Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

Oh, glorious Sunday sunshine in southern Minnesota February 3, 2020

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A view of the Cannon River dam, river and surrounding area around Father Slevin and North Alexander Parks in Faribault, on Sunday afternoon. Portions of the river are open and sections iced-over.

 

BLUE STRETCHED WIDE AND FILTERED across the sky accompanied by bright sunshine melting snow and ice, warming backs, dancing across open water.

 

Looking the other direction down the Cannon River from the dam walkway toward the Second Avenue bridge.

 

This weekend brought a welcome end to a nearly 10-day streak of grey skies here in southern Minnesota. And it was glorious.

 

Trees reflect in an open section of the Cannon River next to a frozen section.

 

In multiple conversations, I listened to Minnesotans praise the change in weather, thankful for a respite from winter. I added my own words of gratitude. And, like most everyone, I felt the urgent need to get outdoors, to take in the sunshine we’ve craved. Missed.

 

A lone fisherman angles along the banks of the Cannon River Sunday afternoon.

 

Sunday afternoon, with the temp at 40 degrees, Randy and I followed the recreational trail along the banks of the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. It’s a favorite scenic walking spot in Faribault with no worry of packed ice or snow.

 

Just across the street, the Faribault Public Schools’ football stadium.

 

Occasionally I paused to take photos, my fingers quickly chilling in temps that felt more like 30 degrees given the 15 mph wind. Only when we curved into the shelter of evergreen trees did the cutting wind cease.

 

Photographed in the Ace Hardware parking lot, on our way to North Alexander Park, a woman pushing a stroller.

 

Fishing in the Cannon River on February 2, 2020.

 

From a distance, I observed this jogger attired in shorts as he ran along Second Avenue.

 

Everywhere, people were out and about—fishing from the shore of the Cannon, walking the trail, pushing babies in strollers, jogging (in shorts), pedaling on a fat tire bike, chipping ice from driveways, walking dogs…

 

Looking toward the dam, the shelter in Father Slevin Park and the Faribault Woolen Mill in the distance.

 

Water rushes over the dam.

 

Geese walk across the ice near the Woolen Mill dam.

 

And on the river, water churned over the dam, geese walked on ice and ducks swam in open water.

 

Suspended from a light post along Second Avenue, a relatively new banner defines this as Faribault’s Mill District as part of a branding campaign by the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism.

 

Photographed from the riverside trail, the Second Avenue bridge and Mill District banner.

 

The historic Faribault Woolen Mill (right), with its signature smokestack, located along the banks of the Cannon River.

 

Nearby, vehicles dodged ponding water on busy Second Avenue in this area now bannered as the Mill District. The historic Faribault Woolen Mill sits here along the Cannon.

I love this spot, especially on a lovely sunshine-filled Sunday afternoon in February.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An October afternoon at Dunton Locks County Park October 24, 2019

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A stunning autumn scene sets the backdrop for this dock at Dunton Locks County Park, rural Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

 

OCTOBER MARKS ONE of those months when we Minnesotans feel the need to get outdoors as often as possible, to take in the autumnal hues, the sunny skies, the measured days of light and warmth. Too soon winter arrives and all the glories of October become but a memory.

 

 

 

 

In recent weeks, I’ve added pages to my autumn memories via viewing vistas of landscapes turning from green to the oranges, reds, yellows and browns of the season. Like at Dunton Locks County Park outside Detroit Lakes. It’s a lovely place just a short drive south of this northwestern Minnesota city. Here trees hug shorelines and trails lead through dense woods.

 

 

 

 

On the late Wednesday afternoon of our visit, lots of folks enjoyed the park on a particularly glorious day. A woman fished. A guy gazed toward the water from the bridge spanning the rapids linking Muskrat Lake and Lake Salle. A kindergartner and her mom collected colored leaves. A young family—new baby girl bundled against Mom and second son riding atop Dad’s shoulders while oldest son ran ahead—hiked in this park within a mile of their home.

 

 

 

 

There’s something about being outdoors on a beautiful day that brings us all together to appreciate the simple things in life. A sunny day. Crunch of drying leaves underfoot. The sound and rush of water roaring over rocks. The overwhelming feeling of gratitude for living in a place like Minnesota where we have easy access to public parks, where open space is abundant and where, on an autumn afternoon, folks delight in the beauty of this land.

 

BONUS PHOTO:

 

Rails for a mechanical boat tram run across the grass between two lakes at the park. The tram operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day and transports boats between Muskrat Lake and Lake Salle.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Sunday afternoon autumn drive in Rice County October 22, 2019

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A beautiful oak tree along the shore of Union Lake at Albers Park, Rice County, Minnesota.

 

IN THIS TOO WET and too gloomy of Minnesota autumns, days like this past weekend are a gift. Sunshine and dry weather. Trees morphing from green into sometimes blazing red. Skies still and beautiful and the scent of earth and harvest prevailing.

 

One of my favorite places to photograph in rural Rice County in autumn: the shoreline of Kelly Lake.

 

A mass of maple leaves at Albers Park.

 

From the shores of Union Lake, the steps leading down to the lake at Albers Park.

 

On Sunday afternoon we took a drive through western Rice County to view the fall colors. I needed the outing after a week of mostly lying around feeling awful. An all too early in the flu season virus struck me hard. Residuals remain and I’m still not back to 100 percent.

 

Across the water, colorful trees line the shore of Kelly Lake.

 

Autumn beauty in a single leaf.

 

A playground at Albers Park stands empty on a beautiful October Sunday afternoon.

 

But a few hours away from home viewing the changing landscape, taking photos and walking about in the beauty of autumn lifted my spirits considerably. Especially since I missed my niece Katie’s wedding on Saturday. Nothing will make up for that. But such is life. I knew wedding guests wouldn’t appreciate my not entirely healthy presence.

 

Not everyone could play like me on Sunday. Farmers were working hard to harvest crops on a rare sunny day.

 

On a beautiful autumn afternoon in southeastern Minnesota, none of that mattered. Sunshine does the soul good. So do fresh air and thoughts focused outward instead of inward.

The afternoon ended perfectly with a stop at an area apple orchard. More to come on that.

 

Maple leaves up close.

 

I hope that you, like me, have found time to delight in these closing days of autumn. Trees in colorful glory. Sun streaming. Scents of harvest and earth rising.

© Copyright 2019 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

 

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

 

My prairie place of peace in Faribault July 8, 2019

 

I’VE FOUND MY PARK in Faribault. The place of wildflowers and waving grasses, of songbirds and waterfowl, of gravel trails that curve around bodies of water.

 

 

Faribault Energy Park reminds me of southwestern Minnesota, the prairie place of my roots. Located on the city’s northwest side and visible from Interstate 35, this Minnesota Municipal Power Agency park invites visitors to walk paths in an ever-changing natural landscape.

 

 

Even with the steady drone of I-35 traffic in the background, birdsong breaks through the noise. The memorable voice of the red-winged blackbird, especially, sounds a sensory delight.

 

 

I’ve visited the park mostly in the evening, when the golden light of sunset falls upon ponds, angles through grasses and flowers, and slices between tree branches.

 

 

Daisies, milkweed, clover, Iris and other flowers familiar but not identifiable to me by name populate the landscape in clusters of white, clumps of purple, flashes of yellow. Focusing my camera causes me to slow down, to notice blossoms I might otherwise miss while following the winding dirt paths.

 

 

But visitors can’t miss the wind turbine towering above the park next to a hillside block of solar panels. Informational signage explains how wind energy converts into electricity. Faribault Energy Park, though, is a dual fuel (natural gas and fuel oil) facility, not primairly wind-powered, and runs during periods of high demand for electricity.

 

 

This park serves also to educate, welcoming students to tour the plant each May, to view the control room, the steam turbine and then to walk those wetland area trails. Tours are also available by appointment.

 

 

For folks like me simply seeking a place to escape into and photograph nature, Faribault Energy Park wetlands park offers a respite of natural beauty. Some also come here to fish, although I’ve yet to see an angler pull in a catch.

 

 

But I’ve observed geese and ducks claim this property and swim these ponds. I’ve glimpsed, too, an otter gliding through the water.

 

 

And I’ve rested in the gazebo.

 

 

 

In the chaos and busyness of life, reinforced here by the sights and sounds of adjacent I-35 traffic, I still find peace in this place reminiscent of my native southwestern Minnesota prairie.

 

 

FYI: Faribault Energy Park is located at 4100 Park Avenue. The wetlands park is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling