Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Minnesota northwoods experience: Climbing a fire tower (or not) October 6, 2021

Just a short distance from this roundabout by Pequot Lakes, you can see the Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower peeking through the treetops. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Really high! Be careful and don’t climb if you fear heights or experience dizziness.

The warning sign and rules posted at the base of the fire tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I heeded the warning and stayed put. Feet on the ground. Camera aimed skyward. Toward the 100-foot high Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower just outside Pequot Lakes in the central Minnesota lakes region. The top of the tower pokes through the trees, barely visible from State Highway 371. Turn off that arterial road onto Crow Wing County Road 11, turn left, and you’ve reached the fire tower park.

A little background on the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

The Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower Park (named after the county commissioner instrumental in developing this 40-acre park) offers visitors an opportunity to hike to, and then climb, the historic tower built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. As one who prefers low to high, I was up for the 0.3 mile hike, but not the climb.

Lots of info packs signs in the outdoor interpretative area. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
The iconic Smokey the Bear reminds us that we can prevent forest fires. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
We are to blame for nearly all of Minnesota’s wildfires, according to this park sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Before Randy and I headed onto the trail, though, we read the interpretative signage featuring information on the tower (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), Minnesota wildfires and other notable fire facts. This summer marked an especially busy fire season in the northern Minnesota wilderness. Those of us living in the southern part of the state felt the effects also with smoke drifting from the north (including Canada) and from the west (California). That created hazy skies and unhealthy air some days, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Lots to read here, including Paul Bunyan’s fire tower story. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

We also read a bit of Paul Bunyan lore, a fun addition to the park located in the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway area. This region of Minnesota is big on lumberjack stories about Paul and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox. The Pequot Lakes water tower is even shaped like Paul’s over-sized fishing bobber.

The pristine picnic shelter. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Signs point the way to the fire tower trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
On the way to the tower, this large yellow mushroom temporarily distracted me. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Once we’d finished reading, and then admiring the beautiful new picnic shelter, we started off on the pea rock-covered trail through the woods and toward the tower. Up. Up. Up.

When the trail gets especially steep, steps aid in the climb. I took this photo on the descent. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

After awhile, I began to tire, to wonder, how much farther? And just as I was about to declare myself done climbing steps, Randy assured me the tower was just around the bend. Yes.

Looking up at the tower, all of which I couldn’t fit in a photo, I determined I was not climbing that high. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Once there, I stood at the base of the tower, reading the rules and warnings. I decided I best admire the ironwork from below. And I did. There’s a lot to be said for the 1930s workmanship of skilled craftsmen.

The underside of the tower shows layers of stairs. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Randy, though, started up the layered steps leading to a seven-foot square enclosed look-out space at the top of the tower. At that height, fire watchers could see for 20 miles.

If you look closely, you can see Randy with only a few more flights to reach the top. At this point, he decided not to go any farther. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

As I watched, Randy climbed. Steady at first, but soon slowing, pausing to rest. “You don’t have to go all the way to the top,” I shouted from below. He continued, to just above treetop level, and then stopped. He had reached his comfort height level.

The tower is fenced at the base. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I can only imagine how spectacular the view this time of year, in this season of autumn when the woods fire with color. We visited in mid-September, when color was just beginning to tinge trees.

Randy exits the tower, several flights short of reaching the top. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Eventually, we began our retreat down the trail, much easier than ascending.

An incredibly vibrant mushroom thrives trailside. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Occasionally I stopped to photograph scenery, including species of orange and yellow mushrooms. Simply stunning fungi.

Sadly…a carving on a birch tree along the trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

We also paused to visit with a retired couple on their way to the tower. They have a generational lake home in the area, like so many who vacation here. While we chatted, a young runner passed us. I admired her stamina and figured she’d face no physical challenges climbing the 100-foot tower.

The story of Sassy the bear is included in the interpretative area. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Just like a domesticated black bear that once escaped and scampered up the tower. A ranger lured him down with a bag of marshmallows. That is not the stuff of Paul Bunyan lore, but of life in the Minnesota northwoods. This historic fire tower, which once provided a jungle gym for a bear and a place to scout for wildfires, now offers a unique spot to view the surrounding woods and lakes and towns. If you don’t fear heights or experience dizziness.

FYI: The Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower is open from dawn to dusk during the warm season, meaning not during Minnesota winters. Heed the rules. And be advised that getting to the tower is a work-out.

Right now should be a really good time to catch a spectacular view of the fall colors from the fire tower.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

As Canadian wildfires rage: “What’s mine is yours” May 4, 2016

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of unfurling leaves in my Minnesota backyard.

IT’S BEEN A GLORIOUS MAY day here in southern Minnesota. Sunshine. Clear blue skies. Leaves unfurling in a landscape that is a lush and vivid green.

Tomorrow, though, we can expect “milky skies,” according to the National Weather Service Twin Cities Twitter page. Smoke from Canadian wildfires is moving east into Minnesota. It will be a visual reminder of what our neighbors to the northwest are enduring as wildfires rage.

With some 88,000 people evacuated from the Ft. McMurray area and 1,600 structures already destroyed, it would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster. And those feelings would be warranted.

But while I was reading about the fires and evacuation today, I was moved to tears by the goodness of people. Scrolling through posts on the Fort McMurray Evacuee Open Source Help Facebook page, I read offer after offer of help:

We have a house in north Edmonton. What’s mine is yours. Plenty of clothes for a female child age 4-6. Toys for any age. Room to park a small trailer. Room for a tent, basement and air mattress ready. Food, shower anything you need please call or text… Can pick you up and help with small children

Is anyone stranded on HWY 63 that needs fuel or supplies? Please let me know!

It’s not much. But if anyone should be coming through spruce grove on their journey tonight, I would like to give a hot meal. And a place to relax and regroup your thoughts and plans.

The Church of South Edmonton is opening its doors to those displaced by the fire. They’ll offer snacks, activities for kids, a BBQ, pastoral counseling, internet access—simply a place to recharge and refocus. People can sign up online to host a family.

Offers of help are also coming from Slave Lake, which only five years ago suffered from similar devastating wildfires:

I have a spare room ready for anyone in need in Sherwood park! Wanting to pay it forward as I’m from Slave lake and lost my house so I would love to help someone! Txt me at…

LIVESTOCK
If there’s anybody from Ft McMurray in need, I have feed and water pen space available for free in Slave Lake. Can take 10-15 head of horses/cattle

And, yes, the offers for assistance extend beyond helping people. Canadians are also opening their farms and homes to house displaced pets and livestock.

We live by Rocky Mountain house On a farm We have room and free feed for your large or small livestock for as long as needed. Also room for your rv. And a spare room. And a holiday trailer that sleeps 7 for as long as you need. We can also come up and pick you or your animals up.

If you want your faith restored in people today, then I’d encourage you to read the Ft. McMurray Evacuee Open Source Help Facebook page. Now.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling