Fat Man’s Misery by David Kem-NPS Photo

As a kid, my family visited Mammoth Cave’s “Fat Man’s Misery.” It’s the first time I recall when being a kid had advantages—the cramped passage was only a problem for adults! Our family also went to the Grand Canyon one year. At the time, I didn’t comprehend the significance of national parks.

Years later, I worked at Mammoth Hot Springs, in Yellowstone National Park. I was a room attendant. This wasn’t a glamorous job. What mattered was the scenery. Although, as the summer progressed, the spectacular views became hazy from that summer’s historic forest fires.

Military firefighters in Yellowstone 1988 by Jim Peaco–NPS in Wikimedia Commons

Frequent fire updates showed the estimated burned acres. Each total resembled a lottery jackpot that kept growing. Stories of harrowing escapes spread, especially from Old Faithful. Thousands of firefighters arrived, yet couldn’t stop a single fire.

On my last day of work, ash fluttered down like snowflakes. I watched literal pillars of flame erupt along the surrounding mountain ridges. The fiery pillars dwarfed the helicopters dumping red fire retardant. The futility was apparent. Our location, the last still open, closed hours later. Employees were evacuated. Days later, an early snowfall snuffed out the widespread fires. The final jackpot total was a million acres burned.

Lechuguilla Cave’s Pearlsian Gulf by Dave Bunnell-Under Earth Images

Despite the forest fires, that summer was when I began to fully appreciate national parks. Parks preserve wilderness, history, and unique ecosystems. It’s humbling that past generations protected these areas for us to enjoy. But these public lands also help future generations. As we enter the age of genetic engineering, saving valuable habitat and biodiversity is allowing scientists to make breakthrough discoveries. Isolated ecosystems, such as Yellowstone’s hot springs and Carlsbad Cavern’s Lechuguilla Cave, have extremophile microbes. These rare organisms are helping develop future antibiotics, and understand what life might be like on other planets. Who knows what future scientists will learn in our national parks?

Southest Idaho highway

This fall, my admiration of national parks led me on another road trip out west. In seven weeks I visited five national parks, as well as other state parks and a national monument. With limited time and countless national and state parks, it’s overwhelming deciding which to visit. Each park is unique. Each, incredible in its own way.

To date, I’ve been to fourteen national parks, visiting several of these multiple times. What I’ve learned is in 1872 Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. Although America has inspired many ideas, I find myself agreeing with Ken Burns. He made an award-winning documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. There’s a book adaptation too. His belief is that America’s “invention” of national parks is its biggest legacy. Yellowstone inspired humanity to begin preserving wild lands for future generations.

However, we shouldn’t take America’s best idea for granted. New threats and ongoing challenges face all parks. I’ll touch on this topic with a “Part II” blog post. Safe travels to all amid our ongoing pandemic.


(For those interested, what follows are comments and photos of the parks I visited this fall.)

Fall 2021 Camping Trip Parks

Badlands National Park. Rapid erosion of sedimentary rock has created a maze of hills, canyons, and colorful rock layers.

Craters of the Moon National Monument. Sixty lava flows have created a surreal, barren landscape that gives the park its name. Bonus points for those venturing into the rugged lava tunnels.

Cultus Lake State Park in Oregon. A remote, scenic lake with wild huckleberries around the campground!

Ecola State Park in Oregon. This park’s epic coastline has beaches and sea stacks featured in movies like The Goonies, Twilight, Kindergarten Cop, and Point Break.

Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, Oregon. This is a great base camp to visit two museums dedicated to Lewis and Clark’s historic journey (Fort Clatsop and Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center). Goonies fans can geek-out in scenic Astoria, the movie’s setting, and explore the Oregon Film Museum (where the Goonie’s opening scene took place). Astoria also has a cool observation tower overlooking the Columbia River’s mouth. This river mouth is nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Pacific” after sinking over 2,000 ships with its treacherous sandbars, tides, and currents.

Glacier National Park. This “hiker’s paradise” is filled with stunning views. Its Going-To-The-Sun Road is an engineering and scenic wonder, but not for faint-hearted drivers or bicyclists.

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in Montana. Abundant cave formations are this park’s highlight. Incredible staircases and a literal slide descend to a blasted out tunnel that leads you back to daylight. Its visitor center also has an outstanding park ranger talk about bats. I highly recommend this cave for children.

Mount Rainier National Park. This photogenic park is far more than its namesake mountain.

Olympic National Park. Park rangers describe this famous park as three amazing parks/ecosystems in one (coastline, temperate rainforest, and mountains). They’re right. Of note, if you rely on solar panels while camping, they’re useless in most of this park’s campgrounds because of the towering trees.

My favorite experience here was portaging my bike around a washed away bridge. This Elwha River washout has isolated a part of the park for three years, making it like a ghost town. I biked two hours, rising 1,500 feet to Appleton Pass. There, I turned around and coasted downhill for thirty minutes. For fun, I shot a rough video during my descent to make a hyperlapse video. This experimental video condenses my descent to less than three minutes. That’s like going 150 miles per hour. If you’re curious about hyperlapse video, click on the Youtube link below.

Wind Cave National Park. The boxwork cave formations here are extremely rare. Even more fascinating is whether Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are actually connected? Air-flow studies suggest they are. As cave mapping technology advances, time will tell if this becomes the longest cave complex on Earth.


This past Fourth of July I met a teenager who collects aluminum can pull tabs. Not for recycling though. Each tab is an achievement. The teen removes tabs from a can’s tiny center rivet without damaging the tabs. It’s not impossible, but takes practice. Maybe people with this skill grow up to be a surgeons, or jewelers? Or, some job where patience and precision are essential? Fingers crossed this teen finds other people who share their pull tab passion.

Last week I was with people who share my passion for kidlit writing. Esteemed writers Jill Esbaum and Pat Zietlow Miller hosted nine eager students attending this year’s Whispering Woods Picture Book Workshop. Many know Jill and Pat from the Picture Book Builders blog.

Besides critiques and writing wisdom, Jill and Pat brought 200+ books they admire. Readings from this small library were always entertaining, or pulled heartstrings. My “to read list” has swelled, and my “read list” now includes these funny tales:

Besides reading and writing, another free time activity was wandering the serene paths of the prairie preserve.

Amid the preserve’s flora and fauna, an Eagle Scout placed stone markers along the trails. Each invites contemplation on epic events of the universe, Earth, and humans. A few of the stones are:

Contemplating the workshop, I remembered what a boy told me two years ago. When I brought him to Minicon 54‘s Rumpus Room for the first time, he later smiled and said, “These are my people.” (Click here for an earlier post about the Rumpus Room.) Finding people who share your interests brings joy. So, many thanks to Jill and Pat, as well as my other eight kidlit peers attending the workshop. It was a pleasure spending time in person with my people, kidlit writers.

ART EXHIBIT: “Mass Museum of Made-Up Mythology”

“What is a monster?” According to Kevin, they’re something new, but not necessarily sinister. He offered an example of a half-fly, half-frog animal. Mixed creations like this fill his sketchbooks. As displayed here, many of his mutated monsters could appear in horror movies like THE THING or LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.

Kevin’s correct though. Sinister monsters are a matter of perspective. Consider the beloved Pixar movie MONSTERS, INC., where the “monsters” see themselves as normal, while children are feared. Or, Roald Dahl’s classic THE BFG, where a vegan giant helps a girl thwart other giants that devour children. However, we must acknowledge our “fight or flight” instincts mean we don’t react to strange things with immediate hugs.

Legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft sums up our instincts well: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Seeing the unknown for the first time is both scary and fascinating. But fear isn’t Kevin’s intent. His goal is to imagine and draw something original. This background helps you better understand his art and the title for this new Fridge Art Museum exhibit: “Mass Museum of Made-Up Mythology.” Here’s a tiny sampling of his exhibit (click on any image to enlarge it):

Steampunk mechanical crow

Since Kevin’s first Fridge Art Museum exhibit, “The Best Guide to Magic Stuff,” his new handiwork dwells not just in fantasy worlds, but also steampunk and science-fiction. Most impressive is how his sketchbooks show dedication to improving his art skills. He has embraced the saying, “Practice makes perfect.”

How long does it take to master an art or skill? In Malcom Gladwell’s bestseller, OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS, he states an expert needs 10,000 hours of learning and practice. Dedicating this much time is daunting. Yet, we all know no one just starts out as a brain surgeon, Olympic athlete, or juggler tossing flaming axes and chainsaws. A fun documentary, THE SPEED CUBERS, details the years of practice it takes to solve Rubik’s Cube puzzles in mind-boggling times—mere seconds. Kevin’s practice sketches, drawings, role-playing-game art, and comic strips show he’s well along his way to mastering monsters and storytelling.

Lastly, a big shout out to Dave DeVries. His cool book, THE MONSTER ENGINE, celebrates children’s imagination, and transformed kid drawings. At Minicon 54, Dave was a Guest of Honor. One of his events was an art workshop in the Rumpus Room. There, he presented Kevin with the workshop’s collaborative monster drawing. Kevin was inspired.

Now Kevin can inspire us with his latest sketches and art. Be forewarned, you may experience creepy shivers while viewing his “Mass Museum of Made-Up Mythology.” Obviously, you can pause the video below at any time to admire specific drawings.

To submit fridge art for consideration, or subscribe to my e-mail list, click here.


Pixabay photo pandemic-5026719_1280 courtesy of Queven

COVID-19 has us all imagining unpleasant “What if…?” scenarios. However, these mental distractions can cause us to overlook the pandemic’s silver linings. Simpler lifestyles. Introspection on society and government. Longer library checkout times!

Imagining possible futures has reminded me of Marvel Comics’ “What if?” series. When I was an avid comic book collector, I purchased several issues.

Yes, “What if?” games can cause toilet paper hoarding. But contemplating causality can also help us appreciate serendipity.

Pandemic serendipity happened to me last month. For five nights I camped in Michigan’s Van Riper State Park. Yet, according to Melanie Brand, a decade-long park employee, I was lucky to get a spot. She said normally my stay dates are completely booked six months in advance. Why?

Numerous Michigan state parks have Harvest Festivals each fall. These events celebrate farmers’ hard work, but Halloween activities are a big attraction too. Van Riper State Park devotes three September weekends to their festival.  Entering the park, the staff set the mood with funny gravestones (inside joke–Sherri B. is the park’s longest serving staff member).

So, what if there was no pandemic? I’d never have discovered Van Riper State Park. Never gotten a camping spot, reserved just days before. Never witnessed the park’s Harvest Festival. Never had to Google “how to remove pine sap”—more on that later.

Tandem bike with skeleton

Although the festival’s regular activities were scaled back because of the virus, many regulars still came. Thus, all week I just thought it was normal for RV people to have holiday displays (albeit a bit extravagant). Then, Friday night came. When I returned from a day excursion, WOW! Halloween had overwhelmed the campground. Eerie chalk art decorated the pavement. Skeletons bicycled around. Lights and animated decorations were everywhere. It was a Halloween wonderland. Here’s just a sampling of the community’s creativity and spooky, fun vibe.

Campers I chatted with raved about past scavenger hunts, “Monster Mash” dances in the pavilion, hay rides, kid activities, and the haunted hike (with scares from lurking DNR staff and volunteers). If that’s not enough amusement in a normal year, trick-or-treating apparently requires a garbage bag for the candy haul.

Renee and Dale Rogers

Historically, Renee and Dale Rogers estimated they hand out 500-600 pieces of candy on Saturdays. They said even grown-ups get “adult treats” in some spots. They know the festival well. They won the festival’s 2017 “Scariest Campsite” contest.

For the Rogers, each year the festival is a family gathering. To avoid terrified toddlers though, Renee and Dale don’t invite their grandkids until they’re at least three years old. Then, the family’s kids have a costume contest—judged by non-family members. (Melanie said the festival once did costume contests, but judging became controversial. Now the park only has a scary campsite contest.) The Rogers’ spooky spectacle is mostly hand-crafted. This DIY aspect contrasts the carnival of purchased decorations, holograms, light shows, and videos (son-in-law Jason projects the below video on his family’s camper).

2019 schedule (click to enlarge)

To me, the festival is a paradise for kids and Halloween lovers. Even if the campground is full, anyone can still park nearby to enjoy the festivities. If you’re curious about festival activities in a regular year, Melanie shared the 2019 schedule handout shown here (click to enlarge). She also shared this link to all of Michigan’s Harvest Festivals.

As I left Saturday morning, my only “What if?” gripe was my campsite. Its only dry, level area was littered with green, gooey pinecones. Before I’d even finished setting up my tent, gunk coated my shoes’ soles. Then, day and night, pinecones bombarded my tent fly. At night, the thuds often startled me awake.

Pine sap has many helpful uses, from healing wounds to patching canoes. But each day, I battled sap on my hands and shoes. I began to ponder retribution. On my fourth day of tip-toing around my pine cone minefield, I wondered, “What if I burned them?”

Pixaby photo fire 605585_640 courtesy of malubeng

My night of pinecone pyromania was more like smoke-mania. Not surprisingly, newly dropped cones are really, really hard to burn. The wet sap insulates conifer seeds from forest fires. Only a few cones from past years—finally dry—burned well. Eventually, my smokefest earned pity and a firewood gift from my RV neighbors. The dry fuel helped me achieve modest justice and warmth before I retreated into my sleeping bag.

Luckily, the festival’s friendly community and park staff more than compensated for the sticky campsite and frosty nights. Melanie even shared a great tip for removing pine sap: hand sanitizer (anything with alcohol apparently works too). Best of all, the festival reminded me to appreciate “What if?” serendipity.

I’ll end with another serendipitous surprise during this camping trip:  a visit to Palms Book Big Spring State Park. What if my friend had never suggested stopping here? What if my route home didn’t just happen to pass by it? Without these and other precursors, I’d never have seen this park’s mesmerizing mineral spring. You view the spring from a silent, floating platform. Down 45 feet, the sandy bottom roils from the spring’s inflow. Lunker trout and salmon also circle beneath. It’s all surreal, similar to deep sea hydrothermal vents (pics and video below).

Until normal returns, don’t miss seeing silver linings, and take care.

ART EXHIBIT: “The Best Comics” and Dungeons & Dragons


The Masked Comic Maker has revealed his secret identity! His name is…Hudson.

His art exhibit, “The Best Comics,” is the latest addition to the Fridge Art Museum.

Hudson’s comics and art are inspired by comic books, books, graphic novels, movies, and TV shows (Alan Moore is one of his favorite writers). For his original comics, he often uses irony or satire (like his “Ugly Ugene” comic). He writes short stories too, like “Rise of the Scarecrow,” which he reads during his exhibit.

His latest passion is creating interactive adventures for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D, or “D and D”). Decades before Harry Potter, D&D was demonized for glorifying magic and monsters. Yet the fantasy genre exercises our “mind’s eye” (imagination) more than other stories. D&D also requires applied math, reading, and social interaction—all aspects parents should appreciate.

Sorry to digress on preaching the merits of D&D, but the game has surged in popularity. Estimates are 12-15 million people play in North America alone, and 40 million worldwide (60% older than 25). Two award-winning TV shows frequently feature the game, Netflix’s Stranger Things and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. For those wanting to learn more about D&D’s history (good and bad), below are several articles:

How Dungeons & Dragons somehow became more popular than ever

No more nerds: how Dungeons & Dragons finally became cool

What It’s Like to Be a Woman Playing Dungeons & Dragons on the Internet

How Women Are Driving the Dungeons & Dragons Renaissance

As a retired D&D player, I was intrigued by a play Hudson’s grandmother suggested, She Kills Monsters: Young Adventurers Edition. So, this fall I asked Hudson’s family to go with me. They accepted, in part because the play was produced by the renowned Redmond Proficiency Academy.

The play showcased how role-playing D&D’s imaginary characters is collaborative fun. But the story’s humor, 90’s music, and high-energy cast also tackled somber teen issues like bullying, negative stereotypes, and death. Female and handicapped empowerment were powerful themes too (in D&D, anyone can save the day, or die a noble death). Hudson enjoyed the play, as did his family and I. The boisterous standing ovation for the director, performers, and crew was well deserved.

After this rambling endorsement of D&D, my point is, I salute parents and adults who encourage youth creativity (however it’s expressed). Arguably, our brain’s most powerful ability is imagination. Not only for making art and stories, but human civilization is based on inventions and new ideas.

Without further delay, I present Hudson’s imagination below. Consider pausing the video to read the dialogue bubbles or better study little details—you won’t be disappointed!


Recently, monsters ate me alive. Insects and aliens too. My digital deaths took place at the Minnesota Science Museum’s GAME CHANGERS video game exhibit. There, I relived the 1980s, similar to one of my favorite books, READY PLAYER ONE.

The exhibit profiled key video game designers and companies who introduced “game changing” concepts. Ideas like scrolling screens, dual joysticks, power-ups, initials next to high scores, multiplayer online games, and god games. The exhibit also displayed amazing concept art used to develop several modern computer role-playing games.

Video game history is fascinating, but 100+ free-play games are the exhibit’s main lure. The arcade sound effects and flashing lights awoke my dormant video game skills.

Soon, I made it past “Pac-Man’s” second intermission, but was devoured just shy of the high score. Playing “Centipede,” two of my insect battles made the top six scores. Inevitable explosive demises got me the high scores on “Space Invaders” and “Missile Command.” However, “Donkey Kong’s” angry ape humbled me (I never made it past the first screen). If Kurt Vonnegut contemplated video game deaths, be they heroic or humiliating, he might simply say, “So it goes.”

Watching kids, adults, and elderly play side-by-side seemed to affirm the retro appeal of simple games. For example, “Gunfight” was very popular. Set in the Wild West, two players face off with just six bullets. Most showdowns lasted mere seconds. The winner has the most hits in sixty seconds.

As a kid, I never played “Gunfight.” I stuck to games I was good at, and could enjoy longer than sixty seconds. My limited quarters lasted longer then. But, with the exhibit’s free-play games, I had no such financial hesitation. Besides “Gunfight,” I tried “Reactor,” “Robotron,” and “Scramble.”

I also played games I rarely played as a kid. Games that were popular, but had learning curves that gobbled stacks of quarters. Visual chaos games like “Tempest,” “Defender,” and “Asteroids.”

The exhibit wasn’t just classic arcade games though. There were modern games like “Angry Birds,” “Rock Band,” “Dance Central,” “Warcraft,” and “Minecraft.” Some games were bizarre, but looked cool.

One station had the latest trend in video games: virtual reality goggles. There, using a simple smartphone app, kids drew art that was converted into an immersive 3-D world. Whether 3-D entertainment leads to READY PLAYER ONE’s dystopian, dehumanized future wasn’t touched on though.

Overall, the exhibit showed how video games are evolving. The free-play video games made history fun for all, but older players racked up nostalgia bonus points. Regardless of your age, I urge you to treat yourself to nostalgic fun now and then. Even if that happiness means your digital avatar ends up being eaten alive.

(If you’re curious, play the nostalgic pop tune below, “Pac-Man Fever” by Buckner & Garcia. The song peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts.)



Photo by Widerstroem, Pixabay

I grew up with a Siberian Husky. Bandit loved diving into and plowing through deep snow. I often wondered how he’d do pulling a sled.

Over the years, I’ve also enjoyed stories with people and dogs, together battling harsh conditions. Books and movies that illustrate an ancient alliance (Note: I will add to this list over time).

This dogsled fascination compelled me to volunteer at this year’s Gunflint Mail Run. The race is restricted to 300 dogs on 30 dog teams. Hungry teams that are fed by deep pockets, sponsors, and/or creative food sources, like road kills or butcher waste.

Animal-rights groups often criticize dogsled races as cruel. However, dog abuse isn’t limited to mushers. It’s unfair to condemn all sled dog races, dog shows, or breeders based on a few owners obsessed with glory or money. Using that extreme logic, one could argue no animal abuse would ever occur if we forbid humans from owning any pet. Yet that logic ignores studies that prove human interaction with dogs (or any pet) develops social skills and empathy toward people, let alone animals.

I do appreciate that critics have helped sled races get better at protecting dogs’ health and catching cheaters. Susan Butcher, a legendary Iditarod racer, helped show that well-cared-for dogs actually perform better. No one would deny though that long races test human and canine endurance. Injuries happen to paws, or from frostbite. Deaths happen from pneumonia (as one dog died from this year), vehicle collisions, or animal attacks (Susan Butcher lost two dogs and had thirteen injured in 1985’s Iditarod race when her sled team was attacked by a moose). Tragic accidents can happen when doing something you love to do. That doesn’t mean you should never leave home. So, perhaps critics should consider, “Do sled dogs enjoy racing?”

Anyone attending the Gunflint Mail Run would see dog teams eager to start, or wagging tails as they crossed the finish line. Those dogs loved running. Pulling. Feeling the wind and trees and snow rush past. Musher affection and respect for their pack was easy to see. The only tension was in the crowd, whose curiosity intruded on each team’s privacy. A family bond author Gary Paulsen ached for when he gave up dog racing, writing “How can it be to live without the dogs?”

As I and other volunteers waited at one of the crossroads, we didn’t debate the morality of pets and animal breeding. Instead, we joked and shared stories around a fire. We were dog lovers. Nature lovers. Lovers of older, simpler ways. When something approached, we scrambled into place. We formed a line that kept the dogs on the main path, or stopped cars or snowmobiles as sleds passed by. To honor each team’s effort, our claps and cheers echoed through the vast public forest around us.

Photo by tatyanalevitskaya, Pixabay

When dusk became darkness, we spotted teams by their musher’s headlamp. A light that twinkled through the trees. Dogs also wore blinking LEDs or glow stick necklaces. These required safety lights made some dogsled teams seem like moving Christmas trees.

A few times dogsleds bunched up as one team passed or gained on another. Other teams were content to race for personal best times, not trophies. All raced to celebrate a unique winter alliance. Two species, united in purpose, hauling a load none could move alone.

Photo by skeeze, Pixabay

As teams whooshed by, mushers shouted thanks (for volunteering), or “Haw” and “Gee” (steering the dogs). Once the team’s status was radioed in, cold, quiet darkness returned. In the silence, winds whistled through pine needles, sounding like waves on a beach. Amid these waves, faint northern lights even appeared. Their glow shimmered along the hazy Canadian horizon.

After three days along the Gunflint Trail, the dog city, population 300, melted away like a snowman. Gone, until next winter.

For fun, I made a video of 2019’s race. I hope all, even critics, can appreciate the bond between a musher and their dogs. Appreciate how teams train and test themselves. Appreciate how an old alliance enjoys a cold, starry night.


Other articles on Minnesota mushers:

Young musher to compete in Junior Beargrease

The Beargrease sled dog race has stellar dogs; some are extraordinary


Dog Sledding in the Northland

Breaking the Cardinal Rules



All book covers and movie posters are from or Unless indicated, all photos are taken by Randy Haaland, ©2019, all rights reserved.


Winter can have bad smells too! Photo by Randy Haaland

Should summer smell like rotting fish and algae farts? That’s what I wondered while I was in Fort Myers Beach for ten weeks last summer. During that time, Southwest Florida’s beaches were besieged by red tide. Casualties that washed ashore included threatened sea turtles and manatees, adored dolphins, and uncountable crustaceans and fish.

The costliest casualties though, were tourists. Their cash, wake boards, and sandcastles fled to more enjoyable beaches. Jilted residents and businesses went from frustrated to furious. They’re demanding changes. Otherwise, they fear property values will decline. Hotel empires will suffer. Ice cream stands will close.

All are legit fears. All because of an invasion of microscopic algae.

However, I’m glad my summer stunk. Really, truly, we should thank the algae.

We shouldn’t just be grateful that algae’s photosynthesis makes 70-80% of the oxygen we breath. We should appreciate that reeking algae helps identify careless human actions. In Florida’s case, fertilizer runoff in overdeveloped, flood-prone areas (where drainage ditches send fertilizer into waterways, feeding algae blooms). Other human-caused pollution doesn’t cause a stench, so outcry is less. For example, ocean microplastics and rising mercury levels in seafood get little publicity.

Plastic pollution, photo courtesy of geraldsimon00 on Pixabay
Photo courtesy of 3dman_eu on Pixabay

Thus, red tide’s funky farts and fishkills should be considered a welcome red flag.

Not convinced? Consider two examples of odorless water pollution.

Photo courtesy of USFWS

When I returned to Minnesota last fall, gracious friends let me stay at their island cabin. There, majestic bald eagles circled and perched in the tallest Norway pines. They watched for prey, preened, and rested. And screeched—a less dramatic sound than often portrayed in movies (my video below recorded three eagles screaming at each other). I’d never witnessed such a scene, despite eagles being common throughout Minnesota nowadays.

Rainy Lake eagle nest, photo by Randy Haaland

When I was growing up though, bald eagles were an endangered species. The reason for their decline was their eggs were brittle (breaking in the nest before a chick was mature). Research linked the thin eggs to the pesticide DDT in contaminated fish, a key food source for eagles.

Newborn chicks. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Like canaries in a coal mine, dead eagle chicks helped symbolize that DDT harmed humans too (from autism to many cancers). Yet despite early warnings, the nearly odorless DDT was used for decades before it was banned in 1972. Residual DDT still persists in water today, over 45 years later, but eagle populations have recovered.

The second sad pollution example is a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study I learned about last year when I attended Minicon 53. Scientists found widespread trace pharmaceuticals and chemicals in sampled rivers and lakes, including a remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area lake. The data led scientists to several surprising culprits, one of which was sewage pond evaporation that spread contaminants via rainfall (click to read an MPR article, or the actual report).

Minnesotans would riot if our abundant lakes, streams, and rivers suddenly were putrid. But trace water pollution rarely has a distinctive smell.  Rainfall pollution also has stunning implications, just as acidic rainfall does. Yet, no smell, no fuss.

Photo courtesy of Minnesota PCA

Sadly, politicians and citizens seem to only act when lawsuits and/or health problems pile up (including fish health, which affects fishing tourism). Without sick or dying people, speedy political action on pollution only seems to happen when one of three conditions exist:

These three conditions all apply to Florida’s red tides! Therefore, I’m optimistic Florida will defeat the algae blooms attacking its summer beaches.

Ft. Myers Beach, photo by Randy Haaland

Fresh salty breezes won’t return overnight. But Floridians can’t ignore fertilizer pollution has consequences. They can’t ignore rerouting the “River of Grass” has consequences. They can’t ignore declining tourism.

Stench spurs action.

For this kick to our nostrils, thank you stinky algae! If only all pollution had foul odors.



This past week I was honored to learn my sunset photo was chosen in Northern Wilds’ photo contest. The image is featured in their “For the Love of the North” 2019 calendar!

I took the photo as the storm clouds blew by an island cabin I was staying on. For a few moments, sunbeams broke through a gap in the ominous clouds.

Shutterbugs take heart, you don’t always need a fancy camera. This photo was taken with a simple Nikon Coolpix digital camera I bought for $99 during a Black Friday sale years ago. So the real credit goes to Mother Nature for her picturesque scene.

Congratulations to the other winning photographers too! I’m humbled to be among your stunning photos of Minnesota’s Arrowhead and North Shore region.


Everyone needs a Rumpus Room.

Even adults.

That’s the motto of the always-smiling Bonnie Somdahl. This past weekend she supervised the Rumpus Room area of Minicon 53’s science fiction and fantasy convention. Bonnie’s Rumpus Room is of course inspired by Maurice Sendek’s Where the Wild Things Are. Yet one might also compare it to J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

There, Gryffindor students melted marshmallow monsters, and Ravenclaws built clothespin fairies that flitted about with a helping hand.

Hufflepuffs made microscopes and cultures to study Earth’s invisible realms. Realms ruled by paramecium, volvox, and teeny-tiny tardigrades. Although the latter eluded detection due to the frozen landscape.

Lock picking class at Minicon 53

Even Slytherins had a grand time since discrimination isn’t allowed under Minicon’s Code of Conduct. Their Defense Against the Dark Arts training included lock-picking and Nerf gun marksmanship.

Other activities included puppet theater, puzzles, a scientific scavenger hunt, making fancy Czech Easter eggs, an Easter egg hunt, and creating stuffed sock animals. In addition, there was a dog theme this year. Kids made Frankenstein-like pooches using beanie babies in the “Create your own dog breed” session, as well as twisted balloon dogs. There was actual canine training too to help tame any Fluffy. The final class was “Tool Time for Kids,” where kids dissected muggle electronics.

Hermione with Crookshanks at Minicon 53 Costume Contest

But the Rumpus Room’s energy level peaked when professors made sure anyone who wanted a costume had one. For over three hours, scissors, sewing machines, glitter tattoos, and elaborate braids transformed children for Saturday evening’s costume contest. There, a Klingon emcee introduced Luna Lovegood, Hermione Granger, Spock, Catbus, Kylo Ren, Victor Nikiforov, a duo of Undertale video game characters, as well as Bluebell the water fairy, Jade the tree elf, Mother Nature, and the goddess Queen Rainboom. Adult cosplay grandstanded too of course, but the tykes and teens took home the majority of the showcase’s awards.

Cotton candy at Minicon 53

To fuel this enterprise, similar to Hogwarts’ Great Hall, Minicon’s ConSuite offered endless snacks, beverages, and meals. While supplies lasted, sugar addicts also swarmed a cotton candy machine (all food and beverages are free for Minicon members).

How did Bonnie manage this chaos? With a clever system that epitomizes James Garfield’s saying, “He who controls the money supply of a nation controls the nation.” Acting much like Gringotts bank, Bonnie dispensed gold coins to those doing activities, puppet shows, or anything deemed worthy. The coins then purchased items from tables heaped with donated toys, activity books, novelties, and art supplies.

Bonnie Somdahl with professors John Wardale and Josh More at Minicon 51 (photo by David Dyer-Bennet)

Bonnie’s always quick to credit the Rumpus Room’s success to her cadre of equally devoted professors. Indeed, of her score of help, some have entertained and educated Minicon’s children longer than she has. Collectively, these faculty embrace “insanity” to create a fun space where all-ages learn and play. This inclusive philosophy has created a bustling area whose population exceeded thirty bodies at one point. By my estimate, ten percent of the convention’s 545 attendees were kids and adults who attended and/or helped the Rumpus Room.

This contrasts when Bonnie took charge at Minicon 47. Then, she feared no children would even show up (she could remember only two kids who took part in Minicon 46’s kids’ programming). So, to ensure success, she brought her own grandkids to establish a fun vibe. It worked.

Chas Somdahl, Bonnie’s husband and a mainstay professor, described the Rumpus Room as “A con within a con.” In fact, word of mouth brought at least one family to Minicon 53 strictly for the Rumpus Room’s activities. I can echo this sentiment, as next year I already preregistered two children I know I’ll have to drag back home to their parents.

Dragon drawing at Minicon 53

Of the kids attending, Luna said, “I like everything. There’s always something to do.” Altin felt the same and said, “I really liked everything.” Some favored the gel decorative frosting though, which went more into their mouths than on their marshmallow sculptures. Free play also thrives—art covered the walls, and Madeline enjoyed building a fort with toy bricks. New friends are made too—one child was heartbroken when a prior Minicon playmate couldn’t attend this year.

What’s the Rumpus Room’s origin story?

Cartoon by Teddy Harvia (from Minicon 25 guidebook)

Early Minicons offered a paid babysitter. Sharon Kahn and Carol Kennedy explained the early conventions also had babysitting cooperatives, where parents took turns watching younger children in a hotel room (which inspired a cartoon in Minicon 25’s guidebook). Older children were “emancipated” and allowed to play “stairway tag” on their own. The mention of stairway tag brought a smile to Thorin Tatge. Decades later, he is now a games professor in the Rumpus Room (a welcome break when he’s not cranking out issues of the convention’s Bozo Bus Tribune).

Starting at Minicon 31, childcare evolved into “childrens’ programming.” With ups and downs the next decade, Marian Turner became headmistress at Minicon 41. She remained in charge through Minicon 46, bringing stability to childrens’ activities until Bonnie became her successor at Minicon 47.

Art by Bonnie Somdahl (from Minicon 40 guidebook)

Bonnie and Chas first attended Minicon 32. In the two decades since, Chas has been an occasional panel member and a frequent musician (he’s part of the duo Riverfolk). Bonnie has contributed guidebook art, and was in charge of helping with costumes starting at Minicon 43. Four conventions later, she became headmistress. Her first act was to introduce more structured activities. The following year she rebranded “Kids’ Programming” into the all-ages “Rumpus Room.” This past weekend, her seventh consecutive year in charge, she became Minicon’s longest serving headmistress.

Toy volcano at Minicon 53

Her legendary dedication includes showing up last year for Minicon’s opening ceremony the day after an emergency appendectomy. Yet, she isn’t superhuman. She isn’t always nice either. Her daughter Guinevere, another anchor professor, cautioned, “She’s the sweetest person until she’s playing a board game. Then, she’s absolutely ruthless.” This dark side might explain Bonnie’s tolerance of toy figures being stuffed into the Rumpus Room’s volcano. If one overlooks her tolerance of toy and marshmallow sacrifices though, Bonnie’s charm, patience, and dedication clearly make her a wonderful headmistress.

After 48 hours of imagination and insanity, the Rumpus Room closes. Professors gather their paraphernalia, and the rest is inventoried and packed into totes. All that fun, all that magic, is then stashed in a secret storage locker until its power is needed again.

How long will Bonnie run the Rumpus Room? She isn’t sure. However, she plans to groom a successor. An unnamed heir that will ensure the Rumpus Room’s legacy continues. For now, Minicon’s community is lucky to have Bonnie, and a cadre of dedicated professors. They’ve made a special place, even for adults.

Box castle at Minicon 53

Although I do have advice for adults who swing by future Rumpus Rooms. Don’t be alarmed if you hear “Wing-GAR-dium Levi-O-sa.” As you float upward, just realize young Hogwarts students often prank unwary visitors with levitate charms. Enjoy the ride, as I did, or improvise a wand and utter a Finite counterspell. But if you dare to venture toward the box castle, carry a shield. This province has ranged weapons, fierce teddy bears, and a “No grown-ups!” policy.

You’ve been warned.



Minicon 53 program cover, art by Jon Arfstrom

For information on past and future Minicons, click here. A shout out to Matt Strait, whose archiving efforts were invaluable in researching Minicon’s five-decade history. My gratitude also goes out to Bonnie and Emily Stewart, who helped make this profile story possible.