Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The power of the Zumbro August 11, 2022

Fishing at the base of the Lake Zumbro Dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

WATER RUSHES IN A SHEET over the dam, a powerful wall of water spilling from the 600-acre Lake Zumbro reservoir into the river below by Mac’s Park Place & Campground in rural Mazeppa.

An overview of the dam and fishing area next to Mac’s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
Mac’s Park Place by the Zumbro River and dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
The 100-plus year-old powerhouse. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Until several months ago, I was unaware of this hydroelectric generating plant along the Zumbro River in southeastern Minnesota. But Randy and I discovered the Rochester Public Utilities facility after turning off Wabasha County Road 21 onto a gravel road that led us to Mac’s at the base of the dam.

The Lake Zumbro hydroelectric dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I stood in awe of this structure with a spillway spanning 440 feet and a height of 55 feet. Constructed beginning in 1917 and operating since 1919 under ownership of the RPU, this hydroelectric generating plant is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s truly an amazing feat of engineering and construction. Renowned engineer Hugh L. Cooper led the project.

A hillside of trees hugs the bank of the Zumbro River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Not only are the dam and powerhouse impressive, but so is the natural setting in the backwoods of the river valley. Here trees fill the hillside across the Zumbro from Mac’s. In the greening of spring, when we visited, the scene was wild, scenic, beautiful. I expect autumn would yield a hillside flaming in color.

Fishing below the Lake Zumbro Dam on a Saturday afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

An angler’s gear, beverages, etc. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
Fishing along the grassy river bank. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On a Saturday afternoon in May, anglers angled for fish in the placid river, the roaring dam nearby, dwarfing their size. Access to this seemingly popular fishing spot comes via Mac’s, which charges a fee for non-campers.

Fishing near that powerful wall of rushing water. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In August 2019, this was the site of a boating incident which injured four people after their pontoon plunged over the dam. I can’t imagine the terror they felt in that moment of realizing what was about to happen.

Angling in the Zumbro River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

There’s power here, in this wall of water. I heard it, saw it, felt it.

This rock formation in the Zumbro River caught my eye. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

But then I experienced the power, too, that comes with this natural setting. The power to quiet the spirit in the placid river, the rock formations, the tree-filled hillside… The Zumbro River can be harnessed, but not tamed. There’s an undeniable wildness in this place that yields peace.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the way to Mac’s Park Place, rural Mazeppa August 8, 2022

A quick snapshot I took of Mac’s Park Place roadside sign through the passenger side window of our van. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

BACK COUNTRY ROADS often lead to interesting discoveries. Places that reveal America at its grassroots basic. Such is the road leading to Mac’s Park Place. And such is Mac’s.

It was the homemade sign posted along Wabasha County Road 21, which winds through the Zumbro River Valley, that caught the attention of Randy during a day trip in southeastern Minnesota. I missed the sign sporting an angler and a fish along with a list of all Mac’s offers:

BEER

BURGERS

RV CAMPING

FISHING

PULL TABS

That roadside signage was enough to make Randy reverse course and aim down a gravel road to Mac’s Park Place along 406th Avenue, rural Mazeppa. The restaurant/bar/campground is located between Mazeppa and Oronoco along the Zumbro River.

This is an area lovely in natural beauty. Winding river. A bit of backwoods wild. The ideal setting for a place like Mac’s, perhaps not widely-known to those without connections to the area.

Check back to see what I saw along the route to Mac’s, and then at Mac’s. I wondered at some point if we should continue on, not quite knowing what we were driving into…

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hints of spring at Two Rivers March 10, 2022

A wide view of the frozen Cannon River and dam adjacent to the Rice County Fairgrounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

THE SHIFT IN SEASONS seems subtle. But it’s there. In the lengthening of days. In brilliant sunshine that cuts through snowbanks, streams of water flowing and puddling. Iced rivers, too, are beginning to thaw.

Signage marks this park just off Second Avenue on Faribault’s north side. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On a recent stop at Two Rivers Park followed by a hike along the Straight River Trail in Faribault, I witnessed the evolving transition from winter toward spring.

Fishing where the Cannon and Straight Rivers meet in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

At the convergence of the Straight and Cannon Rivers, an angler fishes in the open water. His orange stocking cap covered by his hooded sweatshirt layered beneath black coveralls jolt color into an otherwise muted landscape. Randy and I watch as he reels in a large fish, then unhooks and plops it onto the snow. A northern, Randy guesses. We watch for awhile, content to see the river flow, sun glinting upon the surface.

The beautiful open Cannon River at Two Rivers Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

We make our way back to the parking lot, after I pause to photograph the mostly open river sweeping between snowy woods. There’s sometime serene about such a scene. Peaceful, even as traffic drones by on nearby Second Avenue.

Pedestrian bridge over the river. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On the trail, we cross bridges constructed of uneven angled boards that always trip me. I pause to peer into the river.

Ice rings a pedestrian bridge support post in the otherwise open river. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Birdsong, a sure auditory sign of spring’s approach, resounds as I lean over the bridge railing to see the open water below. Both hint of winter’s retreat.

Animal tracks remind me of tic-tac-toe. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Far below I observe animal tracks crossing the snow in a tic-tac-toe pattern leading to water’s icy edge.

Following the Straight River Trail alongside the former vegetable canning company. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Curving along the path near the former Faribault Foods canning company, stationary boxcars sidle against the building.

Boxcar graffiti. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Graffiti colors the boxcar canvases.

Biking the Straight River Trail in March. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

We walk for awhile, then retrace our steps. Randy warns of an approaching cyclist and we step to the right of the trail in single file. “Hi, Randy,” the guy on the fat tire bike shouts as he zooms past. We look at each other. His identity remains a mystery.

The scenic Cannon River snakes toward the Straight River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Back on the bridges, I pause again to view the Cannon River snaking across the landscape like a pencil path following a maze. More photographs.

Randy follows the tunnel under Second Avenue toward North Alexander Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Before heading home, we divert briefly toward North Alexander Park, taking the tunnel under the Second Avenue bridge where, on the other side, the scene opens wide to the frozen, snow-layered river. In warm weather, anglers fish here, below the dam in open water.

Picnic shelter at Father Slevin Park by the Cannon River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Now the place is mostly vacant, just like the riverside picnic shelter.

Shadowing of the trailside fence outside the tunnel. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

By now we are cold, ready to conclude our afternoon jaunt. As I stride downhill toward the tunnel, I notice shadows of fence slats spaced upon the concrete. Art to my eyes. I stop, photograph the fence and fence shadows as they arc. Even in this moment, I see signs of spring along the river, beneath the blue sky.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hardy Minnesota anglers November 27, 2017

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AHEAD OF US while entering Morristown, orange flashed as three boys dashed across a county road to the side of a bridge.

 

 

Their presence here impressed me on a late November Sunday afternoon of temps hovering around 35 degrees. I wouldn’t be out in these brutal elements angling for fish in the Cannon River. But I suppose when you’re dressed in insulated pants and snow pants and warm coats and boots and other cold weather gear, the temp is tolerable.

 

 

And I suppose there’s something to be said, too, for the endurance and exuberance of youth. While I thought the boys a bit too dedicated to fish on a frigid day like this in southern Minnesota, I respected their decision. Here they were, outdoors, and not sitting in front of a screen. In today’s tech-focused age, that’s something.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fishing on Circle Lake, a photo essay October 20, 2016

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Photographed in early October, Circle Lake, rural Rice County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part III: Lured to the water in Clear Lake, Iowa June 3, 2015

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A view of Clear Lake from the public boat landing at the end of Main Avenue.

A view of Clear Lake from the public boat landing at the end of Main Avenue.

IT IS THE LAKE or the Surf Ballroom, I expect, which draw many to visit the community of Clear Lake in northern Iowa.

The Walleye Classic opened Saturday morning under foggy skies.

The recent Walleye Classic opened under foggy skies.

At 3,684 acres with 14 miles of shore line and an average depth of 10 feet, the lake is among Iowa’s largest.

This sign along Main Avenue welcomed anglers to the annual Walleye Classic.

This sign along Main Avenue welcomed anglers to the annual Walleye Classic.

The only fish I saw while in Clear Lake was a clay one in an outdoor sculpture at the Clear Lake Arts Center.

The only fish I saw while in Clear Lake was a clay one in an outdoor sculpture at the Clear Lake Arts Center.

A fitting decal on a pick-up truck parked lakeside.

A fitting decal on a pick-up truck parked lakeside.

Anglers fish in a lake known for walleye. While I was in town, the Clear Lake Fishing Club was hosting its annual Walleye Classic.

The public dock stretches and corners into Clear Lake.

The public dock stretches and corners into Clear Lake.

I wasn’t interested in fishing, but rather in following the shoreline, in viewing the lake. Water mesmerizes, soothes. And I was seeking a bit of calm, a respite from the worries of life, a place to celebrate 33 years of marriage. I found that in Clear Lake, where I walked a short distance onto a dock in a public access area at the end of Main Avenue and focused on the water.

Teens' shoes abandoned along the brick pathway by the public beach.

Teens’ shoes abandoned along the brick pathway by the public beach.

The docked Lady of the Lake.

The docked Lady of the Lake.

A couple was fishing right next to the tethered cruise boat.

A couple was fishing right next to the tethered cruise boat.

On the opposite side of a public boat landing, my husband and I crossed the sandy beach to water’s edge. He dipped his hand into the water, declared it cold. Not unexpected on May 15. We observed a young family testing the waters, teens tossing stones into the lake, and, farther down, a couple fishing next to the tethered Lady of the Lake. The cruise boat tours the lake.

Boats stacked behind the Clear Lake Yacht Club next to the public access.

Boats stacked behind the Clear Lake Yacht Club next to the public access. The club features numerous racing events.

This art, photographed at J Avenue, a shop located on Main Avenue, summarizes lake activities.

This art, photographed at J Avenue, a shop located on Main Avenue, summarizes lake activities.

The single boat I spotted speeding across the lake Friday afternoon.

The single boat I spotted speeding across the lake on Friday afternoon, May 15.

Boat traffic was minimal during our visit. Too early in the season. Weather too dreary. But I expect on a summer weekend, this place is crazy busy with anglers, boaters, sunbathers and others recreating on and along Clear Lake.

Plant growth in the lake tints the water green.

Plant growth in the lake tints the water green.

The name is a bit of a misnomer. Water quality and clarity are not clear. We’re not talking pea soup, but green. Definitely not clear like northern Minnesota lake clear, although clearer than I expected.

The only sunset I saw was this one in a painting at the Clear Lake Arts Center.

The only sunset I saw was this one in a painting at the Clear Lake Arts Center.

I read that the lake setting presents spectacular sunsets. If not for the clouds and grey skies prevailing during our visit, I might have experienced that.

Many of the downtown shops sell water/lake/nautical themed art like this photographed at The Red Geranium.

Many of the downtown shops sell water/lake/nautical themed art like these photographed at The Red Geranium.

Still, I was not disappointed. Clear Lake is lovely. Not just the lake, but the community.

FYI: Please click here to read my first and second posts in this series from Clear Lake, Iowa. Check back for more stories in this seven-part series.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Minnesota bait shop Norman Rockwell could appreciate April 26, 2013

White's Bait Shop, Madison Lake, Minnesota

White’s Bait Shop, Madison Lake, Minnesota, photographed while passing by.

FROM A PURE visual perspective, White’s Corner Bait in Madison Lake confuses the eye with a mishmash of angles and cluttered signage. Too many words to read while passing by on Minnesota Highway 60.

Pop, ice, bait...

Pop, ice, bait, batteries, tackle, rods, reels…

But from an artistic perspective, this long-time bait shop delights with a Norman Rockwell-like Americana charm.

I have, for decades, admired this barn red multi-layered building of angles and assorted jumbled rooflines defined by a pointed corner tower.

Not once, though, have I stopped to photograph it, to step inside, to check out the bait, to gather information on where the fish are biting.

Oh, how I love that kitschy fish.

Oh, how I love that kitschy fish.

White’s Bait, open since 2011 in a building that has been a bait shop for more than 50 years, prides itself on providing “good quality bait and great customer service.” Says so, right there on the business website.

Seems quintessential Norman Rockwellish to me. That good quality, that great customer service.

Next time I’ll stop.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Angling in the rushing floodwaters of the Cannon River September 25, 2010

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Fishermen angled for fish in the swollen Cannon River at the King Mill Dam in Faribault Saturday afternoon.

BROTHERS DYLAN AND PARKER and their friend Doug are way braver than me.

No way would you catch me angling for fish along the churning Cannon River at the King Mill Dam in Faribault today. Watching the water tumble and swirl, hearing the rushing roar, made me nervous. But seeing the boys standing so close to the dangerous river, tossing their lines into the mayhem as if they didn’t have a care in the world, caused me even more anxiety.

Only the top parts of a warning sign and of a sidewalk rail peeked above the high water at the dam site.

I was concerned, enough to ask if their moms had given them any special instructions before they left home.

“Watch the speed of the water,” said 14-year-old Dylan.

“Don’t try and fall in,” Doug, also 14, added. Only the 11-year-old didn’t have anything to say.

I suppose the boys thought they were cautious enough, and they really weren’t careless. But one slip on the steps where they fished, or one misstep from the bank, and they would be carried away by the swift-moving waters.

Part of the stairway and sidewalk were submerged in the Cannon River. The boys fished at the bottom of the stairs.

Parker climbed the stairs to the top of the dam with his catch, a sunfish.

I tried not to dampen their spirits; they seemed so content—three boys fishing away a Saturday afternoon, reeling in bass and perch and sunfish. But I wanted them to know, in a subtle way, that I cared about their safety.

A sign at the top of the dam walkway and stairs cautions anglers and others.

Doug crosses the bridge over the King Mill Dam as the river rages below.

The boys set their tacklebox at the top of the stairs, which runs from the top of the dam to the lower river bank.

I didn't worry quite so much when Dylan fished from the footbridge across the top of the King Mill Dam.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling