Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Escape into the Cannon River Wilderness Area November 20, 2020

SOME DAYS I WISH I could simply disappear, vanish into the woods or wheel across the prairie like the Ingalls family to an unknown destination. Far from reality. Far from COVID-19.

But, since I must live in the context of a pandemic, in the place I call home, I look for places to escape nearby. And, on a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I disappeared into the Cannon River Wilderness Area between Faribault and Northfield off Minnesota State Highway 3.

In the nearly 40 years we have lived in Rice County, we’ve only stopped here once, many years ago for a family picnic, but never to hike. On this day we followed the rutted gravel road along the river, past a junkyard and into the wilderness parking lot. We walked a short path to the Cannon River, then a longer one along the river to a foot bridge.

To get there, we passed two tents in the primitive camping area. I delighted in watching a young family gathered in the woods near river’s edge, enjoying the outdoors, away from distracting/detracting technology. At the next tent down, I observed a caged dog.

After passing the campers, we spotted a hillside bluff of limestone looming to the side of the trail.

Springs bubbled water across the muddy path partially covered by a thin layer of wood chips. I found myself tensing at the thought of traversing mud. My slip-on shoes, unlike Randy’s treaded boots, offered zero traction. And, with a history of two falls, one on rain-slicked wooden steps that resulted in a broken wrist and subsequent surgery to implant a plate, I felt angst.

But Randy offered his hand to steady me as we walked across mud, atop slippery rocks and balanced on railroad ties. Eventually, we reached the pedestrian bridge over the Cannon.

If anything soothes me, it is water and wind. And, on this early November day, I stood on that wooden bridge, taking in the elements that calm me. River rushing over rocks. Wind roaring through woods.

 

 

The sun, too, warming me and casting artsy criss-cross shadows upon the bridge deck.

Then I noticed the trees. Tornado trees, I term them. Two years ago, in September 2018, tornadoes ravaged Rice County, including the 800-acre Cannon River Wilderness Area. Evidence of the storm remains in fallen trees, limbless trees, trees stripped of branches. In the woods. In the river. Along the riverbank. Thoughts of tornadoes invite distress as I recall the 1968 deadly tornado in Tracy, Minnesota, a storm I remember from my childhood in southwestern Minnesota. Some things you never forget.

But for a short time, I forgot about COVID as I immersed myself in the natural world. Even among tornado trees, some of which groaned in the strong wind.

As Randy and I retraced our steps along the muddy path, I focused on getting safely back to the parking lot without falling. But in a single step onto a rounded rock, my shoes slipped and I felt myself falling to the right. Thoughts of another broken bone flashed. As did the likelihood that my camera would be destroyed. Yet, Randy, who had been gripping my hand, caught me, even as he, too, nearly landed in the mud. I felt gratitude for his strength, for his support, for his care. We have traversed many a difficult journey through life. Together. And for that I am grateful, especially during a global pandemic.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road: A favorite nature break in Zimmerman September 28, 2020

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

THE SHERBURNE COUNTY PARK has become, for us, a stopping point on the drive north to an extended family member’s guest lake cabin south of Crosslake.

 

Birds take flight from the prairie area of Grams Park last September. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

Photographed in Grams Park during an early September 2019 visit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The park features a mix of woods, prairie and swampland. I took this photo about 10 days ago.

 

Randy and I typically pack a picnic lunch for a noonish stop at Grams Regional Park in Zimmerman. It’s a lovely spot not far off U.S. Highway 169. Here we eat our sandwiches, fruit and other picnic food before stretching our legs along trails that trace through this 100-acre park.

 

 

 

 

Typically, we follow the paths into the woods and then along curving boardwalks across wetlands or bogs, or whatever the proper terminology for the swampy areas lush with cattails.

 

Wildflowers photographed last September at Grams Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2019.

 

At the prairie on the edge of the woods, this native pocket prairie has been planted.

 

Wildflowers along a wooded trail.

 

It’s a welcome break from the highway, this temporary immersion in nature—among the trees and wildflowers and peace in a place we’ve grown to appreciate.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

Ten days ago, the leaves at Grams Park were morphing into beautiful autumn hues.

 

A cluster of oak leaves by our picnic table.

 

And, during this season, the woods are particularly beautiful as leaves morph into the golden, brown and sometimes fiery hues of autumn. I may not love that autumn signals the transition toward winter. But I delight in the way she moves there.

 

I love this aspect of Grams Park, a nature discovery play space for kids.

 

Kids can play with these wooden discs…

 

…and learn about the rusty patched bumblebee.

 

If one positive change comes from COVID-19, I think it’s that we all hold a deeper appreciation of the outdoors, of the spaces which give us a respite from reality. And Grams Regional Park is such a place, more than a stop for lunch en route to the lake cabin.

 

Berries photographed in early September of last year. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2019.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite park that you’ve grown even more fond of during the global pandemic?

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Finding peace immersed in nature at River Bend April 29, 2020

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Sunset at the prairie pond, River Bend Nature Center, Faribault, Minnesota.

 

THIS EARLY INTO SPRING here in southern Minnesota, everything seems amplified. Colors. Sound. Even the air temperature.

 

Into the woods at River Bend Nature Center.

 

You can almost see the grass growing, its green especially vivid in the still mostly monotone landscape. The greyness of woods reminds us that winter only just exited, and could return. Yes, we’ve experienced measurable snowfalls in May.

 

Beauty in birch tree bark under blue skies.

 

But for now, the weather has proven mostly glorious with shirt-sleeve temps and lots of sunshine, although on Tuesday much-needed rain watered the earth.

 

Rock signage marks Honor Point inside River Bend Nature Center.

 

One evening last week, Randy and I headed to River Bend Nature Center for a walk in the woods and along the prairie to the pond. The incessant peeping of frogs created a symphony as we drove into the center, van windows rolled down to hear the music. I always wonder why we can never see these musicians, only hear them.

 

Looking over the river valley from Honor Point.

 

Once parked, we entered the woods, crossed the Turtle Pond, wound through the trees, paused to scan the river valley, then looped back through the woods, eventually reaching woods’ edge.

 

The grazing geese I opted to avoid.

 

I especially enjoy the section of our hike which leads us onto the prairie, a place of dried grasses in April. My eyes welcome the openness. But on this evening, we detoured from our usual route. A cluster of geese grazed the land and I wasn’t about to get too close. Their protesting honks as we drew near proved deterrent enough.

 

The bird that’s not real atop the martin house.

 

I paused momentarily to photograph a martin house, thrilled to see a bird perched on the edge of the apartment complex…until I realized the bird wasn’t real.

 

Cattails…love them any season.

 

Onward to the pond, a favorite spot to photograph cattails, which have always intrigued me. They are especially lovely in the filtered light of sunset.

 

This birdhouse hangs on a branch over the Turtle Pond.

 

By then my ears ached from the cold of the evening air. The din of frogs continued as we headed back to the parking lot and our van.

 

On the way out, one last stop along the road to photograph this nesting goose.

 

We had, for an hour, immersed ourselves in nature. Listened. Observed. Retreated from reality, if only for awhile. And sometimes an hour is all you need to find peace.

 

RELATED, SORT OF: I invite you to check out my nature-themed blog post, “Praise God for His Glorious Creation,” published on the Warner Press website, by clicking here.

Disclaimer: I am paid for my work as the Warner Press blog coordinator and blogger.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods March 25, 2020

Hiking at River Bend Nature Center on Sunday afternoon, March 22.

 

THE NEED TO GET AWAY from it all—the barrage of COVID-19 thoughts and media reports—and the need to exit the house brought Randy and me to River Bend Nature Center in Faribault on Sunday afternoon.

The weather still feels very much like winter here in southern Minnesota with a cold wind, temps in the 30s and 40s, and patches of snow remaining in shaded areas or unmelted piles. So we dressed warmly, pulled on gloves and snugged on stocking caps before setting out.

 

Social distancing of vehicles in the parking lot at River Bend Nature Center on March 22.

 

As our vehicle rounded the curve and descended the hill into the heart of River Bend, I noticed something unusual in the parking lot. Social distancing. Most vehicles were parked every other space, with more vehicles than usual.

 

The entrance to the interpretative center, now closed.

 

I grabbed my camera, photographed the parking lot and then started downhill toward the trail-side center, eventually angling right toward the Turtle Pond. Along the way we met clusters of people, whom I assumed to be families as no social distancing was happening. Most, in passing, dropped into single file lines to distance themselves from others like us. I found myself fully aware of the space between us and other hikers on paths not always wide enough for the suggested six feet of separation.

 

This couple kept their distance from us, as they should have.

 

At one point I stepped to a side look-out and waited while other walkers passed, thus avoiding the too-close contact. I noticed, too, a young couple cut through the woods with their dog rather than come near us.

It was an odd feeling, this conscious effort to keep at a distance. It didn’t feel right. I tried to make up for that by greeting others with a smile and a “hello.” We can still be friendly.

 

I saw moss on rock piles and on fallen logs.

 

Randy starts across the bridge over the iced over Turtle Pond.

 

The process of collecting sap is underway at River Bend, pandemic or not.

 

As Randy and I walked, I scanned the woods for signs of spring and that seemed mostly fruitless. Ice still sealed the pond. Icy snow still covered sections of trails. Dried leaves still clung to trees while carpets of green moss and maple sap collection bags hinted of spring.

 

I often lag behind Randy because I stop to take photos.

 

Yet, I felt grateful to be outdoors, healthy and walking beside Randy.

 

Our friend’s daughter had a captive audience to watch her show off her biking skills.

 

We stopped once to talk with a friend who was out with her two young daughters. The 4 ½ -year-old showed off her bike riding skills. And for a moment or ten, we three adults forgot about the global pandemic and focused on the joy of watching a preschooler who recently mastered biking without assistance. The world seemed normal in that small space of time. Except for the awareness that we needed to stay six feet apart.

 

There on the prairie grass, an unexpected find.

 

Then we continued on, eventually crossing the windswept prairie. There Randy spotted a fuzzy caterpillar and we wondered aloud about its early appearance in these still too cold days of March.

 

Looking across the prairie pond.

 

After a brief stop at the prairie pond, we decided we were too cold to continue on. We turned back toward the interpretative center—now shuttered to the public—and aimed for the parking lot. But in getting there, we passed a group of young people tossing a football. Had it been any other day in any other time, I likely would not have thought much of it. But I found myself wondering, “Should they really be doing that?”

 

Trails remain open, but the interpretative center is closed.

 

These are unsettling times when even a walk into the woods to enjoy nature feels anything but normal.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Autumn ablaze at Maplewood State Park October 14, 2019

 

 

BEFORE THE WINTER STORM arrived with predictions of feet of snow in nearby North Dakota, we embraced autumn at, for us, a previously unvisited state park. Maplewood State Park east of Pelican Rapids in northwestern Minnesota fits its name. This place blazes with hillsides of trees set among prairie and lakes.

 

A rutted and narrow gravel road takes motorists on a scenic drive through the park.

 

These horseback riders led their horses to the lake for a quick drink.

 

Restored prairies are found throughout Maplewood State Park, this one along a trail to a scenic overlook.

 

Last Wednesday, only days before that predicted winter storm (which also edged into western Minnesota), we toured this park that features scenic overlooks, miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, and a five-mile driving loop.

 

Driving into Maplewood State Park.

 

A glorious fall scene repeated throughout the park.

 

Trees ablaze at the picnic grounds.

 

We hit the park at the peak of fall color. So did many others—busloads of school children, generations of families, couples, horseback riders…

 

Wildflowers on the prairie.

 

Acres and acres of prairie grass wave in the wind.

 

Even dried seed heads hold beauty.

 

When you live in Minnesota or the Dakotas, you need to take in every single last glorious day of autumn before the snow flies, the leaves fall and winter settles in for months.

 

 

 

We enjoyed a sunshine-filled, albeit windy, afternoon exploring Maplewood. There’s something incredibly soothing about immersing one’s self in the outdoors, far from work and worries. Spirits soar in sunshine in a place that is spectacularly beautiful in this season of autumn.

 

 

TELL ME: What’s your favorite location to view fall colors?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Spring afternoon at River Bend, a photo essay April 9, 2019

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AUTUMN’S OAK LEAVES cling to branches.

 

 

Swatches of green pop in the woods.

 

 

Fungi ladder tree trunks.

 

 

 

 

Brilliant red flashes against weathered grey.

 

 

Ponds populated by trilling peepers reflect the changing blue of the sky.

 

 

Geese honk territorial warnings best respected.

 

 

A camouflaged bird blends into stands of invasive buckthorn.

 

 

Dried vegetation proves a visual reminder that spring is not yet fully here in Minnesota.

 

 

But tell that to the woman walking barefoot.

 

 

Just behind the boys with feet still snugged inside winter boots.

 

 

At River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, people hiked and biked and rested on benches and even tracked squirrels in Sunday’s 60-degree temps. (More on the squirrels later.)

 

 

If not for the forecast of major snowfall later this week, I might believe these brown woods will soon leaf into a canopy of green.

 

 

No one would doubt that on Sunday, an ideal day to delight in the outdoors, to read poetry in the woods.

 

 

Spring spread her wings over River Bend on a lovely early April afternoon in southern Minnesota.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, for birds & flowers & more on a spring day at River Bend May 17, 2017

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THIS PAST WEEKEND took me from the quiet of a nature center to the heart of a city to the neighborhood of a suburb. And, in each place, family surrounded me. It was a good weekend. There is nothing better than to be in the presence of those you love and those who love you. And the bonus was weather so perfect that I wished I could clasp the sunshine and warmth and blue skies to release many months from now in the deep of a Minnesota winter.

In today’s post, I take you to River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, one of my favorite local places to flee the busyness and noise of life. On this Saturday afternoon, I meandered the trails with my husband, second daughter and her husband, visiting from far eastern Wisconsin.

 

Wild columbines.

 

This was no purposeful hike to burn off calories, but rather a pausing to appreciate woods-born wildflowers,

 

 

mushrooms snugged into trees,

 

 

red-winged blackbirds trilling at the pond,

 

 

pastel pink petals dancing in the wind,

 

 

a goose gliding into pond rushes,

 

Along a trail we met a soon-to-be Faribault High School graduate and a photographer shooting senior portraits.

 

and, for Miranda, the memories of elementary school field trips here.

 

This fort I spied in the woods reminded me of the forts I built as a child in the grove on our family farm.

 

This blossom covered tree flowers next to River Bend’s interpretative center.

 

The gnarled branches of this tree drew my eye and interest to compose this image.

 

The slow pace of our hour at the nature center matched our desire to enjoy every single facet of a glorious mid May day defined by blue skies, sun beating 80-some degrees and a landscape lush with the greenery of spring.

 

TELL ME: What’s your favorite outdoor nature space to visit/explore in May?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A pleasant afternoon hiking & photographing at River Bend Nature Center until… April 10, 2017

 

SUNDAY’S UNUSUALLY WARM weather drew me back to Faribault’s River Bend Nature Center, this time for a walk that centered more on prairie than woods.

 

My husband, Randy, poses by one of River Bend’s biggest cottonwoods next to a parking lot nearest the center’s entrance.

 

With camera once again in hand, I scanned for photo ops, many pointed out by my hiking companion husband. I appreciate that he understands and supports my interest in photography.

 

 

As we hiked, I noticed a theme connecting nearly everything that drew my interest. I was focusing on texture—in dried prairie grass,

 

The deeply textured bark of a cedar tree.

 

bark,

 

 

new leaves,

 

 

a cone of seeds,

 

 

fungi,

 

 

a milkweed pod,

 

 

moss,

 

 

pussy willow,

 

 

 

the remnants of last season’s cattails…

Because the landscape remains so stark yet in early April in Minnesota, the eye catches such details. Or at least my eyes.

 

 

Yet several things distracted me from texture: the red dot of a bug and the red dash of a cardinal,

 

Randy and I hung out on the pond dock for awhile listening to the frogs and watching the geese.

 

the overwhelming roar of frogs,

 

 

the mating antics and flight of geese and then, the most unexpected—the sight of a sixty-something man walking toward us with a gun holstered and strapped to his belt.

 

We met the gun-carrying man not far from a bird observation deck marked by this sign.

 

The surprise showing of that weapon unsettled me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this just was not right for a person to be walking in a nature center on a Sunday afternoon with a handgun at his waist for all—including children—to see. Back home I checked the nature center website. Under Visitor Rules and Regulations, I found this:

Therefore, it shall be unlawful, except upon permission of the Executive Director or his/her agent, for any person to:

15. Possess or use any firearms, air guns, paintball guns, archery equipment, or other weapons within the nature center; or discharge any missile or other projectile from such a weapon into the nature center from beyond nature center boundaries without prior approval by River Bend’s board of directors (example: prescribed deer management hunts);

In my opinion, common sense should tell anyone not to carry a weapon into a nature center.

Thoughts?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Spring emerges at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault April 5, 2017

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WITH THE CALENDAR flipped to April, the greening of the grey is subtly emerging in Minnesota as the season shifts from winter to spring.

 

 

The Turtle Pond at River Bend Nature Center.

 

Nesting pond along the entry to River Bend Nature Center.

 

Wisps of buds. Greening in the pond and woods. Skies and water so incredibly blue you wonder if your winter weary eyes are fooling you.

 

A frog camouflaged in the Turtle Pond.

 

 

The banks of the Straight River proved a popular spot Saturday afternoon. The woman in the purple is wearing a t-shirt with this message: “Leave me alone. I’m only speaking to my dog today.”

 

Frogs making more noise than raucous children on a playground. Geese nesting. River flowing.

 

Saturday’s weather proved perfect for motorized and non-motorized bking.

 

I almost cried when I met this trio of walkers as I thought of my mom and wished I could guide her on a walk through the woods.

 

Two teens parked their bikes trailside to explore the waterfall.

 

Give us Minnesotans a nice day of warmth and sunshine, like that on Saturday, and we, too, emerge from our homes to celebrate this changing of the seasons.

 

My husband, oldest daughter and granddaughter walking through River Bend Sunday afternoon.

 

My husband and I were among the throngs of visitors hiking at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault during Saturday’s respite warmth. We returned Sunday with our eldest daughter and her daughter. By then conditions had changed from sunny to cloudy with a brisk wind and much lower temps. The weather required stocking caps and winter coats (for the oldsters) unlike the sweatshirts of the previous day. Few others were out and about.

 

If not for Randy’s sharp eye, we may have stepped on this toad (or is it a frog?) sitting on a trail Saturday afternoon.

 

Another immobile amphibian sitting in the parking lot Sunday afternoon.

 

Even the frogs, a deafening chorus on Saturday, were quiet in Sunday’s cold. The toads hunched immobile.

 

Blue skies reflected Saturday afternoon in the nesting pond for geese.

 

As a Minnesotan, I understand how weather can change, just like that. So I accept each warm and sunny day as a gift.

 

Rustic signs mark trails at River Bend Nature Center.

 

TELL ME: Are there signs of spring where you live? Please share.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Glorious autumn in Faribault October 21, 2016

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river-bend-59-treeline

 

THE TIME OF LOVELY, stunning days in Minnesota is fleeting, moving from autumn toward winter. Those of us who live here understand that. And we appreciate each day that brings sunshine, warmth and no precipitation, especially snow.

 

river-bend-25-trio-walking-in-woods

 

With that mindset, it’s as if we can’t get enough of the outdoors. Raking leaves, clearing flowerbeds and other pre-winter activities fill our days. As do walks in the woods or drives to see the fall colors, which are nearly gone now except in portions of southern Minnesota.

 

river-bend-39-honor-point-rock

 

Last Sunday afternoon, I slung my camera across my shoulder and joined my husband on a walk through Faribault’s River Bend Nature Center. We had about a half hour to hike before an afternoon obligation would draw us indoors.

 

river-bend-46-moss-on-trunk

 

I am not, by craft, a nature photographer. But I am an observer and a detail-oriented person. Put a camera in my hands and I begin to view my surroundings with even more detail. That’s one of the things I love about photography.

 

river-bend-40-couple-walking

 

Through the lens of my camera, I notice the play of light, degrees of color or lack thereof, curves and lines and shapes.

 

river-bend-63-birdhouse-in-prairie-grass

 

Autumn is, if anything, a season when color fades, when muted earth tones prevail.

 

river-bend-41-red-oak-leaves-up-close

 

river-bend-51-woods

 

river-bend-45-more-oak-leaves

 

Except for the occasional flare of fiery red-orange maples and oaks. And the blazing yellow.

 

river-bend-48-trees-overhead

 

I love the cobalt blue skies of this season. While that hue was absent on the afternoon of my walk, I still tilted my head up to a canopy of clinging leaves.

 

river-bend-56-dried-plant

 

river-bend-62-milkweed-pods

 

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I also aimed my eyes and camera lens horizontally to appreciate plants drying. Cattails dry to a cottony fluff. Milkweed pods burst with the promise of next year’s growth.

 

river-bend-57-prairie-path

 

The seasons cycle. And as they do, I observe. I notice. I photograph.

BONUS PHOTOS:

 

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river-bend-53-couple-in-background

 

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TELL ME: What’s your favorite fall activity? What do you appreciate about autumn?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling