New state park manager settling in at Forestville

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP New Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park manager Nick Schwaegerl stands on the historic bridge at the state park near Historic Forestville.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

When Nick Schwaegerl took a seasonal job at Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne in western Minnesota, he never dreamed it would lead to a career.

However, after a roundabout tour at six Minnesota state parks, from the North Shore to the Mississippi River, he has landed at Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park where he took over manager duties, marking about 10 years that he’s been with the Department of Natural Resources and state parks.

He grew up in west central Minnesota in Montevideo on the edge of town and the Chippewa River Valley where he spent a lot of time in the woods building forts, hiking and playing. “Our family camped a lot when we were kids and now as adults as well, and so being outdoors has always been in my blood,” he said. 

Schwaegerl has an undergraduate degree in history from Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota, and a master’s degree in natural resource management at North Dakota State University. 

His first job in the parks system at Blue Mounds State Park happened to be where his family often went camping, so “to put on the uniform and the patch, it was really fun for me to be able to have that job.  It was a seasonal job and I didn’t know it would be a career, but getting to work in the parks and do all that was very exciting.” 

From there, he went to the North Shore at Temperance River State Park in a more professional position as a lead worker – not a supervisor, but with more responsibility, he explained. Then he went to Crow Wing State Park southwest of Brainerd as a midlevel supervisory worker, then to Father Hennepin on Mille Lacs Lake as an assistant manager. He came to southeastern Minnesota, first to Whitewater as an assistant manager and then to Frontenac before coming to Forestville-Mystery Cave. 

Schwaegerl and his wife currently live in Lake City and are trying to find a home closer to Forestville to shorten his commute, but in the meantime, he’s keeping busy better acquainting himself with the busy park’s resources, features and what it requires for someone to oversee it. 

“Working in state parks, there are always such scenic areas, like the plains and the bison at Blue Mounds…Crow Wing was a transition area, there’s the lake on the North Shore, of course,” he said. “I’ve had a very blessed career to have been in so many cool places.” 

Along the way, he’s had the opportunity to witness how other parks are managed as he has found that every park is unique in how it’s managed because the resources are different from park to park. He has discovered that Forestville-Mystery Cave is very different than any of the other parks where he has worked.

“Every park is different – the staff numbers, the staff workload,” he said. “It really takes about one to two years to settle in to learn all that.  You have to have one camping season under your belt to figure that out, and since I’ve moved around a bit, that’s been sort of perpetual for me. The parks are all so different and unique, and that’s part of the advantage of taking that on.”

He understands that there’s a challenge in venturing into a park office for the first time because the park office is just the beginning of what he needs to know. The greater challenge is the whole scope of the park, which includes Historic Forestville, trout streams, resource work being done, the timber rattlesnake, camping and day use, the horse camp, and, of course, Mystery Cave, which is its own unique feature that fascinates Schwaegerl. 

Park staff also manages Lake Louise State Park, which is a more rustic park near LeRoy with a shorter camping season, but it has the Shooting Star Bike Trail and some very different resources to manage, he added. 

He arrived in the middle of the late end of Forestville’s summer camping season, meaning that he had a baptism by campfire. 

“I’ve been in busy parks, and I knew this park would be busy, so it would be complex coming into it.  I’ve worked in parks that had those aspects to it,” he said. “Getting here in August, I had to hit the ground running.  And because I’m the new management, I don’t have a year to wait to answer those questions people need to know.  I knew I would be put on the spot, that I’d just not be comfortable yet for lack of experience here.” 

Making recommendations to park visitors at the front counter takes some knowledge of “what kind of ‘wow’ they’re looking for,” he noted. “The art of working the front counter is getting that out of them, really finding what they’re looking for.  Some people, their ‘wow’ is a short hike or drive, and other people, it’s a two-mile hike out to Big Spring and back, with stream crossings.  I like to hike, and especially if there’s cool stuff to see along the way.  With so much to offer, I’m getting to know the town site, the historic bridge, the south branch of the Root River, heading to the town site, the Root River and trout fishing, where to hike to – it’s always good to hike to an overlook.  It’s pretty humbling just because we’ve got the local traffic, but also, we’ve got the new visitors.”

He’s proud to have charge of caring for the wide-open valley, the cave, the stream, Lake Louise and beyond.  Because these parks have so much history, he acknowledged he is only here for a short time in the grand scheme of things, but he hopes to manage it the best he can for all users.

“I’ve got good support, the knowledge of people who have been here for years, on up to my supervisors,” he said. “They all have what’s best for the park in mind.”

At home, he’s still got his thoughts on being outdoors, which he said is “a big part of me and my personality.  I’m an introvert, but I also am the lead self-defense instructor for parks and trails, so I have to give a presentation to all the new secondary rangers and have no problem going in front of a group of people. But I’m more of an introvert.  I like being outdoors camping and canoeing, I go to the Boundary Waters. The whole outdoors experience is definitely part of my personality.  I like to keep things lighthearted and laid back.” 

When he can’t be outside, Schwaegerl’s got his trusty guitar of 20-plus years, as just about any well-versed state park naturalist should.  He also likes to watch Twins baseball games and football and, he notes, “ I’m not above binge-watching Netflix or YouTube, and it’s fun to do nothing and kick back on the couch to relax.” 

And when the snow flies, he’ll still have his mind on the outdoors – this winter, on how to entice local and new visitors to Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park, his new back yard. 

“It all comes back to the variety this park has.  There are so many outdoor opportunities, from equestrian trails to camping and fishing…areas of the park are open for hunting as well, and there’s so much to see and do no matter what your interests are,” Schwaegerl said. “It’s a great gateway maybe for those who don’t get out into the parks so often.  Maybe one of the misconceptions some people have is that we’re not open in the winter – that we’re only here for camping – but we are open every day. Come out – we’re open year-round.”