Builder (front left), and for Fat Brain he has invented Stacking Action Blocks (center) and Wobbling Tobbles.

Tony Morley didn’t intend to spend most of his adult life tinkering with toys, but that’s what he has done for about three decades.

“I didn’t go to college with intentions to be a toy inventor,” chuckled Morley, 61. “I don’t know many people who do. And if somebody had that as a career goal, I would try to talk them out of it.”

Morley’s run in the toy business is an impressive one. This spring at the American International Toy Fair in New York, manufacturers picked up a number of Morley’s toy ideas for review. He’s fresh off another success, “Wobbling Tobbles,” manufactured by Fat Brain Toys. It was a finalist for 2012 Toy of the Year in the Specialty Toy category by the Toy Industry Association.

“Tobbles is a satisfying toy concept that I invented recently,” Morley said, “It’s got some character about it that is attractive to young and old.”

The typical life span of a successful toy is about three years, explained Morley. Yet, he’s been fortunate to have one that is on its 12th year with Fisher Price. “Its called Stacking Action Blocks,” he said, “very simple, very low-tech.”

It took a few years for the resident of West Lakeland Township to find his niche.

After receiving an industrial design degree from Brigham Young University, Morley worked at several positions and traveled from place to place. It wasn’t until he started working at toy companies that he found his calling.

It started with Lakeside Games in Bloomington in 1980. Morley’s next gig was designing Star Wars-themed toys for Kenner Products, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Then he was on to designing games for Milton Bradley in Springfield, Mass., between 1984 and 1986.

He met his wife, Taia, a fellow game designer in Massachusetts, and they moved to Minneapolis so Morley could join two partners in an independent toy design company. After the partners went in different directions, Morley decided to strike out on his own, and kept the group’s original name, Red Racer Studio.

Today, Red Racer Studio takes contracts from Mattel, Fisher-Price and others. He and Taia also do package design for toy companies.

Morley enjoys the creative process and says he showed signs of tinkering even as a child growing up in California. He had little or no knowledge of physics or electricity or the scale of materials, but he says he spent a lot of time in the garage just building things.

“I once tried to make a rock polisher out of an old washing machine motor,” recalled Morley. “It was dramatic. I plugged it in and it essentially self-destructed in a very violent fashion.”

Do his four kids think his job is cool? “No. They don’t think it’s cool. They don’t know anything else. Their friends thinks it’s super-cool, though,” he said.

Even though most find Morley’s job a fun and carefree way to spend the working days, he stresses that the toy industry can be a tricky one, and is very unpredictable. But when one of his toys captures the attention it deserves, “It is a great feeling,” he said. “It is fun!”

Auto Guru – Star Tribune

Auto guru retires from Century College

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 5, 2012 – 3:44 PM

Century College auto instructor Tom Chall has retired after four decades of helping students become the people who help keep our cars running.


Tom Chall has been teaching at the auto shop at Century College since before they laid the concrete. When he began teaching, gas was 25 cents a gallon and a car was a glorified go-cart. “Today’s automobile has more technology than the first lunar landing to the moon! It’s just amazing,” Chall said.

Tom Chall was there when the automotive program began at Century College in White Bear Lake. He was the one who started it.

Now, 41 years and countless students-turned-mechanics later, he’s retiring. In his time at Century, Chall has seen some major changes, not only at the two-year college but in the automotive industry as a whole. He’s also been a keen observer of student behavior. With his wealth of experience, we asked him to take a look back on his tenure.

What was the price of gas when you started teaching? Twenty-five cents a gallon. I had a ’72 Vega, and when I would drive from Milwaukee, $3 would fill the tank. I could always fill the tank for under $4. The students think it’s unfathomable.

The biggest change in cars through the years? When I started, the car was like a big go-cart. It had seven more pistons than a go-cart, and seven more spark plugs. There was nothing electronic about it. Today’s automobile has more technology than the first lunar landing to the moon! It’s just amazing. … Every part of the vehicle is computer-controlled. It has changed so that the computer senses every function of the car. You could go into a slide, and it will start to correct it to take you out of the slide. The automobiles today are superior, cleaner and more efficient.

Common problems, then and now? Common problems are always the brakes, steering suspension, spark plugs. You don’t have to worry about a distributor cap — we don’t even have a distributor anymore. … Today, you get the “check engine” light that signals there’s a failure in one of the computer systems. You have to diagnose and know it, and be able to fix that in today’s cars. … The hardest thing to teach is diagnosing. Fixing is the easy part. … Only half of the students make it to the second year [of the program], and the reason is they have to score well in electrical. We can start out with 500 and end up with 75 students. Every one of my students said they never realized how complicated an automobile really was.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of? We [Century College] have the best program in the state. Our students are the proof of the pudding. When students head to a manufacturer’s training session they come back and say “wow, thanks for teaching me so well.” … My teaching colleagues are a big part of the success of the program. And they’re both former students, too!

Biggest challenge? The biggest challenge is trying to teach someone who doesn’t really want to learn. You just can’t do it. The good news is, the number of students who want to learn far outweigh the ones that don’t. It’s very satisfying to have a student who wants to work very hard, and does very well because they’re doing something they’re passionate about. If you’re passionate, you’ll be successful in life.

Philosophy on teaching? You have to know your subject matter inside and out. It’s the rubber-to-the-road reality; you just need to know your subject matter well, and share that passion. … You also have to have the ability to get complicated concepts across to people. I have 25 different ways to explain something. If you don’t get it across one way, try another way. I once had a student who would sit in the front row, and I could read his face like a sign. When he got it, his face lit up like a light bulb. You have to find a different approach until that light goes on.

Favorite memory? When students share with me that “you’ve been more of a dad to me than my dad.” That’s happened on a couple of occasions. We have some students in the program that have been down a tough road. That’s another part that’s rewarding … to see someone pull themselves up by their bootstraps, give them a trade so they can make money, and deal with the ex-con stereotype. Some turn their life around. As a teacher, you can be a big part of that.

Funniest memory? Around 10 or 15 years ago we had gotten in a fast car and I asked one of the security guards if he wanted to ride in “my new car.” College was over with, so we went out and did burnouts in the back parking lot. When we were in the car, the security officer’s phone rings, and it was one of the administrators saying there was this black Camaro doing burnouts in the back. The security guy said he was right on top of it, and put his hand out the window and waved at the administrator. It was extremely hilarious. He handed me the phone and I invited [the administrator] to come down, too. I’ll chuckle about that one for the restof my life.

Retiring after 40-plus years – now what? My wife, Pam, and I are blessed with a beautiful house on the lake, and we have three grown children. I do love to boat, and I have a brand-new pontoon. But if you have a gift, you have to give it away; you can’t just hoard it. I’m working on some outboards for some friends and neighbors. I also will do more church volunteer work. I’ve spent a whole lifetime at Century College. Right now, our automotive program is the best in the state. And I run into students everywhere now! If I’m in Florida getting off a plane, I run into a student. If I’m in Montana, I run into a student. Or boating at Cross Lake, I run into a student. It makes you feel proud.

Forest Lake dancer living her dream

 Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune

  • Updated: May 4, 2012 – 6:09 PM

Kourtni Lind always wanted to dance on Broadway. Now, she’s in the cast of “Spiderman.”

Broadway is a long way from Washington County, but Forest Lake native Kourtni Lind always knew that’s where she’d end up.

Lind landed a key role in the rock musical “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” in December and has been performing since on Broadway — her dream since she was 3 years old and dancing in her mother’s dance studio.

“I actually was not really good,” Lind said, recalling her early years dancing. “It wasn’t until I hit my growth spurt and figured out how my body worked that it all clicked. I realized it was what I was meant to do, and I’ve always loved it.”

Lind’s mother, Robin Lind, owner of Dance Tech Studio in Forest Lake, admitted she tried to steer her daughter toward sports and not the arts world.

“She hadn’t grown into her body yet, but she did do well in sports. She just wasn’t very flexible. … But she just loved to dance!”

Danielle Napoli, a lifelong friend who took dancing with Lind, remembered Lind’s lack of flexibility, but she also remembered a strong work ethic and a will to practice.

“Yes, she wasn’t the most flexible at that time,” said Napoli, “but look at her now. She’s Gumby woman. I never doubted that she could do it.

“When Kourtni makes up her mind to do it, she can pretty much accomplish anything.”

The entertainment business can be a challenging one. Lind said she really started to focus on dance as a career once she hit high school.

She had attended junior high and most of senior high in Forest Lake, but spent her senior year at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts. After graduating and moving to Los Angeles, Lind participated in the nationally broadcast reality show, “So you think you can dance?” and was booked on the “Wicked” tour. But she knew New York was the place she needed to be.

Lind toured with “Wicked” for 2010, but then made the decision to leave.

“I chose to leave so I could move to New York,” she recalled. “I left around the holidays and moved to New York on Dec. 28th of 2010.”

She cleared her calendar for auditions. When the “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” audition came around, she was ready. It was a two-day process, involving dancing first, then returning to sing.

“I had a great feeling that I had gotten it,” Lind said. “The call from my agent came in around 10:30 in the morning, and it was such the stereotypical thing. … They put me on speaker phone and told me the news and we were all screaming and crying.”

The rock musical has become infamous in New York City due to problems with its budget and struggles with injuries and safety issues. But it seems to have hit its stride, recently having sellout shows and strong reviews.

About 80 percent of the cast has stuck with the production, and Lind, 22, is the youngest cast member.

“Everybody is from all over the place. It’s so cool that way,” said Lind, “We have people from Chicago, Michigan and Iowa. I think I’m the only Minnesotan, though.”

The work schedule is grueling — they do eight shows a week and have Mondays off.

Lind said the Broadway schedule makes it tough to come home for visits. “It was Minnesota State Fair time last year when I was last home,” she said. “I only get one day a week right now.

“I miss my family all the time,” she said, but “I need to be far away to be able to do what I love and make money. I’m very blessed to have that support system in my family.”

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

Lino Lakes save blue herons

Quick work helps Lino Lakes save blue herons

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELLSpecial to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2012 – 11:00 PM

The revival of a colony that was declining a decade ago is a living legacy to Art Hawkins, who sounded the alarm.


The blue heron is Lino Lakes’ logo.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune s

In northeast Lino Lakes, there’s a piece of land that could be right out of “Jurassic Park.”

“Just north of 35W, look over to your right, and you can see an island and a lake,” said Marty Asleson, environmental coordinator for the city. “That’s where the blue herons are living. When they fly over, they look like a pterodactyl. Their species dates back to the dinosaur age. They’ve been around a long time.”

Not so long ago, however, the Peltier Island colony appeared to be going the way of the dinosaur.

In the early 2000s, Lino Lakes resident Art Hawkins, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, noticed that the blue herons were disbanding.

“Art was the one that rang the alarm on the colony,” said biologist Andy Von Duyke, “and the Peltier Lake Heron Task Force was organized; it was a coalition of stakeholders as well as DNR [the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources], Anoka County Parks, and the city of Lino Lakes and Centerville.”

Hawkins died in 2006, but his warning already was bearing fruit. The project received some funding, and with the help of DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, steps were being taken as early as 2004 to reverse the trend.

“I was a new graduate student at the time,” Von Duyke said. “That season I started studying the colony. In the previous season, there were 250 nests in this colony early in the season. We went and installed cameras. … That colony had a 100 percent failed [birth] rate that year. Based on my camera evidence, I had a pretty good idea what it was.”

Predation, mainly raccoons, seemed to be the main culprit, Von Duyke said.

Asleson also suspected boating activity in the shallow waters around the island and 35W road construction, as well as low-flying seaplanes, as possible factors.

Said Von Duyke: “I had an experimental design to test my hypothesis on the remaining couple hundred nests. But in 2005, there were only 25 active nests. [The number] dropped 90 percent in one year. So I immediately went into crisis mode. We had to keep this colony going.”

He and volunteers started by installing predator guards and monitoring the nests. Asleson said a no-wake zone around the island also was enforced.

Three blue heron chicks survived that year, and there’s been a steady increase since then, Von Duyke said. The following year, 50 chicks survived.

Observers estimate there are now more than 100 active blue heron nests on Peltier Lake. The coalition volunteers have confirmed great egrets nesting on the island, as well.

“It’s very exciting,” said Von Duyke. “A colony that’s on the brink in 2005 now seven years later is graduated into a big colony — not the huge one that it used to be, but bigger than the average colony in Minnesota.”

Von Duyke, a volunteer on the project now, said blue herons not only are magnificent creatures, but also are important to the ecology of the region.

Asleson agrees and notes that the bird is ingrained into the Lino Lakes culture:

“The Blue Heron is our city logo. It’s on our water tower. We have a Blue Heron Elementary, and it’s on our coffee cups. If you live in Lino Lakes, you know about the blue heron.”

Tapping into Spring

Tapping into spring at Wargo Nature Center

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 13, 2012 – 4:20 PM

Wargo Nature Center will celebrate one of the rites of the season with a maple syrup-making event.


Photo: Yannick Grandmont, Associated Press – Nyt

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

It’s a sweet sign of spring.

The sap is running, and the Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes is ready to tap into it during Sunday’s Maple Syrup Madness festival.

“It started 13 years ago, actually as a maple full moon event,” said Deb Gallop, program supervisor at Wargo. “In 2004 we switched it to a day festival, and it’s been a wonderful family event.”

The event attracts an average of 100 participants, and it happens rain or shine.

But the conditions have to be perfect for maple syrup making.

“It has to be above 40 [degrees] during the day, and under 30 at night,” said Jennifer Fink, marketing and visitor services manager at Anoka County Parks and Recreation. “That’s what causes the sap to run. Some years are better than others, but it’s always fun to teach folks about it.”

All stages of the maple syrup process will be shown and demonstrated by the Nature Center’s naturalists. The history of maple syrup making will be covered, dating to the 19th century.

The actual process itself hasn’t changed much over the years. In the spirit of the old tradition, the sap will be collected from the maple trees, then cooked down over an open fire. But there also is an evaporator for use on-site, so participants can take in the modern-day maple syrup processes as well.

The Nature Center event incorporates many other activities along with the maple syrup making. Visitors can participate in a hike where they see tapped trees, learn about the process of making sap into syrup, as well as craft making.

“It’s a lot of families, from parents with young kids all the way up to empty nesters,” said Fink. “It really varies, and it’s a free-flowing event where people get to choose what they want to listen to, what interests them.”

Everyone’s favorite, especially the kids’, seems to be the taste-testing, Fink said.

All sorts of maple syrup treats are available, from maple syrup baked beans to log cabin sundaes, which are topped with maple syrup made at the center.

The syrup tasting is an education in itself, Fink said, with many people not believing the difference when they taste the product for the first time.

Fink and Gallop said it’s a treat to see the kids stick a finger under the spout and taste the sap.

“What they think is maple syrup from the store, and what true maple syrup is that gets made right in front of their eyes. … There’s definitely different grades of maple syrup,” said Fink. “Most of the stuff in the store is flavored with additives, to make it taste like maple. The actual stuff you’ll taste at our event is lighter in color, and it’s a much softer taste. … It’s just more subtle.”

Back-yard skating traditions

Back-yard skating tradition continues in Lino Lakes

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2012 – 11:15 PM

Kids of all ages are flocking to back-yard skating rinks in Lino Lakes, thanks to the recent cold snap.


Bob Sproull’s backyard rink has drawn lots of kids, including, from left, Colin Pechman, Tyler Steed, Ben Sproull, Joey Summers and Will Steed.

Last week’s arctic blast gave an assist to one of those staples of Minnesota winters — the back-yard hockey rink — but even amid the mostly mild weather the tradition endured, as three hockey dads in the Centennial School District can attest.

This is Ben Peterson’s third year in the back-yard rink game. The Lino Lakes resident has two sons, ages 13 and 11, both hockey players. They went to skate on a buddy’s rink in Elk River a few years ago, and the idea took over. “I really wanted one,” Peterson said.

The first year didn’t come without problems. The ground wasn’t level, “so I ended up asking a neighbor who was a farmer, and we put it up in the old pasture behind his house.”

This year, the rink dimensions are 50 by 100 feet. The farmer helped level the ground with his Bobcat, and Peterson and some neighbors built the frame from old boards.

The rink attracts kids of all ages around the neighborhood. “The older guys slow the game down a little bit so that they can play with the younger guys. They all know the rules of the rink, and show respect,” Peterson said. “If they don’t, they aren’t going to be invited back.”

Rick Mathies lives nearby, and his 10-year-old son often can be found on Peterson’s rink — when he’s not on his own.

In Mathies’ case, Mother Nature gave a hand: When the family moved to the neighborhood in 2007, their property came complete with a small pond. Right away, Mathies went out and shoveled off the snow.

“People started coming out of the woodwork,” he said with a laugh. “Everybody showed up. Since it’s a pond, it does crack, and it’s exposed to the elements a lot, so I started running a hose off the water heater and flooding it once a week. It gives the kids a good skating surface. I added built-in nets, also.”

Mathies also says the neighborhood kids are respectful of the pond rink rules. “All the kids play on teams, and there’s always somebody out there,” he said. “All the neighbors got together and bought sets of 1,200-watt lights. … we have nine sets of lights up. I sometimes think a plane might land there!”

Both dads agree that the rinks have brought the neighborhood together. “We’ll keep this going,” said Peterson, “We’re making memories for the kids that they can remember for the rest of their life.”

Bob Sproull, another Lino Lakes dad with a 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, also is making memories. After tinkering with a 20-by-40 rink last year, he bought a kit last fall and put up a 30-by-62 sheet.

Sproull said the neighborhood kids have found his rink as well. “Everyone has liked it, it’s much smoother than some of the other rinks,” he said, “My rink holds 14,000 gallons of water right now.”

He has added some little touches, including LED lights mounted to trees, and has extra skates and dozens of extra pucks for the kids. He even has rigged up his own “PVC Pipe Zamboni” which hooks to his hose in the garage and helps smooth the ice.

So did the mild early winter cause any problems? “This year, it’s actually been really nice,” Peterson said before the deep freeze. “We got our rink set up and filled with water before that first cold snap, and it froze all the water in the rink…. Some days, the kids were out skating in their T-shirts, it’s been that warm.”

Mathies concurred that it hasn’t been “that bad” this winter. “I actually would like a little snow,” he said, “it’s so brown. Last year was a major task, there were three of us dads out there with our snowblowers getting the snow off the pond ice.”

Sproull said the warm weather has pros and cons. Pucks are easier to find without all the snow on the ground. However, all the leaves and seeds blow onto the ice on a windy day. He said he had to get on his knees and dig them out with a screwdriver.

“You definitely spend a lot more time preparing it and serving it than you actually use it,” said Sproull. “However maybe next year I’ll sell sponsorships!”

Kelly Jo McConnell is a freelance writer from Lino Lakes.

Inside Track to the great outdoors

Inside track to the great outdoors in Lino Lakes

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2011 – 2:29 PM

A prominent naturalist will speak to parents of home schoolers to help infuse kids with a love of the outdoors.


Naturalist Maria Pierz guided a group of children as they explored the Wargo Nature Center together.

Sil Pembleton has a passion for the outdoors and works to share it with kids and parents, and that’s what she’ll be doing next week at Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes.

Pembleton, a naturalist who has written several wildlife books for children, among other endeavors, will be a guest speaker for the Home School Program presented by Anoka County’s Parks and Recreation Department. The program offers monthly environmental, recreational and natural history sessions for home school students and their families.

Pembleton “is a conservationist with a real connection,” said Jennifer Fink of the Parks and Rec Department. “She gets kids connected to the outdoors. … They are the people who are going to help us preserve and take care of the environment. We have to build it when they’re young.”

Pembleton’s Dec. 15 presentation will be aimed at parents. “The kids will be off doing some education classes at that time,” Fink said. “She’s working with the parents and offering them tips and ideas for how to get their kids engaged in the outdoors.”

Pembleton said that, while introducing kids to the outdoors is key, so is reaching their parents. “My program offers simple and fun things that parents can do who don’t feel extremely comfortable in the out of doors,” she said. “Parents and teachers are so influential in a child’s life, so if I can get them going … I’m happy.”

She said outdoor lessons build life experiences and can help children as students.

“They have a better understanding of science in school in the early years,” she said. “When you have the chance to play in the stream, or dig in the dirt, or watch the clouds, or build with blocks, it gives you this feeling of how things work.”

Pembleton and her husband, Ed, have always been passionate about nature, and they’ve pursued that passion for more than 30 years as educators, naturalists and conservationists.

During her career, Sil Pembleton worked at the Smithsonian Institution and was director of environmental studies at Hard Bargain Farm in Washington, D.C., an outdoor educational facility on the Potomac River. One of her favorite “disconnect” stories comes from her time there.

She was demonstrating how to milk a cow, and a young girl asked: “But where does the meat come out?”

“This was right in our nation’s capital,” Pembleton said with a laugh. “I had daily reminders of how disconnected the kids were. They had no idea that their food, their automobiles, their computers in the schools, come from the Earth. It’s all Earth material. We’ve just changed it so much it’s hard to recognize.”

Pembleton’s program includes giving parents a weather guide calendar that explains day-by-day what is going on in nature. She said it gives parents a “heads up” on what kinds of things they and their children can look for while outdoors.

“For example, in the calendar there’s a chart to help you figure out how fast the wind is blowing. You can start with bubbles! … It’s fun, but learning at the same time.”

Pembleton said she gets all sorts of parents at her programs. She notices that particularly young parents aren’t quite sure where to start.

“Every child needs to keep that sense of wonder,” she said, “and needs the companionship of one adult who can share it and rediscover the joy and the excitement of the world we live in. I want to help the parents feel adequate about sharing the simple, fun activities that they can do. … And the kids take it from there.”

Rehabbing Computers & Prisoners

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 3, 2011 – 9:32 PM

Minnesota Computers for Schools trains inmates to refurbish donated computers that are then sold to schools at a fraction of the cost of new equipment.


Prison inmates Carlos Smith, right, and David Collins refurbished computers for the Minnesota Computers for Schools program at the state prison in Stillwater. Last year, more than 3,400 donated computers were refurbished instead of being destroyed.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Star Tribune

What do Stillwater prison and a K-12 Minnesota school have in common? One has inmates doing hard time, and the other is dealing with hard times from budget cuts.

But there is other common ground.

The Minnesota Computers for Schools (MCFS) program is a non-profit organization that trains Stillwater Correctional Facility inmates to refurbish computers donated by local businesses. The computers are then shipped to K-12 schools across the state for a nominal fee.

“I think a lot of these offenders want to work on computers because they know that’s what is happening in the world,” said Tamara Gillard, executive director of MCFS.

In 1997, Gov. Arne Carlson had heard about a computers-for-schools program at a governor’s conference in California. “The corrections there had been a wonderful partner, and it was a win-win,” Gillard said. “It kept the inmates busy, learning valuable skills, and it’s a good part of restorative justice.”

One of the 30 inmates working recently in the Minnesota program on the third floor of a prison industries building was Carlos Smith, who said he was unfamiliar with computers when he started.

“It’s kind of like living in the Stone Age,” he said of computer-free cellblocks. Smith, who has a daughter, said he takes pride in rebuilding computers to benefit schoolchildren.

“It gave me an opportunity to do something that’s giving back,” said Smith, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence. “To be in prison, it’s a chance to make something out of a negative situation.”

Another inmate, Alveto Rivera, has been in the program since April and said workers feel inspired. “All of us, we fix them to the best of our ability.”

Though the program has been around for years — and some marketing is sent to area superintendents — there is still a need to get the word out.

“MCFS can save schools a large amount of money in their technology purchases,” Gillard said. “Our equipment includes tech support and a three-year warranty on computers. Schools can take this savings and possibly put it into curriculum expenses.”

In some instances, schools can purchase two to three refurbished laptops for the price of one new one.

“Many schools are having to cut teachers, transportation, major class subjects. … Schools can’t afford to keep the attitude that new technology is the best and only solution,” Gillard said.

On average, 35 or 40 inmates work in the program.

“We work hard with mentoring the inmates,” she said. “They apply like a normal job. They will eventually test out and work side-by-side next to a senior technician [an inmate who has been refurbishing for a long time].

“We do quarterly reviews with them. They have job expectations, and if they reach their goals, they get a raise each quarter. The inmates are giving back to the community through their work.”

All the old data is wiped cleaned from hard drives outside the prison walls before the computers reach the workers. The inmates do not handle any sort of data, Gillard said, nor do they have access to the Internet.

Once refurbished, the computers are placed in public, private or charter schools in Minnesota, as well as in educationally based nonprofit organizations. MCFS has worked with 121 schools across the state.

Timothy Brockman, supervisor of information systems at Forest Lake Area Schools, is one such client. He learned about the MCFS program at a conference and was impressed. He said the Forest Lake schools have been purchasing almost all of their computers from MCFS for more than five years now.

“We are extremely happy with all aspects of what we get — the quality of the equipment, the cost savings, the fact that it is green,” he said. “Money was a huge factor. We needed newer equipment, and we could not afford to purchase brand new equipment.”

Gillard said MCFS makes sure it meets the specific needs of each school or nonprofit. “We’ll build to that order if they need additional memory or a larger hard drive,” she said.

Another inmate, Rhon Butler, has earned compliments from program managers for his dedication. Under Department of Corrections policy, each inmate can work a maximum of four years fixing the computers.

“Computers are the future now,” he said. “If I could finish the rest of my time [in prison] out, I’d do it right here.”

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer from Lino Lakes.