Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The in-between season at River Bend April 19, 2022

Oh, how lovely the textured bark. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

TREES DEVOID OF LEAVES open the woods to full view. Such is the benefit of this not-winter, not-yet-spring transitional time here in southern Minnesota.

Signage identifies the the Arbor and Outlook Trails at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On a recent walk through Faribault’s River Bend Nature Center, I noticed nuances of nature that might otherwise not be seen in a leaf canopy, or at least not as deeply appreciated.

A woodpecker in flight. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Following the Arbor Trail loop into the woods, I noticed first a red-capped woodpecker. I determined to get a photo. But, if you’ve photographed birds, you understand that such an endeavor requires patience, planning and a bit of luck. I caught the bird in flight. Maybe not the sharpest image, but certainly an unexpected moment I managed to snapshot.

Bare treetops, beautiful against a bold sky. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Trees themselves also draw my interest. I find myself especially drawn to oaks. Their sturdiness and expansive canopy exude strength and artistry. But I find birch trees equally as fascinating. Or at least those with white bark, which could be birch or aspen. Without leaves, trees are much more challenging to identify, at least for me.

I love the beauty of dried grasses. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

As I forked off the Arbor Trail to the Overlook Trail, the vista opened to prairie. Now, as you would expect, this native prairie girl loves the prairie. No matter the season. I appreciate the tall dried grasses that arch and dip in the wind. Rhythmic. Poetic.

A solo grass stem bends in the wind. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

A single stem of grass reminds me of youthful summers on the farm, of playing in untamed tall grass. It reminds me, too, of the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a favorite author. I grew up some 20 miles from her childhood home in Walnut Grove. Her ability to notice details inspires me in my writing.

Beauty in a seed head. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Dried seed heads catch my eye. Details. Promise of new growth from last season’s remnants.

One of the many bluebird houses checked and maintained by volunteers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I notice, too, the bluebird house among the prairie grasses. Thanks to Keith Radel, who hails from my hometown and has lived in Faribault for decades, the bluebird thrives in these parts. Known as Mr. Bluebird, Keith appreciates bluebirds with a passion unequal. He’s determined to protect them, to assure they flourish. It’s heartening to see his devotion to this bird.

I see the deer and the deer see me through a treeline. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

As I return to the Arbor Trail, I wonder if I will see any deer, previously spotted in this area. And then Randy, my walking partner, alerts me to their presence. There, on the prairie, I observe four deer. I move quietly toward the edge of the treeline to photograph them through the trees. Careful. Cautious. Not wanting to scare them away before I can lift and focus my lens. But they are already aware, frozen in place, ears upright, faces turned toward me.

The deer vanish, nearly unseen, into the tall prairie grasses. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Soon they are hightailing it away, vanishing, camouflaged by the high brown prairie grasses. I never tire of watching deer, even though I consider them too numerous and a roadway hazard.

In just a short distance, I’ve noticed nature’s nuances. In a woodpecker. In the bark of trees. In the prairie grasses. And, finally, in a quartet of deer. What a gift in this not winter, not-quite-spring season in southern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A non-hunter’s observations about deer hunting season in Minnesota November 9, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Deer cluster in the woods at Riverbend Nature Center, Faribault.

Deer cluster in the woods at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

YOU KNOW IT’S OPENING weekend of firearms deer hunting in Minnesota when…

  • you drive downtown Faribault before noon on Saturday and notice pick-up trucks ringing a corner bar and a dead deer in the back of one.
  • you spot a dead deer dangling from a tree while driving to church on Sunday morning.
  • you notice that the divider curtains in the Clinton Falls church (at which you are a visitor) are made of a deer print fabric. (Not that these were installed specifically because of deer hunting, but…)
  • a woman, during prayer time, asks for protection for hunters.
  • on the way to lunch at your nephew’s house, you see a hunter dressed in orange carrying a bow and arrow.
  • your brother-in-law and great nephew share about the six deer that walked through the yard after they’d returned from hunting, without a deer.
  • your nephew excuses himself from a houseful of guests to hunt for deer before the sun sets.
  • your sister-in-law retells her tale of bagging a deer, with her car, along a dark stretch of highway in central Minnesota. Her family claimed the deer and got more venison than when her husband shoots one. (The unlucky highway roaming deer suffered only broken legs, meaning no meat spoilage.)
  • the Le Center Municipal Liquor Store welcomes deer hunters with an exterior banner advertising $3 bottles of Busch Light beer during happy hour. (Do hunters drink light beer?)

WHAT CAN YOU add to this list?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Tears on a Tuesday April 17, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:20 AM
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BETWEEN FORKSFUL of the ultimate comfort food, homemade mac and cheese, I am crying. Not just tears, but great sobs that heave my shoulders, force me to remove my eyeglasses, cause me to place my head between my hands, elbows resting upon the table.

Issues of the day—anger and disappointment, worry and concerns—have welled up within me to this bursting point of emotions.

My husband sits in silence, forking mac and cheese into his mouth while the torrent of words and tears releases. I wonder what he is thinking. Perhaps that his wife has momentarily lost it.

Sometimes, though, it is good to cry, to let it all out, to be true to yourself and how you are feeling.

I tell him, too, that I feel, in this moment, as grey as the day in this longest of Minnesota winters. I want to run away from the snow and the cold and the gloom, all of it. And I think then of my mother who occasionally uttered similar despair, her desire to just run away, away from the pressing responsibilities of raising six children. Her issues are not mine. And the concerns I feel on this day are not all that major, but too much for me on this Tuesday.

So, after supper, after the left-over comfort food has been scooped into a container and tucked into the refrigerator, after I’ve washed the dishes, I suggest a walk at the local nature center. I grab my camera, slip into my Sorels, pull a stocking cap onto my head, zip my sweatshirt.

Entering River Bend Nature Center, I eye the next-door prison with seemingly infinite scrolls of razor wire unfolding before me. The site is disconcerting. I am always troubled by the prison’s presence right next to the nature center.

But as our car follows the road that dips and curves past the pond and the woods and then zooms down the hill to the center’s parking lot, I can feel the easing of tension in my shoulders.

Deer cluster in the woods at Riverbend Nature Center, Faribault.

Deer cluster in the woods at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault.

Then my husband spots the deer clustered in and on the edge of the woods and I slip from the car, leaving the door ajar so I can photograph them.

For the next hour there are no tears, no hurried worried words or thoughts, in this place of serenity.

These corn-fed deer show little fear.

These corn-fed deer show little fear.

Curious brown-eyed deer. Heads turned toward me, radar ears on alert.

Leaping across a path near the nature center parking lot.

Leaping across a path near the nature center parking lot.

Graceful leap of legs. The click of the shutter.

Last year's nest...

Last year’s nest…

Along the muddied trails, reflections of bare trees in puddles and promises of spring in green moss on dead logs. Last season’s nests bared by bare branches.

Geese on the prairie pond.

Geese on the prairie pond.

The trill of birds and the bark of geese in the swampland pond. Ripples in water. Golden sun setting. The swatch of red on a blackbird’s wings.

And in the prairie a weaving tunnel trail in the brown earth and the memories of this place waving in summer-time wildflowers and tall grass.

Day fades into evening at the nature center.

Day fades into evening at the nature center.

Here I find promise and hope in my evening of despair.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Caution: Machinery, deer (maybe even a John Deere) & a cold front October 4, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:33 AM
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IF YOU LIVE IN MINNESOTA, in the heart of farm land, you’ll totally understand the first part of the message below posted on a sign in front of the Henderson City Hall.

Slow moving farm machinery and deer chased from their habitat most assuredly are reasons to be extra cautious while traveling rural roads during the fall harvest.

As for that “Chilli on the Hilly,” strike the second “l” in “chilli” and you have chili served this coming Saturday at the Henderson House Bed and Breakfast up that road to the left (Minnesota Highway 19) and around the curve and then to the  right up the steep hill.

Or, strike that second “l”  in “chilli” and change the second “i” to a “y” and you have the current weather in Minnesota. Chilly. Ten inches of snow forecast for northwestern Minnesota today, folks.

Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thanks for the laughs, Wisconsin September 25, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:59 PM
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WISCONSINITES, YOU MAKE me laugh. A cow mooing in the produce department of a grocery store? Honestly. Seriously. How funny is that?

So here’s how this bovine encounter played out. About two months ago my husband, son and I stopped at the StoneRidge Piggly Wiggly in Wautoma in east central Wisconsin to pick up deli meat for a picnic lunch.

This was right after we stopped at The Milty Wilty drive-in for an ice cream treat. But that’s another story for another day.

I walked into the Piggly Wiggly and dawdled in the produce department while my husband headed to the deli counter. Then I heard a cow mooing.

What the heck? I was not in a barn.

But, I was in Wisconsin.

Because I am nearly deaf in one ear, I cannot distinguish the source of sound. So I just stood there for awhile among the apples and lettuce and array of other fruits and vegetables attempting to decipher the source of that bellowing cow.

Then I walked over to the deli counter and told my husband, “I just heard a cow mooing.”

The woman standing next to him started laughing and then explained: “Whenever water sprays onto the vegetables, the cow moos. Makes me laugh every time.” I didn’t even ask her to tell me how that rigged up system works.

But I did think to myself, since this is a Piggly Wiggly store, perhaps a squealing pig would be more appropriate. But then again, maybe not; I was in the Dairyland State, after all.

A few other things you should know about Wautoma’s Piggly Wiggly. The grocery store, which also includes StoneRidge Meat, smells like smoked meat. Some folks might like that smell; I don’t happen to be one of them.

If you need to drop off a deer for processing, follow the signage at the back of the store for deer deposit.

I took this picture of StoneRidge Piggly Wiggly, with that deer out front, last winter.

Signage for deer drop off at the back of the Piggly Wiggly complex.

And just in case you would like a brat, which seems to be another of those Wisconsin “things,” you can stop at Uncle Butch’s Brat Barn right outside the Piggly Wiggly. It wasn’t open when we were there, but I bet my husband wished it had been. He loves brats. Me, not so much.

The brat barn, not to be confused with a dairy or pig barn. You can purchase StoneRidge meats here.

But I sure enjoyed my experience at the Piggly Wiggly, right down to the “Pig Point$” sign I read when I walked out the door.

Thanks for the laughs, Wisconsin neighbors.

Please, may I have some Pig Points? I don't know what they are, but I think I'd like some.

IF YOU ARE A WISCONSIN resident and would like to share some other unique quirks about your state, I’d like to hear. Ditto if you are a traveler and have discovered some interesting finds in the Dairyland State. Oh, and if you are a non-Minnesotan and have found quirks in my home state, share those, too. I’d like to hear how others view Minnesota. Submit a comment.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A perfect summer day in Minnesota June 6, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:23 AM
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The sun sets on the prairie at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault on Sunday evening.

SUNDAY BROUGHT as perfect of a day as we have here in Minnesota. Sunshine. High temps without the humidity. No wind. A day to linger outdoors until the sunlight fades into the dark calm of a perfect summer evening.

Honestly, do days get any better than this?

In Minnesota, we gather these days into our memories, filing them away for the brutal months of winter, of bitter cold temps, snow (dare I mention that word?) and too much darkness.

For now we choose to celebrate the days of summer with family and friends, backyard barbecues and icy beer, laughter and conversation.

Here’s to the arrival of summer and the banishment of winter to some hinterland far, far, far away from Minnesota.

A deer I spotted just inside the nature center. (If only I had a telephoto lens.)

I saw this deer atop a hill at the nature center as my husband and I were leaving after a short hike. Same deer?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Oh, Wisconsin, I do love thee April 27, 2011

I was expecting downtown Appleton to look like historic Faribault with a pedestrian-friendly two-lane central street. Instead I found big city bustle and a busy four-lane running through the heart of downtown.

My husband and I, along with our son, spent Easter weekend in Appleton, Wisconsin, with our second oldest daughter.

IF YOU READ my Monday blog post, you know about the “Guess that state” contest that offers no prize. The prize is knowing you could (maybe) figure out where I celebrated Easter.

That would be in Wisconsin.

Yes, my husband, son and I spent the Easter weekend just east of Minnesota, in the Dairyland state, the home of the Green Bay Packers.

Specifically, we were in Appleton, the birthplace of Harry Houdini and the current home of my second oldest daughter. It is a 5 – 5 ½- hour drive from Faribault depending on how fast you drive and how many bathroom breaks are taken.

It is interesting how, when you travel in another state, you feel kind of like a foreigner. My husband and I tend to notice the details that distinguish regions. Of course, in Wisconsin, cheese and Packers’ green and gold stand out above all else.

But we also noticed, in the central area of the state where we drove along Wisconsin Highway 21, all of the small-town taverns and unincorporated towns, the buggy tracks and horse poop along the shoulders of the highway, the deer stands, the areas for growing potatoes and cranberries, many “for sale” signs on wooded properties, and lots and lots and lots of deer carcasses in the ditches and along the roadway. Oh, and for one short section, the dead muskrat may have outnumbered the total dead deer count for 100 miles.

Aside from those observations, we saw some interesting signage. For example, in school zones, “when children are present,” the speed limit is 15 mph.

The Willow Creek Cheese Factory Outlet was shut, not closed, according to this sign.

One particular business was not “closed,” it was “shut.”

A parcel of rural real estate, what we would term a “hobby farm” in Minnesota, was dubbed a “Farmette for sale.”

Dead-end streets in Appleton were posted as “No outlet.” It took me awhile to figure out that meant dead-end.

Brat fries were the big weekend fundraiser at Appleton grocery stores. The term “brat fry” was new to us. It means grilling.

We were especially amused by this sign in a field: “Certified weed-free hay.” Now, I wonder what the farmer was smoking when he wrote that sign. Cheddar cheese?

Oh, Wisconsinites, I really do like your state so I hope you take this post in humor, as it’s meant. If you want to cross the border and poke some fun at us Minnesotans, feel free. You’re always welcome here. Just leave the green and gold attire at home.

If you’d like to bring some cheese, do. I love Wisconsin cheese.

A small sampling of the cheeses available at Simon's Specialty Cheese in Little Chute. I'll take you inside this can't miss store in a future post.

NOW FOR THOSE READERS who are wondering where I shot the images in my “Guess that state” post published on Monday, here are the answers:

1.  HELICOPTER:  On the outskirts of Tomah just off I-94

2.  SHIP ROCK:  Near Coloma in Adams County

3.  BRAU HOUSE:  Downtown Appleton

4.  WE SALUTE OUR DAIRY FARMERS:  Simon’s Specialty Cheese Retail Store, Little Chute

5.  NEON ORANGE BUILDING:  A Mexican restaurant (sorry, didn’t get the name) in Wautoma

6.  STONE BUILDING:  The History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton. Magician Harry Houdini claims Appleton as his birthplace.

7.  AMISH FARM:  Near Coloma

8.  BRAT FRY SIGN:  Along an Appleton street

9.  GOLD FIRE HYDRANT:  Appleton

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In pursuit of Bambi April 16, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:56 AM
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OH, FOR A TELEPHOTO lens on my camera…

Since that is not in the cards, the budget or the plan, I find myself often lamenting missed nature shots. It’s not like I can holler to Bambi, “Hey, hold still, will you, so I can take your picture! Move that way a little bit. Just one more shot.”

Nope, can’t do that.

So I shoot anyway, firing my camera in the hopes that once, maybe once, I’ll get something decent on my CF card.

So…, Wednesday evening my husband and I are checking out the rivers in Faribault. We are driving toward Teepee Tonka Park from the viaduct that crosses the Straight River and railroad tracks. And there they are. Four deer. Standing. In a yard.

I am so excited. But already the deer are fleeing, alert to the danger of our approaching van and a car driving up the hill toward them. My only thought is to photograph this quartet.

But I am frustrated because the lollygagging car is in my way. Can’t the driver see that I have a camera? Probably not.

Oh, well, I try anyway, shooting seven frames through the van’s windshield.

And although the results are not stunning or fantastic or overly-impressive, I’ve managed to capture at least one photo that is good enough to show you. And that, folks, is all I can ask for without a telephoto lens to shoot Bambi.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Those of you who live in southeastern Minnesota are probably wondering, “How did she shoot these photos on Wednesday when we didn’t have snow on the ground?” You would be correct in questioning that.  I wrote this three weeks ago and forgot about it in my post drafts. However, since we got snow overnight here in Minnesota, I thought it appropriate to publish today.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Hunting for deer at August Schell Brewing Company September 3, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:54 AM
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August Schell Brewing Company sign and deer by the corporate office.

I MUST ADMIT THAT prior to my recent tour of the August Schell Brewing Company, I had never really thought about the deer image that brands this New Ulm beer.

But, as our tour guide explained, company founder August Schell loved the white-tail buck.

Indeed he did. Everywhere I turned and walked and looked, I saw deer on the Schell’s company grounds. Only the real deer, which typically are visible to the public, were not around because of health issues, or something like that.

All of these deer got me thinking. Maybe the brewery could add a deer “hunt” to its tours as an activity for children and teens. I bet most kids don’t find the tour all that interesting because it’s geared primarily for adults. A deer scavenger-type hunt would provide an entertaining diversion for the younger generation, or for all ages. I saw grandparents with their grandchildren and I’m certain the elders would welcome a cross-generational activity like this.

So here’s my idea: Create a printed sheet of historical facts that lead to various deer on the grounds. For example, one clue might be “Welcome to the Black Forest, a re-creation of August Schell’s homeland.”

A stately buck statue stands on the edge of the wooded area which resembles August Schell's native Black Forest.

Or: Only the Schell’s company president can live here.

A deer image above an exterior door on the Schell's retirement mansion, where only the president may live.

Or: Land a bass when you find this deer.

A Schell's Hobo Band bass drum in the brewery museum.

Game participants would search for the deer, all the while learning about Schell’s and its history. And the brewery would be imprinting the deer brand upon the unsuspecting guests.

Of course, to reward the deer hunters, Schell’s could offer some little deer-stamped trinket to be claimed in the gift shop after the hunt.  (That would increase gift shop traffic, which could also increase sales.) The kids would be happy. The parents and grandparents would be happy.

What do you think? Should Schell’s give my idea a shot?

A deer-branded 150th anniversary beer mug in the gift shop.

A Schell's deer emblem on the door of the house that once was home to brewery workers during the company's early years.

Bottling Schell's deer beer, a museum display.

A successful hunt: Deer antlers form a light in the commons area that links the gift shop and museum on the main floor.

FYI: MANY DEER, a whole herd actually, also can be found in the Schell’s hospitality room. But because that room, where beer is served, remains closed except during the tour or for special occasions, none of those deer are included in my proposed hunt. But if they were, here’s one of the more interesting bucks:

A carved deer light in Schell's hospitality room.

AS A SIDE NOTE, in the book Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota by Doug Hoverson, you’ll find a photo of the original Schell’s family home, today the company office. Look closely at that image on page 35 and you’ll see deer antlers stuck on the front of the brick house, between the front first and second floor windows.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Brave Bambi and the brainless driver July 14, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:09 AM
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Yup…until one dashes in front of the car your 16-year-old son is driving.

Fortunately, I wasn’t in the car when Bambi decided that crossing the highway would be a grand idea.

My husband, Randy, who was sitting in the passenger seat, shared the details, out of earshot of our boy. I didn’t want to inquire in our teen’s presence. He’s logging hours and practice time to try for his license. Why unduly upset him?

Rather, we praised him for his quick, and proper, response. No swerving, just braking.

By some miracle, the deer and car did not collide. Randy still can’t figure it out, says the car was as close to hitting the fawn as a vehicle can be.

But the deer wasn’t his only concern. No sooner had our son braked than his dad barked, “OK, go!”

He feared that a tailgating car would slam into the back of their car on this winding, hilly back county road between Faribault and Northfield.

That, of course, led to a discussion about distracted driving, bad driving habits (like texting and talking on cell phones) and the fact that too many people are in too much of a hurry. We ranted for awhile.

And then we pondered, or at least I pondered, what could have been if Bambi and the Brainless Driver had collided with the car driven by our son, our precious, precious son.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling