Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Winter on the wind-swept southwestern Minnesota prairie January 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:17 AM

Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, when cold and snow gripped the North Star state like a vise, I sought photos and stories from southwestern Minnesota, where residents face often brutal weather conditions on the wind-swept prairie.

I grew up there and understand how even an inch of snow, combined with strong winds, can become an instant blizzard.

My solicitation elicited only three responses. I expect most of those prairie folks were just too busy digging out from the latest snowfall. Or perhaps they see this type of weather as a winter norm and go about their day-to-day lives without much thought to another snowstorm and more school closings.

So for the trio who responded to my inquiry, thank you. And for those of you who live elsewhere in Minnesota, or elsewhere in the country, here’s a peak at a southwestern Minnesota winter, from those who call the prairie home.

“We just got back from babysitting in Fargo this weekend and we actually have it worse than Fargo…need anything more be said?” my friend Jan writes. She lives near Lucan, population 220, in Redwood County.

Jan then tells how she, her mother-in-law and daughter got stuck in the snow in a 4-wheel drive Armada. “I had to walk close to a mile for help (3 women in the vehicle who own cell phones but none of us had them along…yes tell me how stupid that is!),” Jan shares. “The farmer who helped us had to buck snow to get to the vehicle before he could pull us out!”

I responded to Jan with a chastising e-mail. You bet I did. Didn’t she, after all, invite such a reaction with her “tell me how stupid that is!” comment?

Then there’s Julie, also from Lucan, who got out of Dodge before a winter storm struck. While Julie cuddled her new grandson in Minneapolis, her husband Bob was back home on the prairie. “When I got home on Friday, my husband had spent 4.5 hours digging out and finished off with an hour this morning. Enough already!!” Julie writes.

Icicles formed during a period of snow and frigid temps at the entrance to Downtown Estates in Springfield. Some of the icicles had been removed before Marlys snapped this image in her community.

A bit to the east in Springfield, population 2,200, in Brown County, Marlys took a more optimistic approach to winter by e-mailing photos of winter’s beauty. She snapped images of the iced-in Downtown Estates and the Cottonwood River rest area. “Sure was a beautiful day today,” Marlys writes. If I recall correctly, her January 10 e-mail marked the first relatively “warm” day after a week or more of double-digit, sub-zero temperatures.

Snow buries benches at the Cottonwood River rest area.

If you have some harrowing or entertaining winter stories to share, no matter where you live, I’d like to hear them. But be forewarned, I consider abandoning a snow-entrenched vehicle dangerous and worthy of a lecture.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Springfield photos courtesy of Marlys Vanderwerf


Two Minnesota legends: Vikings and Lakemaids January 24, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:07 PM

Icy cold beer served up in a Minnesota Vikings mug.

ALL AFTERNOON, I’VE BEEN waiting for my husband to pour his first gotta-have-a-beer-cause-I’m-watching-football beer of the day.

Finally, at 4:06 p.m. Minnesota time, he hollers from the kitchen, asks if I want some cheese and crackers. I do. So I head for the snacks.

“Oh, good, I’ve been waiting for you to have a beer,” I say as I spot the brew in his frosty Minnesota Vikings mug. “I want to take a picture. I wish we had some good light in here.”

“Now what the heck is she going to do?” I almost can hear him thinking.

I look towards the backyard and all of that snow. “Can I take your mug outside?” I ask and grab before he answers. Outside, I stick the mug atop a snowbank. I’m aiming to show that it’s 32 degrees here in Minnesota and 68 degrees in balmy New Orleans.

Soon I’m back inside working at my computer, wondering what, exactly, to write other than “Cheers to the Vikings!”

“What kind of beer are you drinking?” I ask.

“Miss Crappie,” he says, and then suggests that I take a picture of the Lakemaid Beer bottle, with the Miss Crappie label, next to the Vikings mug. “They’re two legends.”

Two legends: Lakemaids and Vikings

I like his idea, so I’m back outside with my camera, the empty Lakemaid Beer bottle and a now nearly-empty Minnesota Vikings beer mug. I set both in the snow—the bottle signifying the legend of the freshwater mermaids and the beer signifying the legend of the Vikings. That’s as in Minnesota Vikings, the sports team, not those Scandinavian Vikings.

Now, I think I’ll go have some of that cheese and crackers and maybe a glass of wine before kick-off.

Go, Vikings!

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The poetry of hoarfrost January 23, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:51 AM

AWAKENING TO A MORNING of hoarfrost equates entering an enchanting, iced world of spectacular winter beauty.

Sharp ice crystals snuggle barren tree branches.

The world, uncolored, lies naked and exposed.

Dainty frost trims railings in bridal white lace.

Even though this is morning, the dreary, grey sky speaks of evening, of Robert Frost stopping by the woods.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

(I shot these hoarfrost images earlier this week at my Faribault home.)


Watching my first-ever hockey game as the Shattuck Sabres face off with the Breck Mustangs January 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:36 PM

A Shattuck-St. Mary's School hockey booklet details the school's hockey program, past and present.

“WATCH FOR FLYING PUCKS,” the words imprinted on the plexiglass warn repeatedly.

“Do we really have to watch for flying hockey pucks?” I ask, settling onto a wooden bench at the Shattuck-St. Mary’s School ice arena in Faribault. This is my first-ever hockey game and I hadn’t thought about the possibility of flying missiles.

My husband confirms that pucks do, indeed, sail into the crowd on occasion.

“Would it be safer to sit more towards the middle?” I ask. So we move up and over, parking ourselves on a warm cement bench/step directly behind four Breck School fans.

This number one ranked Minnesota Class A hockey team has come to play the Sabres, notably one of the best high school hockey teams in the country. According to a hockey booklet I picked up Thursday evening, “Shattuck-St. Mary’s School is to high school hockey what Harvard is to law school.” That quote comes from Sports Illustrated magazine.

The Shattuck team proves itself again Thursday, winning 4 to 1 with 35 shots on goal compared to the Mustangs’ 22.

Not that I know much about hockey. Through-out the game, I pepper my husband with questions. After awhile, I stop trying to figure it all out, choosing instead to simply track the whizzing puck.

I begin to understand, though, those “WATCH FOR FLYING PUCKS” warnings as the disk tumbles and slides, often uncontrollably, across the ice, through the air, once hitting a high-hung ceiling light. And then, in the second period, just like that, the puck zooms over the plexiglass toward the crowd, 15 feet away, near where we had first seated ourselves.

OK, then. This game is not for sissy fans.

The intensity with which attendees embrace this competition surprises me. Unhappy with a missed transgression, a 30-something Breck fan seated near me and dressed impeccably in pinstripe pants, shiny black dress shoes and a black wool coat, yells at the ref. He’s not alone. An entire section of fans voice their discord. I have no idea why they are unhappy.

“Go, go, go!” the man urges as the Mustangs sail down the ice towards their net.

As for me, I sit there in my jeans, unfashionable heavy duty snow boots, wool coat and fleece blanket not taking any of this too seriously. I’m more interested in listening to the clash of hockey sticks, the bang of bodies against plexiglass, the triumphant blast of a horn when the Sabres score.

I’m more interested in observing hockey players piling atop each other like Pick up sticks, in watching a helmet and glove fly onto the ice, in noticing a player’s surprise when the puck sneaks inside his uniform.

The aggressiveness on the rink doesn’t escape me. “They’re being mean to each other. Shouldn’t that be a penalty?” I ask as players tangle in what looks more like a wrestling match than a hockey game.

My husband laughs, tells me the game would never finish if every such interaction was deemed a penalty. But I notice the Sabres players go to the penalty box a lot more than the Mustangs.

So the evening goes…my first ever-attended hockey game. As we leave, my husband chats with the Breck fan who sat directly in front of me. He’s not disappointed, seems happy in fact that his nephew’s team has scored against the Sabres.

As we walk through the lobby, I note the hockey uniforms encased and dangling from the ceiling. These are, my husband enlightens me, jerseys of Shattuck players who went on to play for pro teams like the New Jersey Devils, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The number of pro uniforms impresses me.

But then I recall the sign plastered onto the side of the zamboni: “Turn your dreams into goals.”

The booklet includes a list of 36 former Shattuck hockey players who became National Hockey League draft picks. Recognize any names?

Text © Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Butterscotch pudding, a favorite comfort food for a winter weary Minnesotan January 21, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:44 AM

IT’S AN HOUR BEFORE SUPPER and I should be making something healthy for my family, maybe pulling together a salad, baked potatoes and broiled fish.

But instead, I am cooking a mixture of brown sugar, cornstarch, salt, milk and egg yolks into butterscotch pudding. I need comfort food, not a well-balanced meal.

As I scrape a wooden spoon across the bottom of a heavy saucepan, I listen to the weather report on the radio. “A wintry mix of freezing rain and sleet is moving into the area…” the DJ warns.

I need comfort food. I need butterscotch pudding.

Soon the liquid thickens. I stir faster, swirling the wooden spoon in wicked circles through the pudding.

Tiny volcanoes erupt across the surface when the pudding reaches the boiling point. I stir harder, faster, chasing away splats that spew toward me.

I admire the inviting maple color, wonder how this hue would look on my living room walls. I stir some more and breathe in the sweet scent of brown sugar.

Stirring butter and vanilla into butterscotch pudding.

Then I turn off the heat, add two tablespoons of butter and a teaspoon of vanilla. They puddle on the surface until I mix the two into the creamy pudding. The color morphs from maple to a warm, golden hue.

I pour the pudding into three bowls, not the suggested four, although I briefly ponder hiding away a fourth serving.

“A wintry mix of freezing rain and sleet is moving into the area…” the DJ drones between songs.

I need comfort food. I need butterscotch pudding.

An ultimate comfort food, butterscotch pudding.


2/3 cup brown sugar, packed

1/8 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. cornstarch

2 cups milk

2 egg yolks, slightly beaten

2 Tbsp. softened butter

1 tsp. vanilla

Blend brown sugar, salt and cornstarch in a 2-quart saucepan. Combine milk and egg yolks; gradually stir into sugar mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir for one minute. Remove from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla. Pour into dessert dishes. Cool slightly and chill, or serve warm. Serves 4.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A journey to Pandora, or, in other words, we see the blockbuster movie Avatar January 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:44 AM

FOR WEEKS, THE TEENAGER in the family asked, cajoled, pleaded, demanded, whined and begged to see the movie Avatar at the Minnesota Zoo IMAX Theatre in Apple Valley.

For weeks, the parents in the family resisted, citing the expense–$15 per ticket, plus costs for parking, popcorn and gas. Why, they asked, couldn’t he just settle for viewing the movie in Faribault or Owatonna? Truth be told, the parents really didn’t want to see a movie that didn’t interest them.

The son persisted, though, insisting on the eight-story IMAX screen experience.

But the parents steadfastly refused his demands and suggested a compromise. They would take him, they said, to the Lakeville Theatre, where he could see the movie in 3-D.

The son, however, was unwilling to negotiate as he continued to lobby for the IMAX.

The two sides had apparently reached a stalemate. But the parents, being the parents, laid their final offer on the table: See the movie in Faribault, Owatonna or Lakeville, or forget it.

So Sunday afternoon, the trio traveled to Lakeville for the discounted $8.75 matinee. There they donned 3-D glasses and were transported to the imaginary Pandora as they munched on popcorn.

Occasionally, the mom flinched, unnerved by swords and other objects seemingly thrust at her face. Two seats away, she imagined her son rolling his eyes at her reaction.

But as the movie progressed, the parents, much to their surprise, became immersed in the adventure fantasy that focuses on the conflict between the sky people (earthlings) and the native humanoids of Pandora.

The plot included a love story for the mom, adventure for the dad and plenty of sci-fi fantasy for the teenager.

It seems that they all were happy, although the mom complained a bit about the two-hour and 40-minute film length. That, declared the dad, did not surprise him since James Cameron, director of Titanic, also directed Avatar.

Ah, thought the mom, as she recalled her struggle to sit through that lengthy disaster film.

On the ride home, the parents tried to discuss the movie with their teenager. But he only reiterated how Avatar would have been so much better had they viewed it on the towering IMAX screen.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Who’s the crazy one, grilling atop a snowbank in 20-degree temps? January 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:53 AM

The Weber grill is fired up and ready to go atop the snow on a cold January night in Minnesota.

My husband dresses warmly to haul the Weber from a corner of the patio onto the top of the patio snowbank and then light the charcoal.

HE HEAVES THE WEBER, maneuvering the black orb firmly into place atop the snow pile on our patio.

I’m there, safely-footed on the back steps snapping photos when he lights the charcoal inside the snow-locked grill.

“You’re crazy, woman,” he teases.

I think he’s the crazy one, grilling here on three feet of hard-packed snow on a Sunday evening in 26-degree temperatures. But I keep quiet. I can already taste the Greek-seasoned pork kabobs and the savory, butter-laced, sliced potatoes.

Grilling during a Minnesota winter is nothing new for my husband. But grilling on top of a snow pile is certainly a first. Typically, he shovels the snow from the patio. This year, however, is different given two 12-inch snowfalls, many several-inch snowfalls and heaps of snow shoveled off the house and garage roofs onto the patio. Clearing snow from the patio simply has taken last priority over cleared driveway, sidewalks and roofs.

So Randy is grilling with his Weber upon this slippery snow mound.

And we are reminiscing, remembering the December he cooked a turkey on the Weber in minus 20-something-degree temperatures. That was the year his brother Alan traveled here on business from Michigan and we hosted a pre-Christmas family gathering. That was the year Randy and his brother labored in sub-zero temperatures in the driveway trying to repair Alan’s company truck, the truck with a problem related to bad gas purchased in Chicago.

Crazy how you remember those things—turkey, truck and minus 20-degree temperatures—when your husband is grilling atop a snowbank on a January night in Minnesota.

Pork kabobs and foil-wrapped potatoes for the family and a week's worth of brats for Randy's lunchbox.

Randy ditches the winter gear to tend the food, all the time telling me to "hurry up" while I snap pictures.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling