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Retreat in the woods: Camper cabin collaboration teaches students skills

The three Whitetail Woods Regional Park camper cabins are outfitted with a large back deck and a front picnic table with a fire ring. Photo by Kara Hildreth1 / 4
A back wall of natural light and windows frame the stunning view of nature to give guests a relaxing escape with a treehouse in the sky feel. Photo by Kara Hildreth2 / 4
Paul Landwehr, construction trades instructor at Independent School District 917, led 40 Farmington High School in the construction of the three camper cabins open to the public to rent at Whitetail Woods Regional Park. “It was a great project for the kids going into the electrical and architectural program – it is a great way and ability to be hands-on – kids can learn these skills for free in high school where they can learn many trades,” he said. Photo by Kara Hildreth3 / 4
Whitetail Woods Regional Park offers 456 acres of walking and hiking trails, and the lush, natural grounds border a lake with hills and wetlands. The county park is an ideal venue for water and winter sports. Photo by Kara Hildreth4 / 4

When you enter Whitetail Woods cabins, you may be transported to your childhood when you spent carefree days climbing trees or hanging out in a treehouse.

Three primitive camper cabins that are modern in design offer an overnight experience free of modern social media — no TV, video games or radio. Although there is access to electricity and Wi-Fi.

A back wall bank of windows illuminates the interior space and frames the pristine view of nature. Perched above rustling, quiet pines, the camper cabins were designed to be elevated off the ground. The cabins accommodate six overnight guests who can kick back and relax indoors nestled under a restful tree canopy to see only the beauty of nature.

Backyard getaway

One Farmington family packed up their family of five and spent an overnight in the cabins on New Year's Eve, shortly after the cabins opened at Whitetail Woods Regional Park three years ago. Located halfway between Farmington and Rosemount off Highway 3, the cabins may be the perfect weekend getaway for families in search of quality time together.

"We enjoyed our time away, the outdoor time and all the amenities," Janee Johnson said. "It was our together time and it is something convenient to go to, and it felt like you are far away — it is like a getaway in our own backyard. There was something fun for everyone in the family to do."

The Johnsons joined another family who camped next door in a camper cabin. The two families relished to have time away from home and social media, playing cards and board games.

Even in the winter, Johnson said her family felt close to nature inside the cozy cabins. The Johnson family was busy just hanging out and building family memories. They especially loved witnessing nature with the birds and squirrels from the glass picture windows. At night, the two families snuggled up outdoors next to a warm, crackling bonfire to celebrate New Year's Eve.

The camper cabins are perched up with a treehouse feel. Photo by Kara Hildreth

"It would be a great place for a couples' retreat," said husband Mark Johnson.

Since the cabins opened three years ago, they have become popular with the community and are usually booked months ahead, especially on weekends.

Project of collaboration

Proud to have led 40 Farmington High School students who built each cabin from the ground up, Paul Landwehr is a construction trades instructor at Independent School District 917. Landwehr taught a hands-on course to students. The youth constructed the cabins outdoors at Dakota County Technical College three years ago as coursework under the classes offered through Intermediate School District 917.

"The architect designed it and Dakota County hired an architect, and I was brought into a mix of meetings that summer before school and we talked about the capabilities as a school," Landwehr said.

The cabin project began in October 2013 and construction was completed in June 2014. The camper cabins were transported to Whitetail Wood Park that would become their new home.

"We built it, the entire class built it outdoors in the winter — it was brutally cold with 36 days below zero where we worked outside and not in a shop — it was a collaboration with Dakota County and the high school - they were all great to work with," Landwehr said.

"It was a great project for the kids going into the electrical and architectural program — it is a great way and ability to be hands-on — kids can learn these skills for free in high school where they can learn many trades," said Landwehr. "My wife says it is great for kids to learn when they are younger what kind of work they like to do, and even the kind of work they don't like to do."

Hands-on classrooms

Eric Van Brocklin, a secondary principal for Intermediate School District 917 in Rosemount, said "Our kids were pounding the nails and putting in the screws — I give credit to Paul and the kids for putting it all together."

Touting the merits of high school students enrolling in courses offered for free under the Career and Technical Education program at Dakota County Technical College, Van Brocklin said many hands-on courses are available to area high school students.

"We have computer networking, a video game design class, two food industry programs like a fundamentals in chef training, construction trades, heavy duty trucks technology, medical careers, a career explorations class, a total auto career and a graphics design program," Van Brocklin said.

"We help prepare kids for the future and give them industry-ready skills as they become aware of their interests," said Van Brocklin. "We are giving them hands-on experience for career-related skills they can use in college and to get a job," he added.

Future growth

Dennis Freiermuth, project manager with Dakota County in Hastings, said the original master plan called for 20 camper cabins. The next building phase will most likely add four more cabins after initial plans are cemented and after crunching county budget numbers.

"The staff, students and crew did a phenomenal job, and I even ran into one of the students a couple months ago who stopped me in the store to say how fun and what a great experience it was building the cabins," said Freiermuth.

"It was very enjoyable working with Paul, and we had some park labor yet we tried to stay out of Paul's way so he could teach, but I think the kids enjoyed the project, especially if one student still remembers it," he added.

"The nice part of the cabins is that it introduces camping for those who do not own campers and equipment, but who still want to go out and camp because everything is provided," Freiermuth said.

Landwehr added, "The project was a success because it is real life — these kids can say they built it together — they can visit the parks and it can be part of their legacy and they can say they were a part of it."