Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Into the woods at Falls Creek Park October 16, 2021

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On the expanse of grass outside the woods, silver maples shimmer against the blue sky of autumn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A MILE EAST OF FARIBAULT just off Minnesota State Highway 60, the 61-acre Falls Creek County Park offers an escape into the woods. Mostly undiscovered, it’s rare to encounter others while hiking here.

Last Sunday afternoon, Randy and I headed to the park, pulling into the vastly over-sized gravel parking lot pocked with potholes. From there, we headed downhill across a grassy expanse, past the picnic shelter and toward an opening in the woods.

A wooden footbridge over Falls Creek allows entrance to narrow dirt trails. There are no maps to guide hikers, so you must rely on visual cues, obscured in October by fallen leaves. But we’ve been here before, always taking the main trail following the creek.

An unusual find in the creek: shoes/boots. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

The creek is always my first stop. I pause on the bridge, typically to watch water rush over and around rocks. But this visit, the shallow water pooled, littered with leaves and a pair of hiking boots—perfectly good hiking boots from the looks of the shoes. I wondered how they landed there, in the water.

In the places where water remains in the creek, leaves float. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Mostly, the creek bed was dry, a result of this year’s drought. In areas where water remains, minnows darted. The water is at least clear, a rarity in this agricultural region.

Randy scales a steep hill into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A short distance into the woods, Randy spotted a worn path up a steep hillside. I’d never noticed this during prior visits. Before I could dissuade him, he hoofed his way up, slipping and sliding and grabbing onto trees. When Randy lost his footing, I feared he would tumble and injury himself. As much as I yearned to follow, I recognized my limitations and my desire to keep my bones in-tact.

Berries jolt color into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As he disappeared along the hilltop treeline, I continued along the creek route. But soon my mind went to that niggling place of worry, about the time I reached the point where the path sidles next to the eroded creek bank. One misstep and I could plunge over the edge. Not that it’s that high. But far enough to cause injury.

I backtracked, dug in my backpack for my cellphone (hoping for service), and then called Randy. He answered. “I didn’t come here to walk alone,” I told him, also inquiring about his location. He couldn’t pinpoint that except to say that he would head back. I feel thankful that Randy, unlike me, possesses a good sense of direction.

Remembering the hiking boots/shoes in the creek. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

“I don’t like being out here alone,” I added, noting that I’d observed two people on the path, too far away for me to clearly see them. Obviously those hiking shoes dumped in the creek prompted the beginning of a mystery plot in my writer’s brain.

Despite that concern, I aimed for the strangers…finding a cordial couple about my age examining mushrooms on a decayed tree. We talked mushrooms and my missing husband and they offered to help find him should need be. Their story of getting lost in these very same woods did nothing to assure me that Randy would find his way back. But he did. At a different point, where an unseen spring ran down the hillside and he did more slipping and sliding, this time in mud.

Randy follows the leaf-laden trail as it edges close to the eroded creek bank. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We reversed course and, together, followed the creek-side path deeper and deeper into the woods…until turning around and retracing our steps. I wished again for a trail map guide.

Near the footbridge, pools of water remain, collecting the fallen leaves of autumn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We veered briefly off the path to another trail leading to the creek. Again, no water. Only rocks on a dry creek bed.

Seemingly abandoned in the shelter. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Then it was back to the main route, a pause on the bridge to again wonder about those hiking boots and then a pause at the shelter to speculate about an abandoned bike, jacket and beverage bottle.

Not a soul remained at Falls Creek Park. At least no one visible to us. Only mysteries—of abandoned and tossed belongings and of unmarked trails leading deep into the woods.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Up North: Of autumn & mushrooms & bears September 27, 2021

Looking skyward toward the trees inside the woods at Mission Park, Merrifield, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

A QUIET PLACE TO BE.

That message banners signs in Mission Township in the heart of central Minnesota’s lake country. The nearly 35-square-mile rural community is, indeed, quiet, if you tuck yourself in among the woods, off the main routes Up North to the cabin.

Leaves are changing color in the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

From mid-May fishing opener well into autumn, until the first hard freeze, vacationers and seasonal cabin owners travel into and through Crow Wing County to reach their personal and resort destinations. And now Randy and I, too, are living the Minnesota Up North experience thanks to family who are sharing their lake property. Thrice this year we’ve spent time at the cabin, each visit heading to nearby Mission Park.

We typically follow the well-maintained paved trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

The close-to-the-cabin proximity of the park and its 3/4-mile paved hiking trail draw us to this quiet spot in the woods. During our most recent stay in mid-September, we twice hiked in the park. Here leaves are already turning color and I paused often to photograph the autumn hues.

In an open spot in the woods, a pollinator garden has been started. I caught the end of the season. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Seed heads in the pollinator garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
I spotted a few wildflowers still blooming along trails. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Once, while detouring along a mowed grass path to a pollinator garden, I also stopped to examine a pile of dung. It glistened in the sun, indicating freshness to my untrained non-expert eyes. The sheer volume of excrement led me to wonder…bear? Later, when I shared this with my brother-in-law who is especially knowledgeable about the outdoors, I determined this likely was not bear scat given the lack of acorns and other such matter in the pile. That said, bears (yes, plural) have been sighted in the area, according to the brother-in-law and a park worker who advised to “Make yourself as big as possible and don’t run” if you encounter a black bear. Alright then. Thank you.

Among the colorful mushrooms I found. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Another unknown to me mushroom, nearly camouflaged. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
I have never seen a mushroom in this vibrant hue. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

As long as he was parceling out advice, I asked about the many wild mushrooms growing in the park. That, he said, was not within his realm of knowledge. Nor is it in mine. So I admired the fungi, in varieties and hues I’ve never seen. Ever. Anywhere. Bold yellow and orange. Stunning. Still life art.

Discovered growing on the forest floor, a large disc-shaped mushroom. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

If quick research is correct, the more colorful the mushroom, the more likely it’s poisonous. Deadly. Nope, you’re not going to catch me picking mushrooms in the woods. I’ll settle for photographing them, as much as I like the taste of (store-bought) portabella mushrooms.

I spotted this broken off mushroom on the grass at woods’ edge. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

The park employee noted, however, that a guy knowledgeable about mushrooms forages for them here.

Set among the slim jackpines, a picnic area. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

If you’re not into mushroom hunting or photography or hiking, Mission Park offers plenty of other options—tennis and pickleball courts, a disc golf course, ball fields, horseshoe pits, playground, picnic shelter and much more.

Every single time we’ve hiked through this park, the motto, A QUIET PLACE TO BE, holds true. Here you can hear the quiet, even as you listen for bears.

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PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Mission Park and a post on the area’s connection to my Faribault church.

If you are familiar with mushrooms, feel free to educate me on those I photographed.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Take time at River Bend July 15, 2021

I noticed this beautifully veined leaf lying on a trail at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

TAKE TIME. Two simple words. Take time to pause. To look and truly see. To focus on the details. To appreciate the beauty of our natural world.

Crossing the viaduct on the way to River Bend Nature Center on Faribault’s east side. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

In Faribault, River Bend Nature Center offers a prime place to immerse one’s self in nature. And I did just that on a recent walk through the woods and then into the prairie.

Flowers… Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.
A jolt of color in the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.
Lacey flowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

I usually carry my camera while at River Bend. That causes me to really notice my surroundings. This most recent visit, I spotted an abundance of wildflowers. From woods to prairie, flowers thrive in the summer heat.

Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

A plaque on a bench reminds hikers to take time to smell the flowers, although I didn’t dip my nose into any blossoms. Rather, I appreciated the simple beauty of color splashed in the otherwise green woods.

On the way to the Turtle Pond, I spotted this interesting grass. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.
Maple leaves. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.
Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

Even the greenery holds visual appeal in the rolling droop of grass, the lace of maple leaves, the woods that hug trails.

This paver in honor of my friend’s parents reminds me of Psalm 46:10. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

Messages on pavers at Honor Point, overlooking the Straight River, inspire. Be still. Pause. Appreciate.

River Bend features a natural play space for kids in the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

There’s something to be said for being still. Simply being. Listening. Connecting to the earth. Perhaps remembering how you felt as a child, exploring.

A fort and “tunnel” in the kids’ play area. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

In my youth, I “lived” outdoors, coming indoors only to eat and to sleep. With my siblings, we built forts in the grove, rode our bikes along dirt trails, hid in prairie grasses higher than us.

At the edge of the woods, a map details River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

I took time. Time to play in nature. To become part of it. To imagine. When I hike at River Bend, I reclaim that childhood joy.

Wild raspberries edge the woods near the prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

I savor the moments. The sights. The tastes. The scents. The sounds. All that which defines the natural world.

To be avoided: wild parsnip. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

WARNING: Stay away from this plant, wild parsnip. It looks a lot like dill and is growing alongside trails. Wild parsnip will burn your skin. Do NOT touch it.

Clover grows in sun dappled spots in the woods by the prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo June 2021.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photo rich posts from my recent visit to River Bend. Next, I’ll take you into the prairie.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods & among the flowers at Grams Regional Park June 30, 2021

Into the woods via a boardwalk at Grams Regional Park, Zimmerman, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

AFTER MULTIPLE VISITS to Grams Regional Park, Randy and I feel comfortably familiar with this 100-plus acre natural area. The Sherburne County park in Zimmerman has become a lunch-time stopping point on our way to a family lake cabin south of Crosslake.

Flowers bloom in a Native Pocket Prairie Garden at Grams. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

We exit US Highway 169 onto county road 4, drive a short way, then turn left and snake back to the park across the road from Lake Fremont. Here, among the oaks, we eat our picnic lunch before stretching our legs.

Into the woods at Grams Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

The park features two miles of trails and boardwalks in a diverse landscape of open natural space, oak forest, tamarack bog and wetlands.

Wildflowers bloom in the woods in mid-May. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.
An overview of those same purple flowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.
Flowering in the Native Pocket Prairie Garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

We’ve enjoyed the wildflowers of spring, the wild raspberries of summer and the flaming hues of autumn here in this quiet natural setting.

I appreciate this aspect of the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.
Beautiful prairie flowers in the garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.
A flowering prairie grass in the prairie garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

On our most recent stop in late May, we met a couple, Connie and Dale, lunching at the same picnic table we’d used prior to a hike through the park. It was a chance meeting which turned out to be a history lesson. Connie’s grandparents moved onto this land in 1919. She grew up here and eventually convinced her mother to sell the property to Sherburne County. The county, according to information on its website, acquired the park land from Howard and Marvel Grams in 2002.

A work in progress at Grams Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.
Spotted while walking in the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.
Photographed in an educational/play space for kids. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

Had the property not been sold to the county, it would have become a housing development, Connie said. I could hear her gratitude that the Grams family legacy is one of a park and not of houses. I shared how much we enjoy this natural space.

Another found, painted stone in the park. Love this. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

Connie also pointed to a nearby 200-years-plus-old oak tree, now under study. I couldn’t help but think how an oak often symbolizes a family tree. The Grams family may have owned this land at one time and grew their family here. But now the branches have spread to include the broader family of those of us who appreciate this place among the oaks.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Among the wildflowers in Kaplan’s Woods May 5, 2021

Spring wildflowers at Kaplan’s Woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

FLOWERS OF SPRING EMERGE in the woods. Among layers of dried leaves. Among fallen limbs. Sometimes blanketing hillsides.

White trout lilies. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
A mass of white trout lilies in the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
An unidentified, by me, wildflower cluster. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Saturday morning, as Randy and I hiked through Kaplan’s Woods Park in Owatonna, I found myself searching the edges of the wood chip covered trails for wildflowers.

A sign inside the woods details the Parkway. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
I love this foot bridge which crosses the creek and leads into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
Near the creek, this solo boulder seems out of place in the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

This time of year, especially, I crave flowers. They represent the shifting of seasons, of plant life erupting as the landscape transforms.

Dainty violets are among the spring wildflowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
The largest of the wildflowers I saw. Can anyone identify these? Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
The brightest of the flowers I spotted, this one also unknown to me. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Green begins to fill the woods, accented by bursts of violet and yellow and white hugging the earth. Low to the ground, easily missed if you focus only on the trail ahead.

Low water. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

We have walked Kaplan’s only a few times and this visit I noticed the low water level of the creek that winds through the woods.

Hillside wildflowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

I noticed also the noise of traffic from nearby Interstate 35. Motorists en route somewhere on an incredibly warm and sunny morning in southern Minnesota. I hope that at some point they paused to appreciate the day. The sun. The trees. Maybe even the wildflowers. And the brush strokes of green tinting the landscape.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods at Falls Creek Park March 31, 2021

Moss feathers across the end of a hewn tree.

AS SPRING EASES INTO MINNESOTA, I embrace the transition of seasons in indecisive weather and in the subtle greening of the landscape.

A greening vine in the otherwise muted landscape.

I don’t trust that winter has really, truly, exited. Yet, these early glimpses of spring assure me that the bulk of winter lies behind us.

Randy walks in the woods.

I saw that in the woods of Falls Creek County Park on Sunday afternoon. Randy and I hiked in this 61-acre park a mile east of Faribault off Minnesota State Highway 60. It’s a relatively unused park, one of the reasons we are drawn here.

Water rushes under the bridge and over rocks.

Here a dirt hiking path curves along the waterway winding through woods. Access to that path comes via an arched pedestrian bridge. There water rushes over rocks and we always pause to appreciate the soothing sound of rushing water.

The creek meanders, wide in some areas, narrow in others.
In places, the creek runs clear.
A fork in the creek.

And we also always walk to the side of the creek, to examine the water at the bend, before it flows under the bridge. Recent rain left that water muddied. Later we would find the creek flowing clear.

Loving the light, color and texture on this tree trunk moss.

Entering the woods, I determined to photograph signs of spring in the muted landscape. That requires focus. Examples of spring are elusive and seen mostly in vivid green moss carpeting fallen tree trunks.

A fallen tree provides a canvas for art.

But I can photograph only so much moss. Thus I expanded my perspective. Nature writes details upon the landscape. Even in a scene of mostly muted browns.

Hillsides of trees rising

and fungi laddering

and dried leaves curling.

Nature’s “antlers.”

And the branches of a tree twisting like antlers.

Nature’s sculpture.

And felled trees that appear like natural sculptures.

The makeshift bridge.

All of these nuances I noticed as we walked, as I stopped to take in my surroundings, as Randy steadied me while I crossed a makeshift branch bridge across a spillway.

Randy crosses the bridge out of the woods.

There is much to see in this seasonal transition, if only we pause to appreciate. To look. And really see. To hear. And really listen. It’s there. The poetry of wind and water and woods and words.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A lovely November day at River Bend December 1, 2020

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Outside the River Bend Nature Center interpretative center, berries pop color into the November sky.

NOVEMBER 2020, while a dreadfully awful month for COVID-19 in Minnesota, brought the gift of some lovely days. Weather-wise. Any November day without snow and with temps in the 40s or higher delights me. Warm, sunny, blue-sky, snow-less days in the 11th month mean a shorter winter.

We crossed paths with this jogger running her dog.

On one of those above-average afternoons in early November, Randy and I headed across the viaduct to the east side of Faribault and River Bend Nature Center. It’s one of our favorite local spots to hike and immerse ourselves in the peace, solitude and beauty of the outdoors.

River Bend, appreciated by so many who come here to explore.

This marked the busiest we’d ever seen River Bend outside of a scheduled event. Yet, despite the high number of parked vehicles, we didn’t encounter all that many people in the nearly 750-acre nature center. Exactly what we had hoped.

There’s a certain beauty even in dried plants.

Any visit here always finds me with camera slung over my shoulder or around my neck. Even in the mostly grey and muted browns of November, I can still find something to photograph. Each season presents a unique perspective of nature when focused through a viewfinder. I love that about photography, how it invites me to notice the details in my surroundings.

Into the woods at River Bend…
I noticed artistic beauty in the bare branches of a lone tree.
I’m always intrigued by fungi on trees, stumps or elsewhere in the woods.

And so we walked along paved paths into the woods. Occasionally I paused to document a discovery with my camera. Whatever caught my eye or interest. Or whatever Randy noticed and thought I may want to capture. I appreciate his awareness of our surroundings, too, and how he values my interest in photography.

One of the few places on earth to find the dwarf trout lily in the spring.
Not far from the Straight River overlook, Randy spotted what we presume to be a fossil in stone.
A personalized paver at the overlook.

At an overlook above the Straight River, near the Trout Lily Trail and near fossils imprinted in stone, I stopped to photograph pavers that speak to others’ love of this place.

Later I would find a bench marker noting the same.

The woods open to and edge the prairie, where I feel particularly at home.

There’s so much to love about River Bend from the woods to the prairie, from the river bottom to the waterfall.

The only bold color in the November landscape.

Mostly, I simply enjoy being here, immersed in the quiet, in the details of earth and sky. Taking in the trees, now barren of leaves, except for the stubborn oak. Wrinkled berries still clinging to branches.

I watched a muskrat swim near these houses in the pond.

And, out of the woods, I observed a muskrat swimming in the pond not yet iced over.

The look-out dock along pond’s edge.

This unseasonably warm November day proved uplifting, reminding me that even in a month when COVID-19 raged in Minnesota, places to find peace remain. Enduring. A bit of bright hope in an otherwise typically grey and dreary month.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Escape into the Cannon River Wilderness Area November 20, 2020

SOME DAYS I WISH I could simply disappear, vanish into the woods or wheel across the prairie like the Ingalls family to an unknown destination. Far from reality. Far from COVID-19.

But, since I must live in the context of a pandemic, in the place I call home, I look for places to escape nearby. And, on a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I disappeared into the Cannon River Wilderness Area between Faribault and Northfield off Minnesota State Highway 3.

In the nearly 40 years we have lived in Rice County, we’ve only stopped here once, many years ago for a family picnic, but never to hike. On this day we followed the rutted gravel road along the river, past a junkyard and into the wilderness parking lot. We walked a short path to the Cannon River, then a longer one along the river to a foot bridge.

To get there, we passed two tents in the primitive camping area. I delighted in watching a young family gathered in the woods near river’s edge, enjoying the outdoors, away from distracting/detracting technology. At the next tent down, I observed a caged dog.

After passing the campers, we spotted a hillside bluff of limestone looming to the side of the trail.

Springs bubbled water across the muddy path partially covered by a thin layer of wood chips. I found myself tensing at the thought of traversing mud. My slip-on shoes, unlike Randy’s treaded boots, offered zero traction. And, with a history of two falls, one on rain-slicked wooden steps that resulted in a broken wrist and subsequent surgery to implant a plate, I felt angst.

But Randy offered his hand to steady me as we walked across mud, atop slippery rocks and balanced on railroad ties. Eventually, we reached the pedestrian bridge over the Cannon.

If anything soothes me, it is water and wind. And, on this early November day, I stood on that wooden bridge, taking in the elements that calm me. River rushing over rocks. Wind roaring through woods.

 

 

The sun, too, warming me and casting artsy criss-cross shadows upon the bridge deck.

Then I noticed the trees. Tornado trees, I term them. Two years ago, in September 2018, tornadoes ravaged Rice County, including the 800-acre Cannon River Wilderness Area. Evidence of the storm remains in fallen trees, limbless trees, trees stripped of branches. In the woods. In the river. Along the riverbank. Thoughts of tornadoes invite distress as I recall the 1968 deadly tornado in Tracy, Minnesota, a storm I remember from my childhood in southwestern Minnesota. Some things you never forget.

But for a short time, I forgot about COVID as I immersed myself in the natural world. Even among tornado trees, some of which groaned in the strong wind.

As Randy and I retraced our steps along the muddy path, I focused on getting safely back to the parking lot without falling. But in a single step onto a rounded rock, my shoes slipped and I felt myself falling to the right. Thoughts of another broken bone flashed. As did the likelihood that my camera would be destroyed. Yet, Randy, who had been gripping my hand, caught me, even as he, too, nearly landed in the mud. I felt gratitude for his strength, for his support, for his care. We have traversed many a difficult journey through life. Together. And for that I am grateful, especially during a global pandemic.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing nature, seeking peace in chaos October 7, 2020

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Posted near the amphitheater at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault, Minnesota.

IN EVERY WALK with nature one receives far more than he seeks—John Muir.

A scene at River Bend, looking from the swamp across the prairie to the distant treeline on Sunday afternoon.

Those words, imprinted upon a memorial plaque at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, hold a depth of meaning worth pondering. To think that every walk outdoors gives us more than we expect, or search out, seems valid. Especially now, during COVID-19, when many of us are rediscovering the beauty and healing power of the natural world.

Even the drying swamp grasses prove beautiful against the autumn sky.

Are you among the many embracing the outdoors with renewed enthusiasm and appreciation? I certainly am.

This is an example of the many beautiful tree-lined streets in Faribault. I shot this along Second Avenue, with Central Park on the left and The Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior on the right.
To the northeast of Cannon City, we stopped along a back gravel road so I could photograph this distant, colorful hillside across acres of ripening corn.
Northbound along Interstate 35 just north of Faribault, leaves are changing color.

Whether walking at a local park or hiking through a nature center or following a city street or driving along a back country road or even traveling along a busy interstate, I feel a heightened sense of gratitude for the sky, the trees, the land, all that surrounds me.

Wildflowers still bloom at River Bend as autumn wanes.

And as autumn presses on toward winter, I also feel an urgency to get outside. On foot before ice and snow pack trails and I feel less secure in my footing. Maybe this will be the winter I buy metal grippers that clamp onto my boots. Maybe this will be the winter I reclaim my youthful enthusiasm for the season.

A prairie plaque honors a volunteer at River Bend.

Many days I long to get away. Away from traffic and noise and busyness and people to the quiet of woods, the silence of the prairie, the peace that nature offers.

Autumn colors trees at River Bend.

There’s so much turmoil now. Too much hatred. Too much dissent and too much untruth and too much of everything that’s mean and unkind and disrespectful of others. I yearn for a world where we all hold genuine compassion and care for one another.

The hole, the decay, in this tree reminds me in some ways of our country right now.

I’ve never, in my sixty-plus decades on this earth, witnessed such chaos, discord, selfishness…

Like these bold berries pop color into the River Bend landscape, we can pop positivity into the world. We can choose to be bold, to stand for decency and the common good.

I have within me the power to act with decency, with empathy, with understanding. With kindness.

North of Faribault along I-35.

To settle my mind into a frame of peacefulness, I embrace prayer and nature. To do so is to receive more than I seek.

Currently, I am reading The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu. A friend, who recently moved to the lakes region of central Minnesota, gifted Katja Pantzar’s book to me. I’m only 58 pages into the read. But already the words written therein about the Finns’ resilience and close connection to nature resonate. In two more chapters, I’ll be into “Nature Therapy, The Benefits of a Walk in the Woods.”

In the woods at River Bend…

I don’t expect the contents of that chapter to surprise me. Whether walking in the woods or through a city park, we can benefit from simply being in nature. To feel the warmth of sunshine, to hear the rush of wind through trees, to watch water tumble over rocks, to smell the scent of autumn…all calm the spirit, restore peace, and lift moods. What a gift.

TELL ME: Are you rediscovering nature during COVID-19? If so, in what ways has this helped you deal with the pandemic? What’s your favorite nature spot?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than a fall hike at Falls Creek Park October 6, 2020

A cluster of maple leaves in fall colors photographed at Falls Creek County Park, rural Faribault, Minnesota.

AS A LIFE-LONG MINNESOTAN, I remain fully cognizant that the season will soon change to one of cold, colorless and confining.

In the woods at Falls Creek Park, some trees are already stripped of leaves.

Thus, a week like the one predicted with sunny skies and temps in the 60s and possibly 70s, is to be celebrated.

Maple leaves cover the earth, from my backyard to here, at Falls Creek Park.

As I look out my office window mid-Monday morning while writing this post, I see sunshine. Sunshine which casts shadows of leaves swaying in the wind onto my office walls.

Subtle colors color these leaves at Falls Creek.

For today, the wind blows with a fierceness that assures the laundry pinned to my backyard clothesline will dry quickly. I’ve taken extra measures to assure the wash stays clipped to the line. The wind is that strong.

Throughout southern Minnesota, leaves are changing color and falling from trees.

Leaves spiral from the backyard maple at a dizzying rate that makes me melancholy. Soon the branches will be stripped bare, exposed to the sky, a strong visual reminder to me that Autumn is nearing her exit.

Fungi ladder on a fallen tree trunk.

I need to hold onto this season, to embrace and celebrate her for as long as I can because I recognize also that this winter ahead—this winter of COVID-19—will prove particularly challenging. The sense of isolation will be heightened as Randy and I continue to keep our circle small.

And so now, while we can, we spend a lot of time outdoors, walking on trails through woods and along rivers. Like at Falls Creek County Park, about a mile east of Faribault just off Minnesota State Highway 60. The 61-acre park seems mostly undiscovered. We last visited in June, although when the kids were still home, we went there more often to picnic and hike.

An opening in the woods leads to a bridge across Falls Creek.

On a recent weekend, we revisited this peaceful and primarily wooded destination, which includes about 3,000 feet of creek footage. After parking in the over-sized gravel parking lot pocked with potholes, we headed down the hill and across an expansive grassy space toward an opening in the woods.

Water rushes around rocks, like this one, in the creek.

Through that gap, a picturesque bridge crosses Falls Creek. I love that cute little bridge spanning the narrow waterway. There’s something magical and fairy tale like about the arc of that bridge, where I stand and listen to water rush over rocks. Clear water, mostly unseen in this area of southern Minnesota with most waterways polluted by fertilizer run-off.

The creek curves through the woods.

After that creekside pause, Randy and I headed onto the dirt trail into the woods. It runs along the creek bank, in some sections nearly eroded away. In one spot, we walk upon thick sticks laid on the pathway to stabilize the walk way.

Sticks laid on the path to stabilize it in an eroded area.

Randy makes it all the way to the falls, only to find it eroded, too, and not as he remembers. I’ve stopped just short of that destination and turned back to retrace our steps. There are no trails spidering through the woods, only this solo one and another that, for a short distance, veers to our right.

Randy walks on the leaf-covered trail, embraced by the woods.

Yet, we delight in being here. In the woods, even if not particularly colorful. Beside the creek. Just us, until we hear voices in the distance and eventually meet a couple from a neighboring town. They are lovely in every way for not only their appreciation of this place but also of others they’ve met here. That includes a group of young men from Somalia, immigrants who’ve resettled locally and spoke to the couple about past challenges. It was incredibly refreshing for me to hear the couple’s kind words about these young men rather than the unkind words I all too often hear about individuals who’ve fled war-torn countries and atrocities we can’t even imagine for a new life in Minnesota.

The lovely bridge across Falls Creek.

Even though I digress from the nature theme of this post, I feel it important to share this sidebar. There are stories to be heard, lessons to be learned, when we take pause to appreciate, to listen. To cross bridges into the woods.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling