Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Minnesota northwoods experience: Climbing a fire tower (or not) October 6, 2021

Just a short distance from this roundabout by Pequot Lakes, you can see the Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower peeking through the treetops. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Really high! Be careful and don’t climb if you fear heights or experience dizziness.

The warning sign and rules posted at the base of the fire tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I heeded the warning and stayed put. Feet on the ground. Camera aimed skyward. Toward the 100-foot high Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower just outside Pequot Lakes in the central Minnesota lakes region. The top of the tower pokes through the trees, barely visible from State Highway 371. Turn off that arterial road onto Crow Wing County Road 11, turn left, and you’ve reached the fire tower park.

A little background on the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

The Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower Park (named after the county commissioner instrumental in developing this 40-acre park) offers visitors an opportunity to hike to, and then climb, the historic tower built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. As one who prefers low to high, I was up for the 0.3 mile hike, but not the climb.

Lots of info packs signs in the outdoor interpretative area. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
The iconic Smokey the Bear reminds us that we can prevent forest fires. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
We are to blame for nearly all of Minnesota’s wildfires, according to this park sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Before Randy and I headed onto the trail, though, we read the interpretative signage featuring information on the tower (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), Minnesota wildfires and other notable fire facts. This summer marked an especially busy fire season in the northern Minnesota wilderness. Those of us living in the southern part of the state felt the effects also with smoke drifting from the north (including Canada) and from the west (California). That created hazy skies and unhealthy air some days, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Lots to read here, including Paul Bunyan’s fire tower story. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

We also read a bit of Paul Bunyan lore, a fun addition to the park located in the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway area. This region of Minnesota is big on lumberjack stories about Paul and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox. The Pequot Lakes water tower is even shaped like Paul’s over-sized fishing bobber.

The pristine picnic shelter. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Signs point the way to the fire tower trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
On the way to the tower, this large yellow mushroom temporarily distracted me. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Once we’d finished reading, and then admiring the beautiful new picnic shelter, we started off on the pea rock-covered trail through the woods and toward the tower. Up. Up. Up.

When the trail gets especially steep, steps aid in the climb. I took this photo on the descent. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

After awhile, I began to tire, to wonder, how much farther? And just as I was about to declare myself done climbing steps, Randy assured me the tower was just around the bend. Yes.

Looking up at the tower, all of which I couldn’t fit in a photo, I determined I was not climbing that high. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Once there, I stood at the base of the tower, reading the rules and warnings. I decided I best admire the ironwork from below. And I did. There’s a lot to be said for the 1930s workmanship of skilled craftsmen.

The underside of the tower shows layers of stairs. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Randy, though, started up the layered steps leading to a seven-foot square enclosed look-out space at the top of the tower. At that height, fire watchers could see for 20 miles.

If you look closely, you can see Randy with only a few more flights to reach the top. At this point, he decided not to go any farther. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

As I watched, Randy climbed. Steady at first, but soon slowing, pausing to rest. “You don’t have to go all the way to the top,” I shouted from below. He continued, to just above treetop level, and then stopped. He had reached his comfort height level.

The tower is fenced at the base. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I can only imagine how spectacular the view this time of year, in this season of autumn when the woods fire with color. We visited in mid-September, when color was just beginning to tinge trees.

Randy exits the tower, several flights short of reaching the top. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Eventually, we began our retreat down the trail, much easier than ascending.

An incredibly vibrant mushroom thrives trailside. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Occasionally I stopped to photograph scenery, including species of orange and yellow mushrooms. Simply stunning fungi.

Sadly…a carving on a birch tree along the trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

We also paused to visit with a retired couple on their way to the tower. They have a generational lake home in the area, like so many who vacation here. While we chatted, a young runner passed us. I admired her stamina and figured she’d face no physical challenges climbing the 100-foot tower.

The story of Sassy the bear is included in the interpretative area. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Just like a domesticated black bear that once escaped and scampered up the tower. A ranger lured him down with a bag of marshmallows. That is not the stuff of Paul Bunyan lore, but of life in the Minnesota northwoods. This historic fire tower, which once provided a jungle gym for a bear and a place to scout for wildfires, now offers a unique spot to view the surrounding woods and lakes and towns. If you don’t fear heights or experience dizziness.

FYI: The Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower is open from dawn to dusk during the warm season, meaning not during Minnesota winters. Heed the rules. And be advised that getting to the tower is a work-out.

Right now should be a really good time to catch a spectacular view of the fall colors from the fire tower.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Up North: Of autumn & mushrooms & bears September 27, 2021

Looking skyward toward the trees inside the woods at Mission Park, Merrifield, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

A QUIET PLACE TO BE.

That message banners signs in Mission Township in the heart of central Minnesota’s lake country. The nearly 35-square-mile rural community is, indeed, quiet, if you tuck yourself in among the woods, off the main routes Up North to the cabin.

Leaves are changing color in the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

From mid-May fishing opener well into autumn, until the first hard freeze, vacationers and seasonal cabin owners travel into and through Crow Wing County to reach their personal and resort destinations. And now Randy and I, too, are living the Minnesota Up North experience thanks to family who are sharing their lake property. Thrice this year we’ve spent time at the cabin, each visit heading to nearby Mission Park.

We typically follow the well-maintained paved trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

The close-to-the-cabin proximity of the park and its 3/4-mile paved hiking trail draw us to this quiet spot in the woods. During our most recent stay in mid-September, we twice hiked in the park. Here leaves are already turning color and I paused often to photograph the autumn hues.

In an open spot in the woods, a pollinator garden has been started. I caught the end of the season. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Seed heads in the pollinator garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
I spotted a few wildflowers still blooming along trails. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Once, while detouring along a mowed grass path to a pollinator garden, I also stopped to examine a pile of dung. It glistened in the sun, indicating freshness to my untrained non-expert eyes. The sheer volume of excrement led me to wonder…bear? Later, when I shared this with my brother-in-law who is especially knowledgeable about the outdoors, I determined this likely was not bear scat given the lack of acorns and other such matter in the pile. That said, bears (yes, plural) have been sighted in the area, according to the brother-in-law and a park worker who advised to “Make yourself as big as possible and don’t run” if you encounter a black bear. Alright then. Thank you.

Among the colorful mushrooms I found. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Another unknown to me mushroom, nearly camouflaged. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
I have never seen a mushroom in this vibrant hue. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

As long as he was parceling out advice, I asked about the many wild mushrooms growing in the park. That, he said, was not within his realm of knowledge. Nor is it in mine. So I admired the fungi, in varieties and hues I’ve never seen. Ever. Anywhere. Bold yellow and orange. Stunning. Still life art.

Discovered growing on the forest floor, a large disc-shaped mushroom. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

If quick research is correct, the more colorful the mushroom, the more likely it’s poisonous. Deadly. Nope, you’re not going to catch me picking mushrooms in the woods. I’ll settle for photographing them, as much as I like the taste of (store-bought) portabella mushrooms.

I spotted this broken off mushroom on the grass at woods’ edge. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

The park employee noted, however, that a guy knowledgeable about mushrooms forages for them here.

Set among the slim jackpines, a picnic area. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

If you’re not into mushroom hunting or photography or hiking, Mission Park offers plenty of other options—tennis and pickleball courts, a disc golf course, ball fields, horseshoe pits, playground, picnic shelter and much more.

Every single time we’ve hiked through this park, the motto, A QUIET PLACE TO BE, holds true. Here you can hear the quiet, even as you listen for bears.

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PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Mission Park and a post on the area’s connection to my Faribault church.

If you are familiar with mushrooms, feel free to educate me on those I photographed.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Morel Madness in Minnesota May 9, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:34 AM
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This morel measures about eight inches high.

MY SISTER, LANAE, and her husband, Dale, were giddy as two kids in a candy store when Dale walked in with the net bag plumped with a dozen morels.

Lanae grabbed her camera. I grabbed mine. And we photographed the largest morels I’ve ever seen. Not that I’ve seen many of these tasty mushrooms…but the tallest, an eight-inch high chunky morel, certainly impressed me.

It’s been a bumper crop year for morels in Minnesota, according to my brother-in-law, who has been hunting for this savory spring treat since he was a kid growing up in southwestern Iowa. He remembers piling into the family car afer church on hot, humid mornings and heading to the wooded hills west of Defiance to search for morels.

Dale lives in southeastern Minnesota now and, through the years, has uncovered morel hotbeds. He revealed the location of his latest find—within a half hour of his Waseca home—and then instructed me, with a grin spreading across this face, that he’d have to kill me if I shared the specific location.

My lips are zipped.

However, Dale offered this publishable tip to finding morels: on the south side of wooded hillsides where there are dead elms or where elms once grew.

I didn’t realize just how serious my brother-in-law is about this morel business until he sat down at his laptop and clicked onto morels.com, an online community bulletin board/information center for “Morel Madness 2012.” Here you can see photos of the latest morel finds and, surprisingly, even find out where to find morels. Or you can inquire about buying and selling.

Dale tells me morels were selling recently for $20 – $35 a pound on Craig’s list and eBay.

While earlier this spring my sister and her husband bought morels, they have plenty of their own now. A week ago Saturday Dale harvested some 65 morels from one location. Morels are sprouting two weeks earlier and are more abundant than normal this year, probably due to the unseasonably warm April, he speculates. The season has nearly ended now.

But this morel-loving couple will still be eating mushrooms into the summer and beyond as Dale dehydrates them. For now, this pair savors fresh morels, sauteed in butter. Lanae even saves the butter and reuses it to fry eggs, to make grilled cheese sandwiches and to put on asparagus. The butter has a “nice nutty flavor,” she says.

All of this morel show-and-tell got me interested in morels, which I found once perhaps two decades ago in the woods behind my house. I’ll admit, though, to a bit of nervousness over identifying morels.

Dale showed me a photo of a poisonous false morel and then offered this advice: “If it ain’t hollow, don’t swallow.”

Translate that to mean that edible morels are hollow inside. If you click here to Mushroom-Appreciation.com, you’ll find even more useful identification tips. I wouldn’t want you heading into the woods uninformed.

Perhaps next year my brother-in-law will allow me to join him on a morel hunt, if I promise not to photograph anything specific to give away his secret location.

Dale’s latest stash of morels, harvested on Saturday morning near his Waseca home.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling