Keeper of the forests

Throughout his adventure-filled life, no matter what he did or where he roamed, Alan Finifrock still made time to care for and manage the Barnum land he acquired many years ago. "Alan promotes woodland management, " said Kelly Smith, forestry con...

Jake Finifrock and family, returning to visit red pine he helped plant when he was 9 years old. Contributed photos
Jake Finifrock and family, returning to visit red pine he helped plant when he was 9 years old. Contributed photos

Throughout his adventure-filled life, no matter what he did or where he roamed, Alan Finifrock still made time to care for and manage the Barnum land he acquired many years ago.

"Alan promotes woodland management, " said Kelly Smith, forestry conservation technician at Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), about Finifrock's dedication to his land.

Smith has worked with Finifrock on forestry projects for many years. He said that Finifrock "realizes, from his own experience, that this work has benefits. It not only provides environmental benefits, but it provides income, brings family members together giving rich experiences, and leaves a conservation legacy for the family." And Finifrock is leaving quite a legacy, rich in experiences as well as land stewardship.

The youngest of four children, Finifrock's early years were spent on a 320-acre family dairy farm near the townsite of Nemadji. When he was 15 years old, his parents sold the farm, bought a more productive 120-acre farm on the south side of Bear Lake, and transitioned to raising beef cattle. There he continued to grow surrounded by animals and nature.

Finifrock learned at a young age how to care for and improve the land. One of his earliest experiences was in 1951 when he helped his parents plant two acres each of red pine and white spruce in remote, low-quality hay fields. These experiences gave him a hunger for the kind of lifestyle that would shape most of his life decisions.


Although his wife, Sharon, lived in Duluth for much of her early years, she also spent a lot of time outdoors. One of her most vivid memories is of a sixth-grade outing to Hartley Field, her first experience planting trees, where her eyes literally opened to the awesome beauty of leaves and nature.

Sharon's family moved to Barnum when she was 14 years old. Soon after, she and her oldest sister met the Finifrock brothers, their future husbands.

After graduation from Barnum High School, Finifrock spent 3 years, 1 month and 19 days in the U.S. Army. Stationed in Germany, his battalion bivouacked in, and quickly learned not to disturb, the forest. The "wood meisters"(wood masters) regularly patrolled the forest with their long green coats and double-barreled shotguns looking for any maneuver damage caused by soldiers.

All damage claims were compensated by the U.S. government, including any animals accidentally killed. For example, if they ran over a chicken, the compensation had to cover not only the cost of the bird but also a year's worth of eggs.

"It was during this time that I first became aware of forest management" and that one could actually manage his forest to generate or save money, Finifrock said.

While Finifrock was in the military, his future wife, Sharon, attended and graduated from college in St. Cloud. She started teaching in Minnetonka, west of the Twin Cities. After he mustered out, Finifrock attended Northwestern College in Minneapolis. He joked that he decided to become an elementary teacher "because I didn't want her having time off when I had to work."

Sharon left her teaching job to join him for a year of Bible school at Northwestern, and the two were married in 1964. This started their shared life of excitement and travel with time out to take care of their land.

After their marriage, Finifrock transferred to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus. However, the overwhelming size and busyness of the campus led him to return to the more rural lifestyle of northern Minnesota. He continued his education at the University of Minnesota Duluth under the G.I. bill while Sharon taught in the Proctor School District until 1967, when daughter Julie was born.


Even through these "city years," Finifrock kept working on land projects including helping his father register the family farm as a Tree Farm in 1967.

Following Finifrock's first year of teaching in Hermantown, the young family decided to pursue an Alaskan adventure in 1969.

"My father had always dreamed of going to Alaska," Finifrock said. So they went to Alaska, where both of them taught in one- and two-room bush schools in Chistochina and Glennallen. Back then, Alaska was still the "last frontier," with low population and primitive living in the bush. This move was not only a great adventure but also a positive financial decision as they significantly increased their income.

In 1971, son Jake was born and they bought Finifrock's parents' 160-acre tree farm at Nemadji. His parents retired but kept their home on the land. Finifrock spent that summer working with a professional forester to write his first forest stewardship plan.

The Finifrocks moved briefly back to Minnesota in 1972 while Alan earned his Master's Degree in elementary education administration at Bemidji. They then returned for three years to Chistochina, where they taught in a two-room school with Finifrock serving as principal and teacher.

Construction of the first oil pipeline had started and the population increased with an influx of construction workers. More families meant more children with more teachers needed.

Although they totally enjoyed their Alaskan lifestyle, the Finifrocks returned to Minnesota every summer to visit and share experiences with family and friends. They also planted trees and worked on land improvement projects.

The family moved back to Barnum in 1977 so their children could be educated in Minnesotan schools. They built a home adjacent to Finifrock's parents' home where they lived for five years, teaching their children even more about working and managing land and forests.


After a year as the elementary principal at Willow River, Finifrock was hired in 1979 at Duluth's Superwood plant, which became Georgia Pacific. In 1981, the family moved to East End in Duluth "only for 10 years until our kids were through with school. But that 10 years turned into 13 years," Finifrock said.

During those Duluth years, Sharon was not only mom to their children and foster children, but also worked as a substitute teacher. Finifrock spent his days at Georgia Pacific where he learned a lot from the foresters about planting trees, harvesting firewood and improving timber stands. As they had a wood-burning stove at home, he also taught his children how to process firewood, from collecting, to cutting and splitting, to safe burning.

By 1993, both children had graduated and moved and Finifrock desired "time off for good behavior" from years of city living. They bought and moved to 40 acres in Adolph. Finifrock continued learning about forest management through a Woodland Advisor training workshop held at UMD and taught by professional foresters.

Those decades in Duluth found the Finifrocks regularly improving their Nemadji land. They involved family and friends in annual tree plantings, managing to plant about 20,000 trees by hand between 1977 and 1996. They cleared aspen patches for wildlife habitat during the 1980s. They enlisted help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to maintain wildlife openings in 1990. Finifrock's brother, Leon, built a primitive shack among the trees on the Nemadji property where they often took their children, foster children and grandchildren to work and play in the woods.

Finifrock even held his first timber sale in 1990, harvesting some of the red pine he had planted with his parents years ago. In addition, he bought another 120-acre land parcel with lakeshore on the south side of Bear Lake in Barnum.

In 1996, Finifrock accepted an early retirement incentive from Georgia Pacific. This was not enough income to retire on, so they went back to live and work in Alaska. They moved first to the Lower Kuskokwim School District, 500 miles west of Anchorage, where Sharon taught school and Finifrock was the site administrator (principal) at Toksook Bay, one of the 23 villages in the school district.

They retired in 2001 from the State of Alaska schools and they moved to the Kenai Peninsula to help start the small Alaska Christian College for Alaskan Eskimos. Those "two years turned into 12 years," Finifrock said. But every Christmas and summer, they continued to return to Minnesota to visit their kids, grandkids, family and friends, and to work on additional projects to manage and enjoy their forest lands.

Each summer, they planted more trees all by hand, except in 1997 when they ran out of time and had to hire help and rent a machine to plant the 10,000 white spruce, red pine and white pine. Finifrock also arranged several timber sales. In 2002, he contacted Carlton SWCD for help repairing a breeched dam on his property that had led to erosion along the waterway to Bear Lake. In addition, Smith helped Finifrock arrange for funding and engineering assistance with NRCS to construct a wildlife pond on the Bear Lake 120 acre parcel.

Smith also assisted Finifrock in meeting Minnesota and federal wetland regulations and enrolling the 160 acre Nemadji parcel in Minnesota's Sustainable Forestry Incentives Act (SFIA). All of these projects and activities not only improved the land, but also either generated income or saved on project expenses.

During their Alaskan years, the Finifrocks lived somewhat primitively, and Finifrock promised his wife that "someday you shall have a house of your dreams." After Sharon's health started to deteriorate and she began to have mobility issues, they searched for and found the perfect home in Cloquet. As he promised, they purchased the home in 2011 and moved one more time.

They continued to visit Alaska several times each year and decided to start a company, Affordable Alaskan Travel LLC, to encourage and help others to travel to and explore Alaska. They provide consultation and planning assistance and lead Alaskan tours during the summer months. Since 2008, they also present "Traveling to Alaska is Easier Than You Think" classes through community education and other venues across northern Minnesota. But even with the business and travel, Finifrock still yearns to be out in his woods working on forestry projects. He also continues looking for ways to generate income and save money on these projects.

In recent years, Smith helped Finifrock acquire funding and assistance, using a crew from the Conservation Corps of Minnesota (CCM), for a Buckthorn eradication project on his Cloquet property (winter of 2013-2014). And then in 2016, Smith worked with Finifrock on a shoreline stabilization project on Bear Lake (which is on hold). In addition, Smith arranged for a CCM crew to clear beaver debris from the lake outlet to help lower the lake water level and reduce shoreline erosion. Smith exclaimed that "Alan had been doing this work on his own for years!"

In 2015, Finifrock signed a Minnesota Land Trust agreement for the Bear Lake 120 acres. This generated income to pay the property taxes and compensate for the preservation covenants. That same year, he also entered into an NRCS Golden Wing Warbler Agreement for the 160 acre Nemadji property which included a timber sale to clear land for the program along with a 2018 plot harvesting, all which yielded additional income. In addition, Finifrock has been leasing deer hunting rights on his land to metro area hunters. Most of the income from these various projects goes back into the land to pay for taxes, equipment, and more forest/land improvement projects.

With his education background, his experience teaching travel classes through Community Education, and his history of making and saving money from his forest, Finifrock approached Smith about presenting workshops to teach other landowners how to "Make Money from Your Woods." Smith wrote and received a grant to hold two-hour workshops through Community Ed, and the two designed and presented the workshops sponsored by the Minnesota Forestry Association, the Kettle River Woodland Council, and the Carlton County SWCD. Held during February and March in Cloquet, Hinckley, Moose Lake and Pine City, Finifrock has "received enthusiastic comments from everyone who has attended."

According to Smith, attendees learned about "programs to reduce ownership costs, income tax deductions on management expenses and sales, funding assistance for projects, timber sales, hunting leases, preservation easements, and non-timber forest products like balsam boughs and birch sticks," from both Smith's SWCD expertise and Finifrock's private landowner experiences. Attendees crafted personal action plans to help motivate them to generate income from or save money with their forestland.

Finifrock also continues to learn and share through his memberships in the Minnesota Forestry Association and the Kettle River Woodland Council. In addition, he has involved his son and daughter and six grandchildren in some of these improvement projects through the years. His influence has led all of his children and grandchildren to become involved in outdoor sports and recreation. He is especially excited that two grandchildren now live and work in Alaska, one leading snow machine tours (winter) and charter boat fishing tours (summer), and the other working at a ski resort (winter) and fishing resort (summer).

What does the future hold for the Finifrocks? More trips to Alaska, of course, along with upcoming improvement projects on their land and forest. "I want to give my 120 acres a haircut," laughed Finifrock, explaining that he wants to harvest the blowdown and over mature trees so he benefits from the income and local companies acquire needed wood. Smith noted that Finifrock "will also be holding a "Woods Walk" at his property on May 2 to discuss 63 years of family forest management."

Finifrock plans to continue his hunt for new information, new ideas and new income while sharing his experiences in his forest and in Alaska with others. Smith observed that Finifrock has learned well how to "lower costs and make income from his woodlot, with the idea of financial incentives that can lead to better stewardship of forests."

Travel and trees.... A great combination to keep the spirit excited and the family rooted.

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