Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

All about eagles in Wabasha March 20, 2014

A section of a map on the floor of the National Eagle Center shows the location of Wabasha along the Mississippi River.

A section of a map on the floor of the National Eagle Center shows the location of Wabasha along the Mississippi River.

DRIVING INTO WABASHA, Minnesota, late on a Sunday morning in mid-March, we spot a bald eagle soaring high above this historic river town.

The stunning National Eagle Center, along the river and a block off the main downtown business district.

The stunning National Eagle Center, along the river in the heart of downtown Wabasha.

The bird’s welcoming appearance seems fitting given my husband and I have come here to tour the National Eagle Center, a modern two-story educational facility with banks of two-story windows and a second floor outdoor observation deck overlooking the Mississippi River.

A second story observation deck outfitted with numerous binoculars, allows visitors to view the eagles along the Mississippi River.

The observation deck, outfitted with binoculars, gives visitors like my husband a view of eagles along the Mississippi River.

This ideal riverside setting allows visitors like us to observe eagles riding river bluff air currents, scooping fish from the water and perching in trees. Wabasha, with its year-round open water, proves an inviting locale for eagles.

The activity area includes a replica eagle's nest, upper left.

The activity area includes a replica eagle’s nest, upper left.

Inside the center, hands-on interactive activities—from stepping inside a mock eagle’s nest to testing the weight of an eagle to experiencing the majestic bird’s vision to creating eagle art to scoping eagles through binoculars and more—occupy all ages.

You can get up close to the resident eagles.

You can get up close to the resident eagles.

But, unequivocally, the major draws are the resident eagles, birds that were injured, treated and could not be released back into the wild. Bald eagles Angel, Columbia, Harriet and Was’aka call this place home while Donald is the sole golden eagle here. The 32-year-old Harriet is perhaps the best known, appearing numerous times on television and serving as the model for Minnesota’s Support Our Troops vehicle license plate.

Donald, the single resident golden eagle.

Donald, the single resident golden eagle.

Handlers tend the tethered eagles in a viewing room while answering questions among a curious crowd snapping photos with cell phones and cameras.

Eagles suspended from the ceiling and a view of the river from the second floor of the eagle center.

Eagles suspended from the ceiling and a view of the river from the second floor of the eagle center.

Thrice daily, the center presents an educational program on eagles. On this Sunday, staffer Bucky, with humor, skill, knowledge and audience engagement, entertains and educates young and old (that would be Randy and me).

A mural provides information about Wabasha and its open water draw for eagles.

A mural provides information about Wabasha’s history and eagles.

We learn, for example, that Wabasha provides the perfect environment for bald eagles with the river, protected habitat and bluffs. Eagles nest across the river and at nearby Read’s Landing.

Dressed as an eagle, a staffer wanders through the eagle center.

Dressed as an eagle, a staffer wanders through the eagle center.

When Bucky shares that eagles are territorial, he mimics the bird’s high-pitched call then asks us to practice our eagle calls. Kids giggle. Adults laugh at the attempts.

During the presentation, Bucky occasionally checks on an elementary-aged boy who is keeping a replica eagle egg warm in the pouch of his sweatshirt. Eagle nests can measure up to nine feet wide and 20 feet deep and weigh as much as three tons.

The current eagle count tallied.

The current eagle count tallied.

Today, Minnesota is home to 1,200 active eagle nests. When the eagle expert asks how many of us can see eagles in our home areas, nearly all 17 of us raise our hands.

But it wasn’t always that way. Randy and I are among the audience few who remember a time when these birds were endangered. Shortly after World War II, the pesticide DDT was introduced, washing into waterways where fish and aquatic life absorbed the toxin. When eagles ate the fish, they, too, were impacted. The DDT weakened their eggshells, resulting in eggs that broke during incubation or failed to hatch. The pesticide was banned in 1972.

My husband, second from right, plays a bald eagle.

My husband, second from right, plays a bald eagle.

To visually explain the chain reaction, Bucky chooses three kids to role play a mosquito, a small fish and a large fish. I know precisely whom he will pick to play the bald eagle. The bald guy in the third role, my husband, makes his acting debut.

Bucky proves his point as, one by one, the performers “ingest” DDT.

Bucky and Angel.

Bucky and Angel.

A few minutes later, after this educator pulls out a board the length of an eagle’s wing span (6 ½ to 7 feet), he exits the room and returns with resident bald eagle Angel. The 11-pound female came to the center in 2000 after suffering a broken wing.

Perched on Bucky’s gloved arm, Angel is the model of perfect human imprinted behavior. She is a guest at many Native American ceremonies and also makes educational appearances.

Shortly after Randy shot this photo of Angel eating a rat, I left the room.

Shortly after Randy shot this photo of Angel eating a rat, I left the room.

I enjoy Angel, until feeding time. Bucky pulls a white rat from a plastic container. For awhile, I watch as the eagle uses her beak and talons to rip apart the rodent. I stop photographing the scene and hand my camera to Randy. By then I’m looking down. He snaps a few photos, hands the camera back to me and shortly thereafter I exit the room to view the resident eagles who are not dining.

Rather they are simply perched, an activity which occupies 94 percent of their lives.

You'll find binoculars throughout the eagle center.

You’ll find binoculars throughout the center for viewing eagles.

Later, Randy will search me out, inform me that I left at just the right time—before rat pieces started flying toward the audience.

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BONUS PHOTOS:

A bald eagle was part of the show in the gym. No, it did not fly.

A bald eagle was part of “Wings to Soar” in the nearby St. Felix gym. No, the eagle did not fly.

WHILE IN WABASHA, we also took in the National Eagle Center sponsored program, “Wings to Soar.”

Dale wandered through the audience with the birds, like this owl.

Dale wanders through the audience with an owl.

In St. Felix auditorium several blocks from the eagle center, Southerners John Stokes and Dale Kernahan presented an educational flying raptor program that, yes, involved birds of prey flying over our heads.

Here an owl flaps its wings. The birds skimmed over our heads during the show.

Here an owl flaps its wings. Some of the birds skimmed over our heads during the show.

Stokes advised anyone who was afraid of birds to leave. That would be me. But I stayed and did just fine with the owls and hawks. But when Kernahan walked out with a vulture and then allowed it to fly at low altitude, I slunk into my folding chair.

On the right, you'll see the second story riverside observation deck.

On the right is the second story riverside observation deck.

FYI: March marks special “Soar with the Eagles” weekends in Wabasha. March 22 – 23 you can attend Sky Hunters, a flying bird show.

This girl is looking up at these...

Inside the National Eagle Center, this girl is looking up at these…

...birds suspended from the glass ceiling.

…birds suspended from the glass ceiling.

In the first floor gift shop, shown here...

In the first floor gift shop, shown here…

...Joseph found a plush toy eagle.

…Joseph finds a plush toy eagle.

The National Eagle Center truly appeals to all ages, to anyone who appreciates the beauty of this majestic bird.

Check back for another post from the National Eagle Center and for additional photos from Wabasha.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Photo bar hopping in rural Minnesota, Part II March 19, 2014

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The rather non-descript R & L's Pit Stop photographed in Hope in 2011.

The rather non-descript R & L’s Pit Stop photographed in Hope in 2011.

THE SMALL TOWN liquor store or bar rates as more than simply a place to grab a cold one or wolf down bar food.

New Richland bars, 2011.

New Richland bars, 2011.

Oftentimes, these rural establishments serve as community gathering spots. Locals belly up to trade stories, talk crops, solve the world’s problems. There’s a certain comfort in that, in the familiarity of sharing gossip and opinions and woes within the confines of a dark space, sheltered from reality.

The seemingly popular Cabin Bar in Nicollet, photographed two years ago.

The seemingly popular Cabin Bar in Nicollet, photographed two years ago.

Sometimes these places remain as the sole business along an otherwise vacant Main Street. On a Friday or Saturday night, vehicles line the streets. Folks gather to shoot a little pool, drink a little beer, tell a few jokes.

One of my favorite buildings and attached vintage signage. I need to return and explore this place.

The Monty Bar anchors a corner in downtown Montgomery and features wonderful vintage signage.

For awhile, troubles vanish, the body rests, a sense of community togetherness prevails.

Creative graphics for a bar in Kilkenny.

Creative graphics for a bar in Kilkenny.

All of this I imagine as I photograph the exteriors of small town Minnesota bars and liquor stores. Unique signage, creative names, architecture and more draw me visually to these watering holes.

The Roadhouse Bar & Grill is a popular dining spot in Wabasso. During the summer, old car enthusiasts and motorcyclists gather here for a weekly "Ride In" that draws up to 1,000 people. There's plenty of outdoor seating on a sprawling patio where a hamburger bar is set up for the popular event. The grill offers an extensive burger and sandwich menu with everything reasonably priced.

The Roadhouse Bar & Grill is a hot spot in Wabasso. During the summer, old car enthusiasts and motorcyclists gather here on Tuesday evenings for a “Roll- In” that draws up to 1,000 people. There’s plenty of outdoor seating on a sprawling patio where a hamburger bar is set up for the popular event.

Each holds a story. And if you, a stranger, venture inside, heads will swivel, eyes will bore and the locals will wonder. What is your story?

BONUS BAR PHOTOS:

The Old Town Tavern advertises its Dam Days specials. Great place to eat.

The Old Town Tavern advertises specials and more during Morristown Dam Days 2013.

A misguided attempt, in my opinion, to update the American Legion in West Concord. Photographed in 2010.

A misguided attempt, in my opinion, to update the American Legion in West Concord. Photographed in 2010.

The Pub in Canton, near the Iowa border.

The Pub in Canton, near the Iowa border, photographed in 2012.

CLICK HERE TO READ “Bar hopping, Minnesota blogger style.”

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Go, Knights March 18, 2014

THERE’S NO DOUBT about it. Residents of small towns get excited about their sports.

Living in a large—by my standards anyway—community like Faribault with a population of around 23,000, I don’t see the same level of sports enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never played or been interested in sports. You will find your pockets of sports enthusiasts even in communities the size of mine. Just not me. And not with the same level of “we’re all behind you” support.

A scene in downtown Kenyon Sunday afternoon emphasizes this town's ag base.

A scene in downtown Kenyon Sunday afternoon emphasizes this town’s ag base as a truck pulls a trailer stacked with hay.

But in the Kenyon-Wanamingo area, I’d guess locals are pretty excited about the girls basketball team heading to Mariucci Arena at the University of Minnesota on Wednesday to play Redwood Valley in the Class AA state girls basketball competition.

A show of support for the Kenyon-Wanamingo Knights.

A show of support for the Kenyon-Wanamingo Knights.

Driving through this Goodhue County community of 1,817 Sunday afternoon, I noticed a sign, GO Knights, suspended between poles at the gas station/convenience store at the intersections of Minnesota State Highways 56 and 60. Nothing fancy. Simply a hometown show of support for the Kenyon-Wanamingo girls basketball team. I also spotted a we believe sign tacked in a business window.

Wednesday marks the first time since 2001 that the K-W girls team, seeded number 2 in the state with a 29-1 record, is going to state. That one loss this year came to defending state champions New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva. I expect fans in those four communities are equally as thrilled about their team’s third consecutive return to state competition.

At Redwood Valley, they’re also likely pretty hyped about the girls going to state for the first time since 1979. That’s something of which to be proud. Even though I attended junior high there more than 40 years ago, I possess no loyalty to this southwestern Minnesota school. You’ll find me rooting for the Knights, not the Cardinals, Wednesday evening.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Irish for an hour in historic Wabasha March 17, 2014

Holy water on the bar of The Olde Triangle Pub in downtown Wabasha, Minnesota.

Holy water on the bar of The Olde Triangle Pub in downtown Wabasha, Minnesota.

I POSSESS NOT AN OUNCE of Irish blood and I am not Catholic.

T-shirts on the pub ceiling.

T-shirts on the pub ceiling.

But green is my favorite color.

The Irish national flag flies outside the pub.

The Irish national flag flies outside the pub.

My Uncle Robin hails from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He married into a family of Germans.

The Olde Triangle's hearty Irish stew.

The Olde Triangle’s hearty Irish stew.

I like potatoes. And Irish stew.

The pub's fish and chips.

The pub’s fish and chips.

My husband likes fish and chips. And beer. Me, too, but not whiskey.

I have no idea what "the year of Kathleens" means. Anyone care to enlighten me?

I have no idea what “the year of Kathleens” means. Anyone care to enlighten me?

My name, Audrey, of course, is not Irish. But I know a lot of Kathys and a few Kathleens.

Performing at The Olde Triangle Pub Sunday afternoon.

Performing at The Olde Triangle Pub Sunday afternoon.

I can’t dance an Irish jig nor name an Irish tune. However, I enjoy music in an Irish pub.

The pub's Triquetra, Celtic (Trinity) knot, symbolizes the three parts of a good life: friendship, food and drink.

The pub’s Triquetra, Celtic (Trinity) knot, symbolizes three parts of a good life: friendship, food and drink.

And I’ll return to The Olde Triangle Pub. Sunday marked my second time dining here on a visit to Wabasha. I love this cozy, and I do mean cozy, spot in the heart of this historic Mississippi River town.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone, Irish or not!

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Looking out for the Girl Scouts in frigid Fargo March 15, 2014

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SHOULD WALMART ALLOW Girl Scouts inside their stores to sell cookies?

A West Fargo, N.D., man thinks the retail giant should show a little compassion and do exactly that, according to an article published Thursday in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

The sign posted in front of the West Fargo Walmart on Sunday morning.

The entry to the West Fargo Walmart, photographed on a Sunday morning in November 2012.

John Kraft raised his concerns in a newspaper ad after observing local Girl Scouts selling cookies outside of Walmart in temps that dipped near double-digits below zero with an equally brutal windchill.

A view of the 300 block on North Broadway, including signage for the Fargo Theatre, built in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theatre. The theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a venue for independent and foreign films, concerts, plays and more.

Downtown Fargo. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Believe me, the wind whips across the flat terrain of Fargo. In all seasons.

Last February I received this text from my 19-year-old son, a then student at North Dakota State University: This cheap Walmart hat stands zero chance against the Fargo wind. He proceeded to order a surplus Russian military cap online. His observation seems especially fitting in the current context of the Girl Scouts-Walmart controversy.

Randy snapped this photo of me upon our return home from ringing bells. One donor suggested we receive "hazard pay" for ringing on such a bitterly cold day. There's no pay; this is a volunteer opportunity.

Me, dressed to ring bells for the Salvation Army.

Several months ago, I stood outside the Faribault Walmart, ringing bells for two hours for the Salvation Army in zero degree temps. Layered in a flannel shirt, jeans, insulated coveralls and a sweatshirt with my feet tucked inside wool socks in insulated boots and my hands shoved inside fleece-lined mittens, I still shivered. So I understand the Girl Scouts’ situation. They reportedly sold cookies for six hours in the frigid cold, four hours longer than my volunteer stint.

I managed the cold by staying in constant motion and occasionally stepping inside Walmart to warm my hands under the bathroom hand dryer.

Like John Kraft in West Fargo, I wondered why my husband and I and the other volunteers ringing bells on that cold cold Minnesota day could not at least stand inside the Walmart vestibule. Company policy, we were advised. Company policy.

It seems to me that sometimes common sense should prevail over policy.

BONUS PHOTO:

Girls and their moms peddled Girl Scout cookies in Courtland.

In March 2011, I photographed these Girl Scouts selling cookies from a truck along U.S. Highway 14 in Courtland, Minnesota. Temps hovered around 30 degrees that afternoon. Girl Scouts seem determined to sell cookies, no matter the weather.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A love & hate relationship with winter March 14, 2014

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Along a gravel road somewhere between Nerstrand and Kenyon, Minnesota.

Along a gravel road somewhere between Nerstrand and Kenyon, Minnesota. That’s the driveway, not the road.

FOR ALL OF THE TIMES I’ve spurned this winter of brutal cold and deep snow, I must confess to a certain appreciation for the poetic dreaminess of a snowy rural landscape.

Winter exposes, uncovers, bares the basics to the eyes in a way that the fullness of summer cannot.

Power lines and roads cut horizontal swaths. Farm sites beckon like a welcome oasis in a sea of white. Bare-branched trees flag the sky.

A red barn seems redder, a steely grey bin greyer. And a white farmhouse simply vanishes.

This is winter. Spurned. And, sometimes, loved.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

All roads lead “somewhere” March 13, 2014

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EXCEPT IN MY NATIVE southwestern Minnesota prairie, where roads run mostly straight and the land lies divided into field grids, I possess no sense of direction.

That navigational deficiency evokes occasional tense moments when my husband and I journey into unfamiliar territory. We have neither smart phones nor a GPS, only a road map, an atlas and Randy’s sense of direction to guide us.

I always want to know exactly where we are and where we are headed. He, on the other hand, is an adventurer attempting to calm my unease. The road “will lead somewhere,” he reassures, which isn’t at all reassuring.

Which way he asked?

“Which way?” he asked.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, as we drove “somewhere” east of Nerstrand, aiming toward Kenyon, we came upon an intersection of gravel and tar roads. “Which way do you want to go?” Randy inquired.

The gravel road I did not want to follow.

The gravel road I did not want to follow.

I peered down the icy gravel road ahead and thought to myself, “not there.”

Too late. “There” proved to be precisely my spouse’s preferred route.

The half muddy, half icy road.

The half muddy, half icy road.

As the van slogged along the gravel road, marred by mud and ice, I muttered something about “not going in the ditch.”

Left (east) or right (west)?

Left (east) or right (west)?

Eventually we came to a T in the road. “Which way do you want to go?” my husband asked again.

Then he turned left.

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NOTE: All images have been edited because, well, I can do that to make this story more visually dramatic.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling