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

 

Into the woods at Falls Creek Park March 31, 2021

Moss feathers across the end of a hewn tree.

AS SPRING EASES INTO MINNESOTA, I embrace the transition of seasons in indecisive weather and in the subtle greening of the landscape.

A greening vine in the otherwise muted landscape.

I don’t trust that winter has really, truly, exited. Yet, these early glimpses of spring assure me that the bulk of winter lies behind us.

Randy walks in the woods.

I saw that in the woods of Falls Creek County Park on Sunday afternoon. Randy and I hiked in this 61-acre park a mile east of Faribault off Minnesota State Highway 60. It’s a relatively unused park, one of the reasons we are drawn here.

Water rushes under the bridge and over rocks.

Here a dirt hiking path curves along the waterway winding through woods. Access to that path comes via an arched pedestrian bridge. There water rushes over rocks and we always pause to appreciate the soothing sound of rushing water.

The creek meanders, wide in some areas, narrow in others.
In places, the creek runs clear.
A fork in the creek.

And we also always walk to the side of the creek, to examine the water at the bend, before it flows under the bridge. Recent rain left that water muddied. Later we would find the creek flowing clear.

Loving the light, color and texture on this tree trunk moss.

Entering the woods, I determined to photograph signs of spring in the muted landscape. That requires focus. Examples of spring are elusive and seen mostly in vivid green moss carpeting fallen tree trunks.

A fallen tree provides a canvas for art.

But I can photograph only so much moss. Thus I expanded my perspective. Nature writes details upon the landscape. Even in a scene of mostly muted browns.

Hillsides of trees rising

and fungi laddering

and dried leaves curling.

Nature’s “antlers.”

And the branches of a tree twisting like antlers.

Nature’s sculpture.

And felled trees that appear like natural sculptures.

The makeshift bridge.

All of these nuances I noticed as we walked, as I stopped to take in my surroundings, as Randy steadied me while I crossed a makeshift branch bridge across a spillway.

Randy crosses the bridge out of the woods.

There is much to see in this seasonal transition, if only we pause to appreciate. To look. And really see. To hear. And really listen. It’s there. The poetry of wind and water and woods and words.

© Copyright 2021 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

 

Unexpected discoveries at Falls Creek County Park, rural Faribault June 30, 2020

Falls Creek County Park is located one mile east of Faribault along Minnesota State Highway 60, just off the highway an eighth of a mile along a gravel road to the north. This sign is visible from Highway 60.

 

YEARS HAVE PASSED since I visited Falls Creek County Park just east of Faribault off Minnesota State Highway 60. I remembered the hill and the expanse of lawn leading to a shelter house. And the creek at the edge of the surrounding woods.

 

Beautiful wild roses.

 

I didn’t recall wild roses. Those I would remember because I love wild roses. They remind me of my native prairie home, where, decades ago, pink roses grew random in road ditches. Oh, the sweet scent and the sweet memories.

 

These wild rose bushes edge a section of the massive gravel parking lot.

 

Randy noticed the roses first at Falls Creek. We both paused to breathe in the old-fashioned fragrance and to share our rose stories of yesteryear. What an unexpected delight.

 

Randy termed this a “weed.” I called it a “flower.”

 

If you’re dipping your nose into roses, check for bees first. They love this flower.

 

This elusive dragonfly proved incredibly challenging to photograph.

 

Another wildflower, or weed, depending on your perspective.

 

After a picnic lunch, I grabbed my camera to photograph roses and wildflowers and an elusive dragonfly before we aimed for the bridge over the creek.

 

A foot bridge over Falls Creek leads to a path into the woods that follows the creek.

 

Looking into the creek from the bridge, I watched water tumble over rocks.

 

I love the sound and sight of water rushing over rocks. It’s mesmerizing, calming, soothing.

 

What a wonderful surprise to find this clean and clear creek water.

 

And, as we walked to water’s edge at a crook in the creek, we found water running clear. That is mostly unseen in these parts where rivers and other waterways and lakes are muddy and murky and often nothing you would want to wade into. I dipped my hand into the clean, cool water. Happy at this unexpected discovery, at this untainted water flowing past me.

 

Greenery galore.

 

I navigated this path in the woods.

 

This fallen tree was jammed into the hillside, half the tree on one side of the path, the other half on the opposite side.

 

From there, we followed the narrow dirt path hugging the creek. In parts, the trail had eroded. Tree roots underfoot and a makeshift crossing of rocks and branches caused me to slow my pace, to watch my feet, to walk with care. The last thing I needed was to stumble and tumble and break a bone or land in the creek with my camera.

 

Looking up toward the wooded hillside from the creek path.

 

The woods proved a lovely place of greenery and dappled sunshine filtering through the trees…until the mosquitoes discovered our presence. My body reacts intensely to bug bites. So I needed to turn back and exit the woods.

 

The shelterhouse sits in a large open grassy area.

 

Back in the open, across the lawn and up the hill and on the far side of the massive gravel parking lot circled with tire track donuts, Randy spotted more wild roses. These were larger, better positioned to get sunshine. Once again, we paused to admire these dainty-looking, yet strong, prairie flowers. Once again, I breathed in the sweet scent.

 

Before leaving, we smelled the wild roses one final time.

 

I will remember Falls Creek County Park now for more than the falls I have yet to see—because of those mosquitoes. I will remember this place for the wild roses that edge the woods. And remind me of my native Minnesota prairie home, where there are no woods.

NOTE: This visit occurred several weeks ago, when the roses were nearly done blooming. We’ve also had substantial rainfall in the past two days, meaning the creek may now be muddy, the trail more eroded.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling