Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The poetry of Minnesota rivers January 15, 2021

An overview of the Cannon River and the dam photographed from the river walk by the Rice County Fairgrounds/North Alexander Park.

RIVERS, STRONG AND MIGHTY, flow through our state. The Mississippi. The Minnesota. And here in my county of Rice, the Cannon and Straight Rivers.

Up close to the Cannon River on a January afternoon. Initially, I thought this pair was fishing. They were, instead, playing beside the river.

Here, on these waters, early inhabitants traveled via canoe, traded along river banks, built flour and woolen mills. And formed communities like Faribault, Northfield, Dundas and Morristown, all with waterways that run through.

Randy walks on the river walk under the bridge spanning the Cannon River along Second Avenue in Faribault. The river is to his right.

Rivers are as much about nature as they are about our history. Like railroads, they helped to shape our towns and cities. And today, while no longer of the same utilitarian use, they remain valuable assets.

Many picnic shelters grace Faribault’s riverside parks.

In my community of Faribault, the Cannon and Straight Rivers, which converge at Two Rivers Park, enhance our local outdoor spaces. The Straight winds through River Bend Nature Center and near city recreational trails. The Cannon spills over three separate dams and flows alongside North and South Alexander Parks and Father Slevin Park. The historic, and still operating, Faribault Woolen Mill sits next to the river, too, by the appropriately named Woolen Mill Dam.

Water rushes over rocks and through ice at the dam by Father Slevin Park.

I am naturally drawn to water, as I expect many of you are. There’s something about water—its power, its motion, its almost hypnotic quality, its soothing sound when rushing over rocks. It’s like poetry flowing into the land.

I stood on the narrow dam walkway to photograph water rushing over the dam on the Cannon River.

Even in the depth of winter, a river—whether iced over or still running—draws me near. To listen, like poetry read aloud. To view, like words of verse written upon paper. To photograph, like an artist and poet and writer who cares. And I do.

Water rushes over the dam along the Cannon River in Faribault.

To walk or pause beside a river is to appreciate art and history and nature. I feel connected to the rivers that trace like poetry through the landscape of southern Minnesota. My home. My place of peace and contentment when I walk beside the waters therein.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite river? If so, please share why you appreciate this waterway.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Beauty in the greying of Minnesota January 13, 2021

Rime ice coats an evergreen tree at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault.

FOG TRANSFORMS THE LANDSCAPE, sometimes in to an unfamiliar place that leaves us feeling disoriented, lost. But other times, like last week here in Minnesota, fog layered trees with rime ice, creating an enchanting, almost magical world. Despite the grey that pressed heavy upon the land day after day.

Set along Minnesota State Highway 3 between Faribault and Northfield, this barn looks lovely any time of year, even in winter. Love love love this weathered building.

Photographing a world covered in frozen fog droplets proved difficult for me. My camera cannot convey the beauty the human eye sees. Yet, I managed a few images that attempt to show the other worldly qualities of a rime ice shrouded landscape.

Even the ice edging water falling over the Cannon River dam by Father Slevin Park in Faribault possesses a distinct artistry.

I find that in winter here in southern Minnesota, I must look harder to notice nature’s beauty. It’s there, but toned down, converted to black-and-white. Grey. Colorless. Yet present.

A broader view of those iced evergreen trees.

Still, I take fewer photos. Not only because I see less to document, but because the very act of exposing my fingers to the cold is uncomfortable. (I’m thankful for mittens that open to fingerless gloves, a thoughtful gift from Randy many years ago.)

I’m also cautious about icy surfaces, lest I fall and break another bone. A broken shoulder and wrist in recent years, one of which resulted in surgery, fuel that cautiousness.

The snow and ice-shrouded Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf campus is a beautiful and quiet place to walk. I love the many aged buildings including Noyes Hall, pictured here. Some day, post COVID, I need an indoor tour.

And then there’s COVID, which has certainly affected my photographic opportunities. Still, if I determine to look closely at the world around me, decide that my fingers can handle brief cold exposure, I can continue to document, to create, to pursue my passion for photography.

This week brought sunshine to Minnesota, a welcome break from all that dreary grey. We, or at least I, needed it, if anything, as a symbol of hope during these truly difficult times in our country.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Shining light in to lives January 7, 2021

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In this photo, you can see the roofline of our garage. Randy strung three strands of light over the patio, which is between our garage and house. A wooded hillside borders our yard.

I CRAVE LIGHT, especially now, in the deep of winter, in the darkness of these difficult days.

When I awaken in the dark of a January morning here in southeastern Minnesota, I switch on lamps, flick on light switches, filling the house with artificial light. And then, as the sun emerges, I throw open window coverings to reveal grey skies or sometimes brilliant sunshine.

In the evening, when black once again descends, I reverse the routine—close the blinds and curtains, switch lamps and lights back on. I need light flooding the house. To cook. To read. As I’ve aged, my vision has worsened. Some evenings my tired eyes cross to double vision, making reading difficult or impossible. I underwent surgery at age four to correct that problem. But now it’s resurfacing along with cataracts.

Thanks, though, to the kindness of Ruth, a blogger friend from Pittsburgh, I’m finding evening reading easier. She gifted me with a flexible OttLite floor lamp that now floods my reading space with bright light. It’s helped. A lot. What a dear and thoughtful Christmas gift from a friend I’ve never even met.

Light, whether shone through kindness or shone from an actual physical source, is a gift.

Beauty in light against background winter trees.

A few days ago, Randy gave me the gift of light by stringing white Christmas lights across our patio. He pulled the lights from storage as we packed away holiday decorations. Now, when darkness overtakes daylight as I prepare supper, I can look out the kitchen window to those festive lights. They bring me joy—in their brightness and in the love that motivated Randy to string them there.

Kindness shines in loving acts like those of Randy and Ruth. And that of our eldest daughter, who each Christmas gifts us with a personalized calendar featuring photos of our dear, darling grandchildren. Seeing their sweet faces in those images brightens my days. It’s the perfect gift. Full of love and joy and light.

As darkness descends, the lights flood our patio with a festive glow.

Likewise, words also shine light. Kind words. Encouraging words. Uplifting words. Whether written in a comment on this blog, emailed or spoken, thoughtful and appreciative messages always bring me joy. I am grateful. Thank you for shining light into my life.

TELL ME: How has someone shone light into your life? I’d like to hear your stories. And I challenge you, today, to shine light into someone’s life and to continue that kindness in a world in dire need of light.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing winter in Minnesota January 6, 2021

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My two-year-old grandson with his new snow shovel.

WHEN YOU LIVE IN A NORTHERN state like Minnesota, where winter defines at least half the year, preparation for cold and snowy weather is a necessity, not an option.

It’s a lesson taught from early on. Snowsuit, waterproof mittens and snow boots for the kids. Check. Check. Check. Sled. Check. Snow shovel. Check.

No matter your age, dressing properly to protect from the elements and then having the right tools to deal with the snow are essentials. So we’ve equipped our grandchildren, Isabelle and Isaac, with snow shovels and sleds. Izzy got her mama’s childhood snow shovel and Lion King sled. Isaac got a new shovel purchased at the local hardware store. And we bought bright new sleds for both at a regional retailer.

Then it’s up to the parents, or the grandparents, to bundle the kids and get them outdoors. It’s a process. But important in teaching the little people that winter can be fun.

Our southwestern Minnesota farmyard is buried in snowdrifts in this March 1965 image. My mom is holding my youngest sister as she stands by the car parked next to the house. My other sister and two brothers and I race down the snowdrifts.

I loved winter as a child growing up on the wind-swept southwestern Minnesota prairie. There snow drifted into rock-hard mountains around the house and farm outbuildings. There Dad shoved snow with the John Deere tractor and loader into more mountains, where my siblings and I played for endless hours. We carved out snow caves and raced on a vintage runner sled. Such is the stuff of memories. And of winter in Minnesota.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo, rural Vesta, Minnesota. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse.

While my grandchildren’s memories will be different—they live in a new housing development in the south metro—I hope they continue to embrace winter with joy and enthusiasm. Just as their mom (Dad grew up in warm and sunny California) and maternal grandparents did before them.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Faribo Frosty is back, snow or not December 9, 2020

Father and son, Andy and Jake Hoisington, build Faribo Frosty Saturday afternoon.

WITH NO SNOW LAYERING the local landscape, I didn’t expect Faribault’s famous Frosty the Snowman to make his annual pre-Christmas appearance yet.

Faribo Frosty has become a holiday icon in my community of Faribault.

But there he was, standing tall and proud in the Hoisington family’s front yard at 18 Third Avenue Northwest Saturday afternoon.

Jake, left, arrived from Mankato to help his dad build Faribo Frosty.

Debbie Hoisington was photographing the work crew as they finished sculpting the snowman from 21 trailer loads of snow/ice sourced from the Faribault Ice Arena. As I paused to chat for a moment, head snowman builder Andy Hoisington noted that Faribault needs Frosty more than ever this year due to COVID-19. I agreed.

Throughout the months Frosty stands in the Hoisington’s yard, Andy will continue to maintain Frosty, especially when he begins to melt in warm, sunny weather.

I thanked him and his family for the joy they bring to others, 2020 marking the 11th or 12th year of Faribo Frosty accenting their Faribault yard. They’ve lost count. The over-sized snowman draws families and others for memorable photo ops and has become a community holiday attraction.

Done for the day. I think.

For Andy, part of the joy also comes in working side-by-side with his family. As I watched on Saturday, he and his 34-year-old son, Jake, scooped snow from a trailer toward the ground around Faribo Frosty.

My granddaughter hugging Faribo Frosty. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2018.

Snapping my final frames, I said, “I’ll be back with the grandchildren when they’re in town.” And I will. It’s become a tradition to see Frosty and pose for photos.

NOTE: Be sure to wear face masks and social distance as needed when visiting Faribo Frosty.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Winter arrives in Minnesota, just a little too early October 21, 2020

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AS I WRITE THIS EARLY Tuesday afternoon, snow falls, layering the landscape in Minnesota’s first measurable snowfall of the season. Several inches are expected in some areas, more in others. This marks an unusually early snow event.

A solo maple leaf stands upright in my snowy backyard.

Only yesterday I wrote of the winter ahead. I didn’t expect that to be the next day, but rather late November or early December. This is just a little too early for my liking.

I took this photo from my back door early Tuesday afternoon.

As I look outside, I observe a squirrel rooting around in my backyard, probably intent on finding a place to stash a walnut.

Next door, birds dine at my neighbor’s bird feeders near an almost naked maple tree.

Across the street, snow piles atop jack-o-lanterns on another neighbor’s front steps, reminding me of the 1991 Halloween blizzard of 20-plus inches of snow here in Minnesota.

Already a city plow truck has sprayed a mix of sand/salt/chemicals onto the street at the bottom of a steep hill.

Later a snowplow scrapes the snow from streets.

The first snow of the season always challenges drivers.

A half hour ago, a Fed Ex worker crossed the street after delivering a package to a neighbor. The young man wore shorts. In 32-degree temps with snow falling. Apparently he didn’t get the weather memo or he can tolerate cold.

My snowy Faribault, Minnesota, neighborhood.

All of this I observe from inside the warmth and comfort of my home with no reason to go outdoors. Earlier this morning, before the snow began, I hustled to haul flower pots, a water fountain and other garden art into the garage. Now I’m hoping I won’t need to head out later to shovel…because the snow shovels are still stored in the rafters.

What was I thinking? I am updating this at 8:44 pm Tuesday, 45 minutes after I finished 1.5 hours of snow removal. I estimate our snowfall at 6-8 inches. Heavy wet snow, the worst kind. Tuesday’s snowfall in Minnesota broke state records for the most snowfall this early in the season. Yup. I’m over winter already.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Wisconsin: Quick, look before the snow melts March 5, 2020

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An iconic Wisconsin farm site photographed from Interstate 90 on February 15.

 

OH, WHAT A DIFFERENCE a few weeks make. I’m talking snow cover here. With temps rising into the 40s, even 50s in some places in Minnesota, and sun shining bright in the afternoons, the snow pack is diminishing.

 

Photographed on February 15 while traveling along Interstate 90 in Wisconsin, this tree stand appears like an island in an ocean of snow.

 

I can now see patches of grass in my lawn, curbing along streets and indications that we are getting closer to spring. As a life-long Minnesotan, though, I recognize the potential for lots more snowfall, even into May.

But for now, we’re delighting in days that lean toward spring. Sixty degrees is forecast for this weekend. Imagine how that will facilitate snow melt. And lift spirits.

 

This hillside barn is located near Madison, in an area more urban than rural.

 

That all said, I’m finally getting around to sharing snowscape photos I took in mid-February while traveling along Interstate 90 in Wisconsin, eastbound toward Madison. Scenes along that route are becoming familiar to me now given the frequency of trips to visit our second daughter, her husband and our son in the capital city.

 

A pastoral scene along I-90 in southern Wisconsin.

 

Wisconsin, for all the jokes about beer, brats and cheese, and fan fanaticism for the Packers and Badgers, is a lot like Minnesota. Friendly folks. Diverse landscape. Mostly rural with just enough urban. Interesting. I’ve enjoyed exploring Madison from botanical gardens to art museums to a repurposed mill next to my son’s apartment building.

 

In the valley east of La Crosse, the length of this barn along I-90 impresses me.

 

A picturesque farm site sits in the valley.

 

Another long barn.

 

 

With the exception of Rochester, Minnesota, and La Crosse, Wisconsin, the four-hour drive to Madison from Faribault takes us primarily through rural regions. I especially like the area east of La Crosse where high rolling hills border farm fields and farm sites in the valley. Hills and wide sky dwarf the farms, a strong visual that always impresses upon me our smallness in this vast universe.

 

This scene, especially, emphasizes our smallness.

 

Such are my thoughts as we travel. I never tire of looking at these rural scenes, often wishing we had time to follow backroads deep into the hills. We did once, years ago while vacationing, and nearly lost our way such are the twisting paths within those hills.

 

Nearing Madison, a traditional farmhouse and barn define this farm.

 

I digress. I expect if I was to photograph these sames scenes today, they would appear much different with snow no longer defining the landscape. What a difference only a few weeks make…

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Yeah, the Little DQ opens in Faribault February 28, 2020

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

 

JUST AS WINTER BEGINS to feel too long, a sure sign of spring springs forth in my southeastern Minnesota community. The Little DQ of Faribault opens today. And the masses are rejoicing, if Facebook is an indication of how much locals welcome need this break from winter.

Every year for the past several, Randy and I, like so many others here in the land of cold and snow, have embraced this re-opening of the walk-up/drive-up Dairy Queen at 309 Lyndale Avenue North. The cozy ice cream shop closed for the season on November 1, while the larger Dairy Queen Brazier, just down Minnesota State Highway 60 to the west, stays open year-round.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Around this time each February, the Little DQ opens with a Peanut Buster Parfait special, this year priced at $1.99 (same as last), limit of three, from February 28 to March 1. The deal is good at both locations. But you can bet the lines will be longer at the smaller DQ. This place holds nostalgic charm. That coupled with the traditional spring opening special draw winter-weary ice cream lovers.

 

Set against a backdrop of snow, the Peanut Buster Parfait. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Never mind the calories—710. It’s best not to think about those as you dig into the hot fudge, the peanuts, the sweet sweet ice cream.

It’s seldom Randy and I indulge in Dairy Queen. But this Peanut Buster Parfait special, well, we can’t let it pass. We sit in our van with the heater blasting warmth while we enjoy our first unofficial taste of spring.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Pass the salt, please, or not February 20, 2020

Interstate 90 in Wisconsin is noticeably white from road salt. It was like this all the way from La Crosse to Madison last weekend.

 

WHEN YOU’RE ON THE INTERSTATE for nearly four hours, you start to notice things. Like the semi drivers seemingly nodding behind the wheel as their rigs hit the rumble strip or drift toward your lane. Or the guy driving with his window open on a cold February afternoon because maybe, just maybe, he’s trying to stay awake. Or the driver who can’t wait even a second as he tailgates, then swoops around on the right before cutting in front of you.

All of this happened on a recent trip to and from Madison, Wisconsin, along Interstate 90. In addition to the questionable, and often frightening behavior (especially by four professional truck drivers), I noticed something else—a heavily-salted interstate. I-90 in Wisconsin stretched before Randy and me like ribbons of white.

 

There was much less salt, if any, on I-90 in southeastern Minnesota.

 

By contrast, I-90 in Minnesota appeared mostly clear of road salt. Why the difference in bordering states? I don’t know the stance Wisconsin takes on salting to cut snow and ice. But I do know that the Minnesota Department of Transportation is shifting toward a more conservative use of salt due to concerns about salt entering our waterways. We are, after all, The Land of 10,000 Lakes.

 

This sign along I-90 welcomes travelers to Minnesota along the Mississippi River by La Crosse, Wisconsin.

 

In media reports I’ve heard and read, MnDOT is taking a technological and scientific approach to treating roads in an effort to reduce salt usage. That includes pre-treating roads before storms (which uses less salt), relying on calibrations, factoring in temperature and other data to determine how roadways should be treated. It’s no longer simply a load up the trucks with salt and sand and chemicals and get out there mindset.

I appreciate this respect for our natural resources, this shift in thinking. Just remind me of that the next time I complain of icy roads or sidewalks. Or the next time Randy and I throw salt down on our icy driveway or sidewalk.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, glorious Sunday sunshine in southern Minnesota February 3, 2020

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A view of the Cannon River dam, river and surrounding area around Father Slevin and North Alexander Parks in Faribault, on Sunday afternoon. Portions of the river are open and sections iced-over.

 

BLUE STRETCHED WIDE AND FILTERED across the sky accompanied by bright sunshine melting snow and ice, warming backs, dancing across open water.

 

Looking the other direction down the Cannon River from the dam walkway toward the Second Avenue bridge.

 

This weekend brought a welcome end to a nearly 10-day streak of grey skies here in southern Minnesota. And it was glorious.

 

Trees reflect in an open section of the Cannon River next to a frozen section.

 

In multiple conversations, I listened to Minnesotans praise the change in weather, thankful for a respite from winter. I added my own words of gratitude. And, like most everyone, I felt the urgent need to get outdoors, to take in the sunshine we’ve craved. Missed.

 

A lone fisherman angles along the banks of the Cannon River Sunday afternoon.

 

Sunday afternoon, with the temp at 40 degrees, Randy and I followed the recreational trail along the banks of the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. It’s a favorite scenic walking spot in Faribault with no worry of packed ice or snow.

 

Just across the street, the Faribault Public Schools’ football stadium.

 

Occasionally I paused to take photos, my fingers quickly chilling in temps that felt more like 30 degrees given the 15 mph wind. Only when we curved into the shelter of evergreen trees did the cutting wind cease.

 

Photographed in the Ace Hardware parking lot, on our way to North Alexander Park, a woman pushing a stroller.

 

Fishing in the Cannon River on February 2, 2020.

 

From a distance, I observed this jogger attired in shorts as he ran along Second Avenue.

 

Everywhere, people were out and about—fishing from the shore of the Cannon, walking the trail, pushing babies in strollers, jogging (in shorts), pedaling on a fat tire bike, chipping ice from driveways, walking dogs…

 

Looking toward the dam, the shelter in Father Slevin Park and the Faribault Woolen Mill in the distance.

 

Water rushes over the dam.

 

Geese walk across the ice near the Woolen Mill dam.

 

And on the river, water churned over the dam, geese walked on ice and ducks swam in open water.

 

Suspended from a light post along Second Avenue, a relatively new banner defines this as Faribault’s Mill District as part of a branding campaign by the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism.

 

Photographed from the riverside trail, the Second Avenue bridge and Mill District banner.

 

The historic Faribault Woolen Mill (right), with its signature smokestack, located along the banks of the Cannon River.

 

Nearby, vehicles dodged ponding water on busy Second Avenue in this area now bannered as the Mill District. The historic Faribault Woolen Mill sits here along the Cannon.

I love this spot, especially on a lovely sunshine-filled Sunday afternoon in February.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling