Tamarack River Horse Camp

This story was written by Woodland Trails Bed & Breakfast innkeeper John O’Reilly and published in several local newspapers.

The camp is located just five miles up the road from the B & B. From May through October B & B guests are welcome to go up to the camp and visit with the horse people, who all love talking about their animals.

Directions from Woodland Trails: Go north (left out of the driveway) on Grace Lake Road approximately 5 miles to Tamarack Forest Road. Go right on this road and follow signs for about three miles to the horse camp.

We have another treasure in our area, the Tamarack River Horse Camp. Located near the Wisconsin border just north of Highway 48, the camp fills with horse people, their animals and their rigs on most weekends from May through October.

Horseback riding at Tamarack River Horse Camp

Horse enthusiasts fill the Tamarack River Horse Camp on most weekends from May through October.

“Of the nearly 90 public horse trails in Minnesota, the trail here is one of the two or three best,” said Darrell Mead, Maple Grove, as he set up his campsite. “The scenery is beautiful, especially near the Tamarack River. The terrain is varied, from flat land to steep hills with great views and river crossings. And, the trails were made by horse people for horse people.”

It seems that State of Minnesota specifications say trails should be at least eight feet wide to accommodate tractors and other heavy equipment. Most of the nearly 30 miles of horse trails in the Tamarack River complex are narrow, only wide enough to allow horses to pass through single file.

“Narrow trails are much safer for the rider,” said Roy Shumway, Ramsey, who has been riding in the Tamarack River complex for more than 30 years.

“On a narrow trail with horses ahead and behind, an unruly horse tends to stay under control because he has no where to go.”

“When we first brought our horse up to this area in the 1970s,” recalled Carolyn Shumway, Roy’s wife, “we rode on the trails in St. Croix State Park and asked, ‘Is this trail riding?’ With no hills it is o.k. for a short time but then it becomes boring. We were delighted to find this place, just 20 or so miles further down the road.”

“Yes,” Roy added, “at that time we had an old Dodge truck that wasn’t meant to pull a trailer and a trailer that wasn’t meant to haul horses. But, we had fun. Some of us slept in tents and others slept out under the stars. Now, most of us have hundred thousand dollar rigs with all the comforts of home for both us and the horses.”

Horseback riding in Minnesota at Tamarack River Horse Camp

Roy Shumway, his horse and his hundred thousand dollar rig.

The Tamarack River Horse Camp is a fine example of citizen involvement. Warren Bengtson, who once lived near the camp and now makes his home in Rush City, came up with the idea for horse trails here in the early 1960s. “I was hunting deer here in 1961 when it occurred to me this would be a perfect place to ride. At the time, there were no roads in the area, just a two-track fire break barely wide enough to let a truck pass through.”

Warren followed up that thought with a meeting with a local DNR official. “I can’t remember his name – he was Jerry Langworthy’s predecessor – but I can remember his answer when I asked if I could make some horse trails out there. He said, ‘Help yourself and, if something is in your way, cut it down.’

“It took us three years to make enough trails to ride. Mostly, we followed the deer trails which were often along the ridges. Then I recruited a bunch of kids to ride horses over the trails to beat them down. Particularly the trails along side hills require many trips by horses going back and forth to make a shelf.

“The area started to become popular in the late 1960s when the riding clubs began coming here,” Warren went on. “The Hinckley Saddle Club was the first to hold events out here. Later the saddle clubs from Pine City, Rush City and Rutledge all joined in.
“In 1967 Howard Sikkink offered to lend me the money for horseshoeing school. ‘Pay me back when you can,’ he told me. At the time, I was the pastor at the Indian church near Lake Lena and was poorer than poor. Howard’s offer was a career changer for me.

“Once I got going in the horseshoeing business, I organized rides for my customers every year on the first weekend in May and the first weekend in October. They were very simple events with only three rules: No charge, no alcohol and no stallions. We’d have 40 or 50 rigs out here parked so close together you could walk from trailer to trailer on the roofs.

“On Sunday mornings we’d all take a ride up to a beautiful spot called Tamarack Overlook where we’d hold a church service and I did the preaching.

“Jerry Langworthy became head of the DNR office in the early 1970s but we didn’t see much of him or other DNR officials. We didn’t ask for anything from them and they didn’t have any questions for us. During these early years, everything was done by volunteers at no cost to the state.

Tamarack River Horse Camp pioneers

Pioneers who helped create the Tamarack River Horse Camp are Roy and Carolyn Shumway, left, and Warren and Gloria Bengtson

Then, about 1980, the state came up with the idea the horse trails should be closed down.

“Part of the problem was they didn’t realize how much the trails were used,” said Roy Shumway. “People who used the area were supposed to pay a daily fee on the honor system. Most weren’t paying, either because they didn’t know they were supposed to or because they chose not to. Either way, the state was gauging usage by the revenue and, because it was low, came up with the closing idea.

“For three years during that time I volunteered as a campground host,” Roy went on, “and I made sure everyone paid. My wife Carolyn and I also promoted several group rides a year and charged admission. We saved up all those fees which came to around $2,000.

“Then, around 1990 the Federal Government came out with a plan to match funds for trail work of all kinds. All trail users were eligible including snowmobilers, hikers, bikers, cross country skiers and horse people. Fortunately, we had that nest egg put away so we got going right away. With that start, we were able to eventually come up with a total of $200,000 in federal, state and private money to completely modernize the camp. We now have good roads, over 50 camping sites, toilets and a community building.”

Recently the DNR, through the efforts of DNR forester Bill Foss, renamed portions of the camp area for Warren Bengtson and Roy Shumway. Foss said, “People who make things happen should be recognized and I am proud that we were able to erect signs honoring these two pioneers.”

If you would like to see horses and talk with their enthusiastic owners, take a drive out to the Tamarack Horse Camp some weekend day. You’ll be impressed with what dedicated horse people have created for themselves.