Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

More than a fall hike at Falls Creek Park October 6, 2020

A cluster of maple leaves in fall colors photographed at Falls Creek County Park, rural Faribault, Minnesota.

AS A LIFE-LONG MINNESOTAN, I remain fully cognizant that the season will soon change to one of cold, colorless and confining.

In the woods at Falls Creek Park, some trees are already stripped of leaves.

Thus, a week like the one predicted with sunny skies and temps in the 60s and possibly 70s, is to be celebrated.

Maple leaves cover the earth, from my backyard to here, at Falls Creek Park.

As I look out my office window mid-Monday morning while writing this post, I see sunshine. Sunshine which casts shadows of leaves swaying in the wind onto my office walls.

Subtle colors color these leaves at Falls Creek.

For today, the wind blows with a fierceness that assures the laundry pinned to my backyard clothesline will dry quickly. I’ve taken extra measures to assure the wash stays clipped to the line. The wind is that strong.

Throughout southern Minnesota, leaves are changing color and falling from trees.

Leaves spiral from the backyard maple at a dizzying rate that makes me melancholy. Soon the branches will be stripped bare, exposed to the sky, a strong visual reminder to me that Autumn is nearing her exit.

Fungi ladder on a fallen tree trunk.

I need to hold onto this season, to embrace and celebrate her for as long as I can because I recognize also that this winter ahead—this winter of COVID-19—will prove particularly challenging. The sense of isolation will be heightened as Randy and I continue to keep our circle small.

And so now, while we can, we spend a lot of time outdoors, walking on trails through woods and along rivers. Like at Falls Creek County Park, about a mile east of Faribault just off Minnesota State Highway 60. The 61-acre park seems mostly undiscovered. We last visited in June, although when the kids were still home, we went there more often to picnic and hike.

An opening in the woods leads to a bridge across Falls Creek.

On a recent weekend, we revisited this peaceful and primarily wooded destination, which includes about 3,000 feet of creek footage. After parking in the over-sized gravel parking lot pocked with potholes, we headed down the hill and across an expansive grassy space toward an opening in the woods.

Water rushes around rocks, like this one, in the creek.

Through that gap, a picturesque bridge crosses Falls Creek. I love that cute little bridge spanning the narrow waterway. There’s something magical and fairy tale like about the arc of that bridge, where I stand and listen to water rush over rocks. Clear water, mostly unseen in this area of southern Minnesota with most waterways polluted by fertilizer run-off.

The creek curves through the woods.

After that creekside pause, Randy and I headed onto the dirt trail into the woods. It runs along the creek bank, in some sections nearly eroded away. In one spot, we walk upon thick sticks laid on the pathway to stabilize the walk way.

Sticks laid on the path to stabilize it in an eroded area.

Randy makes it all the way to the falls, only to find it eroded, too, and not as he remembers. I’ve stopped just short of that destination and turned back to retrace our steps. There are no trails spidering through the woods, only this solo one and another that, for a short distance, veers to our right.

Randy walks on the leaf-covered trail, embraced by the woods.

Yet, we delight in being here. In the woods, even if not particularly colorful. Beside the creek. Just us, until we hear voices in the distance and eventually meet a couple from a neighboring town. They are lovely in every way for not only their appreciation of this place but also of others they’ve met here. That includes a group of young men from Somalia, immigrants who’ve resettled locally and spoke to the couple about past challenges. It was incredibly refreshing for me to hear the couple’s kind words about these young men rather than the unkind words I all too often hear about individuals who’ve fled war-torn countries and atrocities we can’t even imagine for a new life in Minnesota.

The lovely bridge across Falls Creek.

Even though I digress from the nature theme of this post, I feel it important to share this sidebar. There are stories to be heard, lessons to be learned, when we take pause to appreciate, to listen. To cross bridges into the woods.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Every time I cross this bridge, I remember January 26, 2015

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Southbound on Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis.

Southbound on Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis on a recent Sunday afternoon.

6:05 p.m.

A section of the then now wow exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul features the 35W bridge collapse. This image shows the collapsed bridge and the emergency exit door from a school bus that was on the bridge when it collapsed.

A section of the “then now wow” exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul features the 35W bridge collapse. The image shows the collapsed bridge. To the right is the emergency exit door from the school bus that was on the bridge when it collapsed. Everyone on board that bus survived.

August 1, 2007.

All the children and adults on the bus signed the door on display.

All the children and adults on the bus signed the door on display.

One hundred forty-five injured.

Thirteen dead.

Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

How the 35W bridge collapse changed my view of bridges August 8, 2014

SEVEN YEARS AGO at 6:05 p.m. on August 1, 2007, the 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145. It is a moment that all of us who call Minnesota home will remember with a deep sense of sadness.

Crossing the 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis.

Crossing the 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis.

Last weekend, my husband and I traveled across the “new” 35W bridge, marked by wavy pillars. I didn’t realize we were on the bridge until I noticed the 30-foot high water symbol sculptures. We seldom drive this way and I’m just not all that familiar with Twin Cities roadways.

Nearing the other end of the 35W bridge.

Nearing the other end of the 35W bridge.

As we crossed the bridge, my thoughts flashed back to that terrible tragedy and specifically to survivor Garrett Ebling, former managing editor of the Faribault Daily News, the newspaper in my community. He was among those most seriously injured when his Ford Focus plunged into the Mississippi River.

This photo shows the opening spread of the feature article published in the November/December 2007 issue of Minnesota Moments. Casey McGovern of Minneapolis shot the bridge collapse scene. To the far left is Garrett before the collapse, to the right, his rescuer. The next photo shows his Ford Focus which plummeted into the Mississippi River. And to the right are Garrett and Sonja, before the collapse.

This photo shows the opening spread of the feature article published in the November/December 2007 issue of Minnesota Moments. Casey McGovern of Minneapolis shot the bridge collapse scene. To the far left is Garrett  Ebling before the collapse, to the right, his rescuer, Rick Kraft. The next photo shows his Ford Focus which plummeted into the Mississippi River. And to the right are Garrett and and his fiancee, Sonja Birkeland, before the collapse. On the second page are photos of Garrett in the hospital.

Shortly after the collapse, Garrett was the subject of a magazine feature article I wrote on his experience and survival. I interviewed him via email as he was unable to speak. He impressed me then with his tenacity and determination. I also interviewed his then fiancee, Sonja Birkeland, and his rescuer, Rick Kraft.

Garrett Ebling's book.

Garrett Ebling’s book.

In 2013, I published a review here of his book, Collapsed, A Survivor’s Climb from the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge. You can read that review by clicking here.

Garrett, like so many others, was simply commuting home when the bridge gave way. The ordinariness of this, I think, strikes me most. Just driving home…

I’ve never liked bridges. Not because I’m afraid they will fall, but because I don’t like heights. I remember a brother-in-law asking shortly after the collapse whether I was now afraid to cross a bridge. I’m not.

But, like many Minnesotans, I now have a heightened awareness of the condition of bridges. How could you not?

The Minnesota Highway 36 bridge over Ramsey County Road 51. (Shot taken through a dirty windshield, thus the spots on the image.)

The Minnesota Highway 36 bridge over Ramsey County Road 51. (Shot taken through a dirty windshield, thus the spots on the image.)

So, when my husband and I exited Minnesota State Highway 36 to Lexington Avenue/Ramsey County Road 51 not long after crossing the 35W bridge, we nearly simultaneously noted the condition of the highway 36 bridge. Now I’m sure inspectors have checked the bridge for structural safety. But to the untrained eye, rust and crumbling concrete raise concern.

Tell me, what holds fast in your memory about the 35W bridge collapse and did that tragedy impact how you view bridges?

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Troll tales November 23, 2012

Norway native Steinar Karlsen carved this troll at the 25th annual 2002 Scandinavian Hjemkomst Festival in Moorhead.

EVER SINCE I WAS a little girl, trolls have held a special fascination for me.

That curiosity and, yes, even a tinge of fear, relate to the storybook, The Three Billy Goats Gruff. In that Norwegian folk tale, three different-sized goats attempt to cross a bridge under which lurks a hungry troll. The smallest goat tricks the troll into waiting for the middle-sized goat which tricks the troll into waiting for the biggest goat which then bucks the troll into the river.

Can you understand how this might both frighten and empower?

This bridge, near Hammond in southeastern Minnesota, is similar in style to the Minnesota River “troll bridge” of my youth. The “troll bridge” along Minnesota Highway 19 near Morton was replaced by a more modern bridge. But the old one, last I traveled that section of roadway, still stands nearby. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, 2010.)

I always thought of this goat-trolling troll whenever my father steered the family car across the Minnesota River bridge near Morton on our annual trip to “the Cities” to visit relatives. My anxiety level rose ever so slightly as the car curved down Minnesota Highway 19 toward the bridge.

In the back seat, my four siblings and I (the youngest sat up front) and grandpa, packed shoulder to shoulder, curled our fingers into clenched fists, prepared to take on that troll—by pounding with determined ferocity on the interior roof of the car.

My other childhood troll encounter occurred when I turned nine and celebrated my one and only birthday party ever with classmates. One friend gifted me with a wild, pink-haired troll which stood a mere inch or so tall. She, the troll, not the friend, was also a piece of jewelry with a pin attached.

I treasured that troll, still do, because trolls were popular then and I had none. Suddenly, I was just like my classmates; I owned a troll, albeit a teeny one.

A side shot of the two trolls carved by Steinar Karlsen and displayed at the Hjemkomst Center. Since 1990, this artist has created 400-plus life-sized human sculptures and hundreds of animals, birds and sea life.

Imagine how thrilled I was decades later when my girls were preschool and early elementary ages and trolls were back in vogue. I bought them doll-sized trolls to cuddle and families of mini trolls. The bright-haired ogres lined the window in their toy room, their mops of hair bleaching in the morning sun.

Trolls evoke such a mix of memories for me. How about you?

BONUS PHOTOS, just because I have no other category into which to slot these two Hjemkomst Center images, but wanted to share them:

A beautiful and historic mosaic graces a wall in the entry to the Hjemkomst Center.

Next to that troll bench carved by Steinar Karlsen are these flags hung from the balcony railing overlooking an atrium. I couldn’t find any info as to the reason these specific flags are there.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling