Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The strange phone call and the ongoing mystery of weatherman Dave Dahl’s school buses March 23, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:46 AM

WHEN I AM BAFFLED by something, anything, I am bothered by my lack of knowledge or understanding. That’s me, the inquisitive journalist, the creative writer, always wanting to know.

So, here’s what’s bugging me today.

Last evening, my husband answered our phone.

“I’m stuck!” an elderly woman said when he picked up. He thought at first that my mom was calling for help. She wasn’t.

“You have the wrong number. Who are you trying to call?” my husband asks after determining this is not his mother-in-law.

And then he’s asking me, “What are the assisted living places in town?”

I look at him like “Who the heck is on the other end of the phone line and what is going on?” I draw a blank on facility names.

When a stranger called last night not remembering where she lived, my husband turned to the "assisted living" listings in the phone directory yellow pages.

So he grabs the phone book from a kitchen drawer and starts rattling off names to the stranger until, bingo, he gets the right one. Soon he hangs up and I hear him punching in a phone number. Then he’s giving someone his name, explaining that he just received a call from a Dorothy in room 2XX who says she’s stuck.

The person on the other end says she’ll check on Dorothy. And that’s it.

So, I am wondering: Who is Dorothy? Where was she stuck? Why did she call our number? Why couldn’t she remember where she lives? Did she get the help she needed?

THEN LATER, I am puzzled once again. We are watching the 10 p.m. news on KSTP TV when weatherman Dave Dahl comes on. He’s still using graphics of school buses in floodwaters to illustrate flooding in Minnesota.

One of the first bus flood graphics weatherman Dave Dahl used in his KSTP TV flood forecast .

About 10 days ago, Dahl started using these particular bus illustrations. When he isn’t on the air, the buses generally aren’t part of the flood forecasting.

My husband and I are mystified by Dahl’s usage of this artwork.

What do school buses have to do with floods? This inquiring mind really wants to know.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Making maple syrup, a rite of spring for one Minnesota family

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:56 AM

Ryan and his dog, Woody, walk toward the tent that encloses the evaporator for heating maple sap.

INSIDE THE TARP tent, maple sap heats in the wood-fueled evaporator pan creating a cloud of steam that fills nearly every inch of this enclosure.

This isn’t going to work for photos, not at all, I think, as I remove my gloves and fogged eyeglasses, grab my notebook and a pencil, and leave my camera bag safely outside the steamy tent.

Ryan drew open the end flaps so I could photograph the evaporator.

I am here, on Ryan and Sara Vollbrecht’s Faribault area farm, on this chilly Saturday morning, this first day of spring, to learn about maple syrup.

But, as I will quickly discover, the lesson will be more about strong family connections and tradition than about maple syrup making.

That family bond is immediately clear as I am introduced to Ryan’s grandparents, Carl and Violet Vollbrecht, seated on folding chairs on either side of the rectangular evaporator pan.

Carl, 81, began making maple syrup 65 years ago with his brother. Before that, their dad, Fred, perfected the art. While Carl’s son, also Carl, never got into making syrup, Ryan has and he’s been creating the confection on his own for four years. He grew up helping Grandpa Carl make syrup every year during spring break from school.

“He does everything his grandpa did,” laughs Sara.

Ryan agrees. “I do everything old school,” he says. His grandpa also taught him how to smoke meat in a smokehouse. He makes summer sausage and ring bologna. The couple heats their house with wood.

But on this day, they are sitting together—Ryan and Sara, their children, Alexis, 7, and Vince, 3, and Carl and Violet—watching sap bubble and steam as water evaporates. Sara’s brother, Andrew, is also around.

“Ryan, I think you could bring a little wood in here,” Carl instructs. His grandson obliges, grabs more wood, opens the small door in the heating unit he’s built (called an “arch”) and shoves the pieces into the red hot coals.

Wood is stacked inside a shed for the arch and the wood burning unit that heats the house.

The sap is heated to 218 degrees and finished off in a 5-gallon turkey cooker where Ryan can more accurately control the temperature. Like his grandfather, he knows to keep a watchful eye on the cooking process. Last year Ryan left the sap heating overnight and awoke to a gooey caramel mess.

He doesn’t focus on such mishaps, though, choosing instead to reflect on the joys. For this avid outdoorsman, making maple syrup offers the opportunity to get outside after a long winter. “Cabin fever starts setting in,” Ryan says.

So he heads to the 30 acres of woods on his 80-acre property to tap 80 black and sugar maple trees along a half-mile ravine. Most trees produce a half-gallon of sap a day. Forty gallons of sap yield one gallon of syrup.

Ryan, Sara, Vince and Alexis hike along a field road toward the woods.

On this Saturday morning, we are hiking along a field path to the woods on the other side of a hill. As we walk, the soggy ground sucks at my boots. A cold wind blows briskly against my face under a clear blue sky.

Soon we are in the woods, walking down a muddy trail littered with dried leaves and marred by the tracks of the all-terrain vehicle Ryan uses while collecting sap. His son, Vince, typically rides along. But on this day, we are walking, enjoying the quiet beauty of this first day of spring.

Typically, Vince rides with his dad on this all-terrain vehicle to collect the sap from buckets.

We hike until we see the first of the white buckets hung upon the maple trees. The incline is steep and I opt to keep my feet firmly footed on the trail. For awhile I simply stand, taking in the serenity of these woods, imagining the trees leafed out in green and later in autumn splendor.

To the right, and barely visible, two white buckets mark tapped maples.

The Vollbrechts will come here later in the spring to search for morel mushrooms. In the fall, Ryan returns to hunt deer.

On the walk back from the woods, I stop to photograph a weathered birdhouse along the fence line.

Returning from the woods to the building site.

When we arrive back at the farm site, I snap some more photos and Ryan leads me to the large blue drums sitting next to the tent. He lifts the cover from one. We dip our fingers into the clear sap and I savor the hint of sweetness upon my tongue.

As we stand there, Ryan confides that every spring his grandpa taps a few trees on his rural Waterville property, then brings the sap to Ryan’s place to make maple syrup.

“Tradition,” he tells me, “that’s what it is.”

Sap drips from a tapped tree.

The Vollbrechts' amber maple syrup.

IF YOU’RE INTERESTED in purchasing the Vollbrechts’ maple syrup, contact Ryan or me. The family doesn’t actively market their syrup, but have plenty available for sale.


MORE PHOTOS from my visit with the Vollbrechts:

On the back of a pick-up truck are two jugs of maple syrup and a jar of maple butter that Ryan sends hone with me. He puts maple syrup on his breakfast cereal instead of sugar. Ryan also makes a glaze for chicken and ribs with maple syrup and balsamic vinegar.

Ryan's duck hunting companion, Woody, named after the wood duck.

This old windmill, next to the kids' toys and playground equipment, seems reminiscent of bygone eras.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Goodhue County farmers are already in the field March 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:04 AM

Sunday afternoon, this tractor and another one had just pulled out of a field along Goodhue County Highway 30.

EVEN AFTER DECADES off the farm, I still pay attention to what’s happening in the fields.

So, when I saw two tractors chisel plowing along Goodhue County Highway 30 in southeastern Minnesota Sunday afternoon, I could not believe my eyes.

This was only March 21, the day after the first day of spring, for goodness sakes.

And farmers were out digging in the dirt?


The mud wedged deep into the tractor wheel grooves and then later deposited in a telltale trail along the county highway indicated to me that it may have been just a little too wet for field work.

But, I know, there’s always that farmer who takes great pride in being the first into the field in the spring.

Are farmers working the land in other parts of Minnesota? Send me your farm report. This southwestern Minnesota prairie native and former farm girl would like to hear.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Snow in Arkansas, but not here in Minnesota? March 21, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 3:54 PM

A tulip pokes through the earth, heralding the arrival of spring in southeastern Minnesota.

TYPICALLY, MY RELATIVES who live in northern Arkansas would be telling me about the beautiful weather down there in March.

Not today.

Snow began falling in Bella Vista at 3 p.m. yesterday and didn’t stop until six inches had accumulated. Rain followed the snow Sunday morning.

For my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Robin that means no church services, no trips to the grocery store, no nothing. They’re stuck at home until the ice melts off their driveway and roadways.

Now, I don’t know about the rest of you Minnesotans, but I will take snow over ice any day.

Only occasional patches of snow remain in southeastern Minnesota. And any ice, well, you’ll find that only on lakes or rivers.

Today marked another glorious day of sunshine here, a perfect day for a Sunday afternoon drive.  And that’s exactly what my husband and I did today. We drove east, into Sogn Valley.

That’s SOH-gun, not SNOW-gun, Valley. I’ll take you on tour there later this week.

Now, I need to step outside and tour my yard and see how those sprouting tulips are flourishing in the warmth of snow-free southern Minnesota.

Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Oh, sweet, sweet first day of spring March 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:57 PM

Sap drips from a maple tree.

“IS TODAY THE FIRST day of spring?” I ask my husband this morning.

“I don’t know. Check the calendar,” he says.

Check the calendar, because you certainly can’t tell by the temperature here in southeastern Minnesota.

While earlier this week we were walking outside in shirt sleeves, today we are wearing our winter coats. We all knew those 60-degree temps are simply teasers to the reality of spring. Such is the fickleness of seasons in the northland.

Still, today was beautiful with sunny skies and the promise of warmer days to come.

I spent part of my day outdoors, in the country, learning about maple syrup making.

It felt good to walk under clear skies, the wind brushing briskly across my face, my boots sucking into the mud along a field road as I headed for a ravine dense with maple trees. As I dipped my finger into the clear, pure, raw sap and tasted its hint of sweetness, I thought, life really doesn’t get much better than this.

Yes, this was a very good day, this first day of spring.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

(Watch for a future blog post about making maple syrup.)


The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plane, if the plane ever gets there

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 3:03 PM

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

“No, no hablo alemán. Hablo español.”

Perhaps the Faribault High School Spanish students on a spring break trip to Spain wish they spoke Deutsch (German).

The group, which includes my 16-year-old son, arrived this morning in Frankfurt, Germany, instead of Madrid, Spain.

OK then, how did this happen?

Well, the American Airlines plane, which they were supposed to take from Chicago to Miami Friday afternoon, was grounded due to mechanical problems.

Better to be on the ground with mechanical issues than in the air, I say.

But this caused all sorts of scheduling difficulties because the next plane out of Chicago left too late to catch the connecting flight to Madrid.

All of this I learned during three phone calls from my son around noon on Friday. Would they ever leave Chicago, I wondered. During his last call, he told me they were flying to Germany. Kind of the scenic route to get to their destination, isn’t it? But… I suppose sometimes there aren’t many options.

Finally, at 8:50 p.m. Friday, 10-plus hours after arriving in the Windy City, they began the trip to Frankfurt.

More than 24 hours later, I had heard nothing. No news is good news, I figure.

And I was right. Shortly after 2 p.m. today, the senior Spanish teacher’s husband called. The group had arrived at their hotel in cloudy, sometimes rainy, Madrid.

Now, maybe, just maybe, they can begin their European adventure–in the right country.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Encouraging words for the mother of a spring break traveler March 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:09 AM

I REALLY AM NOT good at this thing called “letting go.”

Thursday afternoon I cried as I embraced my second daughter. I had just gotten used to having Miranda around the house and at the supper table for a few days when she packed her bags and headed back to college in La Crosse.

Then today, oh, today. My 16-year-old son left hours ago for the airport, beginning a journey that takes him on a Spanish class trip to Spain. I expect the next 10 days to crawl, creep as if in slow motion for me.

I am feeling today like I felt nearly 10 years ago when I sent my oldest daughter away on a mission trip to Texas. The separation was heart-wrenching for me. Not for her. But I survived and then allowed my daughters to leave again and again. I sort of got used to their travels, even the journeys to foreign countries.

But this time it’s different. This is my youngest, who has never flown, who hasn’t been away from home without us all that often. And that is exactly the reason my husband and I allowed Caleb to go. We know he needs to get out in the world, to see and experience different cultures and places.

This separation I will endure for those reasons.

Family and friends understand how challenging this is for me and have offered their support.

“Today will be the roughest,” my son’s godmother writes in an email. “You said yes because you knew about all the things he’ll learn on such a trip. Airports, customs, traveling with a group that isn’t family, hotel stays… All of those things are eye opening for a teenager. Not to mention, seeing Spain? How cool will that be?”

A friend writes: “What a great experience for your son to go to Spain…what awesome parents you are to let him go off for such a life experience at his age… I can totally feel for you not wanting to let him go, but he’ll be ok…you wouldn’t be letting him go if you didn’t think he was mature enough and smart enough to go along…he’ll never forget this time that you gave him and trusted him…”

Then there’s this comment from a sister-in-law who clearly understands my anxiety: “I can’t imagine—I thought children doing college travel abroad was difficult.”

Yet another sister-in-law warns me of what may lie ahead: “…when Caleb returns he’ll do nothing but repeat over and over how he wants to return to Spain!”

Been there, done that with my second daughter and Argentina.

Finally, the absolute best comment, which made me laugh out loud, comes from my 17-year-old niece: “Oh he’ll have so much fun! Don’t worry yourself to death; he needs a mom to come home to. 🙂 I leave for Costa Rica on Monday so if you’re missing Caleb, call my mom and you two can bond over it.”

That certainly puts my situation in the proper humorous perspective, doesn’t it?

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling