Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

New date for Valley Grove’s Donut Hole Roast January 6, 2022

The gated entry to Valley Grove, rural Nerstrand. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

HERE WE GO AGAIN. Due to extreme cold temps, the first-ever Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast at an historic Minnesota country church grounds has been rescheduled for the second time.

The event at Valley Grove churches is, as of today (Thursday), slated for 2 – 4 pm Saturday, January 8. Weather forecasters predict a temp of around 30 degrees, much warmer than our recent weather. Saturday will also be warmer than the predicted three degrees on Sunday, the first rescheduled date.

If you attend the Saturday gathering in the parking lot of this rural Nerstrand hilltop setting, dress warm. Even 30 degrees can feel cold if the slightest wind blows and you’re not dressed properly. That includes wearing warm winter boots. Organizers also encourage guests to bring blankets, chairs and hot beverages. If you have snowshoes and want to walk the prairie, bring that footwear.

Whether you attend the bonfire and roast or not, I encourage you to visit the Valley Grove website to learn more about these Norwegian churches on the National Register of Historic Places. Valley Grove rates as one of my favorite area rural destinations. It’s a peaceful, quiet and beautiful place with a strong sense of history and heritage.

On bitterly cold January days like today I respect the hardiness of those early Norwegian settlers who endured much to make a new home in America, in rural Rice County. This morning when I shoveled snow from my driveway and sidewalk, I three times returned to the house to warm myself. Even wearing long johns under jeans, a heavy parka over my clothes, boots, a hat, mittens and a scarf wrapped around my neck and face, my fingers and toes began to numb. That’s a warning sign that, if ignored, could lead to frostbite.

So here I am, inside my cozy office, fleece throw tossed across my lap, thankful for the warmth of the overworked furnace. Thankful to have finished that shoveling in, according to the local radio station, a wind chill temp of -31 degrees. No wonder I felt cold.

When the Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast happens on Saturday, the temp will feel some 60 degrees warmer.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So, yeah, it’s cold here in Minnesota January 2, 2022

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Frost on the window pane against the backdrop screen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots edited & copyrighted photo January 2022)

I CONSIDERED THIS QUESTION: How can I convey just how cold the weather in Minnesota right now via a photo, without stepping outside?

Ah, not so difficult after all.

I headed upstairs to photograph frost layering a bedroom window. Our second level is undeniably cold with only one air duct opening to two bedrooms. Factor in that the duct runs along an exterior wall and the heat which actually reaches the upper story is minimal. That does not provide for a warm and inviting space for guests. But such is the reality of this old house.

This afternoon I found the warmest spot to be in the kitchen—standing next to a heat vent under the south window, bright sunlight streaming into the room. The sunshine can almost fool me in to thinking it’s nice outside.

I thought momentarily about stepping outdoors, but opted not to do so given the current outdoor temp of four degrees. As cold as that may sound to some of you, consider Ada in the northwestern part of Minnesota. That small town broke a January 2 record from 1892, recording a low today of -39 degrees. I have friends who live near that Norman County community. On New Year’s Eve, my friend texted that the air temp was -17 degrees and falling with wind chills in the -40 to -50 degrees range. Now that’s cold. Their family was hunkering indoors and playing board games.

Our entire state has been in either wind chill warnings or advisories. Exposed flesh can freeze within 10 minutes in temps as cold as we’ve experienced in the past several days.

But change is coming. Monday and Tuesday temps are expected to reach into the 20s and possibly 30s. Downright balmy. Comparatively speaking.

TELL ME: What’s the temp like where you live?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bonfires blazing, donut holes toasting December 30, 2021

The Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2021)

UPDATE #2: 1:45 pm Thursday, January 6, 2022. The Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast has been rescheduled for the second time due to cold weather. It’s now set for 2-4 pm Saturday, January 8.

UPDATE #1: 1 pm Friday, December 31, 2021. The Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast has been postponed and rescheduled for 2-4 pm Sunday, January 9, due to the drop in temperatures.

SEVERAL DAYS AGO, an unusual invite landed in my email in-box. The invitation came from the Valley Grove Preservation Society. The board, tasked with overseeing two historic Norwegian churches near Nerstrand, is hosting a Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast from 2-4 pm Sunday, January 2.

Now, I’ve never heard of a Donut Hole Roast. But I could easily warm up to the idea since I like donuts. Plus, warming by a bonfire sounds especially wonderful given our current brutally cold weather here in southern Minnesota.

Come Sunday, temps could struggle to reach double digits for highs from morning lows of well below zero. Wind will also likely factor in to comfort levels. Wind chill warnings are probable. Translate: It will feel much colder than the thermometer reads. Plan accordingly so as not to experience frostbite while outdoors.

A sweeping view of the land surrounding Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2018)

The good folks at Valley Grove promise bonfires ablaze for warming and for toasting donut holes. Still, the two churches, on the National Register of Historic Places, sit atop a hill where the wind whips.

Those attending are advised to dress warm. Bring blankets and warm beverages. Wear winter boots. If you want to sit, bring a chair. And, if you plan to explore the prairie, pack your snowshoes.

The 1862 stone church and the 1894 wood church adjoin the church cemetery surrounded by 50 acres of prairie and an oak savanna restoration project. It’s a lovely place, which Randy and I have visited often. But never in the deep cold of winter. We’ve walked the church and cemetery grounds. Attended events here. Picnicked on the 1894 church steps. I love the peacefulness of this spot in rural Rice County near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I love, too, the history, the natural beauty, the art, the sacredness…

A woman demonstrated the art of baking the Norwegian treat Krumkake, available for sampling at a past Fall Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2018)

Typically, Valley Grove hosts an annual Fall Country Social and a Candlelight Christmas Eve Service. But those events were canceled this year and last due to COVID-19.

Now those who care about these aged churches, the land and the Norwegian heritage are trying something new to bring people safely together. To celebrate the new year. With donut holes toasting over bonfires blazing. Dress warm if you plan to attend.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

After the snowstorm in Faribault December 11, 2021

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Randy guides the snowblower down our driveway Saturday morning. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

OUR FIRST MAJOR winter storm of the season dropped about 10 inches of snow in Faribault Friday into the early morning hours of Saturday. But other areas got more. Much more. Double in Woodbury and parts of the metro. Like Lakeville and Eagan.

Each shovel serves a different purpose. The rusty one on the left is used to scrape close to the surface. The scoop shovel works great for tossing snow. And the wide plastic shovel, right, pushes snow. (Minnesota Prairie Roost copyrighted photo December 2021)

Saturday morning I grabbed a cup of coffee, ate a bowl of cereal and then headed outside to help Randy with snow removal. I focus on the places he can’t reach with the snowblower. Like the steps. And around the garage. And then I do clean-up, scraping away residual snow.

A close-up of Randy clearing the driveway with our ancient snowblower. Across the street, our neighbor blows his sidewalk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

As I stepped outdoors to a world of white, the sound of scraping shovels and of snowblowers broke any post-storm quiet. Everywhere I looked, neighbors were hard at work clearing sidewalks and driveways of snow.

The sidewalk past our house, cleared of snow. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

There’s something comforting in seeing an entire neighborhood working separately, yet together, on a common mission. To dig out after a snowstorm.

Snowy evergreen boughs. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

I paused, too, to appreciate the beauty of the snow. Layering my neighbor’s evergreen trees.

Seed heads. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Topping dried seed heads in my yard. Filling the woods.

Heading into downtown Faribault after lunch Saturday. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Snow pushed into a pile in the parking lot of Ace Hardware. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
City snow removal crews push the snow into the middle of the street near Erickson Furniture before complete removal later. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Saturday unfolded into a day of blue skies and bright sunshine. Sun intense enough to melt snow from roads and other surfaces. That makes it far easier to get around. Friday evening Randy’s drive home from work along snow-packed Minnesota State Highway 3 took 45 minutes rather than the usual 22 minutes. I felt such relief when he finally pulled into the garage.

The snowy scene along Fourth Street Saturday afternoon. Note that Family Video closed several months ago. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Lots of snowplows were out and about. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Near the historic Brunswick Hotel building, approaching Buckham Memorial Library, along Central Avenue. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Last Saturday, our landscape was devoid of snow as we celebrated Winterfest here in Faribault. What a difference seven days can make.

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NOTE: My heart hurts for all those affected by the deadly and devastating tornadoes in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky. That storm makes our major winter storm here in Minnesota seem only a minor inconvenience.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The winds of December topple holiday trees December 6, 2021

The Holiday Tree Display in Faribault, late Sunday afternoon, when winds tipped trees. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

WICKED WINDS SWEEPING from the northwest into Faribault Sunday afternoon into Monday brought more than cold temps. The strong winds also toppled Christmas trees displayed in Central Park.

Tipped tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Fallen ornaments atop a Christmas tree skirt. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Fallen snowman tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Randy and I headed out to view the Holiday Tree Display, a project of the City of Faribault Parks and Recreation Department, after the Vikings game. When we pulled up, we observed numerous trees lying on the ground, ornaments littering the lawn, tree toppers askew.

A member of the Wunderlich family stands near the tree (left front) he and his sister donated. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
A cross tops the tree donated by the Wunderlich family. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Tubes of sand anchor a tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Several tree sponsors arrived to deal with the unexpected damage. A Wunderlich family member who, along with his sister set up a tree honoring loved ones and community members who died of cancer, headed across the street to Ace Hardware for sandbags. I noticed sandbags anchoring several trees. And when two women came to upright their trees, Randy and I convinced them to let the trees lie given the prevailing winds.

Randy chats Sunday afternoon with a member of the Wunderlich family. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Even though toppled onto the ground, this star topper still shines. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
A particularly beautifully-decorated tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

When Randy drove by the holiday display Monday morning on his way to work, he reported more trees down with only perhaps 10 of the 34 still standing. Winds still blew, with the temp dipping into the single digits. It feels a lot like winter now. No snow here, though. But central and northern Minnesota got enough to create travel issues and necessitate late school starts.

Across the street, the beautiful, historic Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour provides a lovely backdrop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Ah, Minnesota. I expect next year precautions will be taken to keep those holiday trees standing straight.

An unusual tree sponsor name. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
So many beautiful ornaments. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Grey against grey. A rustic star. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

This is only the second year of a project which spreads Christmas joy. All trees are sponsored and decorated by local businesses, organizations, civic groups, etc., and then donated to families/individuals without a tree. It’s a great idea, one which garnered the 2020 Minnesota Recreation and Park Association Award of Excellence for Faribault Parks and Rec.

In the grey of a December day, this red star brings light. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

I feel thankful to live in a community of generosity.

Found among the ornaments. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021.)

None of us ever knows when strong winds will sweep into our lives and knock us down. None of us ever knows when we will need the kindness of others to uplift us, to help us stand, to support us. To give us hope. There is something to be learned from wicked winter winds. We need one another, even if sometimes we think we don’t.

Photographed Sunday afternoon. All trees have now been placed upright. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

FYI: The trees have now been placed upright and staked, and will be displayed until December 10.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

River Bend in March, before the latest winter storm March 16, 2021

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Ice edges a pond Sunday afternoon at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.

AS I WRITE MONDAY AFTERNOON, snow continues to fall. Steady, for hours and hours. Layering the landscape that, only the day prior, was devoid of snow.

After an especially lovely Saturday of sunshine and 50 some degrees, this return of winter seems like a mean trick of Mother Nature. I rather enjoyed pre-spring. But as a life-long Minnesotan, I expected snow and cold to return. Yet, maybe not with such force, as if the weather has something to prove.

That all said, let’s forget the winter storm and backtrack to Sunday afternoon, when Randy and I hiked the trails at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. It’s one of our favorite places to escape into nature.

I always carry my camera. And here’s what I found: Natural beauty even in a drab landscape transitioning between seasons.

Signs of spring in maple sap collection bags and buckets.

And sap dripping slowly into the containers.

Signs of winter in ice edging the Turtle Pond.

A lone child’s snow boot, which left me wondering how that got lost without anyone noticing.

And the photo I didn’t take of young people clustered along a limestone ledge with their remote control vehicles climbing the layered rock. Limestone was once quarried from this area.

And then the bark-less fallen tree Randy pointed to with shades of brown sweeping like waves lapping at the lakeshore. Artistically beautiful. Poetic.

Just like words imprinted upon plaques adhered to memorial benches honoring those who loved this place, this River Bend.

Moss carpeting the ground in a line across a ridge of land in the woods. The only green in a landscape of brown tones.

Dried grasses and dried weeds on the prairie. The muted remnants of autumn.

Tracks muddied into the earth.

And birch

and fungi and all those things you notice if you only take the time to pause. To appreciate the natural world. To step into the woods. To walk the asphalt trails heaved by frost and tree roots. Or to follow the dirt trails that connect soles to ground. Soul to nature.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Spring fling in Minnesota March 11, 2021

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My two-year-old grandson splashes in melted snow while on a walk Sunday afternoon in Faribault.

MARCH BRINGS TO MINNESOTA the teasing of spring.

Recent sun-filled days of unseasonable temps soaring into the sixties proved a respite. And this winter, especially, I needed a break from cold and snow, from the sheltering in.

Tuesday afternoon I threw open the windows. Fresh air breezed through the house. I kept the kitchen screen door open long after dinner, the scent of sautéing onions carried outdoors.

Outside, two fleece throws flapped on the clothesline. Dancing in the wind, occasionally twisting.

Faribo Frosty still stands tall in the Hoisington family’s front yard Sunday afternoon when Randy and I stopped to show our grandkids, Isabelle and Isaac.

As the wind blew and the sun shone, the snow pack continued to melt. Only remnants of snow remain in shadowed spots next to the fence, along the north side of the house, next to the driveway.

Dormant brown grass defines the landscape now.

Crocus emerging.

In my front yard, tender crocus shoots poke through the mulch leaves of autumn. Too early. As always. But the crocus react to sunshine and temps, not to the calendar.

A single maple leaf lies atop the snow along the fenceline in my backyard Tuesday afternoon.

March in Minnesota tempts us with spring. Melting snow and puddles. And, as I write this Wednesday morning, grey skies drizzle rain. Snow is back in the forecast. As are possible thunderstorms. Even tornadoes. A mixed bag of March weather. Typical Minnesota.

A weather graphic from KSTP posted Wednesday afternoon.

Now as I update this Wednesday evening, southern Minnesota has experienced its first severe weather scare of the season. Tornado warnings were issued late this afternoon in multiple counties, including my county of Rice. When warning sirens blew in Faribault, I headed to the basement while Randy kept me updated on weather in Northfield (where he works) and our eldest texted from her south metro basement.

I stepped into my backyard shortly after the sirens blared to snap this image of a towering cloud late Wednesday afternoon.

While clouds appeared sometimes overpowering and ominous, no tornadoes developed. To the north, in the central and northern parts of Minnesota, snow fell. Up to six inches in some locales. It’s almost as if two seasons collided with spring bumping against winter.

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FYI: I invite you to read another blogger’s take on March in Minnesota by clicking here. Kathleen Mickelson is an incredibly gifted writer with a strong poetic voice. Yes, she’s a published poet. She loves the craft of writing and is a pretty darned good photographer, too. And an all-around lovely individual.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than simply an ice cream treat March 2, 2021

A Peanut Buster Parfait from The Little DQ of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

SPRING UNOFFICIALLY ARRIVED in Faribault this past weekend. You’d never guess that from viewing the snow cover, freshened by two inches of new snow overnight Sunday. But The Little DQ opened on February 27, signaling the shift toward spring. At least for Randy and me.

Every year about this time, the walk-up/drive-up Dairy Queen along Lyndale Avenue reopens after a three-month seasonal closure. And we find ourselves there picking up bargain Peanut Buster Parfaits. Seldom do we treat ourselves to DQ. But this opening special has become a tradition in recent years.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of the Little DQ of Faribault.

So Monday evening, when I’m certain Randy would rather have settled onto the sofa than leave the cozy warm house after a long day of work, we headed across town to the DQ. Past the fire station and the courthouse, turning onto Fourth Street. The suspension in our 2003 Chevy Impala, closing on 270,000 miles, creaked with each switch in direction. Past the pizza place and our church and the recently-closed Family Video and the abandoned Farmers Seed and Nursery building. Across the train tracks and, shortly thereafter, a left turn onto the frontage road. Past Kwik Trip and then onto the pothole pocked street by the DQ.

I noted the electronic sign welcoming back “your smiling faces.” And I noted, too, the posted temp of 21 degrees.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

We arrived at a good time, on a cold evening past the dinner hour, to find only one vehicle ahead of us. A red pick-up truck. I counted out dollar bills and change, $4.28, to cover the $1.99 plus tax parfaits. Once cash was exchanged for treats, I clutched the two plastic encased parfaits and Randy aimed the Chevy back home.

We passed homes still aglow in holiday lights while a country tune played on KCHK 95.5 FM out of New Prague. I’m not a country music fan and Randy listens only occasionally for the weird stories. But something about the gentleness of the song and heart-breaking lyrics appealed to me. I got the music, he got you… He got the sunshine, I got the rain…

As Ronnie Milsap crooned, I took in our surroundings. Colored lights framing a solo second-story window in an aged wood-frame house. And, a block away, an American flag hung vertically as a window covering. Along Division Street, I spotted a snow fort in a front yard, mentally marking that I need to revisit this in daylight.

At a four-way stop, I saw a screen in the maroon vehicle ahead playing some show to entertain the kids. And I wished the family would turn off the device for a moment or ten and take in their surroundings. Neon blue lights outlining a front porch. Slant of light upon snow. Snow mounding along roadways.

In my hands, the Peanut Buster Parfaits transferred cold into my fingers. And shortly thereafter, when I spooned into the ice cream and fudge traced with peanuts while snuggled under a fleece throw in the recliner, I grew colder. And, for the longest time, I couldn’t get warm on this first day of March in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts of spring in February February 19, 2021

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Leaves unfurling in southern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2018.

THIS FEBRUARY MORNING, with spring still months away in Minnesota, I crave a landscape flush with color. Snow gone. Spring flowers popping. Grass greening. Trees budding.

Daffodils bloom in my front yard. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I think we all need a glimpse of warmer, sunnier days after a wicked weather week across much of our country. I feel, especially, for the people of Texas. The unseasonably cold weather of ice and snow wrought incredible challenges with no power, broken water lines, even death. I feel for anyone living in Texas.

Crocuses blooming in my yard. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Even though we’ve endured a lengthy stretch of subzero temps here in Minnesota, it’s just cold. Not destruction. Not heartache. We can manage and function and mentally remind ourselves that this won’t last forever. Temps are already rising.

Beautiful bleeding hearts bloom on two bushes in my backyard each spring. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

With those thoughts, I searched my files for photos of spring flowers. To brighten your day. To bring you joy. To remind you that in every season of life, we face challenges which stretch and test and grow us. But we can, and often do, come out on the other side as better people. More empathetic. More understanding. More grateful than ever for life, even if it’s sometimes hard.

These tulips were sent to me, as bulbs, from Paula in the Netherlands last spring. I later planted the bulbs in my yard and hope they erupt this spring. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

We push through the difficulties, often with the support of loving family and friends, to bloom color into the world. Or at least that is my hope.

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BE ASSURED THAT MINNESOTA looks nothing like the photos above right now. Snow layers the land in a landscape devoid of color. Under the snow and decaying leaves, spring flowers await warmer days when the frozen earth opens to the sun and sky.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dreaming of warmer days in Minnesota February 16, 2021

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Contrast of seasons photographed northbound along Interstate 35 near Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2021.

AFTER AN ENDLESS STRETCH of subzero cold, relief is in sight. By Friday, we could see temps reaching the 20s here in southern Minnesota. Finally. That will feel downright warm after recent daytime highs not even reaching zero, temps plunging into the minus 20 degrees range and windchills as low as 50 degrees below zero.

During Arctic snaps like this, we complain a lot, warm up the car, crank up the furnace, bundle up and venture out when necessary, and even when not. After all, we have an image to maintain of hardy Minnesotans.

Secretly, and not so secretly, we dream of warmer days. Days at the lake for some. Fishing from a boat rather than an ice shack on a frozen lake. Camping. Walking outside without concern for frostbite.

As sure as the sun rises and sets, we realize that this cold spell won’t last forever. That winter will end…come April.

TELL ME: What’s the weather like in your parts?

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling