Quarry Park: risky fun near Saint Cloud

1:21 AM, Jul 6, 2011   |    comments
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WAITE PARK, Minn. -- Minnesota once boasted, and still claims, the best granite quarries in the world. Now, some of them have become world-class recreation sites.

Quarry Park is a 680 acre section of post-industrial landscape, set aside by Stearns County and opened in the 1990s as a public park. The location in Waite Park is just outside the city limits of Saint Cloud. The park features the remains of almost two dozen Saint Cloud Red Granite quarries.

"It was a number of different operations, kind of a 'Ma and Pa' type of granite quarry operations," said Stearns County Parks Director Chuck Wocken. "Lots of rock piles called grout piles, unstable rock, steep ledges, deep water, but the beautiful part of it is, nature has kind of taken over and created some forest areas and prairie areas and it is great to have something like this, just off the bus routes of Saint Cloud."

Saint Cloud Red Granite was in big demand at the turn of the last century. Wocken calls it a "hot color" for the time. Portions of pillars and enhancements from local buildings, made of the pink stone are on display near the big derrick exhibition space.

"The age of the bedrock, itself, is about 1.8 billion years old. [Those are] the closest estimates we have gotten. The Saint Cloud Red is the predominant color in this park and there are intrusions of basalt, which are typically what you see up in the North Shore area. It is a kind of grey material that has formed dikes within the granite," noted Wocken.

The park is a walking and biking adventure, since motorized vehicles are not allowed. A parking lot at the entrance charges $4 per day or $14 for an annual pass. There are many spots were unique flora is honored. The northern-most patches of Prickly Pear Cactus can be found in the park's extensive woods, as well as colorful flowers like Indian Paintbrush.

There is a working exhibit with an 85 foot tall derrick that was once used to haul 10 ton blocks of stone from the man-made holes in the earth. Scuba diving and rock climbing is allowed at designated quarries with permits and liability waivers.

Wocken leaves no doubt as to the dangers inherent in the park's attractions. "It is always kind of interesting to field a call from a mom in Minneapolis. 'My son or my child is going up to Quarry Park. Is it safe?' and you say, 'Well, safe and Quarry Park just do not go together'. It is kind of a risk adventure recreation site. You are on your own."

By far the most popular place in the park is what is known as the swimming quarry. It is the only quarry were swimming is allowed. The water is 116 feet deep in places. It is a useful depth. The quarry also features rock ledges which are used for jumping and diving into the clear, deep water.

"I just like coming here with my friends and hanging out, doing that [swimming] and then jumping off the rocks, impressing some people. It is kind of cool," said Allen Simson, 19, of Saint Cloud. Simson is one of the park's more accomplished jumpers, repeatedly flinging himself off the highest allowed promontory and doing a back flip before hitting the water, 30 feet below.

There are several picnic tables and flat outcroppings at the edge of the Quarry for lunches and sun bathing. Air mattresses are popular for floating relaxation and watching the cliff jumpers.

"It is terrifying! You are at the top of the rock and you ar nervous and your heart is going nuts," said Mccall Henkel, 19, of Saint Cloud. "But once you do it, it is so much fun and you cannot help but doing it again, because your adrenalin is going so much!"

Wocken estimates that half of the park's visitors are from outside Stearns County, which he welcomes. John Beochmann and Anthony Johns were Arizona teenagers visiting in June and July. "So cool! Crazy adrenalin rush! To jump off the big cliffs is so cool! There is nothing like this in Arizona!" they gushed.

The park's unrestricted access to danger is much of its attraction, but there have been drawbacks. The area offers many signs with graphic warnings about the risks of injury and death from jumping at the swimming quarry.

"We do not provide lifeguards at the swimming area. We inform people of the hazards. If they jump off of a ledge, we let them know that there are shallow underwater rocks beneath some of the ledges. We inform people that some of the features are inherently dangerous and you could die. So, we kind of put that out there and if you still want to do it then we let them," explained Wocken.

In fact, there was one death there in 1998.

"We lost an individual the year we opened and that was a situation where a person got up on a rock pile [adjacent to the quarry] and went past the signs that said stay off the rock pile. He then tried to jump 14 feet horizontally to clear a rock pile and to clear a ledge to get into the deep water. That was a sad start, but that was our only incident," said Wocken.

The accident victim was not a teenager. He was a middle-aged man. Wocken said lawyers told the county officials that they had more than adequate signage about the dangers to circumvent present and future liability. No lawsuits resulted from the fatal incident.

For the water-challenged, there is a quarry with a rock climbing wall that requires permits. Other quarries are reserved for scuba divers.

"The divers like that simply because they get away from motor boats and out of the regular open water," said Wocken.

The quarries vary from a few feet in depth to the swimming quarry's 116 feet. The water quality at the swimming quarry is tested by park staff.

"The water is really a connection to underground acquifers. A lot of the water comes in through fractures, but it also collects a lot of rain water. So, down in the scuba quarry near the derrick operational exhibit area, about 60 feet [down], you can feel the cold water coming in through the fissures on the bottom of the quarry," said Wocken.

For the less adventurous visitors, there are picnic tables at sites around the park as well as various overlooks with good views of the park cliff jumpers and rock climbers. Before Quarry Park was a park, it was a favored beer party location for trespassers in the area. Since the fatal accident, alcohol is no longer allowed inside the park.

The granite quarries had not functioned in several decades. Even the giant derrick was brought to the site from another quarry outside the park borders. Chuck Wocken would like to see a larger facility in the park detailing the history of the area's contributions to the granite industry. He envisoned a rock concert in the open prairie restoration area that would help raise the money.

In the meantime, he will have to settle for cliff-jumping teenagers and the mountain-biking, path-jogging, rock-climbing, scuba diving, other folks.

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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