Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Weaving memories and thoughts into a winning water story March 2, 2017

AS SOON AS I READ the first six words of the email—I am so pleased to announce—from Plum Creek Initiative, I knew I had won.

I finished reading the good news, then burst out the kitchen door into the garage. “I won! I won! I won!” I shouted. My husband gave me a questioning look. “I won the contest.”

 

From the Plum Creek Initiative Facebook page.

From the Plum Creek Initiative Facebook page.

 

And then I explained. My nearly six-page “Water Stories from a Minnesota Prairie Perspective,” was selected as the winning entry in the nonfiction division of a contest sponsored by Plum Creek Initiative and the League of Women Voters. The placing earned me a $250 prize and publication in a New Ulm-based magazine, River Valley Woman.

 

I photographed these"We Are Water MN" pins in a jar at an exhibit last summer at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter.

I photographed these pins in a jar at an exhibit last summer at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter. “We Are Water MN,” telling the story of Minnesota water, accompanied a “Water/Ways” exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street Program. I participated in a “When Water Dreams: A Celebration” by reading my poem, “In which Autumn searches for Water.” Mankato photographer Kay Herbst Helms invited me and other poets to read our water poems, connecting with her photo exhibit, “Water Rights.” Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Tasked to write on the theme of “We are Water,” I tapped into my growing up years for water memories, weaving in my relationship with water and the importance of water. It worked. I felt really good about the story when I submitted it. But when I read that the sponsors were “overwhelmed with the participation and quality of the submissions,” I doubted myself. I shouldn’t have.

 

The Straight River churns at the Morehouse Park dam in Owatonna.

The Straight River churns at the Morehouse Park dam in Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Here’s what nonfiction judge Renee Wendinger wrote in part about my story: …noted your ability to “retain a balance of idea, craft, and theme resonant to water…[she] reminds us that water is an integral component, making the processes of life possible, a resource we too often take for granted.”

As a writer, I appreciate such specific feedback. This judge, herself a noted author of orphan train fiction and historical nonfiction books, understood and valued my story. That’s reaffirming.

 

Water rushes over limestone ledges in Wanamingo's Shingle Creek.

Water rushes over limestone ledges in Wanamingo’s Shingle Creek. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Writing about water proved much easier than I expected. My stories flowed one into the other, including a reference to Plum Creek. I grew up only 20 miles from Walnut Grove, where author Laura Ingalls Wilder lived along the banks of that rural waterway. I’ve waded in that creek to the Ingalls’ dugout site.

 

The water runs clear in the North Branch of the Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The water runs clear in the North Branch of the Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Plum Creek Initiative, a long-term water quality improvement and women’s leadership program focusing on water quality in southern Minnesota, draws its name from Plum Creek. The organization has launched a pilot program in my native Redwood County to address water quality issues. That pleases me.

 

The Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I am pleased, too, with this opportunity to write on the subject of water in a way that will perhaps make a difference. Two North Mankato residents won the other divisions—Holly Ahlbrecht with her fictional “Weaving the Water” (selected by judge Nicole Helget) and Laura K. Murray with a collection of poetry (selected by judge Gwen Westerman).

FYI: Click here to learn more about Plum Creek Initiative. Read the official contest winners’ announcement on the Plum Creek Facebook page.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring Wisconsin’s High Cliff State Park & a disappointing discovery October 22, 2013

Entering the park.

Entering the park.

AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON in High Cliff State Park in east central Wisconsin, even with grey skies and the occasional spurt of drizzle, is magnificent.

On a recent Saturday, my daughter who lives in nearby Appleton, husband and I explored this sprawling park near Sherwood along the banks of Wisconsin’s largest inland body of water, Lake Winnebago.

Sky and lake and land meld in this photo taken from atop a tower in High Cliff State Park. Photo by Miranda Helbling.

Sky and lake and land meld in this photo taken from atop a tower in High Cliff State Park. Photo by Miranda Helbling.

But it was not the lake—more on that later—which impressed as much as the view of the valley from high atop the park. To see acres and acres and acres of trees below, buffeted by the lake on one side, transitioning into the golden, russet and reddish hues of the season is something to behold.

Old limestone quarry walls below a hillside of trees.

Old limestone quarry walls below a hillside of trees.

Likewise, limestone walls, remaining from the days when this stone was quarried from this land, provide a neutral backdrop to flaming maples and other trees bursting with color on hillsides.

Kiln ruins.

Kiln ruins.

And then there are the old kilns, once used to create quick lime for use in plaster and cement and for agricultural purposes. I’m thankful mining operations here ceased in 1956. To totally decimate this place of natural beauty would have been a tragedy.

When we discovered what other park visitors were gathering, Randy began harvesting hickory nuts too and stuffing them into his jacket pockets.

When we discovered other park visitors gathering nuts, Randy began squirreling away hickory nuts, too, stuffing them into his jacket pockets.

For this beautiful park proves a lovely spot to picnic on a Saturday—a place where families pluck coveted hickory nuts from the ground to dry and crack and later eat plain or in cakes or cookies.

Here a family prepares to celebrate a wedding, placing burlap runners upon picnic tables covered with white plastic tablecloths inside the park shelter.

The tower...

The tower…

and the view from the tower. Photo by Miranda Helbling.

and the view from the tower. Photo by Miranda Helbling.

Couples and families climb 64 steps to the top of a wooden tower for a spectacular view of the valley. I keep my feet firmly planted on the ground, neck craned, waving to my husband and daughter high above me.

Red Bird, Chief of the Winnebago.

Red Bird, Chief of the Winnebago.

A 20-something man squats on a fence for a photo; only his balance keeps him from tumbling off and over the cliff. Nearby a statue of Red Bird, chief of the Winnebago, stands, sure and solid atop a rock.

Winnebago. It is also the name of the 131,939* acre lake which borders the western edge of High Cliff State Park and runs 28 miles long and eight miles wide near the towns of Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Neenah and Menasha.

Blue-green Lake Winnebago as photographed from the beach at High Cliff State Park.

Blue-green Lake Winnebago as photographed from the beach at High Cliff State Park.

While impressive in size and fierceness—this day churning and roiling and rolling in waves—Lake Winnebago disappoints me.

A close-up of the lake. No photo editing of the blue-green color.

A close-up of the lake. No photo editing done of the water’s hue.

I do not expect to see a lake that is green, as in it appears someone dyed the water green for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Why, I wonder, is a body of water this massive so overgrown apparently with blue-green algae? I am no scientist. But I suspect run-off (of chemicals) from lawns and farm fields into waterways that flow into Lake Winnebago, has created the problem.

Looking from the rock wall toward the marina.

Looking from the rock wall toward the marina.

Honestly, I would never swim in this water, or even dip my toes into this lake. My daughter shares that a friend swam in Lake Winnebago this past summer and broke out in a rash.

Just another view of the lake and the area where boats slip into shore.

Just another view of the lake and the area where boats slip into shore.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are currently studying the lake, hoping to learn more about dangerous toxins produced by the blue-green algae, according to an article published in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel. Drinking water for four area cities, including Appleton, comes from Lake Winnebago. The water is treated, of course, but it still concerns me to think this lake, in this condition, is a source of drinking water.

This lake is a popular fishing spot, too.

After viewing the lake’s poor water quality, I’m thankful these researchers have secured a $750,000 five-year grant from the National Institution of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Science Foundation to study the lake.

The quality of this lake water scares and saddens me and, truly, detracted from my experience at High Cliff State Park, an otherwise lovely place of exceptional natural beauty.

* NOTE: Various sources cite different sizes for Lake Winnebago. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources lists the lake at 131,939 acres, about the same acreage size of Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota.

#

BONUS PHOTOS:

A colorful collage of leaves on a trail near the kiln ruins.

A colorful collage of leaves on a trail near the kiln ruins.

The only remaining building in

The only remaining building on the former site of Clifton, a town which existed here until the quarries closed. This 1800s building is now a museum and interpretative center, but was not open on the day we were at the park. Efforts are currently underway to save the structure from demolition, according to information on the Friends of High Cliff website. I have no idea why anyone would want to destroy this historic store.

A scenic view shot from near the lake.

A scenic view shot from near the lake.

Autumn in the picnic grounds of High Cliff.

Hickory nuts, in their protective outer shell, litter the picnic grounds.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling