Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The shifting of seasons in Minnesota August 14, 2020

Sumac are already turning red.

 

THE CHANGING OF SEASONS edges into Minnesota, ever so subtly.

 

You can see the changing of the landscape around this pond, the subtle changes in hues.

 

August marks the month of transition, of shifting from summer to autumn.

 

Beautiful black-eyed susans.

 

Of wildflowers in full bloom.

 

Milkweed, necessary for Monarh butterflies.

 

Milkweed pods will soon burst with seeds and fluff.

 

Milkweeds edge the trails and ponds at Faribault Energy Park.

 

Of blooming milkweeds and those heavy with pods.

 

Unidentified berries.

 

Of berries ripening.

 

A trail winds through Faribault Energy Park. This isn’t a quiet place because of the interstate. But it’s a place of natural beauty and mostly undiscovered (meaning never busy).

 

Evenings fall earlier and cool temps sharpen the air. Folks pull on sweatshirts and jeans to keep off the chill. The urge to get outdoors prevails. Backyard campfires blaze warmth.

 

Plums ripen despite a Japanese beetle infestation.

 

Crickets chirp. Squirrels scamper. And gardeners bustle to bring in the bounty. Preparing for winter.

 

Sumac

 

And, in the landscape, hues morph from the greens of summer to the softer, earthy hues and fiery reds and oranges of autumn.

 

In the light of the setting sun, cattails and grasses.

 

Cattails rise in swampland and tall grasses sway.

 

Randy and I laugh at our long-legged shadow selves.

 

At sunset, shadows lengthen, foreboding and dark. As if hinting at days ahead. The dark days of winter that draw us indoors to snuggle under fleece throws, to crave comfort foods, to shelter in place.

 

An unknown wildflower.

 

And this winter to wonder what lies ahead in the uncertainties of COVID-19.

 

This sign marks the entrance to Faribault Energy Park on Faribault’s north side and visible from Interstate 35.  The wind turbine in the park landmarks this spot near the northbound lane of I-35.

 

Note: These photos were taken during a recent evening walk at the Faribault Energy Park.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Along Wingra Creek: The natural beauty of Madison July 30, 2020

Wingra Creek, photographed from the recreational trail with the same name.

 

MADISON. My first impression several years ago of Wisconsin’s capital city remains unchanged. This is a place defined by water, lots of green space, an extensive recreational trail system and residents who love their Badgers, bikes, beer and cheese.

 

I took this photo in downtown Madison in June 2018. Love the buildings and vibrancy and walk-ability of this area, including the nearby state capitol. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

As I’ve explored Madison, pre-COVID, I’ve always felt comfortable. And that says a lot for someone who doesn’t really like big cities all that much. Madison maintains a minimum metro feel, yet offers all the amenities of a growing urban area. During past visits, I’ve spent time downtown—including inside the capitol, restaurants and art museums—and toured the Olbrich Botanical Gardens and more.

 

Another way to follow Wingra Creek, via paddleboarding.

 

Oh, the loveliness of sunset lighting when photographing a flowering milkweed.

 

A single wildflower stalk rises along the creek bank.

 

On a visit in early July, because of the global pandemic, I confined my activities to a stop at a frozen custard shop and to walking. One evening I grabbed my camera to follow a section of the Wingra Creek Path near my daughter and son-in-law’s home. The golden hour of sunset presented ideal soft-glow lighting for photos.

 

A flowering milkweed.

 

Flowers flourish along the grassy creek bank.

 

A patch of bee balm.

 

While the rest of the family walked ahead, I lagged, stopping to photograph the many wildflowers that grow along the banks of Wingra Creek.

 

I’ve learned to be vigilant while using Madison’s recreational trails due to the high volume of bikers. Because of a hearing loss, I often don’t hear them approaching from behind. And most speed by.

 

Occasionally a biker zipped by at a rate of speed which caused me concern. I recognized quickly that I needed to pay attention to activity around me and not get too lost in photographing this beautiful place.

 

Flowers, grass, trees, water, sky…

 

A coneflower.

 

Berries on a bush along the trail.

 

Had I not known I was in the middle of a city, I would have thought myself in the countryside.

 

Looking down Wingra Creek from a foot bridge linking to a park. The trail is to the left.

 

The tiniest of flowers I photographed.

 

The first wildflower photo I took on this walk and among my favorite for the perspective.

 

The water. The flowers. The lack of city noises. All define this recreational trail as a place to embrace nature.

 

A trailside reminder that we’re still in a global pandemic.

 

Dog walkers. Bikers. Families out for an evening stroll. Joggers. Us. Everyone simply enjoying time outdoors with subtle reminders that we remain in a world-wide health crisis. A sign reminding trail users to social distance. A discarded face mask littering the side of the pathway.

 

The trail passes through this tunnel.

 

But for a short while we mostly forgot all about the tunnel of COVID-19.

 

Paddling in Wingra Creek.

 

When we retraced our path and crossed a footbridge back to my daughter’s street, I almost missed the paddleboarder gliding under the bridge, so quiet was she. As I watched, I admired her skills.

 

Light filters softness into my floral photos.

 

And I thought, how peaceful this moment in the golden hour of a July sunset.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Unexpected discoveries at Falls Creek County Park, rural Faribault June 30, 2020

Falls Creek County Park is located one mile east of Faribault along Minnesota State Highway 60, just off the highway an eighth of a mile along a gravel road to the north. This sign is visible from Highway 60.

 

YEARS HAVE PASSED since I visited Falls Creek County Park just east of Faribault off Minnesota State Highway 60. I remembered the hill and the expanse of lawn leading to a shelter house. And the creek at the edge of the surrounding woods.

 

Beautiful wild roses.

 

I didn’t recall wild roses. Those I would remember because I love wild roses. They remind me of my native prairie home, where, decades ago, pink roses grew random in road ditches. Oh, the sweet scent and the sweet memories.

 

These wild rose bushes edge a section of the massive gravel parking lot.

 

Randy noticed the roses first at Falls Creek. We both paused to breathe in the old-fashioned fragrance and to share our rose stories of yesteryear. What an unexpected delight.

 

Randy termed this a “weed.” I called it a “flower.”

 

If you’re dipping your nose into roses, check for bees first. They love this flower.

 

This elusive dragonfly proved incredibly challenging to photograph.

 

Another wildflower, or weed, depending on your perspective.

 

After a picnic lunch, I grabbed my camera to photograph roses and wildflowers and an elusive dragonfly before we aimed for the bridge over the creek.

 

A foot bridge over Falls Creek leads to a path into the woods that follows the creek.

 

Looking into the creek from the bridge, I watched water tumble over rocks.

 

I love the sound and sight of water rushing over rocks. It’s mesmerizing, calming, soothing.

 

What a wonderful surprise to find this clean and clear creek water.

 

And, as we walked to water’s edge at a crook in the creek, we found water running clear. That is mostly unseen in these parts where rivers and other waterways and lakes are muddy and murky and often nothing you would want to wade into. I dipped my hand into the clean, cool water. Happy at this unexpected discovery, at this untainted water flowing past me.

 

Greenery galore.

 

I navigated this path in the woods.

 

This fallen tree was jammed into the hillside, half the tree on one side of the path, the other half on the opposite side.

 

From there, we followed the narrow dirt path hugging the creek. In parts, the trail had eroded. Tree roots underfoot and a makeshift crossing of rocks and branches caused me to slow my pace, to watch my feet, to walk with care. The last thing I needed was to stumble and tumble and break a bone or land in the creek with my camera.

 

Looking up toward the wooded hillside from the creek path.

 

The woods proved a lovely place of greenery and dappled sunshine filtering through the trees…until the mosquitoes discovered our presence. My body reacts intensely to bug bites. So I needed to turn back and exit the woods.

 

The shelterhouse sits in a large open grassy area.

 

Back in the open, across the lawn and up the hill and on the far side of the massive gravel parking lot circled with tire track donuts, Randy spotted more wild roses. These were larger, better positioned to get sunshine. Once again, we paused to admire these dainty-looking, yet strong, prairie flowers. Once again, I breathed in the sweet scent.

 

Before leaving, we smelled the wild roses one final time.

 

I will remember Falls Creek County Park now for more than the falls I have yet to see—because of those mosquitoes. I will remember this place for the wild roses that edge the woods. And remind me of my native Minnesota prairie home, where there are no woods.

NOTE: This visit occurred several weeks ago, when the roses were nearly done blooming. We’ve also had substantial rainfall in the past two days, meaning the creek may now be muddy, the trail more eroded.

© Copyright 2020 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

 

Connecting with nature at Carleton College August 19, 2019

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TO WALK HERE, among wildflowers lining water’s edge, is to find peace. And these days I crave peace, a short escape from the challenges of life. Nature offers that quiet, that solitude, that ability to forget reality for awhile.

 

 

On a recent Saturday, Randy and I followed a trail into a nature area at Carleton College in Northfield. I thought how lovely to attend college here, to have this natural space available on the edge of campus. A place for students to retreat, to recharge, to reboot.

 

 

 

 

On this day, I retreated, focusing my attention (and camera) on vivid and pastel petals,

 

 

reflections on water,

 

 

 

the arc of bridges

 

 

and then, the unexpected—a memorial to Carleton alum Ann N. Nelson who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. A second Carleton alum, Joe McDonald, also died there.

 

 

The memorial stone placed between benches next to a labyrinth drew my thoughts away momentarily to that awful day in our nation’s history. And I considered the pain and the horror of it all and how, even in this peaceful place, one cannot fully-escape the difficult realities of life.

 

 

THOUGHTS?

© 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

 

About those blue spring wildflowers April 11, 2017

 

THE DAINTY BLUE FLOWERS layer the front lawn of a central Faribault home like a lovely carpet. There’s no denying that. After months of viewing a primarily beige, grey and white landscape, it’s a visual delight to see this vibrant spread of Siberian Squill set against the backdrop of an aged brick house painted white.

Thanks to Valerie at Valerie’s Voice, I now know the identity of this spring wildflower. Valerie photographed a similar scene in neighboring Northfield.

 

 

Wanting to know more about these brilliant blues, I searched online. And what I found on the website Minnesota Wildflowers, a field guide to the flora of Minnesota, gave me reason to reconsider my appreciation of Siberian Squill. According to Minnesota Wildflowers, this plant is invasive to our state. The comments section proved especially interesting.

As I consider other particularly invasive plants, several obvious ones pop to mind—dandelions, Creeping Charlie and buckthorn. We’ve battled all three on our property. So, as much as I really really really like those Siberian Squill, the lovely blue wildflowers won’t ever be purposely introduced into my yard.

 

 

I’ll just enjoy the ones growing in that front yard along Fifth Street Northwest in Faribault.

TELL ME: Would you plant these flowers in your yard? Perhaps you don’t consider them invasive.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rugged Blue Mounds State Park on the southwestern Minnesota prairie September 17, 2013

Welcoming visitors to Blue Mounds State Park in rural Rock County, Minnesota.

Welcoming visitors to Blue Mounds State Park in rural Rock County, Minnesota.

YOU WOULD THINK, considering I am a native of southwestern Minnesota, that I would have visited Blue Mounds State Park many times.

But I hadn’t, ever, and it has been on my list of must-see places for the past several years. That and the Brandenburg Gallery in Luverne, four miles to the south. That would be Jim Brandenburg, perhaps Minnesota’s best-known nature photographer. He grew up in rural Luverne, near the South Dakota border.

Hundreds of windmills now define this region of southwestern Minnesota.

Hundreds of windmills now define this region of southwestern Minnesota.

Recently my husband and I traveled to this corner of Minnesota specifically to see these two sites. It was well worth the long drive that took us through many small agricultural communities, past acres and acres of cropland, and past hundreds of wind turbines which define so much of the landscape in this region now. While I understand their energy value, these unnatural giants, in my opinion, have ruined the aesthetics of the prairie. I like my prairie big, open and wide, without monstrosities to detract from its natural beauty.

Beautiful natural scenery.

Beautiful natural scenery.

Thankfully, preserved and protected prairie remains in places like Blue Mounds State Park and nearby Touch the Sky Prairie and in Brandenburg’s images.

Hiking the path up and through the prairie grass.

Hiking the path up and through the prairie grass.

On the Saturday we hiked Blue Mounds, strong winds buffeted the land, bending prairie grasses as we climbed a hillside,

Mounds of flat rock naturally planted upon the prairie.

Mounds of flat rock naturally planted upon the prairie.

A close-up shot of that in-ground flat rock.

A close-up shot of that in-ground flat rock.

examined and walked upon clumps of huge rock,

My husband inside the portion of the park where rock was once quarried.

My husband inside the portion of the park where rock was once quarried.

An impressive quarry wall of Sioux quartzite.

An impressive quarry wall of Sioux quartzite.

admired towering cliffs of Sioux quartzite,

The prickly pear cactus seemingly grows right out of the rock.

The prickly pear cactus seemingly grows right out of the rock.

bent low to study the prickly pear cactus, an unexpected plant in this northern climate. In the distance, we glimpsed the park’s herd of bison.

One example of the many prairie wildflowers.

One example of the many prairie wildflowers.

Look at the size of that Sioux quartzite rock compared to my husband.

Look at the size of that Sioux quartzite rock compared to my husband.

Just inside the park entry, I spotted this couple getting wedding photos taken among the prairie grasses and wildflowers.

Just inside the park entry, I spotted this couple getting wedding photos taken among the prairie grasses and wildflowers.

I stopped more often than not to photograph wildflowers and the prairie grass and rocks and the overall scenery in this stunning spot on the prairie, unlike any I’ve ever viewed in Minnesota.

From a gravel road that loops past the park, I photographed this rugged rock line.

From a gravel road that loops past the park, I photographed this rugged rock line.

This prairie differs from the flat, cropped agricultural prairie of my youth. This prairie rolls and rises and meets the sky and feels wild and rugged and untamed. I almost expected to see horses galloping across the land, like a scene out of a western. It has that feel.

Pasture land near the park for these grazing sheep. Note their wool clinging to the fence.

Pasture land near the park for these grazing sheep. Note the tufts of wool clinging to the fence.

I observed sheep and cattle grazing in an abundance of rocky pastures nestled between corn and soybean fields. And from the hilltops, the land seemed to stretch in to forever in all directions.

BONUS PHOTOS:

No rock climbing for us, but if you're a rock climber, Blue Mounds allows this sport.

No rock climbing for us, but if you’re a rock climber, Blue Mounds allows this sport.

Photographing wildflowers is more my type of "sport."

Photographing wildflowers is more my type of “sport.” That proved a challenge in the wind.

Farms like this border Blue Mounds State Park.

Farms like this border Blue Mounds State Park.

We followed this gravel road around the park and past a country church in the distance.

We followed this gravel road around the park and past a country church in the distance.

Sheep graze in a pasture near the country church.

Sheep graze in a pasture near the country church.

And because I value detail, I set my camera on the prairie and took this shot.

And because I value detail, I set my camera on a rock on the prairie and took this shot.

CHECK BACK for more posts from this region of Minnesota. I’ll take you into Luverne to view the Brandenburg Gallery and other points of interest.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling