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

 

“A beautiful day in Faribault,” at River Bend October 5, 2020

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A grassy trail runs along the prairie at River Bend, leading to the woods.

TYPICALLY, I STICK to paved and grassy trails when hiking at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. I feel more secure on a firm surface, mostly free of hidden obstacles.

Following the river bottom trail into the woods.
Beautiful maples color the woods.
A view of the Straight River along a trail through River Bend Nature Center.

But, on a recent visit to River Bend, Randy and I followed a dirt trail down a steep hill to the Straight River. I felt apprehensive as we navigated, like mountain goats, down the limestone-pocked hill. He’s always willing to grab my hand, a reassuring act that makes me feel more confident. With two broken bones resulting from falls in my medical history, I hold a heightened awareness of keeping myself safe.

Sumac pop color into the autumn landscape.
Getting creative in the woods with a tipi style structure.
I found myself pausing often to look toward the treetops.

So, as we followed the dirt path covered with leaves and tripping tree roots, I watched my step more than my surroundings. And when you’re a photographer always alert to her environment, this is not ideal. I found myself stopping often to take in the woods and details therein. Randy is also great about alerting me to possible photo subjects. I deeply appreciate that about him, that he values my interest in photography.

Trails are sometimes well-marked, sometimes not.
I may get directionally lost, but I’ve never lost a shoe. I spotted this along a trail.
You don’t see many birch trees in the southern part of Minnesota, so I always delight in spotting one.

He also recognizes that my map-reading skills rate at about zero as does my sense of direction, unless I’m in my native southwestern Minnesota prairie of straight, gridded lines. I rely on him to know where we are going. And sometimes, I’ve found, he fakes that knowledge. That makes me uncomfortable. But we always emerge out of the woods, safe and sound.

Beautiful prairie wildflowers.
Prairie grasses and woods at River Bend.
Goldenrod add an autumnal hue to the landscape.

No visit to River Bend is complete without a walk through the prairie to take in the tall grasses and wildflowers defining that landscape. I need to see wide sky and open land, so much a part of me. Of my history as a daughter of the prairie.

Looking up to the treetops, I see such beauty.
Bold berries burst color on a tree outside the visitor center.
Any day at River Bend is a truly beautiful day as noted on this paver at a look-out patio above the Straight River. Thank you, A, B, C and D for this gift honoring your parents.

Yet, having lived in southeastern Minnesota for nearly 40 years, I’ve grown to appreciate the woods and hills and lakes, mostly absent from the landscape of my youth. Every place, every landscape, possesses a certain beauty, if only we stop in the busyness of life to recognize that. These days, especially, call for each of us to pause and reassess. To consider what we most value. And on my list of faith, family, friends and health, I also add nature.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A determination to rediscover the joys of winter in Minnesota January 20, 2017

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I think my uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck to reach the milkhouse.

I pose with my mom and four siblings atop a hard-as-rock snowdrift blocking our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. Location: rural Vesta, Redwood County, Minnesota.

BACK IN MY LIFE-ON-THE-FARM days, I loved winter. Every bucket of snow pushed from the farmyard with the loader of the John Deere tractor created a mountain. Soon a whole range rimmed the yard. There my siblings and I roamed, our imaginations taking us to the wilds of Alaska.

I am trying to reclaim that enthusiasm for winter—for carving caves into snowbanks, for sledding down hills, for building snow forts, for tossing snowballs. Not that I plan to engage in any of those activities. But I need to rediscover that winter can be fun. And my go-to place for that now is Faribault’s River Bend Nature Center.

 

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From 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. this Saturday, January 21, River Bend celebrates its annual WinterFest with kicksledding, snowshoeing, games, nature crafts, animal shows and more.

 

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I’m uncertain whether I will make that event. But I embraced the winter season by hiking the trails of River Bend in the balmy 30-degree warmth of a recent January afternoon. You can read about that by visiting the Faribault Tourism website “Stories” section. Click here. Enjoy.

TELL ME: How do you embrace winter? For those of you living in warm weather climates, go ahead, laugh, or share a story.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling