Who We Are
The Friends of Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks, Inc. was founded in 1990 by a small group of dedicated local citizens who saw an opportunity to promote stewardship of the natural resources present in abundance in these parks. This members-based group, led by volunteers, gathers periodically for organizational meetings in order to work together with the park manager to organize and fund supplemental park programs, projects and events. The Friends group is part of a statewide network of citizen groups who have “adopted” state parks in order to support facility improvement, expand programs, and stay informed about important natural resources topics within the state.
The Friends of Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation organized for the purpose of supporting, assisting, and promoting the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources with nature interpretive, scientific, historical, recreational, educational and related visitor services at its Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks.
Board of Directors
Rita Thofern, President
Rita is retired from the St. Paul Public Schools where her final assignment was as principal of Battle Creek Environmental Magnet School, a fine fit with her longstanding engagement with the environment and all things out of doors. At the parks Rita became involved in ski trail grooming many years ago, and her involvement with the Friends has expanded to a wide range of other volunteer activities. These include hiring and supervising the paid staff members, grant writing, overseeing nature center operation, assuring winter offerings for the public, including snowshoeing sessions and the annual candlelight ski, and serving on the committee that coordinates the Willow River Trail Challenge, the Friends’ primary fundraising event.
Dave Thofern, Treasurer
Dave's first experiences at Willow River State Park began before it was a state park. When the park was still owned by Northern States Power, now Excel Energy, his Boy Scout troop would camp on the property in the late 1950s. After moving to the area in 1975, Dave and his wife, Rita, have become avid park users, skiing, snowshoeing, and ski-trail grooming in the winter, hiking in the summer. Dave is a retired St. Paul Public Schools elementary teacher. When not spending time at Willow or Kinni, he enjoys hiking, bicycling, and travelling. As a Friends board member for over ten years, he hopes to introduce our beautiful parks to people who are not traditional park users.
Colleen O'Brien, Secretary
Colleen grew up visiting state and national parks with her family. Since moving to North Hudson in 1990, she has been enjoying Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks with her husband, Jon. Their kids grew up hiking and cross country skiing at Willow River. They had fun in the kids’ programs and ski club. After years of volunteering in the Nature Center for programs and events, Colleen joined the Friends board in 2014. She is on the grants committee, finding ways to fund park improvements and programs. Her interests include the development of the new Nature Center with “hands on” educational exhibits and activities, mountain bike trails, and encouraging kids and adults in year round activities.
John has lived with his wife Anne on the Western edge of the park since 1976. He's wandered through most of it over the years on foot, snowshoes, or skis. He knows a lot of cool off-trail spots. His two children also enjoyed the park growing up, sometimes spending whole days off in the woods with their friends. John served on the Hudson School Board in the 1980s, and worked as an engineer at 3M for many years before moving to the University of Minnesota where he taught Computer Science for 13 years. At home he enjoys gardening and woodworking. His focus is on education for children and for all park visitors, and he is always looking for better ways to get the buckthorn invasion under control.
Theresa joined the board in 2017. She has lived in North Hudson with her husband and 9 year old son since 2002. She volunteered at the parks maintaining trails and working with the "Buckthorn Brigade" from 2014-2016. Her main goal for the two parks is to ensure that they are protected for future generations. She is interested in increasing outdoor recreation, fundraising, and educational opportunities at the parks, long into the future.
Kelly, her husband Paul and their son Tiege moved to New Richmond from St. Paul 5 years ago. Shortly after their move, they discovered Willow River State Park. One hike to the falls and they were hooked! They started volunteering at the Nature Center in September 2021.
Kelly has an Individualized Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Mathematics. Her particular interests are in sustainable practices and she values and supports environmental education. As a Certified Meditation and Mindfulness Teacher, she is proud to now be offering classes at the Nature Center. Additionally, Kelly is a freelance grant writer and offers funding strategies to nonprofit organizations. She is happy to be apart of the team that works hard to make Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks such amazing places to visit!
Dan’s early introduction to the beauty of Wisconsin’s outdoors came through summers at the family cottage near the headwaters of the St. Croix River and numerous Boy Scout camping trips, including many at the Fred C. Anderson Scout camp in Somerset. A highlight was a two-day jamboree near the Kinnickinnic River in 1972, the year the state park was established. Dan is an avid cross-country skier, hiker, and canoeist. He volunteers as a leader of the Willow River Youth Ski club during the winter months. Prior to returning to the Midwest, Dan resided for 15 years in the Oregon Coast Range, just south of Portland. Dan is chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin -River Falls, where he has taught for the past 19 years. He and his family reside in Hudson.
Recently retired from Ecolab in St. Paul where he worked in the IT Department managing a global team of System Administrators. Prior to his positions with Ecolab, he worked for Mead Paper working in the Technical Services area of the Forestry Department and the IT Department while living in Ohio, Georgia and the Keweenaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan. He and his wife Cheryl have one daughter and now live just north of Willow and enjoy quick access to the park for hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, and mountain biking. Bob spends time at the park volunteering grooming ski trails and building the new system of mountain bike trails. Outside of these activities at the park he enjoys canoeing in the Quetico and Boundary Waters canoe areas, kayaking, fishing, woodworking, beekeeping and training and hunting with his English Setter Beau.
Nick Schmit joined the Friends board in 2015 and serves on the Facilities Committee. He and his wife Karen have lived in the community overlooking Little Falls Lake since 1980. He retired from 3M (Health Care sales and marketing management) and he and Karen have been volunteering with the Friends group activities including the nature center for the past few years.
Walt and his wife, Kim, moved to their home on property
bordering Willow River State Park in
1994, and have run, hiked, skied, fished, and foraged in the
park since. They’ve watched the park grow in popularity
and develop its facilities over those years, and recently
became enthusiastic users of the new mountain bike trails.
Their son attends Hudson Middle School and has been
helping his dad build the mountain bike trails.
Walt has worked for the past thirty+ years in various sales
and sales management positions within the Information
Technology industry and is skilled at finding solutions to
complicated problems. He has traveled extensively, both
professionally and personally. He expects to leverage these
experiences while serving on the Friends Board. He plans
to have an especially positive impact on efforts to fund and
build a new Nature Center.
His other interests include backpacking, music and
motorcycling. He’s also an avid reader of mostly fiction.
Walt joined the Friends Board because of these many years
of enjoyment received from the park, and because I’m
interested in helping to shape its development for future
Interested in getting involved?