Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Into the woods at Falls Creek Park March 31, 2021

Moss feathers across the end of a hewn tree.

AS SPRING EASES INTO MINNESOTA, I embrace the transition of seasons in indecisive weather and in the subtle greening of the landscape.

A greening vine in the otherwise muted landscape.

I don’t trust that winter has really, truly, exited. Yet, these early glimpses of spring assure me that the bulk of winter lies behind us.

Randy walks in the woods.

I saw that in the woods of Falls Creek County Park on Sunday afternoon. Randy and I hiked in this 61-acre park a mile east of Faribault off Minnesota State Highway 60. It’s a relatively unused park, one of the reasons we are drawn here.

Water rushes under the bridge and over rocks.

Here a dirt hiking path curves along the waterway winding through woods. Access to that path comes via an arched pedestrian bridge. There water rushes over rocks and we always pause to appreciate the soothing sound of rushing water.

The creek meanders, wide in some areas, narrow in others.
In places, the creek runs clear.
A fork in the creek.

And we also always walk to the side of the creek, to examine the water at the bend, before it flows under the bridge. Recent rain left that water muddied. Later we would find the creek flowing clear.

Loving the light, color and texture on this tree trunk moss.

Entering the woods, I determined to photograph signs of spring in the muted landscape. That requires focus. Examples of spring are elusive and seen mostly in vivid green moss carpeting fallen tree trunks.

A fallen tree provides a canvas for art.

But I can photograph only so much moss. Thus I expanded my perspective. Nature writes details upon the landscape. Even in a scene of mostly muted browns.

Hillsides of trees rising

and fungi laddering

and dried leaves curling.

Nature’s “antlers.”

And the branches of a tree twisting like antlers.

Nature’s sculpture.

And felled trees that appear like natural sculptures.

The makeshift bridge.

All of these nuances I noticed as we walked, as I stopped to take in my surroundings, as Randy steadied me while I crossed a makeshift branch bridge across a spillway.

Randy crosses the bridge out of the woods.

There is much to see in this seasonal transition, if only we pause to appreciate. To look. And really see. To hear. And really listen. It’s there. The poetry of wind and water and woods and words.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Escape into the Cannon River Wilderness Area November 20, 2020

SOME DAYS I WISH I could simply disappear, vanish into the woods or wheel across the prairie like the Ingalls family to an unknown destination. Far from reality. Far from COVID-19.

But, since I must live in the context of a pandemic, in the place I call home, I look for places to escape nearby. And, on a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I disappeared into the Cannon River Wilderness Area between Faribault and Northfield off Minnesota State Highway 3.

In the nearly 40 years we have lived in Rice County, we’ve only stopped here once, many years ago for a family picnic, but never to hike. On this day we followed the rutted gravel road along the river, past a junkyard and into the wilderness parking lot. We walked a short path to the Cannon River, then a longer one along the river to a foot bridge.

To get there, we passed two tents in the primitive camping area. I delighted in watching a young family gathered in the woods near river’s edge, enjoying the outdoors, away from distracting/detracting technology. At the next tent down, I observed a caged dog.

After passing the campers, we spotted a hillside bluff of limestone looming to the side of the trail.

Springs bubbled water across the muddy path partially covered by a thin layer of wood chips. I found myself tensing at the thought of traversing mud. My slip-on shoes, unlike Randy’s treaded boots, offered zero traction. And, with a history of two falls, one on rain-slicked wooden steps that resulted in a broken wrist and subsequent surgery to implant a plate, I felt angst.

But Randy offered his hand to steady me as we walked across mud, atop slippery rocks and balanced on railroad ties. Eventually, we reached the pedestrian bridge over the Cannon.

If anything soothes me, it is water and wind. And, on this early November day, I stood on that wooden bridge, taking in the elements that calm me. River rushing over rocks. Wind roaring through woods.



The sun, too, warming me and casting artsy criss-cross shadows upon the bridge deck.

Then I noticed the trees. Tornado trees, I term them. Two years ago, in September 2018, tornadoes ravaged Rice County, including the 800-acre Cannon River Wilderness Area. Evidence of the storm remains in fallen trees, limbless trees, trees stripped of branches. In the woods. In the river. Along the riverbank. Thoughts of tornadoes invite distress as I recall the 1968 deadly tornado in Tracy, Minnesota, a storm I remember from my childhood in southwestern Minnesota. Some things you never forget.

But for a short time, I forgot about COVID as I immersed myself in the natural world. Even among tornado trees, some of which groaned in the strong wind.

As Randy and I retraced our steps along the muddy path, I focused on getting safely back to the parking lot without falling. But in a single step onto a rounded rock, my shoes slipped and I felt myself falling to the right. Thoughts of another broken bone flashed. As did the likelihood that my camera would be destroyed. Yet, Randy, who had been gripping my hand, caught me, even as he, too, nearly landed in the mud. I felt gratitude for his strength, for his support, for his care. We have traversed many a difficult journey through life. Together. And for that I am grateful, especially during a global pandemic.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


More than a fall hike at Falls Creek Park October 6, 2020

A cluster of maple leaves in fall colors photographed at Falls Creek County Park, rural Faribault, Minnesota.

AS A LIFE-LONG MINNESOTAN, I remain fully cognizant that the season will soon change to one of cold, colorless and confining.

In the woods at Falls Creek Park, some trees are already stripped of leaves.

Thus, a week like the one predicted with sunny skies and temps in the 60s and possibly 70s, is to be celebrated.

Maple leaves cover the earth, from my backyard to here, at Falls Creek Park.

As I look out my office window mid-Monday morning while writing this post, I see sunshine. Sunshine which casts shadows of leaves swaying in the wind onto my office walls.

Subtle colors color these leaves at Falls Creek.

For today, the wind blows with a fierceness that assures the laundry pinned to my backyard clothesline will dry quickly. I’ve taken extra measures to assure the wash stays clipped to the line. The wind is that strong.

Throughout southern Minnesota, leaves are changing color and falling from trees.

Leaves spiral from the backyard maple at a dizzying rate that makes me melancholy. Soon the branches will be stripped bare, exposed to the sky, a strong visual reminder to me that Autumn is nearing her exit.

Fungi ladder on a fallen tree trunk.

I need to hold onto this season, to embrace and celebrate her for as long as I can because I recognize also that this winter ahead—this winter of COVID-19—will prove particularly challenging. The sense of isolation will be heightened as Randy and I continue to keep our circle small.

And so now, while we can, we spend a lot of time outdoors, walking on trails through woods and along rivers. Like at Falls Creek County Park, about a mile east of Faribault just off Minnesota State Highway 60. The 61-acre park seems mostly undiscovered. We last visited in June, although when the kids were still home, we went there more often to picnic and hike.

An opening in the woods leads to a bridge across Falls Creek.

On a recent weekend, we revisited this peaceful and primarily wooded destination, which includes about 3,000 feet of creek footage. After parking in the over-sized gravel parking lot pocked with potholes, we headed down the hill and across an expansive grassy space toward an opening in the woods.

Water rushes around rocks, like this one, in the creek.

Through that gap, a picturesque bridge crosses Falls Creek. I love that cute little bridge spanning the narrow waterway. There’s something magical and fairy tale like about the arc of that bridge, where I stand and listen to water rush over rocks. Clear water, mostly unseen in this area of southern Minnesota with most waterways polluted by fertilizer run-off.

The creek curves through the woods.

After that creekside pause, Randy and I headed onto the dirt trail into the woods. It runs along the creek bank, in some sections nearly eroded away. In one spot, we walk upon thick sticks laid on the pathway to stabilize the walk way.

Sticks laid on the path to stabilize it in an eroded area.

Randy makes it all the way to the falls, only to find it eroded, too, and not as he remembers. I’ve stopped just short of that destination and turned back to retrace our steps. There are no trails spidering through the woods, only this solo one and another that, for a short distance, veers to our right.

Randy walks on the leaf-covered trail, embraced by the woods.

Yet, we delight in being here. In the woods, even if not particularly colorful. Beside the creek. Just us, until we hear voices in the distance and eventually meet a couple from a neighboring town. They are lovely in every way for not only their appreciation of this place but also of others they’ve met here. That includes a group of young men from Somalia, immigrants who’ve resettled locally and spoke to the couple about past challenges. It was incredibly refreshing for me to hear the couple’s kind words about these young men rather than the unkind words I all too often hear about individuals who’ve fled war-torn countries and atrocities we can’t even imagine for a new life in Minnesota.

The lovely bridge across Falls Creek.

Even though I digress from the nature theme of this post, I feel it important to share this sidebar. There are stories to be heard, lessons to be learned, when we take pause to appreciate, to listen. To cross bridges into the woods.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Tour Rice County for fabulous fall colors October 14, 2017

Kelly Lake, rural Faribault.


WHEN MINNESOTANS CONSIDER best places to see fall colors, they often think of the North Shore and Mississippi or Minnesota River towns. I doubt many think of Rice County.


Angling in Kelly Lake.


But we have some fantastic colors right here, right now, in this region an hour south of the Twin Cities metro.


I switched lenses for a closer view of the Kelly Lake angler and the stunning treeline.


Saturday morning, after picking up potatoes and zucchini at the Faribault Farmers’ Market, Randy and I headed north and west out of town on Minnesota State Highway 21 for a fall color tour. Our first turn took us off the highway headed for Kelly Lake. There we pulled into the public access off Kelly Lake Trail so I could snap a few photos in the beautiful mid-morning light.


A scene along 175th Street West on the way to French Lake.


Fishing French Lake.


A section of the French Lake shoreline ablaze in orange.


From there we drove toward French Lake, stopping at the public access along 177th St. West. I photographed more anglers fishing in the wind and cold. Already clouds were beginning to push in, greying the skies.


Near Roberds Lake.


Arriving a short while later at Roberds Lake, even heavier clouds settled in. We wished for sunshine to better showcase the fall colors, but realistically did not expect the veil of grey to lift.


Ableman’s Apple Creek Orchard is located at 5524 185th Street West. “Take a left by the smiley face near Roberds Lake” to find the orchard.





A turn onto 185th Street West yielded a surprise—Ableman’s Apple Creek Orchard. We stopped for a bulging bag of pie apples, chatting it up with friendly Diane who lives a mile down the road. Before we pulled back onto the highway, I admired the stone foundation on the mammoth orchard barn and photographed a stone still horse.



A clump of colorful woods southwest of Roberds Lake along Garfield Avenue required another stop on a gravel road.


Not much luck fishing Cedar Lake on this Saturday morning.




Eventually we reached Cedar Lake, where boaters were trying their luck—one had fished for three hours with only a single catch.




My eyes swept across the lake to the opposite shore and trees flaming red and orange between those still green.



As time raced toward noon, Randy steered the van back toward Faribault along Rice County Road 12. Swatches of colorful trees sweep along this stretch of roadway in the distance.



Eventually we ended up on Cedar Lake Boulevard before connecting with Roberds Lake Boulevard. There, at that intersection, a stunning maple flamed fire against the grey like an exclamation point at the end of our Rice County Fall Color Drive.


FYI: If you want to see the fall colors in Rice County, I wouldn’t wait. They likely will not be around for much longer.

Click here to read a previous post about places in eastern Rice County to view the fall colors.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


From Wheeling Township, Part IV: A not-so-perfect perfect portrait October 5, 2017


WHEN I OBSERVED a family gathering for photos during the St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township Germanfest, I raced to join the photographers. I expected to get a classic posed group shot. But what I got proved better. Much, much better.



I witnessed six women and a sister focused on getting their brother/son/nephew/grandson to join the group for a portrait. I didn’t hear the little guy object. Loving attention from all those family members likely curtailed any negative behavior.



I adore this series of photos. In each frame I see the deep love this family holds for one another, especially for that sweet little boy.



The best portraits are not always the perfectly posed, everyone smiling shots. Rather, they are the ones that tell a story, that snapshot a moment of interaction, of emotion, of love. Those are the best photos.






This concludes my four-part series from Germanfest.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


From Wheeling Township, Part III: More images & words from Germanfest October 4, 2017

A farm site along Minnesota State Highway 60 near St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault.


IN A RURAL SETTING not far from Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, the members, families and friends of St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, serve not only an incredible German dinner each September, but also incredible hospitality.



Shirley checks and refills food on the serving line.


Even the pickles are homemade.


Through my many years of attending dinners, luncheons and other events at this country church, I’ve gotten to know these friendly folks—Lynn, Kim, Doug, Craig, Shirley… I can’t come and go without stopping to greet and hug sweet Elsie, who now into her nineties still works in the kitchen stirring gravy or potato salad or cutting and plating pies (during the church ice cream socials). Truly, these dinners are labors of love.


Here two volunteers, in ethnic costumes, take a break at the root beer stand.


Petting zoo animals come from a nearby farm.


There’s always a well put together historical display.


I can only imagine the tremendous time, effort and energy involved in pulling off Germanfest, an event which features more than just the showcased ethnic meal which this year fed some 650. I appreciate the country store and market that offer home-baked and garden grown goods and more. I appreciate, too, the quilts stitched by talented hands and the music and petting zoo and historical displays and more.


On the church altar, a beautiful harvest display.


There’s something divinely wonderful about a Minnesota church festival that reconnects me to the land, that brings a sense of peace in a world brimming with too much discontent and chaos.



This gentleman arrived from four miles away in his Model T Ford.


Congregants make and sell crab apple jelly from trees growing on church property.


Dressed in lederhosen, a volunteer pauses to enjoy the music and check out the market under the tent.


Lucy, seven months, and her grandpa listen to the old-time music.


The Ray Sands Band plays tunes like “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie…”


I observed these guys kicked back and relaxing to the music of the Ray Sands Band.


A display of German items honors the congregation’s heritage.


I enjoyed this over-sized woodcarving of a fisherman.


Church festivals are made for visiting.


Ice cream cones of feed for animals in the petting zoo were popular with the kids.


These piglets were among animals in the petting zoo.


Even the church windowsills are adorned with harvest themed decor.


One final look at St. John’s UCC as we drive away.


NOTE: To all my readers who wish I would have told you about this church dinner in advance, I’m sorry. Please mark your 2018 calendars for next September. Germanfest is always held around the same time annually.

But I can tell you about another outstanding area church dinner set for 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. this Sunday, October 8, at Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown. With a homemade meal of turkey, ham and all the fixings, it’s one of the best (in my opinion) church dinners around. The event also includes a craft and bake sale in the church basement. Click here to read previous posts about Trinity’s fall dinner.

Please check back for one last post in my four-part series from Germanfest. You won’t want to miss this final, especially endearing, photo essay. Click here to read my first post and click here to read my second post, both published last week.

© 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Part II: When memories cruise into a car show August 4, 2016

A 1964 Chevy SS.

A 1964 Chevy SS.

THERE ARE REASONS we love the things we do. Always reasons. And at the Cruise-In Car Show held last weekend at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, there was a reason my husband voted for a 1964 Chevy SS as his favorite car. He once owned a similar Chevy. Not an SS. But a rusted out 1964 Chevy Impala. He wishes he still had that vintage vehicle, albeit in pristine condition.

The tail light on the 1958 Chevy I liked.

The tail light on the 1958 Chevy I liked.

I favored a cherry red 1958 Chevy that reminded me of the car my maternal grandpa drove. I remember mostly the salmon (not red) hue, the distinctive click of the blinker and the bumpy plastic protecting the seats. Grandpa’s car may not even have been a Chevy. But the lines of this car looked familiar.

Look at the graceful lines in these vintage cars.

Look at the graceful lines in these vintage cars.

My appreciation of vehicles is more about lines, curves and colors—the visual artistic appeal—rather than performance. Perhaps that’s why current day cars seem less attractive than those of 50 years ago.

Several tractors were registered at the show.

Several tractors were registered at the show.

As I approached the four tractors parked at the cruise-in, I hoped to see a B Farmall or John Deere like the ones from my childhood farm. But there were none. It’s difficult for me to think of 1970s tractors as collectibles. There’s a reason for that and it’s called aging. My aging.

At the request of St. John's car cruise-in organizers, I climbed a 10-foot step ladder to photograph the scene.

At the request of St. John’s car cruise-in organizers, I climbed a 10-foot step ladder to photograph the event.

These days I find myself growing more nostalgic. I am drawn to that which defined my past. I find that a tad unsettling, this yearning for seemingly simpler days when life was less complicated, less stressful, less cluttered. The “good old days,” they call them. Am I that old already to think that way?

Chevrolets are popular collector cars.

Chevrolets are popular collector cars.

Perhaps this is really what car shows are all about. Not about shiny vehicles or souped up whatever, but rather about memories and appreciating the past.


A tractor owner left his key in his tractor, complete with key chain from the Little Brown Church in the Vale.

A tractor owner left his key in his tractor, complete with key chain from the Little Brown Church in the Vale.

I have an affinity for Mustangs that traces to my teen years.

I have an affinity for Mustangs that traces to my teen years.

I was intrigued by these gauges on the exterior of a car, just outside the driver's side of the windshield.

I was intrigued by these gauges on the exterior of a car, just outside the driver’s side of the windshield.

Because green is my favorite color, I am naturally drawn to this car.

Because green is my favorite color, I am naturally drawn to this car owned by a Minnesotan who is a big Green Bay Packers fan.

Likewise, this blue on a blue Volkswagon also drew my eye and my interest.

Likewise, this blue on a blue Volkswagon also drew my eye and my interest.

FYI: Click here to read my first post from St. John’s Cruise-In Car Show. And check back tomorrow for one final post from this rural Faribault event.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Cruisn’ to church, but not for a sermon July 27, 2016



FOR ST. JOHN’S UNITED CHURCH of Christ, Wheeling Township, a weekend Cruise-In Car Show offers an opportunity to bring the community together.

There’s no ulterior motive. This isn’t a fundraiser. The church isn’t trying to get folks to join.

Rather, says Steve Wille of the St. John’s Revitalization Group, the Car Show is strictly a social event aimed at bringing folks together in a neighborly sort of way. I like that. Visiting with your neighbors, he says, seems to be a lost art.

The parking lot at St. John's United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is nearly full 20 minutes before the congregation's annual performance of The Last Supper Drama.

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

St. John’s, a country church located east of Faribault near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, is good at reaching out to the community. The congregation hosts annual events like the Big Woods Run, The Last Supper Drama, German Fest, an ice cream social and more. I’ve been there many times, often enough that congregants know me. These folks are country friendly and welcoming. And they’re fantastic cooks and bakers.

No St. John’s event is complete without food. Pork sandwiches and snacks will be available at the 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. Saturday, July 30, Cruise-In Car Show.

Car Show is a bit of a misnomer, though. Trucks and tractors are also welcome with first place trophies awarded to each of the top three.

If you enjoy cruise-ins, country churches, a rural setting and visiting, consider attending (or participating in) St. John’s first-ever Cruise-In Car Show.

FYI: St. John’s is located 10 miles northeast of Faribault. Take Minnesota State Highway 60 east for eight miles and then turn north onto Rice County 24. Drive two miles to 19086 Jacobs Avenue.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Garden tour II: Hosta haven in the woods June 30, 2016

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Hostas thrive in the full and dappled shade of the McAdam's yard.

Hostas and lilies thrive in the full and dappled shade of the McAdams’ wooded yard.

EDGED BY WOODS and in the woods, Rita and Colin McAdam’s property perched atop a hill overlooking nearby French Lake west of Faribault offers a shady respite in the heat of the mid-day summer sun.

Vehicles exit the McAdam property along a narrow wooded lane.

Vehicles exit the McAdam property along a narrow wooded lane.

On this June afternoon, I’m touring this couple’s land as part of the Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour Garden and Landscape Tour benefiting Full Belly, a local “soup kitchen.”

An inspiring message in garden art.

An inspiring message placed next to lilies.

Rita welcomes me and offers a personal tour of her outdoor retreat 40 years in the making. “If you like digging in the dirt…” her voice trails.

A most impressive hosta with elephant ear sized leaves.

A most impressive hosta with elephant ear sized leaves.

I opt, though, to wander at my own pace through this shaded yard where hostas dominate. Here I see not only everyday common hostas, but a vast variety including one with leaves as large as an elephant’s ears.

Everywhere are multiple varieties of hosta.

Everywhere are multiple varieties of hosta.

And so I meander because the McAdams’ place calls for a slow pace. There’s so much to notice in the abundance of art tucked among plants. The art is an eclectic mix of whatever seemed to catch Rita’s fancy. Statues of deer, a rabbit, a duck, angels…a Road Runner whirly-gig…

A jolt of humor.

A jolt of humor.

The garden art is simultaneously quirky and charming, humorous and inspiring. No unified theme prevails. But it is what it should be—the result of four decades of work at Rita and Colin’s place.


Kitschy art propped against a tree.

Kitschy art propped against a tree.

My favorite sculpture in the McAdam yard.

My favorite sculpture in the McAdam yard. The tiny violets mimic the fawn’s spots.

The sun sculpture bursts color into the shade.

The sun sculpture bursts color into the shade.

A sweet surprise of angels on a ledge next to lilies.

A sweet surprise of angels on a ledge next to lilies.

Another of my favorite sculptures tucked by the hosta.

Another of my favorite sculptures tucked by the hosta.

Staged along the edge of the driveway/parking area.

Staged along the edge of the driveway/parking area.

This lizard sculpture holds jelly, for the birds I presume.

This lizard sculpture holds jelly, for the birds I presume.

FYI: Check back again as I continue my garden tour series. Click here to read my first garden tour post.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling