Freelance outdoors writer Jake Kulju was cruising Craigslist one day, and there it was, the job of his dreams: Avalon Travel was looking for an outdoors writer to create a Twin Cities hiking guide for its Moon line of guidebooks. He immediately put together a proposal.
“I had never written a book of any kind before, but I had a good deal of outdoors writing experience for several regional outdoors publications,” said Kulju, whose “Take a Hike: Minneapolis & St. Paul, Hikes Within Two Hours of the Twin Cities” is now ready for your daypack. “Honestly, I’m not sure what made me stand out. I can’t imagine how many people applied for such an amazing opportunity.”
If you are one of those legions of spurned applicants, you’ll want to hear about all the bug bites Kulju collected, the trail injuries, the times he got lost or chased by wildlife or dangerous thugs. Well, sorry. The actual job turned out to be just as idyllic as one might hope.
“Writing this book was supremely awesome. I am a sentimental sucker, so high-stepping it through shoulder-high prairie grasses, stooping to smell wildflowers and dangling my feet in streams and rivers with a camera slung over my shoulder and a notebook in hand evoked a kind of 19th century wandering naturalist image in my mind,” he says. “I learned the names of dozens of native wildflowers, learned the history of many little-known places in the region and ate wild blackberries for breakfast many a Minnesota morning. I consider myself more of a poet than a journalist, so working and writing in nature to translate the poetry of forests, lakes and prairies to paper was glory.”
In actuality, Kulju didn’t have that much time to stop and smell the hoary puccoon — he was on a tight deadline, with just four months to plan, travel, hike and write the book, which includes about 90 hikes (winnowed down from a list of 300). He spent the equivalent of about six weeks hiking and the rest of time writing and researching, not to mention driving around the state when the gas prices (unreimbursed) were so high last summer.
(This summer, Kulju is on the road again, researching his next book, a Moon Guide to Minnesota’s campgrounds.)
The number of wild places he discovered dazzled Kulju, and his sense of delight comes through in each entry. “I am so thankful that we live in a state that really values wilderness, the peace of outdoors and the importance of having not just non-urban environments, but truly undeveloped outdoors,” he says. As a 20-something writer, his hiking boots are set firmly in the present, and he’s not haunted by beloved trails turned into parking lots and housing developments — although there is one spot he returned to and found closed off.
“When I was in college in St. Paul five years ago, I used to love bumming around the old railroad bridge that crosses the Mississippi between the Franklin and Marshall Avenue bridges. It’s all fenced off now, and rumor is that it is being converted to a bike path (which I fully support), but I longed for the romantic nights when I could see moonlight swimming in the water far below, read love notes scratched into the old railroad ties and see how far I could spit from the edge of the tracks into the river. There wasn’t a better view of the Mississippi River Gorge in the whole city.”
Kulju’s book makes it clear that there are plenty of great trails still here, and he highlights a few restored and reclaimed wildernesses, too, making this guide both inspiring and practical. So take a look, then take a hike.