Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of Sketchandtravel.com and Bookpleasures.com is
pleased to have as our guest, Tom Watson, author and freelance
Tom is the author of: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Twin Cities: and The Best in Tent Camping: Minnesota:(Both published by Menasha Ridge Publishing)
Tom also is the author of How To Think Like A Survivor: A Guide For Wilderness Emergencies (coming out summer of ’05, published by Creative Publishing, International)
Good day Tom and thanks for agreeing to participate in our interview.
When did your passion for hiking and camping begin and what kept you going?
Good day to you and thank you for this opportunity. My dad was pretty
active in the outdoors. After leaving the Navy he opened a hobby shop that
carried a lot of sporting goods. I was able, as a boy growing up in eastern
Missouri, a chance to try out all sorts of equipment – lures, rifles, bows
and arrows. Also, since my dad enjoyed camping, we took advantage of the
myriad places in Missouri to primitive camp. My cousins lived there, too,
and they were avid campers as well. So, since I was about seven, I spent a
good portion of every summer outdoors.
By the time I was thinking of college – back in the late 6O’s, my folks were
divorced and I had been living with my mom during the school years. I wanted
to maintain some outdoor exposure so I decided to go into Forestry at the
University of Minnesota, on the St. Paul campus. All those factors and my
growing love of the natural sciences still keep me going to this day.
As many of our readers are interested in romantic getaways, could you
describe eight of the most romantic and unique camping areas in Minnesota?
Why are they romantic?
That calls upon my interpretation of both “romantic” and “unique”
campsites. I am foremost a primitive camper, minimum facilities, minimum
To me a romantic site is private, remote and amid better than
average scenery or natural attractions.
* Based on that I could list almost any campsite in the BWCA Wilderness as well as any in Voyageurs National Park – most of which are water accessible only. As far as drive-up sites, and those with a bit of walk-in access (my favorites), I have to list the following:
* Lake Maria State Park – isolated walk-in sites scattered along a hill under
a full canopy of oaks and maples – fabulous fall colors! Great hiking trail,
* Great River Bluffs State Park – this part overlooks the Mississippi River
offering these incredible vistas. The overlooks are at the end of short
trails through a dense overstory of maples, very peaceful and the vistas
are breathtaking – some with very romantic perches upon which you and a
significant other could sit cozily for hours.
* Lake Elmo Regional Park Preserve. It’s so close to downtown St. Paul yet it
offers remote, walk-in campsites and several miles of cross-country trails.
The campsites are along a walk-in corridor about 100 yards from the parking
area and each one is situated in deep foliage so the privacy level is quite
good, too. These are basic sites without a lot of amenities close by. These
are good sites for lounging around or taking several hikes.
* Crescent Lake Campground- This is just outside the BWCA area, in the
Superior National Forest. It’s the best laid-out campground I’ve seen –
based on my likes. Each site is either up on a knoll or cut deep into the
woods for very private and serene settings.
* Split Rock Lighthouse State Park – One of the few really good campgrounds on
the North Shore of Lake Superior only if its not so tightly laid out as all
the others are. There are walk-in sites stretching for about ½ miles along
the rocky shore of the lake, each separated by a forest of birch trees. The
sounds of the water against the shoreline, breezes in the trees and the
freshness of the area all combine to make a very soothing kind of camping
* Crosby-Manitou State Park – Like Lake Maria, this is solely a backpacker’s
park. The sites are situated throughout the rocky banks of the river, many a
short distance from ragging waterfalls and thundering cascades.
* Very romantic in a Grizzly Adams sort of way, as are most of these.
Lake Kabetogama region of Voyageurs National Park – I couldn’t resist
offering the camp sites scattered throughout this park’s southern region.
Many are single campsites on small, rocky islands – no chance of
encroachment by other campers! They are all water-accessible, but what’s
more romantic that a boat ride out to a private campsite surrounded by a
Many of the campground in the state forests of Minnesota – Granted some of
these are popular with horse back riders, ORV riders and fishermen, but if
you can find one not being used you can have the entire forest to yourself
with trails and rivers and lakes in abundance. These offer very few
amenities but if you are self contained and interested in romancing the day
away, you won’t need any extras anyway.
Would you recommend to honeymoon couples or couples looking for a unique
romantic adventure that they try camping, and if so, why?
From my perspective, if a guy can find a lady who truly enjoys camping
(not parking a big RV on some flat lawn and driveway), then it won’t matter
where you go. However, I think to really understand a person you need to see
how self-reliant they can be. I think camping brings out that and separates
those who need things and those who can make do without complaining. Get
those down right and the rest of it will be easy. Finding that right camping
partner may be the stepping- stone for many other successful interactions.
Has there been any change in the popularity of camping over the past thirty
years, and if so, why?
There has definitely been a shift in the definition. It’s amazing how
many RV parks with concrete slaps and broomstick trees are listed as
“campgrounds”. There are fewer and fewer places to go to actually pitch a
tent in a pristine, “campground” setting.
Our affluent society enables more to buy the bigger units, but perhaps it’s more that as we grow older we still enjoy the outdoors and the “assisted camping” units help people do so.
I think the sways in the economy affect camping, too. Instead of long,
thousand mile trips for a week, families are taking shorter, weekend trips
and are going camping instead of spending more money on lodging and extra
gas. Overall I think “camping” in general is slightly more popular.
What does travel mean to you?
Travel means going at least 50 miles on either business or pleasure.
“Travel” as a hobby or activity, of course, conjures up images of new,
exciting or relaxing destinations. I am a naturalist, so “traveling” means
seeing and experiencing new environments, new flora and fauna, and also new
cultures and lifestyles – that’s why “traveling” is such a good educational
How do you come up with ideas for what you write? What methods do you use to
flesh out your idea to determine if it’s salable?
I try to see what’s covered in the current magazines to see if I have
experienced some new areas that are timely and can be written about in an
informative and entertaining way. I love photography and usually won’t even
consider a story unless I know I have good photo support for it. That is
also a good selling tool for editors. Otherwise, I look to resources on the
Internet, writing groups, etc. that will list topics of interest or announce
opportunities. Menasha Ridge already had a good base of hiking books but
needed one from Minneapolis. That’s where I was living so it was a chance to
do a guide book right in my own back yard. Once you get a ‘feel’ for a
magazine you start to anticipate what might be salable for them.
What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your books? How
did you overcome these challenges?
Frankly the biggest challenge is always if I could cover the state or
topic thoroughly given the budget (what I’d be paid for it and the expenses
I would have to get it done), that I’d find adequate information once I
started, and most importantly, that anyone would care enough to want to read
about it. When I started the camping book I didn’t know which ones I could
use and which one wouldn’t measure up. I’d sometimes drive for two hours
only to find there really wasn’t a campground you’d want to recommend or
that fits your criteria.
Minnesota’s a big enough state that in one weekend, to cover the area I was researching, I put 1100 miles on my car – and that was out of my pocket. You overcome the hurdles by deciding that you will complete the task and you become more savvy in ways of optimizing travel and budget during the research portion.
How have you used the Internet to boost your writing career?
80% of my writing opportunities begin from the Internet. I belong to
the OWAA (Outdoor Writers Association of America). Their website offers
monthly updates from editors seeking specific topics. Other websites do the
I also use the Internet to verify facts or to learn more about
something new, and check to see what’s been published in the type of
magazine for which I generally write (kayaking, camping, outdoor gear,
tourism destinations, etc.).
Who are your favorite authors, and why do they inspire you?
As a kid Jules Verne always aroused my imagination and Sam Clemens
rekindled the kind of feelings I had growing up in Missouri (along the same
rivers, I might add). I really enjoyed the macabre of Edgar Allen Poe and
the poetry of Robert Frost, pretty mainstream writers – but all of whom
allowed my imagination to complement theirs.
Unfortunately I don’t read as much as I should, so authors don’t just pop
out in the conversation. I write a lot, creating my own stuff. If I had to
pick an author I’ve really enjoyed reading recently it would have to be
Gabriel Garcia Marquez – his collection of short stories are wonderfully
imaginative and slightly “weird”.
I’ve always enjoyed Ray Bradbury and the Twilight Zone bunch of incredible writers. This is totally aside from the kind of writing I am doing now.guide books and magazine articles. Fiction is a much harder, higher level I hope to aspire to some day.
As there does not seem to be any authoritative standards that exist for
guidebook authors or publishers, how do you know that a guidebook is up to
par? How do you check out the authorial competence?
To me there are two types of “guide” books: those that are basically a
compilation of data, sometimes cleverly arranged so as to appear new and
different but basically a collection of lists off the Internet.
The other books are opinion pieces using a particular activity or skill and the
author’s breadth of knowledge to know what’s important, etc. I feel the
author has to first reveal him or herself, offer a profile so the reader can
say, “yes, I identify with this person so what they like I would probably
In that sense I approach it from what I would consider a good
campsite or enjoyable trail. I tell the reader right up front that I am a
photographer and naturalist so I will stop and smell the roses or take a
picture, even along the most seemingly mundane of trails. I also offer a
historical perspective – most publishers want you to qualify yourself
I grew up in Minnesota for the most part (except those summers spent
in Missouri) and was active in the Boy Scouts. I spent a lot of time
outdoors, on trails, hiking and such. I had a sense about these books before
I started my research. Another big factor, frankly, is that this is a
business, a pleasurable one, but a business. Unless you produce a product
people will buy, you won’t be in the writing business for very long. It’s at
least a working hobby and as such demands some discipline and fiscal
How do you blend your photo- journalism with your travel writing?
People like to imagine themselves in a picture. “Wish that was me
paddling that kayak in Alaska!” A good photo draws a reader into the story-
let’s them see what you are talking about.
Sometimes an editor puts such a restraint on the number of words they want. A good photo can relay needed information with very few words. I pride myself in being a good
photographer and I know that many a story was sold because there was good,
crisp, colorful support photography offered with the writing. Photos also
help me recall areas without taking a lot of notes.
I spent a full month in Peru and shot probably 30 rolls of film. I used about 8 pages of a journal – most of which was identifying some of the photo subjects I took. I then go
back and review the photos to see how many I could offer for a variety of
different story ideas. Sometimes those images even make it to the front
cover – a nice bonus!
What is next for Tom Watson?
I really want to pursue some fiction writing in the style of Roald
Dahl, or some of the writers camp for the old Twilight Zone series.
As far as magazines and guide- books, I will continue to look at them as those
opportunities appear. It’s good income and it allows me to share some
exciting adventures with those eager to do the same. Thanks for allowing me
to share this with you.
Thanks again Tom and good luck with all of your future endeavors.