Photos, text capture beauty, climate of Voyageurs

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Don Breneman is pretty sure his earliest memory of the lakes and forests that became Voyageurs National Park is of a trip across Kabetogama Lake to Kettle Falls.

It was in the late 1940s. Breneman was 4 years old at the time, and he and his family traveled in a rented 18-foot wooden boat with a 5-horsepower outboard.

There is a photo, taken by his mother, of Breneman and his father in that boat in a new book, Voyageur Skies. The book is an album of photos and text that lovingly capture the rugged beauty and climate of Voyageurs park in all seasons.

Breneman, who estimates he has visited the Voyageurs area hundreds of times and taken thousands of photos there over the last 60 years, collaborated on the book with Mark Seeley, a University of Minnesota Extension climatologist.

The Freshwater Society was one of more than a dozen individuals, companies and organizations that contributed to the publication of the book. Gene Merriam, Freshwater’s president, wrote the forward for it.

Both Breneman and Seeley have ties to Freshwater. Seeley is a regular contributor to the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendar. Breneman has had nature photographs published in the calendar.

The 140-page book was published by the Afton Historical Society Press.

Breneman grew up in Little Fork, about 30 miles west of the park. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he hunted ducks, fished and ice-fished in the lakes – Kabetogama, Rainy, Namakan and Sand Point – that became the park.

While he attended Macalester College, Breneman contributed photographs for the campaign, led by former Minnesota Gov. Elmer L. Andersen, that persuaded Congress in 1975 to preserve the lakes and forests as America’s only water-based national park.

Breneman spent almost all his professional career as a photographer for University of Minnesota Extension. He worked with Seeley there, and he also knew Seeley as a friend and neighbor in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood.

Breneman said he began thinking of doing a book of photos on the new national park almost as soon as it was created. In 2002, when he retired from Extension, he began working on the project in earnest.

“I wanted it to be something like a coffee table book, but I wanted it to be more than a coffee table book of nature photos,” he said. He conceived of presenting the 120 pictures in the book in seasonal sequence. That’s when he recruited Seeley to the project.

Seeley, Minnesota’s unofficial climate historian, has appeared on Minnesota Public Radio on a weekly basis since 1992. He wrote the Minnesota Weather Almanac, published in 2006 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

The text in Voyageurs Skies begins with Breneman’s account of the park’s history – from the earliest Native American inhabitants, through the trappers, gold prospectors, timber crews, commercial fishermen and – eventually tourists – who have worked in and enjoyed its lakes.

Next comes detailed accounts by Seeley of the weather history and weather trends in the park in each season. Those trends include slightly higher average temperatures, driven by higher overnight low temperatures in the winter, more humidity and more precipitation delivered by thunderstorms.

An exhibit of photos from Voyageurs Skies opened Oct. 1 at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum and runs through the end of this year.

On Oct. 12, the Freshwater Society will host a book-signing reception for Breneman and Seeley from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Gray Freshwater Center, 2500 Shadywood Road, Excelsior. For information, contact Diane Lynch at 952-314-8134 or