Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The poetry of seasons as we welcome Autumn to Minnesota September 29, 2022

A wave of cattails signal Autumn’s entrance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

IN THIS SEASON OF EARLY AUTUMN, the landscape of Minnesota transitions to subdued, muted, softer tones flashed with vivid orange, yellow and red in tree lines or a solitary tree. This time of year truly marks a change as we ease toward Winter, a season devoid of color.

Goldenrods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A hillside of drying grass contrasts with the looming grey sky. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Grasses tower high above me. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A month ago, before Summer exited, I already observed Autumn’s entrance at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Stands of cattails. Groups of goldenrod. Seas of drying prairie grass. All signaled the shift to September days.

I’m sure this scene has changed in the month since I photographed it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

I love this time of year. Sunny days give way to cool evenings to brisk mornings. I’ve pulled the flannel from the closet. I embrace the feeling, the glory, of each day, recognizing such days are fleeting.

Rustic signs, which I love, mark the trails at River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

But weeks before this end of September, I delighted in the final days of August with that short walk through the woods at River Bend, then along a grass-lined trail to the hilltop Prairie Loop before I retraced my steps.

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

Prairie grasses, looming well above my head, bent in the wind. I noted the gracefulness of the stems’ movement, the details on a single stalk. If you’ve ever paused to study a stalk, it’s almost like reading a poem. Grain after grain after grain ladders a slim line. In poetry, each word ladders into a line, into a verse, into a poem.

In the light of an August afternoon, a Monarch butterfly feeds upon the flower of a thistle. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In the flashlight of the afternoon at River Bend, I spotted a lone Monarch flitting among thistles, black-outlined orange wings contrasting with the soft purple of the bloom. A metaphor. Or perhaps a simile when penned poetically. Poem upon poem upon poem.

Lush leaves veined by the August sun. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Autumn edits out Summer, eliminating the excess wordage of a season that is lush and full and busy. Now the lines of the season shorten, every word carefully chosen, a harbinger of what lies ahead. Winter. Sparse. Barren. Cold.

I followed this path from the woods, across the low lands to a hilltop overlooking the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

But until then, Autumn settles in with the familiarity of a worn buffalo plaid flannel shirt. With the familiarity of cattails and milkweed bursting. Goldenrods. Tall prairie grasses drying, moving toward dormancy. I’ve seen this shift every September for past sixty years now. Yet I never tire of the shift, the change in seasons here in southern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From the 70s to today, caring about Earth September 12, 2022

A massive wind turbine at Faribault Energy Park dwarfs my husband, Randy, walking near it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

COMING OF AGE in the early 1970s, I held a general awareness of environmental concerns. A respect for the earth and the environment was beginning to emerge as young people and others raised their voices.

Cattails flourish in the park wetlands. Restoration, rather than draining, of wetlands is the norm today. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I remember the anti-littering campaigns. The concerns about water and air pollution. The efforts to limit billboards. I recall, too, Earth Shoes, although I’m uncertain what that footwear had to do with anything environmental.

This trail leads to the wind turbine, a teaching tool inside Faribault Energy Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Perhaps previous generations cared, too, but it seems the young people of the 70s started a new environmental movement that pushed personal and societal responsibilities in caring for our planet. Those efforts continue today, but with additional focuses: climate change, alternative energy, electric-powered vehicles and more. Today’s young adults are among those leading the way in discussions and effective change.

I grow milkweeds in my Faribault yard. I photographed this milkweed flower with an unknown insect atop at the energy park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I feel such hope. Within my own family circle, my eldest daughter and son-in-law compost food and bio-degradable paper products. My son owns an e-bike, not a car, his primary mode of transportation between his Indiana apartment and Purdue University. We recycle, donate or give away items we no longer need. Every little bit helps. My young granddaughter wears hand-me-downs from her cousins. Just like her mother before her, whom I outfitted primarily via rummage sale purchases.

Unlike this dead frog flattened on a road at the energy park, thrifting/recycling/upcycling is very much alive. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Thrifting is in vogue. I recently spoke with a shop owner in Northfield who said local college students flock to her antiques and collectibles store to buy vintage clothing from one particular vendor.

Solar panels inside the park focus on alternative energy. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Across the Minnesota countryside, solar fields are replacing crop fields. Wind turbines are popping up, too, adding to those that have been around for decades.

Bold red berries burst color into the park’s landscape. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

It makes a difference—these seemingly small and big changes. A shift in attitudes with a new-found appreciation for our natural world can preserve, and hopefully, improve this place we call home.

A sign posted inside Faribault Energy Park lays out the rules. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Faribault Energy Park, owned and managed by the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, aims to model environmental responsibility and innovation, according to its website. The power plant is a dual-fuel (natural gas and fuel oil) facility which runs only during periods of high demand for electricity.

Dirt roads wind around two ponds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Although I’ve never been inside this power plant (tours are offered, primarily to schools), I’ve walked the grounds many times. The MMPA created a public park here on its 35 acres of wetlands. I love following the dirt roads that wind around ponds. And while it’s not the most peaceful place given the location along busy Interstate 35, the park still holds an appeal for me.

Beauty even in a thistle growing along pond’s edge. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

On this particular visit, I didn’t see any waterfowl, unusual, but perhaps not due to avian influenza. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

One of many birds observed inside the park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

That enjoyment comes in vegetation—cattails, flowers, trees, grasses—and in the birds, including waterfowl.

Anglers fish this pond next to the Faribault Energy Park power plant. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Other visitors fish here, in the large pond next to the power plant. This is also an educational grounds with a massive wind turbine and a stand of solar panels in place.

I especially like walking this park around sunset. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Combined, these elements remind me that I cannot take the natural world for granted, that I need to be environmentally-aware, that I need to do my part to protect and preserve Earth. I continue to learn, some 50 years after an awareness sparked within me that I really ought to care about this planet on a personal level.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“A quiet place to be” in Mission Township August 31, 2022

Looking skyward at Mission Park, where slim, towering pines are prevalent. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

MISSION PARK IN MISSION TOWNSHIP, “a quiet place to be” north of Merrifield in the Brainerd lakes region, rates as a favorite hiking spot when I’m at the lake. The extended family cabin is conveniently located about two miles away.

At the end of a grassy trail, the woods open to a pollinator garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I enjoy walking here along the 3/4-mile paved trail that winds primarily through the woods. Grassy paths are another option, but I typically keep to the hard surface, with one exception. That deviation is the grassy route leading to an open field Pollinator Habitat.

Milkweeds fill the prairie garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

A dragonfly clings to a stalk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I’ve always loved the dusky hue of the milkweed flower. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Last trip to the cabin in early July, Randy and I discovered the field of milkweeds and other pollinator-attracting plants pulsing with dragonflies. I’ve always delighted in dragonflies—how they flit, their translucent wings beautiful to behold.

Dragonflies up close are a study in intricacy and beauty. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

But dragonflies also pause, giving photographers like me ample opportunity to photograph them up close. To see and capture details of webbed wings, of hairy legs, of bulging eyes…proves rewarding, amazing, wondrous. This insect is so intricate.

The lone Monarch caterpillar I spotted. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I noticed, too, a chunky Monarch caterpillar descending a milkweed stalk. Milkweed is a host plant of the caterpillar which will eventually form a chrysalis and later emerge as a Monarch butterfly, now considered an endangered species.

A wide view of the Pollinator Habitat. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Days later, I led the way back to the Pollinator Habitat to show my granddaughter, her little brother and parents the dragonfly haven. The insects were not as abundant and the crew was less than impressed, especially when Randy discovered a wood tick on his leg. Not a deer tick, but the common wood tick which I am quite familiar with as is Randy. We both grew up on farms and wood ticks were a natural part of our outdoor summer adventures.

Marc, left to right, Isaac and Randy head out of the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

The six of us quickly exited the pollinator patch right after Randy’s revelation, which he should have kept to himself.

Every time I’m here, I discover a different fungi in the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I had hoped to walk along the paved trail to show everyone the massive orange mushroom I spotted previously. But, instead, we headed back to the park’s main recreational area.

The grandkids loved the new playground equipment. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Mission Park offers plenty of play space for those who prefer to stay off grassy trails into the woods. Like new playground equipment.

A spacious pavilion among the pines, next to the playground, provides a place to gather. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Other recreational options abound with several pickleball courts, disc golf, a ball field, tennis courts, horseshoe pits and volleyball courts. A pavilion offers shelter for outdoor dining. Noticeably missing are bathrooms. There are outhouses, though, with which I am also familiar having used one for the first 11 years of my life.

Thistles flourish in the Pollinator Habitat. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I appreciate the forward thinking of the good folks of Mission Township who, in 1959, purchased 39 acres for $1 with the intent of maintaining the natural beauty of the land and making it available for recreational use.

Ferns, one of my favorite plants, grow wild in the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2020)

This “quiet place to be” has quickly become a favorite nearby place to explore whenever I’m at Jon and Rosie’s lake cabin.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting with nature as spring greens the Minnesota landscape May 18, 2022

Aiming my camera lens skyward on a beautiful mid-May afternoon at Falls Creek County Park, rural Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 15, 2022)

I FIND MYSELF, daily, tipping my head back to view the trees, leaves unfurling, greening the landscape.

An especially vivid green tree in the woods at Falls Creek Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In these early days of a much-too-late spring in Minnesota, the greens appear especially intense, vivid, lush. The infusion of color is almost like visual overload after months of living in a colorless, drab world. I welcome the change with my eyes wide open.

At sunset, hillside trees and the maple in my backyard create an artsy scene. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

From the woods that bump against my backyard to area parks and nature centers, I feel such gratitude for places where I can immerse myself in nature. Even if that’s simply looking skyward.

Even though buckthorn is an invasive tree, the scent of its flowers is lovely. Photographed at Falls Creek County Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In this tech-centered world, we need to pause, to take a break, to connect, really connect, with nature. Falls Creek County Park, just east of Faribault along Minnesota State Highway 60, offers such a place to embrace the natural world.

A footbridge leads into the woods at Falls Creek County Park. (Minnesota Prairie roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
So soothing…water rushing over rocks in Falls Creek. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
Falls Creek flows under the footbridge. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

As soon as I step onto the footbridge over Falls Creek, I feel a sense of peace. In the sound and sight of water rushing over rocks. There’s nothing more soothing than that symphony, except perhaps the rush of wind through trees.

A fallen tree blocks the trail at Falls Creek Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This park is more wild than tamed. Narrow dirt trails, packed hard by hikers’ shoes, call for caution. Roots can trip. Sections of eroded creek bank along the main path require focused walking, especially over a makeshift bridge of branches. In one area, a large, fallen tree blocks the route.

Wildflowers galore in the park woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Still, despite the obstacles, this park is navigable. And worth visiting, especially now, when wildflowers blanket the woods. White, yellow, purple.

Winding Falls Creek. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On a recent hike through Falls Creek County Park, Randy and I encountered another hiker and his two unleashed dogs who rushed us. I didn’t appreciate that, never do. But we also met a pre-teen girl and her dad on the bridge, she with book—some series about drama divas—in hand. The title fits his daughter, the dad said. They come to the park to read and to listen to music along the creek. How wonderful, I thought, to see this young girl into reading. And reading in the woods besides.

On the bridge, the first stone I spotted. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I tipped the pair off to painted stones I’d discovered, pointing to the bright pink stone at the end of the footbridge. I found two more in the woods. “Look to your right,” I said. I delight in such unexpected messages that always cause me to smile and uplift me.

An encouraging message on a stone tucked into a tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On this day, I took to heart the words—Everything will be okay!—printed on a stone painted a metallic, glittery turquoise. On this day, I needed to read that encouraging message left in the woods, left for me to see as I immersed myself in nature, in this Minnesota spring.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota weather talk about this non-spring of 2022 April 28, 2022

At the confluence of the Straight and Cannon Rivers in Faribault, the landscape appears more autumn than spring-like. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

MINNESOTANS LOVE to talk weather. And for good reason. Weather shapes our lives—what we do on any given day, how we feel, where we go…

At the April 23 Earth Day Celebration in Northfield, moody grey skies clouded the day. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

And right now, when we should be in the throes of spring, we Minnesotans feel like we’re stuck in winter. It’s been an unseasonably cold and rainy April that has truly dampened spirits. We want, OK, need, sunshine and warmth after too many months of winter. That said, I really shouldn’t complain. Up North, snow still layers the ground and ice 20 inches thick freezes some lakes.

Treetops riverside against a grey sky in North Alexander Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)
Autumns leaves remain, not yet replaced by spring growth. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)
Devoid of color, the dock and river at Two Rivers Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

Yet, no matter where you live in Minnesota, day after day after day of grey skies coupled with low temps in the 20s and 30s takes a psychological toll. I should be wearing a spring jacket rather than a winter coat. My tulips should be blooming. Heck, the dandelions should be pushing through neighbors’ lawns. Trees should be budding green.

I spotted clam shells among dried leaves in the river bottom at Two Rivers Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

Instead, the overall landscape appears, well, pretty darned drab.

Canadian geese swim where the Straight and Cannon Rivers meet in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

But, last Saturday we experienced a one-day reprieve of unseasonable warmth with the temp soaring to nearly 80 degrees. Typical high this time of year is around 60 degrees. It was a get-outside day. Don’t-waste-a-moment-indoors day. So Randy and I didn’t. We attended the Earth Day Celebration in Northfield, enjoyed craft beer at Chapel Brewing along the banks of the Cannon River in Dundas, walked a section of the Straight River Trail in Faribault and later followed part of the trail along the Cannon in North Alexander Park. Strong winds factored into every facet of our time outdoors, though.

An angler makes his way toward the Cannon River in shirt-sleeve weather on April 23. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

But, oh, how glorious to walk in warmth.

I zoomed in on this fungi high in a tree along the recreational trail in North Alexander Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

This feeling of remaining stuck in perpetual winter will end. I need to remind myself of that…even as the forecast for more rain and unseasonably cold temps (highs in the 40s) prevails.

TELL ME: What’s the weather like where you live?

© Copyright 2022 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

 

The woods are… April 6, 2022

Inside the woods at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault, MN. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

FOR SOMEONE LIKE ME who grew up on the prairie, woods are not a natural fit. I’ve always felt a bit out of place in the density of trees. Uncomfortable even. But time and distance from a landscape of big sky and wide open spaces have eased me into the woods.

A view of the Straight River from Honor Point. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I appreciate woods, as long as there aren’t “too many” trees. I need to see glimpses, even vistas, of openness. River Bend Nature Center in Faribault offers both. Prairie and woods.

Love this quote on a memorial sign at River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On a recent visit, I followed trails into the woods. And, as always, I noticed the beauty therein. I view the natural world through many lenses. Close-up. From afar. With an artsy perspective. But mostly with a deep appreciation.

This mottling on a tree trunk looks like art to me. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

It doesn’t take much to catch my eye, to cause me to pause and reflect. Photograph. Delight. Savor the moment, the scene.

I’m always drawn to leaves in water, here in a melting snow puddle along a trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Loved spotting this patch of green in mid-March. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Tangled branches and blue sky. Beautiful. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

If you walk with me into the woods, you won’t fast track from Point A to Point B. Sometimes I go at a rapid pace. But most of the time, I can’t. Because I simply see too much. Poetry in puddled leaves. Spring in a patch of green grass. Abstract art in a mottled tree trunk. Dancers in twisted branches.

It took me awhile to get this focused shot with my zoom lens of a flitting cardinal. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Sights and sounds draw me to linger in the woods. The shrill call of a cardinal and a flash of red cause me to pause. I wait. Listen. Photograph.

The sign pointing to the Turtle Pond, where the turtles had not yet emerged on my March 19 visit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I feel such a sense of wonderment in it all. A peace, too, that comes only from immersing one’s self in the natural world. In the chaos and noises of life, the woods are on this day, indeed, my sanctuary.

TELL ME: How do you react to the natural world?

© 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

 

No hiking for us on icy state park trails February 28, 2022

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
A view of frozen Rice Lake at Rice Lake State Park on February 19. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

IN THEORY, THE PLAN seemed a good one. Randy and I would hike in a nearby state park on February 19, the first of four “free entry” days to Minnesota’s 75 state parks and recreation areas.

Mid Saturday morning, we packed sandwiches, fruit, granola bars and almonds for a picnic lunch, although we would eat in the comfort and warmth of our van. Temps in the 20s do not allow for outdoor dining.

Wildflowers abound in the woods at Rice Lake State Park in this spring-time photo. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2022)

Originally we intended to drive to Carley State Park south of Plainview. It’s a park we have not visited. But part way there, I suggested we wait. A description of Carley’s Whitewater River-hugging Wildflower Trail and Virginia bluebells carpeting the forest floor in May prompted the change in plans.

Randy reads signs about waterfowl posted by the lake during a May 2020 visit to Rice Lake State Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2020)

Instead, we aimed for Rice Lake State Park some eight miles east of Owatonna. We’ve previously been there, although not in winter. Following back paved county and gravel roads, I already envisioned hiking the park’s trails along frozen Rice Lake. I imagined the quiet of the woods, the beauty of the snow-covered landscape. Such were my expectations. I also felt excited to participate in the Rice Lake State Park Challenge, a special free entry day event that involved finding passwords to claim a possible prize.

Walking into the woods at Rice Lake State Park in the spring. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2020)

When we pulled into the park, I checked in at the park office for a map and the challenge entry form. As I was about to leave, the park staffer warned, “Be careful, the trails are icy.” I would soon discover for myself just how right she was in that assessment.

Rental canoes are stacked next to the parking lot and lake. The trail we took started at the edge of the woods near lake’s edge. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

The snow-packed, icy parking lot offered the first clue to conditions. I carefully stepped from the van, draped my camera strap around my neck and aimed toward the lakeside trail. Not even part way there, I was already grasping Randy’s arm. As someone who’s broken her right shoulder and left wrist in falls (the last requiring surgery), I have no desire to fall and break a third bone. Note that neither occurred in winter but rather in May and June and involved a missed step inside a hospital and a rain-slicked wooden step in a friend’s backyard.

On the way back to the van, I spotted these apples in the snow. Deer food? (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

At the beginning of the trail at Rice Lake State Park, I paused, observed and assessed that, yes, the trail was, indeed, icy. But I was willing to try, hoping conditions would improve. They didn’t. Soon Randy and I found ourselves crunching through the snow aside the trail rather than traversing the ice-packed path. Not even 20 feet in, Randy advised that perhaps we best turn around. I agreed.

Lake and sky meet at Rice Lake State Park during a spring visit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2020)

Disappointment filled my thoughts. I didn’t realize how much I had anticipated this time in nature, in the woods, by the lake. And now…plans would pivot. We realized conditions would likely be the same at other state parks. So we headed west to Owatonna for that picnic lunch and more.

#

TELL ME: If you live in southern Minnesota, where can I find clear trails for winter hiking? If you live elsewhere, where do you like to hike this time of year?

#

FYI: Minnesota has three more upcoming “free entry” to state parks and recreation areas in 2022. Those dates are April 23, June 11 and November 25. I highly-recommend a warm weather hike in Rice Lake State Park. It’s especially peaceful.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Past & present meet at River Bend Nature Center February 2, 2022

This sign stands near River Bend Nature Center’s interpretative center. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

MONTHS AGO, BEFORE SNOW FELL and the season officially transitioned to winter, I followed a paved trail into the woods at River Bend Nature Center and then a grassy path to a wetlands overlook.

River Bend, on Faribault’s east side, rates as a favorite outdoor destination. That November day I embraced the lingering remnants of autumn, now overtaken by the cold and snow of winter.

Rugged bark draws my eye as I hike. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Even in the muted hues of autumn’s end, beauty exists.

But, for me, taking in the evolving landscape stretches beyond simply seeing that which unfolds before me. It’s also about looking back. To my childhood on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

One of many wooded trails in River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

When I hike the wooded trails of River Bend, I see my younger self riding my bike through the grove back on the farm. Except the bike was a horse, not a bike. I grew up in the era of TV Westerns—of “Rawhide” and “Bonanza.”

The kids’ play area at River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Fallen branches at River Bend angled into a shelter resemble those built by me and my siblings. We also constructed buildings by looping baler twine around tree trunks. And we crafted a house, too, from discarded wire fencing. Oh, the imaginations of farm kids let loose in the grove.

Dried oak leaves. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Dried leaves scattered in the woods bring more memories. Each autumn, I gathered fallen leaves into piles, then dropped the leaves into lines. Walls. Constructing leaf houses filled many a recess at Vesta Elementary School. And many an autumn day for my siblings and me.

A single dried grass stem holds simple beauty. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

I recall, too, hiding in tall grass between the granary and the south grove. When I scan the prairie expanse of River Bend, I imagine myself vanishing. Hiding from brothers with cap guns holstered at their sides. Yes, I owned a cap gun, too, and wore a straw cowgirl hat, although we called them cowboy hats back then.

The wetlands on prairie’s edge. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

My father owned a gun, which he used once a year to hunt for pheasants in the slough hole (as we redundantly termed the slough on our farm). When I look across the wetlands at River Bend, I think of the one time my oldest brother and I accompanied Dad to the low lying pothole to hunt for pheasants. I don’t recall whether that hunt was successful. Eventually, Dad drained the slough to add more tillable acreage. I often wonder about the sensibilities of draining prairie potholes and how that affected the land. The undrained wetlands of River Bend are mostly dry in this drought year.

Dried coneflower seedheads. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

While walking the prairie, I spotted dried seedheads. Coneflower seeds lying atop the grass, where they will eventually reseed. Nature recycling.

Milkweed pods, too, flourish in River Bend’s prairieland. Back on the farm, I pulled milkweeds from soybean fields. “Walking beans” is the correct term. Walking between soybean rows pulling unwanted weeds—especially cockleburs and thistles. Only detasseling corn ranks as worse. I’ll walk beans or shovel manure any day (and I did plenty of that) over corn detasseling on a hot and humid July day.

A dried milkweed pod burst open on the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Those dried milkweeds at River Bend bring one final memory. And it is a Christmas memory. One year I crafted a Christmas ornament for my Aunt Rachel from a milkweed pod and a discarded holiday card. (My mom saved everything.) I cut out an elfin girl dressed in a glittery red suit, her face framed by a pointy hood. Then I taped the cut-out to a toothpick and stuck the impish child into the downy snow of an open milkweed pod. Beautiful.

These are the childhood memories sparked by my November walk through River Bend Nature Center. I feel grateful for this sprawling natural space, for the peace it brings me as I follow trails into the present. And into the past.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling