Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Discovering Richter Woods, rural Montgomery October 19, 2021

Richter Woods County Park and the on-site barn in LeSueur County. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

EACH DAY OF SUNSHINE and warmth this late in October in Minnesota presents as a gift. We long-time Minnesotans understand that and celebrate. One less day of winter. One less day of cold and snow when the season of autumn extends. The recent weather has proven simply glorious.

Richter Woods Barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Late last week Randy took two days off work to savor these final days of autumn. And while we didn’t travel far, we delighted in nearby discoveries. We got a late start on Thursday, catching up on some much-needed rest. So we stayed close to home, aiming for western Rice County into LeSueur County.

Trees line both sides of the gravel road leading to Richter Woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Eventually, we landed at Richter Woods County Park 1.5 miles west of Montgomery. I’d heard of the park, but had yet to visit.

The hilly countryside near Trondjhem Church, rural Lonsdale. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We followed the slow-paced route there along mostly back country gravel roads.

An unexpected sighting of two swans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We paused once so I could photograph a pair of swans gliding across a small lake.

An aged barn along a gravel road. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I photographed, too, a weathered barn with fieldstone foundation. I often wonder how long barns will remain a landmark of our rural landscape. I feel an urgency to document their existence before roofs cave, boards rot, and only foundations remain.

A playground sits next to Richter Barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

At 80-acre Richter Woods, a mammoth barn looms, centering the park gathering space. The barn is available to rent for $75/day from April-October. With a spacious loft and main level, the barn offers plenty of room for events like weddings, reunions and much more.

Looking up to the haymow. Trees shadow the barn door. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I couldn’t access the locked barn. But I could envision the interior, especially the haymow with its curved wood frame. Many bridal couples covet rustic settings like this. I wonder whether many have discovered this barn circled by woods in the quiet countryside near Montgomery.

A splash of red/pink flowers bloom on a bush next to the green barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As much as I appreciated the barn, I couldn’t get over the forest green color. I longed to see that barn in red, a historically-accurate hue. I expect others, too, have wondered at the unusual color choice. As a photographer, I find a red barn much more visually-pleasing.

One of two trails we took into Richter Woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
No maps in this mailbox. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
There are lots of picnic tables on-site, some nice, others not so much. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Before pulling out our picnic lunch to dine near the barn, Randy and I stretched our legs. We followed a leaf-strewn dirt trail into the woods with no map to guide us. The on-site mailbox was without the promised maps.

Maple leaves galore. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Maple leaves, especially, blanket the earth.

Looking up toward the colorful tree canopy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

In a few spots, I looked overhead to a canopy of red and yellow trees set against the deep blue sky of October.

A recently-sawed tree. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We noticed, too, the many rotting and recently-sawed trees, I felt inwardly thankful for an afternoon without strong winds to possibly topple dead trees, loose branches.

Mushrooms on a fallen tree. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Mushrooms thrive in decay.

Loving the graceful curve of the barn roof. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Mostly, though, I noticed the peace. The quiet. I feel incredibly grateful to have access to natural settings like Richter Woods County Park. And I feel grateful, too, to live in this decidedly rural region of Minnesota within an hour of downtown Minneapolis. I feel grateful for gravel roads to follow. For barns that still stand. For warm and sunny October days that draw me into the countryside, into the woods.

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PLEASE CHECK BACK as I take you on to more backroads in Rice and LeSueur counties.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods at Falls Creek Park October 16, 2021

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On the expanse of grass outside the woods, silver maples shimmer against the blue sky of autumn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A MILE EAST OF FARIBAULT just off Minnesota State Highway 60, the 61-acre Falls Creek County Park offers an escape into the woods. Mostly undiscovered, it’s rare to encounter others while hiking here.

Last Sunday afternoon, Randy and I headed to the park, pulling into the vastly over-sized gravel parking lot pocked with potholes. From there, we headed downhill across a grassy expanse, past the picnic shelter and toward an opening in the woods.

A wooden footbridge over Falls Creek allows entrance to narrow dirt trails. There are no maps to guide hikers, so you must rely on visual cues, obscured in October by fallen leaves. But we’ve been here before, always taking the main trail following the creek.

An unusual find in the creek: shoes/boots. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

The creek is always my first stop. I pause on the bridge, typically to watch water rush over and around rocks. But this visit, the shallow water pooled, littered with leaves and a pair of hiking boots—perfectly good hiking boots from the looks of the shoes. I wondered how they landed there, in the water.

In the places where water remains in the creek, leaves float. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Mostly, the creek bed was dry, a result of this year’s drought. In areas where water remains, minnows darted. The water is at least clear, a rarity in this agricultural region.

Randy scales a steep hill into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A short distance into the woods, Randy spotted a worn path up a steep hillside. I’d never noticed this during prior visits. Before I could dissuade him, he hoofed his way up, slipping and sliding and grabbing onto trees. When Randy lost his footing, I feared he would tumble and injury himself. As much as I yearned to follow, I recognized my limitations and my desire to keep my bones in-tact.

Berries jolt color into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As he disappeared along the hilltop treeline, I continued along the creek route. But soon my mind went to that niggling place of worry, about the time I reached the point where the path sidles next to the eroded creek bank. One misstep and I could plunge over the edge. Not that it’s that high. But far enough to cause injury.

I backtracked, dug in my backpack for my cellphone (hoping for service), and then called Randy. He answered. “I didn’t come here to walk alone,” I told him, also inquiring about his location. He couldn’t pinpoint that except to say that he would head back. I feel thankful that Randy, unlike me, possesses a good sense of direction.

Remembering the hiking boots/shoes in the creek. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

“I don’t like being out here alone,” I added, noting that I’d observed two people on the path, too far away for me to clearly see them. Obviously those hiking shoes dumped in the creek prompted the beginning of a mystery plot in my writer’s brain.

Despite that concern, I aimed for the strangers…finding a cordial couple about my age examining mushrooms on a decayed tree. We talked mushrooms and my missing husband and they offered to help find him should need be. Their story of getting lost in these very same woods did nothing to assure me that Randy would find his way back. But he did. At a different point, where an unseen spring ran down the hillside and he did more slipping and sliding, this time in mud.

Randy follows the leaf-laden trail as it edges close to the eroded creek bank. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We reversed course and, together, followed the creek-side path deeper and deeper into the woods…until turning around and retracing our steps. I wished again for a trail map guide.

Near the footbridge, pools of water remain, collecting the fallen leaves of autumn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We veered briefly off the path to another trail leading to the creek. Again, no water. Only rocks on a dry creek bed.

Seemingly abandoned in the shelter. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Then it was back to the main route, a pause on the bridge to again wonder about those hiking boots and then a pause at the shelter to speculate about an abandoned bike, jacket and beverage bottle.

Not a soul remained at Falls Creek Park. At least no one visible to us. Only mysteries—of abandoned and tossed belongings and of unmarked trails leading deep into the woods.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So many reasons to visit Valley Grove, especially in autumn October 13, 2021

The artful gated entrance to Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SACRED in this place. This preserved parcel of land where two aged churches rise atop a hill in rural Nerstrand.

Looking down the driveway from the hilltop church grounds, a beautiful view of the valley below. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

This is Valley Grove, among my most treasured local natural spaces to seek solitude. Beauty. Peace. And a feeling of sacredness that stretches beyond spiritual.

The newer of the two Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I sat on the front steps of the 1894 white clapboard church eating a picnic lunch. Bothersome bees hovered, drawn by the sweetness of Randy’s soda and fruit-laced yogurt and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Photographed from a side of the clapboard church, the limestone church a short distance away. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A stone’s throw away across the lawn sits the 1862 limestone church, constructed in the year of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict raging many miles away to the west.

The cemetery offers history, art and a place for quiet contemplation against a beautiful natural backdrop. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
An in-process gravestone rubbing. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
I find gravestone engravings especially interesting and often touching. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Valley Grove holds its own history as a community and spiritual gathering place for the area’s Norwegian immigrants. Walk the grounds of the cemetery next to the churches and you’ll read names of those of Norwegian ancestry. The cemetery remains well-used with new tombstones marking the passage of yet another loved one.

Information about Valley Grove is tucked inside a case on the side of the clapboard church. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I have no personal connection to Valley Grove. But I hold a deep appreciation for the history, honored via the Valley Grove Preservation Society. That organization maintains and manages the church and grounds. And its a lovely, especially in autumn, acreage.

Farm sites and farmland surround Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Once I’d finished my turkey sandwich and other picnic foods, I set out with my camera to document. The views from this hilltop site are spectacular. Farm land and farm sites, the low moo of a cow auditorily reminding me of this region’s agrarian base.

Conservation and legacy are valued at Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Remnants of the Big Woods remain and can be seen from Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Following the prairie path back to the church grounds, just over the hill. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Tall dried prairie grasses frame nearly every view. Those who tend this land value its natural features of prairie and oak savanna. Paths lead visitors along prairie’s edge and onto the prairie to view distant colorful treelines, part of the Big Woods. The hilltop location offers incredible vistas.

On a mixed October afternoon of sun and clouds, a wildflower jolts color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

But up close is worth noting, too, especially the wildflowers.

An unexpected delight in the cemetery was an old-fashioned rosebush in full bloom. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

And in the cemetery I found an old-fashioned rosebush abloom in pink roses. Just like a rosebush that graced my childhood farm far away in southwest Minnesota where settlers and Native Peoples once clashed. I dipped my nose into blossom after blossom, breathing in the deep, perfumed, intoxicating scent.

Lots of wildflowers to enjoy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Spending time at Valley Grove, even when church doors are not open, seems sacred. I feel the peace of this rural location. The quiet. My smallness, too, within the vastness of sky and land and spires rising.

High on the hill…Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

To walk here, to sit on the front steps of a church on the National Register of Historic Places is to feel a sense of gratitude for those who came before us. For those who today recognize the value of sacredness and continue to preserve Valley Grove. Who understand that the spiritual stretches beyond church doors. To the land. To the memories of loved ones. And to future generations.

© Copyright 2021 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 at the cabin, verse three October 4, 2021

Horseshoe Lake in the central Minnesota lakes region in mid-September. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I NEVER EXPECTED to be one of those Minnesotans who would, each summer, go Up North to the cabin. But, thanks to the generosity of in-laws with lake property including a guest cabin, that is now part of my experience.

Looking up into the towering pines which populate this region of Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Thrice since May, Randy and I have headed Up North to the cabin, most recently in mid-September. Each visit leaves me feeling at peace. Relaxed. Content. Refreshed. Thankful for this place of solitude and natural northwoods beauty.

The view through the pines as the sun edges down. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

As soon as the van swings onto the jackpine-edged drive leading to the cabin, I feel like I’m entering another world. Those slim, tightly-packed evergreens set the scene, defining for me the essence of Up North. I especially delight in walking the lane at sunset, golden light filtering through the stand of pines.

Gently lapping water pushes aquatic plants onto the beach. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

And then there’s the lake. Horseshoe Lake. Water mesmerizes me. The stillness. Or the lap of gentle waves against shoreline.

The warm September days proved ideal for relaxing on the beach. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

While I don’t like being on water and will only enter to shoulder depth, I like being near water. Lounging on the beach, the sun heating the sand and warming my skin. Book in hand. Beverage nearby.

Sky and water merge… Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

It’s as if time ceases here. Here, where the sky and the water meet and loons cry and an eagle traces the shoreline.

I love collecting shells, although this trip I didn’t gather any. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Here, where only months earlier I gathered shells with my 5-year-old granddaughter and waded into the lake and lay on a hammock with my two grandchildren cozied beside me.

The dock was already removed from the lake, but a child’s slide remained. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

This lake place holds memories now of half-moons and pink skies and star-filled darkness. Of campfires and s’mores. Of little feet pounding the dock and sandy toes. Of waking up to a sunrise that writes poetry across the water, into the day, into Up North at the cabin.

TELL ME: Do you have cabin memories? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The art of autumn September 23, 2021

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Colorful oak leaves at Mission Park south of Crosslake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

DAYS AGO I SWITCHED out the art in my home to autumn scenes. To reflect the changing season.

I stitched this crewel embroidery art in the 1970s from a kit gifted by an aunt and uncle. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

I leaned two paint-by-number autumn landscapes, acquired several years ago in Detroit Lakes, atop a vintage chest of drawers. I exchanged an old mill scene for a rendition of a river winding through flaming orange woods in an interchangeable print my parents received as a 1967 housewarming gift. I hung a crewel embroidery piece I stitched of a multi-hued treeline set against a mountain backdrop. It was a 1974 high school graduation gift from my Uncle John and Aunt Sue. And I placed, too, a mammoth print of Robert Woods “White Mountains and Aspens” purchased for a few dollars at a garage sale in Medford.

“White Mountains and Aspens” by Robert Wood. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

Every piece of art I own—and I have a lot, acquired mostly at garage sales, thrift stores and recycled art sales at bargain prices—means something to me. Some is personal. But others simply inspire me or give me peace or take me into nature, as does most of the art now decorating my home.

It’s as if I’m bringing the outdoors in.

Outside, autumn eases into the landscape with oranges, yellows, reds and browns painting over green leaves. I noticed that especially last week on a short get-away to the central Minnesota lakes region where Randy and I stayed for several days at a family lake cabin south of Crosslake. We hiked into the woods at Mission Park and I found myself stopping often to photograph the leaves and the abundance of wild mushrooms. I’ll showcase images from that park soon. But for today, you get this solo image.

Take time to step outdoors. To walk in the woods. To appreciate the beauty of autumn as she paints color into the landscape. I welcome these September days. The cool mornings and evenings. The sunshine that warms the day. The earthy scent of the outdoors. The changing colors that delight me visually, that make this season so beloved to me.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poetic reflections from Faribault Energy Park September 14, 2021

Among the many beautiful wildflowers growing at Faribault Energy Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

DESPITE THE STEADY THRUM of traffic along adjacent Interstate 35 and the drone of the power plant, Faribault Energy Park remains a favorite place to walk. Not because it’s quiet—because it’s not, not at all. But because of the dirt trails that wind through 35 acres of wetlands and ponds.

Dirt trails ring the ponds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Here, when I put sneaker to ground, I feel connected to the land. There’s something satisfying and comforting about earth directly beneath my soles.

The foxtail, especially, remind me of the prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo September 2021.

And although this isn’t prairie, the openness of this park appeals to me. It reminds me of my prairie roots, of the gravel drives and roads I biked and walked while growing up in southwestern Minnesota. Sometimes my heart hurts for missing those familiar wide open spaces and spacious skies.

The park’s single wind turbine. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

At Faribault Energy Park, I pause occasionally to look skyward, to the expanse of blue. Or toward the churning arms of the wind turbine which, during my most recent visit, spun shadows across the land.

A view of the power plant from across the pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

It should be noted that I’m not particularly fond of wind turbine fields. I understand their importance, but don’t like their visual intrusion upon the landscape. Like visual pollution, they detract from the beauty of the land. They seem out-of-place, invasive to my eyes. I feel the same about massive solar panel fields planted on farmland. But here at Faribault Energy Park, only one wind turbine stands, across the road from a solar garden (not field).

Goldenrod, one flower I can identify. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
I’ve always loved milkweeds from fluff to pods to how they are necessary for the monarch butterfly population. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Dainty wildflowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Mostly, I notice the wildflowers and grasses. Goldenrod. Black-eyed Susans. An endless variety of plants that I should take time to research for identification. Rather, I settle for photographing them and appreciating their beauty. How they sway in the wind. How they appear in the sunlight. How they splash color into the landscape.

I especially love how these grass plumes bend and blow in the wind, like poetry. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Bold berries jolt color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
I love the hue and texture of this grass, whatever it may be. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

If my current photos were poems, they would write of Autumn and her floral dress flowing, billowing as she walks the runway of Faribault Energy Park. (My poetic interpretation of all those colorful wildflowers edging trails.) Audience applause rising. (My poetic interpretation of the droning traffic on I-35 and the noisy power plant.) I imagine that as easily as I recall prairie memories.

There is an abundance of cattails at Faribault Energy Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Faribault Energy Park, 4100 Park Avenue North, keeps drawing me back. To follow the dirt trails. To appreciate the landscape. To, for a short while, escape, even if quiet remains elusive.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the backroads of Rice County with Mr. Bluebird August 17, 2021

Mr. Bluebird, Keith Radel. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

DOWN THE GRAVEL ROAD, I saw him exit the ditch, cross the roadway and then climb into his red pick-up truck.

A man on a mission, to save bluebirds. Those are nesting boxes in the truck bed. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

“That’s Keith,” I told Randy. Even from a distance I recognized the tall, lean profile of Keith Radel. Known as Mr. Bluebird, he travels the backroads of Rice County checking bluebird nests.

Keith puts on countless miles in his red pick-up truck. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Randy and I had just finished a short hike at the nearby Cannon River Wilderness Park when I spotted Keith on a gravel road in rural Dundas. We paused, his pick-up and our van pulled side-by-side, windows rolled down, the three of us conversing like farmers meeting on a rural road to talk crops.

Keith’s simple mission statement. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Except we were talking bluebirds. Not that I know much about these songbirds. But Keith, who’s been tracking, counting and caring for bluebirds for nearly 40 years, does. He’s relentless in his passion to assure this bird thrives. And that devotion drives him to drive miles upon endless miles to check nest boxes and count eggs and do whatever it takes to assure bluebird survival. Rice County has the most successful bluebird recovery program in Minnesota.

A nesting box for bluebirds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I didn’t take notes when we were talking, although I recall Keith saying major ice storms in Texas this year had a devastating effect on the current bluebird population. He keeps meticulous notes on each nesting box.

Bluebird eggs. We didn’t see any bluebirds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Mostly, I focused on being in the moment. When Keith offered to show us two bluebird nesting boxes just down the road, we didn’t hesitate, reversed course, our van following his truck in a trail of dust. Once parked, Keith led us down the side of a ditch, lifting the nest cylinder from its post to reveal three beautiful blue eggs inside. The next nest held only a single egg.

Keith checks a bluebird nest. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Soon we were on our way, Randy and I looking for a place to eat a picnic lunch and Keith continuing with his bluebird checks.

The personalized license plate on Keith’s pick-up truck. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

But there’s more to this story than that of a man sporting a MINNESOTA BLUEBIRD RECOVERY PROGRAM cap with a specialty BLUEBRD license plate and a window sticker on his pick-up that proclaims his mission, Helping Bluebirds. There’s a personal connection. Keith is from my hometown of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. He grew up north of town. I grew up south of town. Both of us on family farms.

I photographed this cornfield and farm site from the gravel road where we stopped with Keith to check a bluebird nesting box. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Place connects us. Most people in Rice County are clueless as to the location of Vesta, or even our home county of Redwood some 120 miles to the west. So whenever I see Keith, I feel this sense of connection to my home area, to the land. When we met on that gravel road on a July afternoon, Keith understood my need to exit Faribault, to follow gravel roads, to reconnect with the land. And, yes, even to look at the crops.

© Copyright 2021 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

 

From Faribault: Our growing & evolving city parks August 10, 2021

Creative climbing apparatus at Faribault’s newest park, Fleckenstein Bluffs. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

AS A GRANDMOTHER OF TWO, ages 2 ½ and 5 who sometimes spend the weekend with Randy and me, I’m appreciative of public playground equipment. The City of Faribault is doing a great job of installing/updating playground equipment and other amenities in our city parks. Our park system is growing as our community grows and our needs change.

A paved recreational path, part of the city trail system, runs right next to the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Among the newest of parks is Fleckenstein Bluffs Park, located near downtown (First Avenue NE) and along the Straight River. Next door sits an under-construction apartment complex. A riverside recreational trail runs nearby. This park is sure to be well-used, especially once a picnic shelter, canoe launch site and river overlook are in place.

Just waiting for kids to discover, hidden animals. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Fossils are imprinted in the “stone” too. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Love these acorn cap seats. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Recently, I stopped at the park to check out the nature-themed playground equipment. The closer I looked, the more I discovered—like animals and fossils hidden in the mini rock climbing walls and stacked logs, the acorn caps, the replica branch supports, the toadstool and stump stepping points, and much more. What a creative way to incorporate nature in to play. I expect my grandchildren will delight in finding a chipmunk, for example, among the logs.

Kids can make music at Fleckenstein Bluffs. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Opportunities to create music on an over-sized xylophone also impress me.

The natured-themed playground equipment at Fleckenstein Bluffs Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I appreciate, too, that this playground is subdued in brown hues, fitting into the natural environment rather than splashing bold colors. This spot, after all, highlights the river, the woods, the backdrop bluffs. Nearby, the Fleckenstein Brewery once stood—thus the park name.

Meadows Park on Faribault’s east side. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Across the river on the east side of town, another new park offers diverse playground equipment. My friend Brenda, who lived in Faribault until moving to Connecticut with her family, tipped me off to Meadows Park during a summer visit. Her daughter, Lyla, played with friends at this park along 14th Street NE across from Milestone Senior Living Faribault.

I appreciate that the playground equipment is labeled by age appropriateness. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I appreciate Brenda’s recommendation as this will be a good play space for my grandchildren, especially given their age differences. The park offers distinct play areas marked for specific ages—one for ages 2-5 and another for ages 5-12. I don’t always feel comfortable with Isaac playing on the same equipment as his big sister, Isabelle. So this arrangement is ideal.

Up close playground details. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And, if I ever decide to pick up pickleball, Meadows Park also has courts.

Age labeled at Meadows Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Likewise, Windsor Park in south Faribault offers pickleball courts and playground equipment sized to various ages. I liked what I saw from a distance, although I didn’t stop to investigate close-up.

“Call of the Wild” details at Meadows Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And just up the hill from my home, the city recently installed a basketball court in Wapacuta Park. It was much-needed and is already well-used. In the evening, especially, I hear young people playing basketball, their voices drifting over and down the wooded hillside. I smile thinking of these teens bouncing balls and shooting hoops outdoors rather than locked inside staring at screens. Years ago this park housed basketball and tennis courts, which, for whatever reason, were removed. I’m thankful the tall metal slide that our daughters climbed is gone and replaced with safer playground equipment. The grandkids enjoy Wapacuta, too.

An overview of the Meadows Park playground. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Finally, I’m especially excited about another planned park, this one in a green space under and around our historic viaduct. The park, as yet unnamed, will be in a highly-visible location along Minnesota State Highway 60 and just a block from Central Avenue (the main street through our historic downtown). So many possibilities and opportunities exist to make this a community gathering spot. A place for the arts. For enjoying the outdoors. For recreation. For showcasing Faribault.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling