Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Appreciating River Bend Nature Center in Faribault August 11, 2021

Black-eyed susans on the prairie at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

WHENEVER I NEED TO CONNECT with nature nearby, my go-to destination is River Bend Nature Center, just across the Straight River on Faribault’s east side.

A viewing and resting spot by the prairie wetlands, now drying up due to the drought. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

In this 743-acre natural space, I can immerse myself in a diverse landscape of woods, prairie and wetland. Each setting provides not only a sensory change from the noise and motion of living along a busy street, but also a much-needed mental break.

An unknown to me prairie plant. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

When I’m at River Bend, I forget about what’s happening in my life or the world. Rather, I focus on being present in nature. Listening. Observing. Connecting.

Rain gardens front the RBNC interpretative center. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

That word, connecting, fits River Bend, which emphasizes its purpose as helping connect people to outdoor education, recreation and natural resource conservation close to home.

River Bend has an extensive trail system, some paved, some not. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

My own children, while growing up and attending school in Faribault, went on many field trips to River Bend. I remember also one winter evening when our then-young son delighted in a star-gazing event, complete with telescopes, on prairie’s edge. Today I occasionally take my grandchildren to walk RBNC’s trails. Randy and I also hike the paths.

A prairie path. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

Perhaps my favorite part of this spacious nature center is the prairie. It reconnects me with my prairie roots. With southwestern Minnesota, the land of open spaces and spacious skies. I love to walk through the path sliced into the prairie at River Bend. The path edged by tall prairie grasses and wildflowers. The path where I can pause to take in the vast sky with no trees blocking my view. I need to visually breathe.

Coneflowers, one of my favorite prairie flowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
“Rattlesnake Master,” Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Wildflowers and grasses mix on the prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

On my most recent visits, the prairie has focused my attention. Specifically the wildflowers—those interspersed among the grass and those planted in the rain garden near the interpretative center. While fading, the flowers remain an integral part of the prairie eco-system as they form seeds and then grow and/or re-sprout in the spring.

A lone turtle suns itself on a log. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

I also spent time in the nearby woods, stopping at the Turtle Pond to photograph turtles sunning on logs. They delight me and generations of kids, including mine, fascinated by those lazing turtles.

Signage helps visitors identify plants and flowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

River Bend holds generational appeal. I’ve seen young families pushing babies in strollers, teens driving remote-controlled vehicles on limestone shelves, older couples like us walking, and much more.

A lone daisy blooms among the prairie grass. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

Next week, August 16-20, River Bend focuses on its annual Ramble fundraising campaign. As a nonprofit, RBNC relies on fundraising, donations and memberships to keep the center open and operating. For more information about the Ramble, visit the RCNC website.

TELL ME: Where’s your favorite place to escape into nature near your home?

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Milkweeds flourish at River Bend July 23, 2021

Bees feed on a milkweed flower at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

IN MY MESS OF FLOWERBEDS, which are anything but orderly, random milkweeds grow. Some sprouted in the lawn. Others simply popped up among the phlox and ferns and iris and greenery, seeds blown by the wind, dropping to the ground, rising now toward the sun.

Milkweeds thrive on the prairie at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Back in the days of my youth, I would have yanked these milkweeds from the soil under the direction of my farmer father. Remove those weeds from the corn and soybean fields. I know better now. Milkweed plants are essential to the monarch butterfly.

I love the dusty hue of the common milkweed. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The milkweed is the host plant for the monarch. They lay eggs on the leaves, the larvae then feeding on those leaves.

The milkweed attracts more than just monarchs. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Without milkweeds, the monarch would become extinct.

Butterfly milkweed, although much less abundant, also grows at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

More and more, if you take note, you will see milkweeds growing. At River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, fields of common milkweed, dusty pink in color, grow, as do some of the more flashy orange butterfly milkweed.

The exceedingly brilliant butterfly milkweed, up close. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I appreciate the value of this plant in the natural cycle, in sustaining the monarch butterfly population. This is but one example of how we are all intertwined. Every creature. One dependent on the other.

Milkweed and flowers flourish on the River Bend prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I marvel at this intricate world God created. I love to watch a monarch butterfly flit through the air, settle on a blossom, drink its fill of nectar, then rise and fly. Delicate, yet sturdy. Dependent on milkweed and other flowers, yet free.

What a lovely and beautiful sight in a world where beauty is too often missed in the busyness of life, among all the weeds.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Take time at River Bend July 15, 2021

I noticed this beautifully veined leaf lying on a trail at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

TAKE TIME. Two simple words. Take time to pause. To look and truly see. To focus on the details. To appreciate the beauty of our natural world.

Crossing the viaduct on the way to River Bend Nature Center on Faribault’s east side. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

In Faribault, River Bend Nature Center offers a prime place to immerse one’s self in nature. And I did just that on a recent walk through the woods and then into the prairie.

Flowers… Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.
A jolt of color in the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.
Lacey flowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

I usually carry my camera while at River Bend. That causes me to really notice my surroundings. This most recent visit, I spotted an abundance of wildflowers. From woods to prairie, flowers thrive in the summer heat.

Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

A plaque on a bench reminds hikers to take time to smell the flowers, although I didn’t dip my nose into any blossoms. Rather, I appreciated the simple beauty of color splashed in the otherwise green woods.

On the way to the Turtle Pond, I spotted this interesting grass. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.
Maple leaves. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.
Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

Even the greenery holds visual appeal in the rolling droop of grass, the lace of maple leaves, the woods that hug trails.

This paver in honor of my friend’s parents reminds me of Psalm 46:10. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

Messages on pavers at Honor Point, overlooking the Straight River, inspire. Be still. Pause. Appreciate.

River Bend features a natural play space for kids in the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

There’s something to be said for being still. Simply being. Listening. Connecting to the earth. Perhaps remembering how you felt as a child, exploring.

A fort and “tunnel” in the kids’ play area. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

In my youth, I “lived” outdoors, coming indoors only to eat and to sleep. With my siblings, we built forts in the grove, rode our bikes along dirt trails, hid in prairie grasses higher than us.

At the edge of the woods, a map details River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

I took time. Time to play in nature. To become part of it. To imagine. When I hike at River Bend, I reclaim that childhood joy.

Wild raspberries edge the woods near the prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

I savor the moments. The sights. The tastes. The scents. The sounds. All that which defines the natural world.

To be avoided: wild parsnip. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

WARNING: Stay away from this plant, wild parsnip. It looks a lot like dill and is growing alongside trails. Wild parsnip will burn your skin. Do NOT touch it.

Clover grows in sun dappled spots in the woods by the prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photo rich posts from my recent visit to River Bend. Next, I’ll take you into the prairie.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Make way for goslings (and ducklings) May 11, 2021

Goslings huddle near pond’s edge at the River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

EVERY SPRING, I FIND myself drawn to pond or river’s edge to watch the goslings, the newborn offspring of Canadian geese navigating the shoreline and water.

Geese are fierce protectors of their young. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

They are just so darned cute. Downy yellow. Sometimes huddling in a circle of sibling closeness.

Swimming into the pond at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Still in the protective care of their parents. And, yes, geese can prove fierce when safeguarding their young. I steer clear of these young families, preferring to frame family photos from afar.

Prairie Pond at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
I love how the goslings are bookended in a protective line. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
A goose is barely visible in the dried grasses of Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The ponds of River Bend Nature Center (especially the one along Rustad Road) are good spots to spot geese and ducks. When I see young waterfowl, I am reminded of Robert McCloskey’s children’s picture book, Make Way for Ducklings. It won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book and tells the story of a duck family in Boston.

A duck pair in Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

While River Bend lies a long ways from McCloskey’s Boston Public Gardens pond setting, the universal appeal of ducklings spans the miles between Massachusetts and Minnesota.

A duck emerges among the grasses in Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Whether in a city, rural area or nature center, downy babies in the care of their parents create, at least for me, a sense that all is well in the world. That no matter the worldwide challenges—especially during a pandemic—no matter the community and personal challenges, the cycle of life continues.

Geese nesting at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Every spring I make way for ducklings and goslings, celebrating their arrival by documenting their arrival. With my camera. But even more, by framing them in my memory during this season of spring.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An early April evening at River Bend April 13, 2021

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One of several immense cottonwoods looms next to the parking lot.

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.

From atop a hill, I looked toward the lowlands. We’d just walked the path to the left after exiting the woods.

As we hiked, the shrill trill of frogs in the nearby wetlands reverberated. I’m always amazed by this spring time opera/mating ritual.

The treeline that caught my photographic eye.

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.

To the left in this photo, a deer leaves the protection of a treeline.

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.

There’s something about tall grass that speaks to me. Perhaps because of my Minnesota prairie roots.

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.

I love the simplicity of this scene.

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.

We turned and partially retraced our route once we reached this point leading to the prairie.

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.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Anything but a typical walk at River Bend Nature Center August 31, 2020

This path cuts through the edge of the prairie at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault.

 

AS RANDY AND I HIKE the paved trails through the woods and the grassy path edging the prairie at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, we often see the same sights, have the same conversations.

 

Prairie wildflowers

 

These prairie grasses remind me of my youth, when I played in such grass on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

 

My favorite prairie wildflower, the black-eyed susan.

 

I talk about my love for the prairie and for the wildflowers and for grasses swaying in a poetic rhythm in the wind.

 

Eradicating invasive buckthorn from the woods remains an ongoing battle.

 

We discuss the buckthorn that grows rampant in the woods despite efforts to control it via goats and hands-on removal.

 

Leaves are beginning to change color.

 

I observe details that hint at the changing of seasons.

 

Photographed in the rain garden by the interpretative center.

 

Not even a bumblebee escapes my notice or my camera’s lens.

 

The art of bark.

 

Dead trees, bark, moss and fungi draw me to pause and look. Nature is, after all, in the details.

 

The doe and her baby, barely visible behind her.

 

But on this Sunday afternoon visit, mosquitoes and other pesky bugs push us at a much faster pace along wooded paths. So fast that I miss the doe and her growing fawn just off the trail leading to the Turtle Pond. Randy spots the pair and softly calls my name, enough to cause me to stop. Then he points to the woods where the deer stand. Still. Watching. I fire off three frames before the pair turn and clip through the trees. Disappearing to camouflage themselves within the green and brown hues of the treescape.

 

The hawk blends easily into the woods.

 

A few twists and turns later, I am still speed walking, driven to hurry by those biting insects. But then a bird catches my eye and I stop, speak Randy’s name. He doesn’t hear, fails to the see the bird so blended is it into the trees. I snap one photo before the bird rises, wings spanned wide. It appears to be a juvenile hawk. I am pleased with the hawk and deer sightings because we seldom see wildlife here, other than squirrels.

 

The oddest sighting ever at River Bend, doll well above my head in a tree.

 

But earlier I spotted the most unusual sighting ever at River Bend—a baby doll suspended in a tree. I expect a child lost her beloved doll and someone found it and decided it would be funny to place the toy in a tree. I found it a bit creepy. Like I was walking into Halloween or a Stephen King novel.

 

The first sign in a series of bug signs bordering trails.

 

No-see-ums get their own page in the bug book.

 

The grasshopper, too, merits its place in the bug alphabet book.

 

Along the same pathway, River Bend staffers posted photocopies of pages from The Icky Bug Alphabet Book by Jerry Palloth. More creepiness if you are not a fan of bugs. I don’t dislike bugs unless they pester (flies) or bite me (mosquitoes and no-see-ums) or destroy my flowers/plants (Japanese beetles) or are centipedes. I detest those fast-moving, too-many-legged insects.

 

Info about the bumblebee from Pallotta’s book.

 

I found the bug book informative, which I expect was the intention, along with giving families something of interest to study while in the woods. The Northfield Public Library is doing a similar activity, posting picture book pages on posts in five public parks during August, calling these “Story Strolls.” In downtown Faribault, along Central Avenue, Buckham Memorial Library has also posted a Story Walk, featuring pages from Eric Carle’s Head to Toe. (I’ll post about that soon.)

 

I had not previously noticed this small sign near a tree by the interpretive center.

 

I appreciate nature centers like River Bend, now more than ever during this global pandemic. Living as we do today with so many limitations in our lives—and justifiably so—I’ve grown to understand that I shouldn’t take anything for granted. I am thankful I live in a region where I can find endless natural settings to simply immerse myself in the beauty, solitude and peace of the outdoors. Baby dolls in trees aside.

 

Note: I took these photos several weeks ago, so the landscape has likely changed and the baby doll may be missing.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

September at River Bend September 11, 2019

 

FIELDS OF GOLDENROD brighten the landscape—edging roadways, filling fields, erupting seemingly everywhere as summer slips ever closer to autumn in Minnesota.

 

 

 

 

A walk through River Bend Nature Center reveals hues of brown, orange, red and yellow. In leaves changing color. In fading flowers.

 

 

In mature milkweeds and drying prairie grasses.

 

 

In butterflies galore.

 

 

Days carry a visual impression of autumn. But also a feel of autumn. There’s a sense of urgency, of the need to be outdoors as much as possible.

 

 

Autumn marks my favorite of Minnesota’s seasons. So I carry my camera through Faribault’s sprawling nature center to take it all in.

 

 

 

 

The places marked by man with words of adoration.

 

 

The trails that trail through the woods.

 

 

 

 

And always the path cut through the prairie, where I imagine settlers of long ago crossing Minnesota Territory in covered wagons or slicing plow blades through sod or simply journeying westward into dreams.

 

 

These are my thoughts within this land set aside to preserve today for the dreamers of tomorrow.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poetic & healing thoughts inspired by a walk through River Bend June 4, 2019

 

RIVER BEND NATURE CENTER in Faribault offers a respite from reality, a place to envelope one’s self in nature by walking the wooded trails or the open prairie.

 

 

 

Here, within this place, nature writes poetry.

 

 

 

 

I read poetic words in signage and flowers and greenery.

 

 

 

 

 

In sky and landscape and vistas.

 

 

If I walk too quickly, I miss the poetic lines, the nuanced words that create a rhythm of peace in a chaotic world.

 

 

 

 

It takes discipline to slow down, to notice the descriptive details that hug the earth, that scent the air, that hide within the natural colors of the world.

 

 

How often do we as humans choose to hurry through our days, oblivious to those around us? I challenge each of you to slow down, to pause in the busyness of life and look outside yourself and your lives. See your co-worker. See your friend. See your neighbor. See your family member. Then reach out. Connect. Support. Rain your poetry of love upon others.

© Copyright 2019 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

 

Exploring the Kasota Prairie on an October afternoon October 7, 2010

 

 

A rock juts into the Kasota Prairie.

 

I CAN HEAR, in the distance, the steady thrum of traffic, presumably from U.S. Highway 169 or perhaps from nearby Minnesota Highway 22. I’m uncertain because I’ve never been here before and I haven’t consulted a map to pinpoint my location.

If not for the endless drone, I could be standing in the middle of a remote South Dakota or western Minnesota prairie.

But I am in south central Minnesota, at the Kasota Prairie, on a 90-acre remnant of the prairie land which comprised one-third of our state before 1850. Here native prairie grasses remain and grazed lands have been restored.

 

 

A view from the parking lot with a stone wall framing the prairie.

 

On a Friday afternoon, my husband and I discover this scenic spot in the Minnesota River valley two miles from Kasota. Because I favor the sweeping, wide open spaces of the prairie, the place of my roots, to the cramped confines of wooded land, I am comfortably at home here.

Prairie meets sky at Kasota. Stems of grasses dried to the muted earthen shades of autumn sway in the wind, mingling with the wildflowers and the berries I can’t always identify.

Occasionally a block of ancient rock juts through the soil, breaking the vista of plant life.

 

 

Water, rock, sky and prairie meld in this scenic Kasota Prairie landscape.

 

I pause often along the walking trails, even stray from the trampled paths, to examine the mottled stone, to admire a lone, rock-encircled barren tree atop a hill, to identify the red berries of wild roses, to study a clutch of feathers left by a predator, to take in the distant hillside of trees tinted in autumn colors.

 

 

My favorite image from the Kasota Prairie, a barren tree encircled in rock.

 

 

 

Wild rose berries on the Kasota Prairie.

 

 

Trees on a distant hillside change colors under October skies.

 

There is so much to appreciate here. Wind. The sky, quickly changing from azure blue wisped with white to the angry gray clouds of a cold front. Land, rolling out before me, unbroken except for sporadic pockets of water, the occasional tree or cluster of trees and those rocks, those hard, ancient rocks that interrupt this land, this Kasota Prairie.

 

 

A sign marks the Kasota Prairie entrance.

 

 

To truly appreciate the prairie, notice the details, like the berries growing among the grasses.

 

 

A narrow path runs along the barbed wire fence border line of the prairie.

 

FYI: To find the Kasota Prairie, take Le Sueur County Road 21 one mile south of Kasota. Then turn west onto township road 140 and go one mile.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling