I love walking here in the evening, when the sun begins its golden descent. A paved path curves along the bank of the Cannon River.
I appreciate the gracefulness of the Northern Link Trail, how it winds around trees rather than tracing a straight line.
And I appreciate the power of the river roaring over the dam, over rocks. There’s something about churning water that mesmerizes me. The sound. The sight. The reminder that water, harnessed or unharnessed, is a powerful thing. It’s a bit terrifying.
Standing on the narrow dam walkway widens my perspective to include fishermen/women/children angling from the shoreline. This is a popular fishing spot, any time of year.
And then, if I look directly before me, I see the river flowing under the Second Avenue bridge. A short distance later the Cannon joins the Straight River at Twin Rivers Park.
Even trees were tagged with paint. That’s a first.
On the footbridge which spans the Straight River, I found the most disturbing of accusations—J**** killed my mother. That shifted my already on-alert mode to what the h*** is going on in these woods? I read derogatory comments about Faribault. And I thought, why do those who hate this community so much stay here?
I tried to overlook all that awful graffiti, but it was just too much to dismiss. I wouldn’t bring a child here, not one who can read anyway.
Yet, there’s much to see and appreciate here, if you look beyond the tagging, the offensive messages. Nature and history intertwine, leaving me with more questions than answers.
A lengthy stairway climbs a hillside. Slabs of limestone and chunks of concrete—perhaps foundations of long ago buildings—cling to steep banks.
And then there’s the tunnel. The 442-foot-long tunnel, which I refused to enter. One look at the graffiti at the entry, especially the rat art, and I knew, no way, would I walk through that former root cellar. So I photographed that space, editing out the obscenities (which proved nearly impossible).
And I photographed the sign above, which summarizes the history of this 1937 Works Progress Administration project. Workers hand dug the tunnel with picks, hauling the dirt and rocks away with wheelbarrows. Once complete, the tunnel served as a root cellar for the Minnesota School and Colony (later known as The Faribault State School and Hospital). The Teepee Tonka Tunnel once held 25-30 carloads of vegetables to feed the 2,300 residents and 350 employees. Most of those potatoes, carrots, beets, onions and cabbage were grown on the school farm.
Now the history, the hard work, the humanity were dishonored by those who use this as a canvas for words and art that shouldn’t be here.
All of this saddened me as I retraced my steps, watched as a young man walked along the railroad tracks, backpack strapped on, county music blaring. This should be a place of peace. Not only noise-wise, but also mentally. I pictured picnic tables near a footbridge devoid of menacing messages. I pictured a beautiful natural setting where I could bring my grandchildren. But, in reality, I understood that those tables would only be defaced, maybe even burned.
This could be so much. A respite. Water and woods converging. River flowing with history. Images of men hard at work tunneling into a 60-foot high hill. I could envision all of that…the possibilities beyond that which I’d seen.
DAYLIGHT WANED AS RANDY and I entered the woods at River Bend Nature Center by the parking lot near the entrance. We haven’t walked this area in a while and were surprised to find the woods littered with fallen trees and limbs. Not just a few, but lots. I expect the powerful winds during a September 2018 tornado in Faribault caused the damage.
As we hiked, the shrill trill of frogs in the nearby wetlands reverberated. I’m always amazed by this spring time opera/mating ritual.
A ways into the woods, the dirt path bent right, with another forking to a prairie outlook. We continued on the chosen trail until I noticed a copse of lean trees I wanted to photograph. “I’m surprised we don’t see any deer,” I said, stepping across dried grass and branches to find an open space through which to aim my camera lens.
I snapped a few frames before Randy noticed a lone deer. The deer obviously saw us, too, as it emerged from behind the treeline and leaped through the tall prairie grasses.
We continued down the trail, now on the other side of the horseshoe shaped route that connects with the main path into this section of River Bend. Once on the arterial trail, we walked a short distance before turning right toward the swampland. The overwhelming chorus of thousands of frogs increased in volume to the point of almost hurting my ears.
Underneath, the ground felt spongy. Occasionally I paused to photograph something. A lone bird atop a bare tree. Tall grasses silhouetted against an evening sky shifting toward darkness. I wished we’d arrived a half hour earlier for optimal lighting during a photographer’s golden hour.
But sometimes it’s good for me to simply walk and take in my surroundings. To appreciate the natural world with my God-given eyes rather than through the eye of a camera. To be in the moment. To hear the soprano of frogs singing spring songs in southern Minnesota in early April.
AS A LIFE-LONG MINNESOTAN, I remain fully cognizant that the season will soon change to one of cold, colorless and confining.
Thus, a week like the one predicted with sunny skies and temps in the 60s and possibly 70s, is to be celebrated.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.