Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Into the woods at Falls Creek Park October 16, 2021

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On the expanse of grass outside the woods, silver maples shimmer against the blue sky of autumn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A MILE EAST OF FARIBAULT just off Minnesota State Highway 60, the 61-acre Falls Creek County Park offers an escape into the woods. Mostly undiscovered, it’s rare to encounter others while hiking here.

Last Sunday afternoon, Randy and I headed to the park, pulling into the vastly over-sized gravel parking lot pocked with potholes. From there, we headed downhill across a grassy expanse, past the picnic shelter and toward an opening in the woods.

A wooden footbridge over Falls Creek allows entrance to narrow dirt trails. There are no maps to guide hikers, so you must rely on visual cues, obscured in October by fallen leaves. But we’ve been here before, always taking the main trail following the creek.

An unusual find in the creek: shoes/boots. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

The creek is always my first stop. I pause on the bridge, typically to watch water rush over and around rocks. But this visit, the shallow water pooled, littered with leaves and a pair of hiking boots—perfectly good hiking boots from the looks of the shoes. I wondered how they landed there, in the water.

In the places where water remains in the creek, leaves float. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Mostly, the creek bed was dry, a result of this year’s drought. In areas where water remains, minnows darted. The water is at least clear, a rarity in this agricultural region.

Randy scales a steep hill into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A short distance into the woods, Randy spotted a worn path up a steep hillside. I’d never noticed this during prior visits. Before I could dissuade him, he hoofed his way up, slipping and sliding and grabbing onto trees. When Randy lost his footing, I feared he would tumble and injury himself. As much as I yearned to follow, I recognized my limitations and my desire to keep my bones in-tact.

Berries jolt color into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As he disappeared along the hilltop treeline, I continued along the creek route. But soon my mind went to that niggling place of worry, about the time I reached the point where the path sidles next to the eroded creek bank. One misstep and I could plunge over the edge. Not that it’s that high. But far enough to cause injury.

I backtracked, dug in my backpack for my cellphone (hoping for service), and then called Randy. He answered. “I didn’t come here to walk alone,” I told him, also inquiring about his location. He couldn’t pinpoint that except to say that he would head back. I feel thankful that Randy, unlike me, possesses a good sense of direction.

Remembering the hiking boots/shoes in the creek. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

“I don’t like being out here alone,” I added, noting that I’d observed two people on the path, too far away for me to clearly see them. Obviously those hiking shoes dumped in the creek prompted the beginning of a mystery plot in my writer’s brain.

Despite that concern, I aimed for the strangers…finding a cordial couple about my age examining mushrooms on a decayed tree. We talked mushrooms and my missing husband and they offered to help find him should need be. Their story of getting lost in these very same woods did nothing to assure me that Randy would find his way back. But he did. At a different point, where an unseen spring ran down the hillside and he did more slipping and sliding, this time in mud.

Randy follows the leaf-laden trail as it edges close to the eroded creek bank. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We reversed course and, together, followed the creek-side path deeper and deeper into the woods…until turning around and retracing our steps. I wished again for a trail map guide.

Near the footbridge, pools of water remain, collecting the fallen leaves of autumn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We veered briefly off the path to another trail leading to the creek. Again, no water. Only rocks on a dry creek bed.

Seemingly abandoned in the shelter. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Then it was back to the main route, a pause on the bridge to again wonder about those hiking boots and then a pause at the shelter to speculate about an abandoned bike, jacket and beverage bottle.

Not a soul remained at Falls Creek Park. At least no one visible to us. Only mysteries—of abandoned and tossed belongings and of unmarked trails leading deep into the woods.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections during the season of harvest in Minnesota October 14, 2021

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Harvesting corn in southern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

DUST RISES FROM FIELDS, clouding the air as combines rake through rows of dry soybeans.

Barely visible, the top of the same combine featured in the photo above. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Combines comb corn rows, too, in this season of harvest in southern Minnesota.

Follow country roads, like this one in eastern Rice County, to view fields at a slower pace. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Take a drive in the countryside these days and you will observe farmers hard at work, bringing in the crops.

A common site, semi trucks parked in fields, awaiting the yield, this one in western Rice County. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As October moves to mid-month, a sense of urgency presses into long days in the field. By 7 pm, darkness envelopes the land and farm machinery still moves, like a mammoth beast lumbering across acres of corn and soybeans, eyes aglow.

A silo peeks above a cornfield in eastern Rice County. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

It is in this season of harvest that I feel a bit melancholy, missing my once close connection to the land. The scent of earth. The view of acres and acres and acres of crops drying to muted hues, visual evidence of a farmer’s work. The sound of combines roaring. The taste of dust and dirt. Golden orbs of soybeans sifting between fingers spread wide.

A farm site spreads across the land in western Rice County. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

While I once experienced all those first-hand on my childhood farm in southwestern Minnesota, today I feel an outsider looking in. Watching. Remembering. Feeling grateful for the years I lived on a farm, never realizing then just how much those days would mean to me later in life.

Grain bins, like these in eastern Rice County, symbolize harvest as storehouses for grain. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Each autumn I yield to the call of harvest. I reconnect to the land. Observing. Recalling. Missing my farmer dad and my Uncle Mike, a bachelor farmer who lived the next farm place over to the east. They are decades gone now, their final harvests long-finished.

Acres of wildflowers bloom in a field off Rice County Road 20 between Northfield and Cannon City. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

These emotions rush like a blustery October wind into my thoughts as winter approaches. As harvest continues, as seasons pass and life goes on.

Cornfield to the right, farm site to the left, all part of a Sunday afternoon country drive in southern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

TELL ME: Do you go for country drives to view the harvest? Or, if you live in a city, how do you celebrate autumn? I’d like to hear, wherever you live. I welcome harvest memories also.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So many reasons to visit Valley Grove, especially in autumn October 13, 2021

The artful gated entrance to Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SACRED in this place. This preserved parcel of land where two aged churches rise atop a hill in rural Nerstrand.

Looking down the driveway from the hilltop church grounds, a beautiful view of the valley below. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

This is Valley Grove, among my most treasured local natural spaces to seek solitude. Beauty. Peace. And a feeling of sacredness that stretches beyond spiritual.

The newer of the two Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I sat on the front steps of the 1894 white clapboard church eating a picnic lunch. Bothersome bees hovered, drawn by the sweetness of Randy’s soda and fruit-laced yogurt and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Photographed from a side of the clapboard church, the limestone church a short distance away. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A stone’s throw away across the lawn sits the 1862 limestone church, constructed in the year of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict raging many miles away to the west.

The cemetery offers history, art and a place for quiet contemplation against a beautiful natural backdrop. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
An in-process gravestone rubbing. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
I find gravestone engravings especially interesting and often touching. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Valley Grove holds its own history as a community and spiritual gathering place for the area’s Norwegian immigrants. Walk the grounds of the cemetery next to the churches and you’ll read names of those of Norwegian ancestry. The cemetery remains well-used with new tombstones marking the passage of yet another loved one.

Information about Valley Grove is tucked inside a case on the side of the clapboard church. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I have no personal connection to Valley Grove. But I hold a deep appreciation for the history, honored via the Valley Grove Preservation Society. That organization maintains and manages the church and grounds. And its a lovely, especially in autumn, acreage.

Farm sites and farmland surround Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Once I’d finished my turkey sandwich and other picnic foods, I set out with my camera to document. The views from this hilltop site are spectacular. Farm land and farm sites, the low moo of a cow auditorily reminding me of this region’s agrarian base.

Conservation and legacy are valued at Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Remnants of the Big Woods remain and can be seen from Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Following the prairie path back to the church grounds, just over the hill. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Tall dried prairie grasses frame nearly every view. Those who tend this land value its natural features of prairie and oak savanna. Paths lead visitors along prairie’s edge and onto the prairie to view distant colorful treelines, part of the Big Woods. The hilltop location offers incredible vistas.

On a mixed October afternoon of sun and clouds, a wildflower jolts color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

But up close is worth noting, too, especially the wildflowers.

An unexpected delight in the cemetery was an old-fashioned rosebush in full bloom. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

And in the cemetery I found an old-fashioned rosebush abloom in pink roses. Just like a rosebush that graced my childhood farm far away in southwest Minnesota where settlers and Native Peoples once clashed. I dipped my nose into blossom after blossom, breathing in the deep, perfumed, intoxicating scent.

Lots of wildflowers to enjoy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Spending time at Valley Grove, even when church doors are not open, seems sacred. I feel the peace of this rural location. The quiet. My smallness, too, within the vastness of sky and land and spires rising.

High on the hill…Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

To walk here, to sit on the front steps of a church on the National Register of Historic Places is to feel a sense of gratitude for those who came before us. For those who today recognize the value of sacredness and continue to preserve Valley Grove. Who understand that the spiritual stretches beyond church doors. To the land. To the memories of loved ones. And to future generations.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A fall favorite: Trinity North Morristown’s Fall Dinner October 12, 2021

Waiting in line behind Trinity Lutheran Church and School for meals to be delivered to vehicles. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

VEHICLES STACKED UP three rows wide late Sunday morning, crawling toward Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown.

A volunteer welcomes guests, accepts payment, disburses tickets and directs traffic. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As Randy and I waited in our van, I clutched two blue tickets, our tickets to the hottest dinner in town. Or in this case, in rural Rice County. It was the annual Fall Dinner at this country church and school set in the rolling farmland west of Faribault and also the site of a popular July Fourth celebration.

We arrived early in the two-hour take-out event, a switch from the usual dine-in dinner due to the pandemic. But I didn’t want to risk Trinity running out of food. Yes, this full turkey and ham dinner with all the trimmings is that popular. And that good. And reasonably priced at $10.

Young volunteers run back toward the church to grab more meals. Folding chairs separated traffic lanes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

So we waited. Creeping. Idling. Creeping. And while we snail-paced, neighborhood dogs barked. And free-range chickens foraged in the pastor’s yard next to the church. Volunteers sold tickets and directed traffic. And youth, some clad in cowboy boots, scurried to deliver the coveted meals prepared and boxed by many more volunteers in the church basement.

Twenty minutes later, I was reaching through my open van window to accept two bags with our meals inside. The air smelled of Thanksgiving dinner. And I felt thankful to be here, partaking in this annual event, although I missed gathering in the church basement for fellowship.

The main meal: ham, turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, squash and corn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Instead of driving all the way back to Faribault to eat warm, rather than hot, food, Randy and I dined across the road at the July Fourth celebration grounds. I pulled on my flannel shirt, he his jacket, and we perched on the edge of the entertainment stage to fork mouthfuls of turkey and ham and sides.

“The potatoes are lumpy,” Randy noted.

“A sure sign they’re homemade,” I said, affirming his appreciation of real mashed potatoes. Nearly everything served in this generously-portioned meal is homemade. I especially enjoyed the squash, a vegetable I’ve not yet eaten this season.

We saved our coleslaw, cranberries and buns for later. And our dessert, too. Two bars and two slices of cake.

Honoring parade grand marshals. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

And while we dined, we chatted about the annual Fourth of July celebration held here on these grounds. We noted the names of parade grand marshals on wooden slabs backing the stage. We remembered the music and crowds and good food—always the food—and the fun times and talked about bringing our young grandchildren here to experience this on Independence Day.

A model of the church, featured in parades, is stored at one end of the stage in the off-season. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

When we finished eating, we bagged our empty Styrofoam take-out containers, plastic-ware and napkins, placed the slaw and cranberries on ice in a cooler and headed out. Randy noted how the mix of grass and weeds, always trampled flat by July Fourth fest-goers, now flourished. The site looked vastly different in the season of autumn, the season of church dinners in Minnesota. And this, my favorite, at Trinity North Morristown in rural Rice County.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite church dinner? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

This Was 2020 wins Minnesota book award & I’m celebrating October 11, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2021.

WITH JOY AND GRATITUDE, I share some particularly exciting news. Joy at the honor. Gratitude for the opportunity.

The book This Was 2020—Minnesotans Write About Pandemics and Social Justice in a Historic Year has garnered the 2021 Minnesota Author Project Award in the Communities Create category. That announcement came late last week at the annual Minnesota Library Association Conference.

The beginning of my poem published in This Was 2020. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

My poem, “Funeral During a Pandemic,” is among 54 pieces of prose and poetry by 51 Minnesotans published in the collection. In my poem, I write about my experience attending my father-in-law’s funeral in a rural central Minnesota church during the pandemic. To have that poem selected for inclusion reveals just one aspect of how COVID-19 has affected all of us.

As Paul Lai, Ramsey County librarian and lead on this book project states, This Was 2020 “…highlights the voices of people in Minnesota as they remember a difficult year.” And those voices come from across the state, most from the metro, but also from greater Minnesota. The writing, Lai notes, offers glimpses into our communities.

Judges for the award also sing the book’s praises, calling it “a beautiful anthology that memorialized a very difficult year in Minnesota.”

That assessment fits as writers penned pieces related to the pandemic and to social justice issues re-ignited by the murder of George Floyd with ensuing protests. I encourage you to read this book for the thought-provoking, and often emotional, content. (Click here to read an earlier review I posted on This Was 2020.)

“This book is one small way to help us all grieve, protest, imagine, co-create and empathize so that we build stronger connections rather than more walls between each other,” Lai says in a reflective video. I appreciate that comment, that encouraging insight. (To hear Lai’s comments, forward to around 10 minutes into the video.)

Lai has been so supportive of the writers published in this collection. In a congratulatory email to all of us, he termed our writing “powerful, thoughtful, heartfelt, creative and caring.” I value that appreciation.

The incredible art of artist Carolyn Olson of Duluth graces the cover of This Was 2020. This is titled “Grocery Store Cashier and Bagger,” Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The book award comes with a $1,000 cash prize, which will go to the Friends of the Ramsey County Libraries, official publisher of the print book. Those monies will support the library’s collections and programs. Additionally, the award provides access for the e-book version in the national Indie Author Project network and author spotlights promoting the book. More opportunities to be heard.

I feel such joy and gratitude. Joy at this accomplishment, not only for myself as a professional writer, but also for my fellow Minnesota writers. This state has incredible literary talent. And I feel gratitude for those who foster writing projects like This Was 2020 and for those who publicly recognize the value of voices expressed in writing.

FYI: To view This Was 2020 online, please click here. I encourage you also to purchase a print copy, perhaps from your favorite indie bookstore. Enjoy. And appreciate. And use what you read to build stronger connections rather than more walls.

You may also click here to see all of the book finalists/winners in the three Minnesota Author Project award categories.

Publication of This Was 2020 was made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It was edited by Ramsey County Library and published by Friends of the Ramsey County Libraries. The Minnesota Library Foundation and Biblio Labs sponsored the cash prizes.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Feed your body & feed your soul at weekend events October 8, 2021

An example of rosemaling from MODNordic Arts Studio in Faribault. Mother and daughter, Donna Johnson and Lyn Rein, create this Nordic art, which I photographed at the Valley Grove County Social in 2019. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

CHURCH DINNERS AND ART. I love both. And this weekend, I can indulge in each in my region of southern Minnesota.

The clay art of Faribault artist Tami Resler. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo March 2021.

The Studio ARTour of South Central Minnesota is already underway, kicking off from 4 – 8 pm today/Friday (at select studios) and continuing through Sunday. The annual event features 36 artists in 17 studios in the Faribault-Farmington-Northfield area.

It’s been awhile since I did this tour and I’m uncertain whether I can fit it in this year. But if you’re free and want to explore the arts at a grassroots level, then this is a must-do event.

Faribault artist Julie Fakler specializes in bold animal portraits. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

From jewelry-making to painting to textiles to photography to pottery to ceramics and more, this tour takes you into studios and/or art centers/spaces to meet the artists. To connect. To engage in conversation. To admire and purchase the work of these creatives.

Truly, talent abounds.

Just note that, with COVID-19 still running rampant, you need to mask up.

This year’s meal will be take-out only. In previous years, take-out was available. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

The pandemic has also affected the annual Fall Dinner at Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown. That’s the country church of July Fourth celebration fame. This year’s dinner will be take-out only, with meals delivered to vehicles. You’re encouraged to arrive early for the 11 am – 1 pm dinner on Sunday, October 10.

Diners pack the Trinity church basement during a past Fall Dinner. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

In a non-pandemic year, crowds gather in the sanctuary and then cram into the church basement for this popular meal of turkey, ham and all the trimmings. I’ve attended numerous times and will tell you this home-cooked dinner is beyond delicious. And it’s yours for only $10.

Some of the food served at Trinity’s Fall Dinner. There’s more. It didn’t all fit on my plate. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

There you go. If you’re looking for an escape into art and/or crave a meal that’s like Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house or Thanksgiving dinner, then take in both of these events. And, bonus, you’ll probably also see some incredible fall colors along the way.

FYI:

Click here for more information (including a map of locations) about the Studio ARTour of South Central Minnesota. The tour runs from 10 am-6 pm Saturday, October 9, and from 10 am – 5 pm Sunday, October 10.

Click here for more info about the Fall Dinner at Trinity, North Morristown.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Apple Creek Orchard, beyond apples

Inviting decor and outdoor seating create a welcome seasonal setting outside the boutique/store at Apple Creek Orchard, rural Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

MORE AND MORE, MINNESOTA apple orchards are growing more than just apples. They are growing memories, meeting public demand for experiences.

Bagged apples fill a crate just outside the boutique entry. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Apple Creek Orchard, located in the countryside just northwest of Faribault at 5524 185th Street, is among those producers embracing that trend. Here, in this rural setting, visitors can find not only 21 pre-picked apple varieties—including popular choices like Honeycrisp, Haralson, Zestar, SweeTango, Cortland and the new First Kiss—but also Halloween Town.

Riders spilled off this wagon shortly after our arrival. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

That October attraction includes a Haunted Trail Wagon Ride (Friday-Sunday), Haunted Corn Maze and apple slinging.

I saw many families posing here for photos. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Last Sunday afternoon, Randy and I popped in for a bag of apples while on a country drive to view the fall colors. We had no idea the orchard had evolved into more than a place to buy local apples…until we pulled into the farmyard. There, next to the aged mammoth barn with fieldstone foundation, I spotted a seasonal display of pumpkins and other décor staged on/aside straw bales. Plus a photo prop.

Plenty of pumpkins are available for purchase. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Rounding the end of the barn, I saw more. Vehicles lined along lawn’s edge near the barn and the multi-purpose poleshed housing Apple Creek Boutique. And up the hill, additional photo staging.

A fun touch on the front of the tractor adds to the Halloween spirit. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

On this glorious autumn afternoon in rural Minnesota, folks clearly arrived here not only for the apples, but also for the experiences. Young families. Grandparents. Couples. Many boarded the Fun Country wagon for a ride through the property. Former orchard owner Dan Abelman steered the Kubota M5-111 tractor pulling the wagon. We chatted with him briefly afterwards. He sold the orchard to Tami and Kevin Theis late this summer and continues to help with the transition. He’s supportive and enthusiastic about the changes the couple has made. And ready, too, to be moving into retirement.

Hank the Unicorn, a popular photo prop for visitors. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We didn’t go on the Haunted Trail Ride on a wagon named Josephine (my maternal grandmother’s name), but we roamed the grounds. There I found more photo props. Randy prompted me to sit on Hank the Unicorn so he could take, and text, a photo to our 5-year-old granddaughter. Already I was thinking, we need to bring Isabelle and Isaac here next fall.

The frightening entry to the hillside corn maze. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

While they may be a bit young for the 3-acre Haunted Corn Maze, I know they would enjoy the pumpkins, the autumn displays, the photo props…the experience…the time together as a family.

In the sunflower patch. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
A path runs between the sunflower and corn fields with a vintage tractor parked field side. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Some sunflowers were still blooming. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I got sidetracked also by a field of sunflowers, past their prime, but still a visual delight.

Details in decorating. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Inside the on-site store, tagged Apple Creek Boutique because you’ll find more than fresh apples here, I poked around. There you’ll find local honey, apple juice-infused meat snack sticks and sausage from Odenthal Meats of New Prague, caramel apples, cider, Grandma Eileen’s homemade apple pies, mugs, seasonal décor and much more. But we came for the apples, stashed in a cooler. I opted for a bag of my favorite, Honeycrisp.

Love the thought put in to seasonal decorating. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

In the future, Apple Creek Orchard hopes to offer pick-your-own apples. There are more plans in the works, too. Co-owner Tami Theis, a certified wedding planner, shared that a section of the poleshed will be converted in to an event venue, The Blossom. Also coming in 2022 are homemade pizzas, donuts and cider, plus a wiffle ball field.

Parked before the next boarding for a wagon ride. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I left feeling excited about this new local option for families, and others, to enjoy in rural Rice County. To learn more about apples. And to create memories via the agri entertainment now offered at Apple Creek Orchard.

FYI: Be sure to visit the Apple Creek Orchard website for more information and the orchard’s Facebook page for current updates on activities and offerings.

Other area orchards include Trumps Orchard on Faribault’s east side; Montgomery Orchard, rural Montgomery; and Fireside Orchard & Gardens, rural Northfield. I’ve patronized each of these. What’s offered at each varies, so please visit their websites for details.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A must-see: The beauty of autumn in rural Rice County October 7, 2021

Just days ago color tinted trees edging a cornfield in rural Rice County. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

THE MUTED AND VIBRANT HUES of autumn mix in the rural Rice County landscape, creating stunning seasonal scenes. If you crave color and harvest, this is your moment to get out for an afternoon country drive.

Choose a gravel road, any gravel road, and see where it leads you, here past fields and trees turning color. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Randy and I consider our county a best-kept-secret-place to view fall colors. Last weekend we traveled mostly gravel and county roads from Faribault to the Nerstrand area and back and then west to Kelly Lake. In between, we stopped for a hike at Caron Park, a picnic lunch at the hilltop Valley Grove churches and then for apples at Apple Creek Orchard.

Harvest is well underway in Rice County. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As farm-raised kids—me in southwestern Minnesota and Randy in central Minnesota—we find ourselves drawn to the countryside, especially during spring planting and then again during fall harvest. Our weekend drives updated us on harvest progress as we passed fields of corn and soybeans. Some picked. Some still drying under the intermittent autumn sun.

Even under partly sunny skies, the colored hillside of trees were beautiful. This is on a gravel road (Falk Avenue) off Rice County Road 20 northeast of Cannon City. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Across an expanse of cornfield on County Road 84/Falk Avenue (just off County Road 20 between Cannon City and Northfield), we paused to admire a treeline in the distance. We return here each year to simply stop and appreciate the hillside aflame with the hues of autumn.

Entering the woods on Farmers Trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Likewise, we also follow nearby Farmers Trail, a remote gravel road (off Falk Avenue) which winds through woods. Primarily maples as evidenced by the colors and by the blue maple syrup tube collection system that weaves through the trees.

The beautiful treeline at Caron Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Caron Park, too, draws us to stop and hike into the woods. It’s a less-crowded option than the nearby popular Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. The treeline at Caron Park, behind an open field of muted, dried grasses, is particularly stunning.

A family walks through the woods at Caron Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We walked into the woods, following a leaf-covered, eroded dirt trail that made me uncomfortable and unsure of my footing. Tree roots presented potential tripping obstacles. I focused more on staying upright than anything. Yet, despite that, I enjoyed the quiet and beauty of the woods. As did others, mostly young families.

We came across this farmer raking hay, like a scene from the past. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As we continued to follow country gravel roads, we sometimes drove in clouds of dust trailing pick-up trucks. That, too, reminds me of my agrarian upbringing. Yes, nostalgia often seeps into our view and our conversations. Once a farm girl/boy, always a farm girl/boy. Even if we’re decades removed from the farm.

Beauty in autumn ruralness. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I love how the rural countryside of Rice County often sweeps in valleys and hills, providing incredible vistas. Of farmland. Of wooded and open hillsides. Of land and sky connecting. All connected by gravel roads. This rural setting rates as particularly stunning in autumn.

The treeline across Kelly Lake is particularly beautiful in autumn. It should be even prettier than this soon. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We ended our drive at another favorite fall destination, the public boat landing at Kelly Lake northwest of Faribault. The view of the treeline across the water—which was unusually clear—always looks particularly lovely, although the colors were not at their peak yet during out stop. Soon.

Appreciating the trees overhead while hiking in Caron Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Heading back into Faribault toward home, I admired, too, how beautiful the trees in my community. Seventh Street. Second Avenue. There’s much to be said for looking in your own backyard for autumn’s glory. And I’ve found it. Right here, in Rice County.

FYI: Please check back for more photos from our country drive and for separate posts on Valley Grove churches and Apple Creek Orchard.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Minnesota northwoods experience: Climbing a fire tower (or not) October 6, 2021

Just a short distance from this roundabout by Pequot Lakes, you can see the Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower peeking through the treetops. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Really high! Be careful and don’t climb if you fear heights or experience dizziness.

The warning sign and rules posted at the base of the fire tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I heeded the warning and stayed put. Feet on the ground. Camera aimed skyward. Toward the 100-foot high Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower just outside Pequot Lakes in the central Minnesota lakes region. The top of the tower pokes through the trees, barely visible from State Highway 371. Turn off that arterial road onto Crow Wing County Road 11, turn left, and you’ve reached the fire tower park.

A little background on the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

The Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower Park (named after the county commissioner instrumental in developing this 40-acre park) offers visitors an opportunity to hike to, and then climb, the historic tower built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. As one who prefers low to high, I was up for the 0.3 mile hike, but not the climb.

Lots of info packs signs in the outdoor interpretative area. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
The iconic Smokey the Bear reminds us that we can prevent forest fires. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
We are to blame for nearly all of Minnesota’s wildfires, according to this park sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Before Randy and I headed onto the trail, though, we read the interpretative signage featuring information on the tower (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), Minnesota wildfires and other notable fire facts. This summer marked an especially busy fire season in the northern Minnesota wilderness. Those of us living in the southern part of the state felt the effects also with smoke drifting from the north (including Canada) and from the west (California). That created hazy skies and unhealthy air some days, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Lots to read here, including Paul Bunyan’s fire tower story. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

We also read a bit of Paul Bunyan lore, a fun addition to the park located in the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway area. This region of Minnesota is big on lumberjack stories about Paul and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox. The Pequot Lakes water tower is even shaped like Paul’s over-sized fishing bobber.

The pristine picnic shelter. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Signs point the way to the fire tower trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
On the way to the tower, this large yellow mushroom temporarily distracted me. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Once we’d finished reading, and then admiring the beautiful new picnic shelter, we started off on the pea rock-covered trail through the woods and toward the tower. Up. Up. Up.

When the trail gets especially steep, steps aid in the climb. I took this photo on the descent. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

After awhile, I began to tire, to wonder, how much farther? And just as I was about to declare myself done climbing steps, Randy assured me the tower was just around the bend. Yes.

Looking up at the tower, all of which I couldn’t fit in a photo, I determined I was not climbing that high. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Once there, I stood at the base of the tower, reading the rules and warnings. I decided I best admire the ironwork from below. And I did. There’s a lot to be said for the 1930s workmanship of skilled craftsmen.

The underside of the tower shows layers of stairs. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Randy, though, started up the layered steps leading to a seven-foot square enclosed look-out space at the top of the tower. At that height, fire watchers could see for 20 miles.

If you look closely, you can see Randy with only a few more flights to reach the top. At this point, he decided not to go any farther. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

As I watched, Randy climbed. Steady at first, but soon slowing, pausing to rest. “You don’t have to go all the way to the top,” I shouted from below. He continued, to just above treetop level, and then stopped. He had reached his comfort height level.

The tower is fenced at the base. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I can only imagine how spectacular the view this time of year, in this season of autumn when the woods fire with color. We visited in mid-September, when color was just beginning to tinge trees.

Randy exits the tower, several flights short of reaching the top. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Eventually, we began our retreat down the trail, much easier than ascending.

An incredibly vibrant mushroom thrives trailside. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Occasionally I stopped to photograph scenery, including species of orange and yellow mushrooms. Simply stunning fungi.

Sadly…a carving on a birch tree along the trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

We also paused to visit with a retired couple on their way to the tower. They have a generational lake home in the area, like so many who vacation here. While we chatted, a young runner passed us. I admired her stamina and figured she’d face no physical challenges climbing the 100-foot tower.

The story of Sassy the bear is included in the interpretative area. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Just like a domesticated black bear that once escaped and scampered up the tower. A ranger lured him down with a bag of marshmallows. That is not the stuff of Paul Bunyan lore, but of life in the Minnesota northwoods. This historic fire tower, which once provided a jungle gym for a bear and a place to scout for wildfires, now offers a unique spot to view the surrounding woods and lakes and towns. If you don’t fear heights or experience dizziness.

FYI: The Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower is open from dawn to dusk during the warm season, meaning not during Minnesota winters. Heed the rules. And be advised that getting to the tower is a work-out.

Right now should be a really good time to catch a spectacular view of the fall colors from the fire tower.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Shining a light of hope at the pharmacy October 5, 2021

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2021.

SHE VOCALIZED HER DISTRESS not to me specifically. But in general. In the pharmacy waiting area at a local grocery store.

I’d just arrived to get my seasonal flu shot, the powered-up version for those 65 and older, when a woman familiar to me expressed dismay over the price of her medication. Medication she couldn’t afford because she was on limited disability income. That much she shared publicly with those of us waiting. Hers was not a plea for help, but rather frustration released in words not directed at anyone. Simply spoken.

MY HEART BREAKS

In that moment, my heart broke. My empathy swelled. I recall standing at that same pharmacy window not all that long ago feeling overwhelmed by the cost of a necessary medication for a family member without insurance coverage or income. I was on the verge of tears. I didn’t turn away from the window then and unleash my despair. But rather I spoke my anguish to the pharmacy employee. And, on that day when I felt such angst over the price of a med, that caring employee found a discount that made the prescription affordable.

Now here I was, presented with an opportunity. I could ignore the distress I heard in someone I knew—but who didn’t recognize me in my face mask—or I could choose to help. I would like to write that I reacted immediately. But I didn’t. Rather I pondered briefly before reaching into my bag to remove a $20 bill. Money from a check I’d cashed a half hour earlier. Payment for photo rights sold at a discount to a nonprofit. Unexpected income that I could use, but which this woman needed more than me.

SUNSHINE

I called her by name, then extended my hand toward her with the $20. “Here, I want you to take this to help pay for your prescription.” She accepted with a smile. And a surprised look on her face. And a generous “thank you” shining a sliver of sunshine into the darkness of financial worry.

As I waited, she did, too. We didn’t converse further. Soon a pharmacy employee called her to the window. They’d found a generic brand of her medication. Presumably more affordable. She returned to me, to return the $20. I declined. “You keep it,” I said. And she did.

MEMORIES & GRATITUDE

Afterwards, when I shared with my husband about this encounter and my gift, I started crying. The emotion of remembering when I was that woman in line at the pharmacy rushed back in those tears. I recalled, too, how extended family and friends helped us during a challenging period in our family’s life and how I’ve felt the blessings of kindness and generosity from others (including those who read this blog). How loved and encouraged and supported I felt.

MEANT TO BE THERE

There’s another twist to this story worth noting. I initially planned to get my flu vaccine at the grocery store’s advertised drive-up clinic. But there was/is no drive-up clinic (much to my dismay). Because of that, I had to go inside the store to the pharmacy. That put me in the path of this woman—who lost her husband several years ago—and in a position to help. Moments like this happen for a reason. And even though $20 is not a lot of money, it was/is more about the uplifting of another human being. I hope my small gift brought her hope, showed that someone cares, that she matters. That even in the distress of financial worry, sunshine slants through the darkness.

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TELL ME: Have you had a similar opportunity to extend compassion or been the recipient of kindness? I’d like to hear. Now, more than ever, we need the sunshine of goodness shining into our days.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling