Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Shifting seasons October 18, 2022

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Trees were ablaze at the end of September in Northfield’s Bridge Square. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

FRIDAY MORNING BROUGHT the first snow flurries of the season to southern Minnesota. Not enough snow to stick to the ground here in Faribault, but in other parts of the state flakes accumulated.

Seasonal displays drew my eye to this floral shop on a corner in downtown Northfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

We are in the time of transition, shifting from autumn toward winter. One day the sun shines bright on trees still ablaze in color and temps feel comfortable. Other days, grey clouds blanket the sky, blocking the sun, with winter attire needed outdoors.

Inside Used-A-Bit Shoppe, glassware in a seasonal hue. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

In these waning days of autumn, I am reminded of how much I love this season—for the colors, the mostly moderate temps, the scent, the feel, the gathering in. It’s as if we Minnesotans recognize that every single gloriously sunny day needs to be celebrated, to be photographed in our memories, to be pulled out when winter days draw us in.

Biking across a bridge over the Cannon by Bridge Square. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A few weeks ago I was in neighboring Northfield, about a 20-minute drive away. This art-strong historic college town along the Cannon River presented scenes that hold the essence of the season. From colorful trees to blooming flowers to seasonal displays, the visuals of autumn unfolded before me.

Outside Just Food Co-op. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

People were out and about. Dipping into Just Food Co-op. Shopping at the thrift store. Sitting on a park bench waiting to share a faith message. Walking a dog. Biking across a bridge spanning the river.

Fallen leaves add interest to the Arb creek. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I felt no hurry, only an appreciation for the day, time to meander while waiting for Randy to complete an appointment. Afterwards we headed to Cowling Arboretum for a short walk and an engaging conversation with another hiker. It was one of those chance encounters that left me feeling uplifted, encouraged, blessed.

Coneflowers flourish at Cowling Arboretum. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Wild grapes. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Wildflowers thrive in the sunshine along the Cannon River at Cowling Arboretum. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

As I immersed myself in nature on that final day of September, I noticed wildflowers in bloom, leaves floating in the creek, the curve of grapevines, the hint of color in a few trees. If I was to revisit the Arb today, I would surely view a different scene. Each day moves us nearer, oh, so much closer, to winter.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Parts of Rice, Le Sueur & Nicollet counties in all their autumn splendor October 3, 2022

The beginning of our day trip took us west out of Faribault along back county roads. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

AUTUMN POPPED COLOR—brilliant oranges, reds, yellows—into the landscape on an October day as beautiful as they come here in southern Minnesota.

Harvesting beans along Le Sueur County Road 12. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Throughout Rice, Le Sueur and Nicollet counties, leaves are rapidly changing, splashing hillsides, groves, shorelines and other stands of trees in spectacular seasonal hues.

Photographed at the public boat landing on Horseshoe Lake just off Rice County Road 14 by Camp Omega. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Randy and I headed on a fall color drive Monday morning, referencing the DNR Fall Color Finder guide promising plenty of colorful leaves to the west. Hours of traveling mostly county roads (including gravel) through the southern Minnesota countryside on our day-long drive provided incredible leaf viewing.

The distant shoreline of Horseshoe Lake blazes fiery colors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Retracing our exact route through Rice and Le Sueur counties and a small section of Nicollet County would be nearly impossible. But we started out by heading west on Rice County Road 12, eventually following CR 14 to Horseshoe Lake by Camp Omega. The public boat landing there was our first stop to view a lakeside treeline ablaze in fiery hues.

Crops ripen against a farm site backdrop in Le Sueur County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

It wasn’t just the trees that drew my eye. I love, too, the acres of corn and soybeans drying under the autumn sun. The muted gold of corn leaves adds to the sense of seasons shifting.

A grain truck holds the harvest along Le Sueur County Road 12. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Harvest is well underway with combines and grain trucks in fields. I appreciate the rural landscape any time of year, but especially now as farmers bring in the crops.

Cattle in a pasture along CR 101 on the way to the Kasota Prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

From fields to farm sites (especially barns) to roadside vegetable stands to cattle in pastures, I found myself reconnecting with my agrarian roots, my prairie roots, while on this day trip.

A memorable message marks the entrance to the Kasota Prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Fiery hillsides of trees edge the Kasota Prairie in the distance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)
A lone cedar stands atop a hill on the Kasota Prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Near Kasota, we turned onto Le Sueur County Road 101 off CR 21 and took a winding gravel road about five miles to the Kasota Prairie. It was worth the dusty road, the meandering drive, to reach this grassland. As we pulled into the parking lot and hiked an uneven dirt trail into the prairie, I stopped multiple times to photograph the distant treeline painted in shades of mostly orange, red, brown… This prairie is a must-see, oh, so lovely, showcasing backdrop trees that hug the Minnesota River.

Colorful treelines can be seen along both sides of US Highway 169. Stunning. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Color in the Minnesota River Valley is near-prime. Originally, we’d intended to tour Mankato, but shifted gears when I learned that my poem, “The Mighty Tatanka,” is not yet posted as part of The Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Instead, we drove to St. Peter and took US Highway 169 north out of town. And wow, oh, wow. The colors along the stretch of highway from St. Peter to Le Sueur, especially, are spectacular. This is a must-drive right now. Don’t wait. Not one day. Not two days. Go now.

A memorable barn because of its copper-hued roof. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Heading east on Minnesota State Highway 19 toward New Prague, we turned south at Union Hill and shortly thereafter took a gravel road to State Highway 13, then turned onto Le Sueur County Road 145, landmarked by a barn roof the color of copper set against an autumn backdrop of trees.

A road sign that fit the day’s purpose, to view leaves. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

If I remember correctly, this farm site is along Leaf Trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Heading back toward Faribault, another stunning treeline next to a cornfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

More gravel roads, including one appropriately named Leaf Trail, and blacktop eventually led us to Millersburg and aiming home to Faribault mostly along CR 46. Interstate 35 may have been a better choice for fall colors based on the colorful trees spotted there on Sunday between Faribault and the first Lakeville exit.

A view of Lake Washington from the public boat landing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

But by then it was late afternoon, many road miles later with stops at lakes and the prairie and a park for a picnic lunch. We’d had a full day. A day full of autumn in Minnesota at its best. Warm. Mostly sunny. And ablaze in colors, the reason I so love this season.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of seasons as we welcome Autumn to Minnesota September 29, 2022

A wave of cattails signal Autumn’s entrance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

IN THIS SEASON OF EARLY AUTUMN, the landscape of Minnesota transitions to subdued, muted, softer tones flashed with vivid orange, yellow and red in tree lines or a solitary tree. This time of year truly marks a change as we ease toward Winter, a season devoid of color.

Goldenrods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A hillside of drying grass contrasts with the looming grey sky. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Grasses tower high above me. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A month ago, before Summer exited, I already observed Autumn’s entrance at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Stands of cattails. Groups of goldenrod. Seas of drying prairie grass. All signaled the shift to September days.

I’m sure this scene has changed in the month since I photographed it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

I love this time of year. Sunny days give way to cool evenings to brisk mornings. I’ve pulled the flannel from the closet. I embrace the feeling, the glory, of each day, recognizing such days are fleeting.

Rustic signs, which I love, mark the trails at River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

But weeks before this end of September, I delighted in the final days of August with that short walk through the woods at River Bend, then along a grass-lined trail to the hilltop Prairie Loop before I retraced my steps.

A stem of grass bends in the wind. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Prairie grasses, looming well above my head, bent in the wind. I noted the gracefulness of the stems’ movement, the details on a single stalk. If you’ve ever paused to study a stalk, it’s almost like reading a poem. Grain after grain after grain ladders a slim line. In poetry, each word ladders into a line, into a verse, into a poem.

In the light of an August afternoon, a Monarch butterfly feeds upon the flower of a thistle. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In the flashlight of the afternoon at River Bend, I spotted a lone Monarch flitting among thistles, black-outlined orange wings contrasting with the soft purple of the bloom. A metaphor. Or perhaps a simile when penned poetically. Poem upon poem upon poem.

Lush leaves veined by the August sun. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Autumn edits out Summer, eliminating the excess wordage of a season that is lush and full and busy. Now the lines of the season shorten, every word carefully chosen, a harbinger of what lies ahead. Winter. Sparse. Barren. Cold.

I followed this path from the woods, across the low lands to a hilltop overlooking the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

But until then, Autumn settles in with the familiarity of a worn buffalo plaid flannel shirt. With the familiarity of cattails and milkweed bursting. Goldenrods. Tall prairie grasses drying, moving toward dormancy. I’ve seen this shift every September for past sixty years now. Yet I never tire of the shift, the change in seasons here in southern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From the 70s to today, caring about Earth September 12, 2022

A massive wind turbine at Faribault Energy Park dwarfs my husband, Randy, walking near it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

COMING OF AGE in the early 1970s, I held a general awareness of environmental concerns. A respect for the earth and the environment was beginning to emerge as young people and others raised their voices.

Cattails flourish in the park wetlands. Restoration, rather than draining, of wetlands is the norm today. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I remember the anti-littering campaigns. The concerns about water and air pollution. The efforts to limit billboards. I recall, too, Earth Shoes, although I’m uncertain what that footwear had to do with anything environmental.

This trail leads to the wind turbine, a teaching tool inside Faribault Energy Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Perhaps previous generations cared, too, but it seems the young people of the 70s started a new environmental movement that pushed personal and societal responsibilities in caring for our planet. Those efforts continue today, but with additional focuses: climate change, alternative energy, electric-powered vehicles and more. Today’s young adults are among those leading the way in discussions and effective change.

I grow milkweeds in my Faribault yard. I photographed this milkweed flower with an unknown insect atop at the energy park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I feel such hope. Within my own family circle, my eldest daughter and son-in-law compost food and bio-degradable paper products. My son owns an e-bike, not a car, his primary mode of transportation between his Indiana apartment and Purdue University. We recycle, donate or give away items we no longer need. Every little bit helps. My young granddaughter wears hand-me-downs from her cousins. Just like her mother before her, whom I outfitted primarily via rummage sale purchases.

Unlike this dead frog flattened on a road at the energy park, thrifting/recycling/upcycling is very much alive. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Thrifting is in vogue. I recently spoke with a shop owner in Northfield who said local college students flock to her antiques and collectibles store to buy vintage clothing from one particular vendor.

Solar panels inside the park focus on alternative energy. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Across the Minnesota countryside, solar fields are replacing crop fields. Wind turbines are popping up, too, adding to those that have been around for decades.

Bold red berries burst color into the park’s landscape. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

It makes a difference—these seemingly small and big changes. A shift in attitudes with a new-found appreciation for our natural world can preserve, and hopefully, improve this place we call home.

A sign posted inside Faribault Energy Park lays out the rules. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Faribault Energy Park, owned and managed by the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, aims to model environmental responsibility and innovation, according to its website. The power plant is a dual-fuel (natural gas and fuel oil) facility which runs only during periods of high demand for electricity.

Dirt roads wind around two ponds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Although I’ve never been inside this power plant (tours are offered, primarily to schools), I’ve walked the grounds many times. The MMPA created a public park here on its 35 acres of wetlands. I love following the dirt roads that wind around ponds. And while it’s not the most peaceful place given the location along busy Interstate 35, the park still holds an appeal for me.

Beauty even in a thistle growing along pond’s edge. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

On this particular visit, I didn’t see any waterfowl, unusual, but perhaps not due to avian influenza. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

One of many birds observed inside the park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

That enjoyment comes in vegetation—cattails, flowers, trees, grasses—and in the birds, including waterfowl.

Anglers fish this pond next to the Faribault Energy Park power plant. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Other visitors fish here, in the large pond next to the power plant. This is also an educational grounds with a massive wind turbine and a stand of solar panels in place.

I especially like walking this park around sunset. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Combined, these elements remind me that I cannot take the natural world for granted, that I need to be environmentally-aware, that I need to do my part to protect and preserve Earth. I continue to learn, some 50 years after an awareness sparked within me that I really ought to care about this planet on a personal level.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So much to appreciate about Northfield’s Bridge Square September 7, 2022

An overview of Bridge Square looking toward Division Street. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

BRIDGE SQUARE IN THE HEART of historic downtown Northfield holds a yesteryear appeal as a long-time community gathering spot along the Cannon River. Today its purpose remains as relevant as ever. I’ve observed festivals and concerts here, focused events like Earth Day and the Riverwalk Market Fair, read poetry here, heard music, watched college students chalk messages onto concrete. Individuals, too, pause here to enjoy the fountain sculpture and other art, to picnic, to simply embrace this beautiful spot.

A banner in downtown Northfield promotes the community’s annual celebration. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

This park centers Northfield, home to many home-grown shops and eateries and best-known perhaps for the September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank by the James-Younger Gang. This week Northfield honors the long ago townspeople and a heroic bank cashier who stood up to the outlaws. The town will buzz with activities and people, all here to celebrate Defeat of Jesse James Days. That runs September 7-11.

The Northfield Historical Society by Bridge Square once housed the First National Bank. The bank entry is around the corner and not shown here. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Weeks before this event I was in Northfield, first touring the Northfield Cemetery to view the gravesites of bank employee Joseph Lee Heywood and Swedish immigrant Nicolaus Gustafson, both shot and killed by the outlaws. Gustafson, at the time of the raid, was vending vegetables in, I believe, current day Bridge Square. The First National Bank is located around the corner.

The popcorn wagon has set up in Bridge Square since the 1970s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Popcorn boxes lined up in the wagon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The popcorn wagon brings back memories of Vern’s Popcorn Stand in my hometown of Vesta. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

My focus on that afternoon was not on the historic robbery, but rather on Bridge Square. I noticed first the 1918 popcorn wagon which is open from mid-May to mid-September and operated by FiftyNorth, the local center for seniors. It was closed when I was there. But I could imagine the sound of popping kernels, the scent, the taste of buttery popcorn scooped into boxes. There’s something about a popcorn stand that hearkens to bygone days.

“How much for that doggie in the window?” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

And there’s something about an old-time barbershop such as Bridge Square Barbers with a barbershop pole and then, bonus, a doggie in the window. I spotted the dog lying on a fleece bed in a corner. Seemingly content, only lifting his head when I approached for a close-up photo.

Love this barbershop dog photographed through the window. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Earlier this year a sign in that barbershop window prompted me to write a story, “Barbershop Prompt,” which I submitted to a writing competition. My story earned second place in creative nonfiction and will publish in volume 31 of The Talking Stick, a northern Minnesota-based anthology. I also earned an honorable mention in fiction. Once the book publishes, I’ll share more.

Beautiful flowers circle an art installation in Bridge Square near the Cannon River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

I also took in the art of Bridge Square. Northfield is big on the arts with an Artists on Main Street program, sidewalk poetry and other art installations in addition to the performing arts.

The historic Ames Mill sits along the Cannon River. Originally a flour mill, the mill later was used to produce Malt-O-Meal hot cereals and is today owned by Post Consumer Brands. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

And then there’s the history. Aged buildings like the riverside Ames Mill. The river running through is a real asset to the downtown, especially with a river walk behind buildings hugging Division Street.

Detailed top of the art installation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

At the heart of all of it is Bridge Square—a place which melds history and art, land and sky and river, commerce and individuality. Most importantly, the village square brings peoples together to converse, to celebrate, to honor, to discuss, to disagree, to buy popcorn from the popcorn wagon, to simply be.

Bird in flight in the Bridge Square sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

TELL ME: Does your community have an outdoor gathering spot like Bridge Square?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“A quiet place to be” in Mission Township August 31, 2022

Looking skyward at Mission Park, where slim, towering pines are prevalent. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

MISSION PARK IN MISSION TOWNSHIP, “a quiet place to be” north of Merrifield in the Brainerd lakes region, rates as a favorite hiking spot when I’m at the lake. The extended family cabin is conveniently located about two miles away.

At the end of a grassy trail, the woods open to a pollinator garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I enjoy walking here along the 3/4-mile paved trail that winds primarily through the woods. Grassy paths are another option, but I typically keep to the hard surface, with one exception. That deviation is the grassy route leading to an open field Pollinator Habitat.

Milkweeds fill the prairie garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

A dragonfly clings to a stalk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I’ve always loved the dusky hue of the milkweed flower. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Last trip to the cabin in early July, Randy and I discovered the field of milkweeds and other pollinator-attracting plants pulsing with dragonflies. I’ve always delighted in dragonflies—how they flit, their translucent wings beautiful to behold.

Dragonflies up close are a study in intricacy and beauty. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

But dragonflies also pause, giving photographers like me ample opportunity to photograph them up close. To see and capture details of webbed wings, of hairy legs, of bulging eyes…proves rewarding, amazing, wondrous. This insect is so intricate.

The lone Monarch caterpillar I spotted. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I noticed, too, a chunky Monarch caterpillar descending a milkweed stalk. Milkweed is a host plant of the caterpillar which will eventually form a chrysalis and later emerge as a Monarch butterfly, now considered an endangered species.

A wide view of the Pollinator Habitat. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Days later, I led the way back to the Pollinator Habitat to show my granddaughter, her little brother and parents the dragonfly haven. The insects were not as abundant and the crew was less than impressed, especially when Randy discovered a wood tick on his leg. Not a deer tick, but the common wood tick which I am quite familiar with as is Randy. We both grew up on farms and wood ticks were a natural part of our outdoor summer adventures.

Marc, left to right, Isaac and Randy head out of the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

The six of us quickly exited the pollinator patch right after Randy’s revelation, which he should have kept to himself.

Every time I’m here, I discover a different fungi in the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I had hoped to walk along the paved trail to show everyone the massive orange mushroom I spotted previously. But, instead, we headed back to the park’s main recreational area.

The grandkids loved the new playground equipment. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Mission Park offers plenty of play space for those who prefer to stay off grassy trails into the woods. Like new playground equipment.

A spacious pavilion among the pines, next to the playground, provides a place to gather. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Other recreational options abound with several pickleball courts, disc golf, a ball field, tennis courts, horseshoe pits and volleyball courts. A pavilion offers shelter for outdoor dining. Noticeably missing are bathrooms. There are outhouses, though, with which I am also familiar having used one for the first 11 years of my life.

Thistles flourish in the Pollinator Habitat. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I appreciate the forward thinking of the good folks of Mission Township who, in 1959, purchased 39 acres for $1 with the intent of maintaining the natural beauty of the land and making it available for recreational use.

Ferns, one of my favorite plants, grow wild in the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2020)

This “quiet place to be” has quickly become a favorite nearby place to explore whenever I’m at Jon and Rosie’s lake cabin.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Minnesota experience: Going Up North to the cabin August 29, 2022

Homemade roadside signs identify lakeshore property owners along Horseshoe Lake. These signs are posted all over lake cabin country. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

FOR MANY MINNESOTANS, summer means going Up North. That escape to lake and cabin country has been, for me, elusive, not part of my personal history, until recently. Now, thanks to the generosity of a sister-in-law and brother-in-law, who own lake shore property in the central Minnesota lakes region, going Up North is part of my summertime, and sometimes autumn, experience.

Randy and our granddaughter, Isabelle, 6, head onto the dock in Horseshoe Lake. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Now I understand what I’ve missed—the peacefulness of simply getting away from it all, the beauty of immersing one’s self in nature, the quieting of the spirit beside the water, in the woods, on the beach.

A northwoods style cabin across the lake from where we stay. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

In this land of 10,000-plus lakes, I’ve discovered the draw of lake life. I grew up on a crop and dairy farm in southwestern Minnesota, where lakes are few. I can count on three fingers the number of vacations during my youth—one to Duluth at age four, one to the Black Hills of South Dakota as a pre-teen and then camping once with an aunt and uncle at Potato River Falls in Wisconsin. That’s it. Cows have a way of keeping farm families home. My kids will tell you that our family vacations were mostly to visit grandparents with a few camping trips and other close by trips tossed in. No going Up North to a cabin.

I love the kitschy roadside signs pointing to lake properties. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

But now, oh, now, several summers into going Up North to the lake cabin, I fully embrace what so many Minnesotans hold in their family histories.

Sailing on Horseshoe Lake. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Waterskiing is part of the lake experience for some. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)
Sunset on Horseshoe Lake. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

The appeal of a lake comes for me not in boats or jet skis or sailboats or kayaks or paddleboards, but rather in the natural aspect. The sun rising over the lake, painting pink across the sky. The sun lowering, bathing the far shore treeline in dusk’s light. The moon rising.

Loons glide across Horseshoe Lake near the dock. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

And then in the water, the watching of loons as they glide, duck, emerge, their haunting voices breaking the silence of early morning. I never tire of seeing them, of hearing their call, of observing babies swim near their protective parents.

A loon family seemingly unbothered by a nearby pontoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

For a few summers, eagles lived in a nest on the family lake property. To see those massive birds on-site, flying into the treetop nest, perched there, proved fascinating. They’ve moved on to another location and eagle sightings are infrequent.

A bluegill caught from the dock. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

The clarity of Horseshoe Lake continues to impress me. I can see fish swimming in schools and some singularly. That’s vastly different from southern Minnesota lakes, most murky and green. Unappealing. But here fish bite by the dock, exciting the grandchildren and Grandma, too.

Typically the adults make a brewery stop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Our eldest daughter and her family are part of this Up North experience and it is perhaps that which most pleases me. To have this time together—eating meals lakeside, swimming, fishing, taking nature walks, sitting around a campfire and making s’mores, going into Crosslake for ice cream or craft beer—all of these moments I treasure. We are connecting, making memories, delighting in one another in a beautiful and peaceful setting. If only our other daughter and her husband and our son could join us, then my joy would be complete. But given the distance they live from Minnesota and their job and school obligations, I don’t expect a full house at the cabin.

Randy fishes with both the grandchildren, here Isaac, age three. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

So I celebrate the Up North time we have, whether just Randy and me at the cabin or six of us. I love walking the long drive buffeted by towering pines. I love the stillness of the lake in the early morning. I love the crackle of burning wood and the taste of gooey s’mores. I love the lack of obligations and schedule and plenty of time to read a book or lounge on the beach, the sun warming the sand and my skin. I love every minute with those I love. I love that going Up North is now part of my life story, even if it took well into my sixties to write that chapter.

TELL ME: If you’re from Minnesota, do you go Up North? If you’re from elsewhere, do you have a similar escape? Please share. I’d love to hear your stories.

Please check back for more posts about going Up North.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than a garden…a place of peace & respite August 18, 2022

A coneflower up close in the Rice Country Master Gardeners Teaching Garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

ANYONE WHO GARDENS understands just how quickly plants can grow. Sunshine and rain make all the difference.

Vegetables grow in the foreground in this photo, other plants and flowers beyond. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A month had passed between visits to the Rice County Master Gardeners Teaching Garden located at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault. And in those few weeks, the vegetables, flowers and other plants grew in length, height and width, some blossoming, some with fruit emerging.

A mini sunflower of sorts (I think) bursts color into the garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

There are signs aplenty in this teaching garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

An eggplant blossom. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

To walk here again among the prairie flowers, the zinnias, the hydrangea and hosta, the burpless cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes and much more is to feel a deep connection to the earth. For it is the soil which roots, which feeds these plants watered by the sky, energized by the sun.

Gardening equipment stashed in a secure area next to the conservation building by the garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

And it is volunteer gardeners who plant and tend this beautiful garden for the enjoyment of many. Like me. I appreciate their time, their efforts, their desire to create this peaceful place in my community.

This broad-leafed plant name fascinates me. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Aiming the camera down at Silver Mound, a wispy plant that I’ve never seen before. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A cucumber forming. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

To visit this spot is to understand how much we each need such a contemplative place. A place simply to meander along wood chip or brick pathways, pausing to appreciate the likes of broad-leafed Pig Squeak or the silvery sheen of Silver Mound or a little-finger-sized prickly cucumber or a Prickly Pear Cactus. There’s a lot to take in among the vast plant varieties.

One of the man-made tree stumps gurgles water. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The water feature is to the right of this centering circle. Across the way are an historic church and school, part of the Rice County Historical Society. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

And then there’s the water, oh, the water. No garden feature soothes more than a fountain. Here five replica tree stumps spill water into a shallow pond, a focal point defined by a circle of bricks connected to brick paths.

I notice details, like a feather in a bird bath. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Even a bird bath drew my attention with a feather floating therein.

A lily blooms in early August. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The garden also features an arch for climbing clematis, which bloomed profusely earlier in the summer. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A bee house posted on a tree by the garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Strategically situated benches offer sitting spots to pass the time, chat, read a book or simply take in the garden, the being outdoors, in nature. In this fast-paced world of technology and a deluge of news that is often awful and horrible and unsettling, this garden provides a respite. Nature has a way of working calm into our beings. Easing stress and anxiety. Lifting spirits.

Lovely flowers fill the garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In the challenges which have defined my life in 2022, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this garden. I feel at peace here among the flowers and vegetables, the birds and butterflies, bushes and trees, here under the southern Minnesota sky.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetic joy of a butterfly August 17, 2022

An Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly atop a zinnia. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

EVERY TIME I SPOT A BUTTERFLY, joy surges through me. There’s something about the flitting flight of a butterfly that captivates me.

But it’s more than that. I appreciate how these insects appear so carefree, as if their very existence is simply to bring beauty and joy into the world. And maybe it is.

The butterfly perches among my favorite garden flowers, zinnias. My mom planted zinnia seeds when I was growing up on the farm. Zinnias are easy to grow from seed, are prolific, hardy and colorful. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In recent days, I’ve observed two swallowtail butterflies, one black, the other yellow, among the phlox growing wild in my flowerbeds. And some 10 days ago I photographed an Eastern tiger swallowtail atop a zinnia at the Rice County Master Gardeners Teaching Garden in Faribault.

That well-tended garden has become a new favorite oasis for me within the city limits. On the Sunday afternoon I visited the garden, I found friends Paula and Ed already there, resting on a bench. Paula was involved early on with development of this garden. She no longer is, but remains an active gardener. Paula was the one who spotted the swallowtail among the zinnias.

Per her direction, I headed to the zinnia patch to photograph the yellow swallowtail with wings outlined in black, splotches of blue and orange adding to the coloring.

Black-bordered wings are nearly wide open atop a zinnia. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The swallowtail perched, unhurried atop the yellow-centered pink flower. I had plenty of time to snap multiple frames. That’s often not the case with butterflies.

That butterflies survive a four-stage life cycle from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis) to adult butterfly impresses me. At any one stage, a predator could end their lives. But yet, here was this beautiful butterfly among the zinnias. Like the final verse in a lovely summer poem.

TELL ME: What do you appreciate about butterflies? Do you have a favorite?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Along the Cannon River, by a dam in Faribault August 16, 2022

The picturesque Faribault Mill along the Cannon River in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

THE RIVERS RUN THROUGH, the Cannon and the Straight converging on Faribault’s north side at Two Rivers Park.

A view of the Cannon River looking west while standing on the walkway over the dam next to Father Slevin Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The history, the founding of my southeastern Minnesota community is channeled through these waterways. In the history of the Dakota who first called this place home. In the history of the fur traders, including town founder Alexander Faribault, who settled along and traveled the rivers. In the history of flour mills and sawmills and the renowned Faribault Woolen Mill, established in 1865.

There’s a buffer of plants along the shores of the Cannon in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Whenever I walk the Northern Link Trail in North Alexander Park along the Cannon River Reservoir, I pause to view the 1892 Faribault Mill. Often I photograph this iconic brick building aside the appropriately-named Woolen Mill Dam. I appreciate this long-standing business, still operating today, weaving fine woolen blankets and more that have garnered national respect for quality craftsmanship.

Ghost signs on the Faribault Mill along the Cannon River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Ghost signs on the building’s exterior remind me of this mill’s long history here, along the river, by the dam.

There’s a notable absence of water at this dam on the Cannon River in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A grassy patch away, a second dam manages river flow next to Father Slevin Park. But when I last visited the area on August 7, I saw bare concrete with only a trickle of water leaking through boards at that smaller dam. Rather than rushing water defining this place, stagnant ponding water defines it.

The drying river bed and stagnant water below the dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

I observed green algae and litter on the water’s surface. I observed exposed rocks and plants growing where water should flow. All are evidence of the drought conditions we are experiencing here in southern Minnesota. We’ve had some rain since I paused beside the dam. But not enough to totally compensate for the lack of moisture.

Fishing in the Cannon River at Father Slevin Park near the Woolen Mill Dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Typically, anglers frequent the river banks below this particular dam. But not now. Not in this summer of drought. These dry weather conditions plague so many locations across the country and world as the effects of climate change continue. One need only look to the West, to the decades of drought, the wildfires and the ever-growing tensions over water to understand the crisis.

I’ve seen more grasshoppers this year than in recent years, including this one among plants on the Cannon River bank. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Locally, low river levels visually remind me that we are not untouched by evolving weather patterns. There was a time when I held a heightened awareness of weather as my farmer father looked to the sky, waiting for rain clouds to open, to drench his corn and soybean fields. I remember the summer of 1976 when he purchased boxcar loads of hay from Montana to feed our livestock. Worry defined that summer.

I spotted this buoy tucked next to a corner of the dam, hugging the shore above the dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

And now worry edges into my thoughts as I observe the stillness. No sound of rushing water. No sight of rushing water. Only the exposed concrete dam and the stagnant water pooling below.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling