Missing the Party

Oops, I was late to the party … and didn’t realize it until a week or so later. Here’s my story: Long time friend, Terri Dinesen, the DNR Park Manager for Upper Sioux Agency, Lac qui Parle and Big Stone Lake State Parks, posted a picture of a beautiful bloom of the rare ball cactus in the nearby outcrops. The blossom was expressively pink, billowing out in an expression of vivid color so common among cacti species, with a set of yellow stamens rising from the center with a small pinkish “hand” seemingly reaching out in greeting.

Finding any cacti blooming in the wild is a rare treat, and back in my “writing with willful whims” stage of my career for various magazines in the 1970s, a report came from various friends of a very rare cacti bloom across the Arizona desert around and north of Tuscon. It was termed a once in a lifetime event, so after calling my then girlfriend, I packed enough clothes for us both, picked her up at the rehabilitation center where she worked and off we went on overnight drive from Denver to reach the bloom the following morning. Yes, the desert was alive with color, and incredibly, that was my last cacti blooming party, and so far a “once in a lifetime” event. So having ball cacti in bloom right in the neighborhood was exciting and enticing.

Since I was near the secretive location awaiting cross-nation paddler, Madison Eklund, I stopped to see if I could find the little bloomers. Terri had given me a hint of the location, and about all I can say is that the cacti were in Big Stone NWR. Not much of a secret, for several websites and guide books will tell you as much. Then you must find them.

Thanks to DNR park manager, Terri Dinesen, here is a bloom I missed finding of the ball cactus.

Barely as large as the clinched fist of a child, the extremely rare and fragile ball cactus (Escobaria vivipara) hangs on precariously within a small, two-county range that is growing progressively smaller. Experts claim the small cactus resides only in the exposed bedrock along the Minnesota River in Big Stone and Lac qui Parle Counties, and there aren’t so many outcrops remaining either. Rock mining is a major threat as are cactus hunters and prairie fires. Who can speak of the goats that the Refuge has been employing to eradicate unwanted invasive species such as buckthorn.

This rare and endangered species is one of only three native Minnesota cacti, with plains prickly pear (Opuntia macrorhiza) and brittle prickly pear (Opuntia fragilis) being the others. Only a few inches in height, the brittle prickly pear seemingly surrounds the ball as miniature fortresses rimming the Refuge outcrops in goodly numbers. I’ve seen them on outcrops as far south as Vicksburg County Park in Renville County. Compared to the ball, the brittle prickly pear seems to be relatively thriving.

Records show that the ball was discovered in Minnesota in 1898 by Lycurgus Moyer, and the species was described as being rather abundant at favorable sites in the Minnesota River Valley within the two counties. Less than 80 years later the ball cactus was listed as “threatened”, and by 1996 the species was placed in the state’s “endangered” status.  By then the only known surviving plants were in small remnants of the original population close to thin-soiled prairies being converted to agricultural use, or on outcrops being mined for gravel. Some were harvested with well intended but illegal collecting. 

Rising from the ball cactus plant are bulbs where the process of seeds within the fruit are germinating into actual young developing cactus plants that will be released when the bulb breaks open next spring. That unseen magic of nature is happening now on the shelves, a process hidden from the naked and curious eye,

The remaining plants are now scattered infrequently among granite outcrops within a small, two to three mile area, and only a portion of the entire population lives within protected NWR public lands. The vast majority of the remaining population exists on adjacent private lands now apparently in the hands of a huge gravel quarrying company. The original plans for the mine would have destroyed more than an estimated 3,500 ball cactus along with another 14,000 specimens of another eight rare plants of this unique and fragile ecosystem existing only in cracks of the bedrock found on the site. Thankfully the DNR threw at least a temporary wrench into the works by not allowing a permit due to the amount of destruction of rare plants at the site, establishing a rare plant protection area to save the most threatened and diverse plant habitat on the property. 

That said, this is a rare and rather mysterious ecosystem seemingly found only on the cracks and edges of the bedrock exposed 10,000 years ago by the Glacial River Warren, itself created with a break in the ice dam of the upper continent ice sheet of Lake Agassiz — bedrock exposed from the headwaters of the now Minnesota River in Ortonville downriver through to New Ulm. 

A rather typical clump of ball cactus found on one of flatter shelves in the Refuge.

Those small clumps of ball cactus appear on the flatter outcrops, structures often described as “shelves” rather than the massive exposed mound of gneiss or granite. Rarely will you find a singular ball, and like morels in the leafy woods, once you’ve found one your eyes will begin finding scattered clumps nearby. 

Presently, though, those very brilliant red or purplish flowers I was seeking have now matured into fleshy fruit stems that are secured tightly and point upwards from the roundish plant. We’re now closing in on the scientific “species” part of its official Latin name, “vivipara.” This describes the process of those seeds within the fruit germinating into actual young developing cactus plants that will be released when the bulb breaks open next spring. That unseen magic of nature is happening now on the shelves, a process hidden from the naked and curious eye.

Feel free to color me inexperienced or ignorant, or both, for I kept thinking those mysterious bulbs were the actual flowers just waiting to magically blossom out in all their splendor. For several days I drove down, sneaking through the grasses to “hide” my paths with hopes of catching and portraying the balls in bloom. Over those seven to ten days nothing changed. No blooms, no change. Just those tight, red-streaked elongated brownish bulbs poking skyward on many of the balls. 

In the frustration of my research on the “life cycle” of the small cactus going nowhere, I sent Terri Dinesen an email with an attachment of two of the ball clumps complete with the red-streaked, brownish bulbs.

“You were too late,” she responded. “Those have already bloomed.”

Whoops! I had missed the party, although as a rebound of personal forgiveness I took solace in realizing that at least the trips to the Refuge weren’t as far as Tuscon! 

Not One of Those People …

Madison Eklund doesn’t want to be one of those people. People like many of us, and she set out several weeks ago in her 17-foot kayak heading for an Arctic bay to prove that she isn’t.

On Monday she finished the “uphill” near fourth of the Eric Sevareid and Walter C. Port “Canoeing with the Cree” trip taken in the 1930s, starting at the mouth of the Minnesota River near Fort Snelling. It concludes some 1,700 miles later after paddling through the rapids-rich Hayes River into Hudson Bay at York Factory. If river lore and pieced together history is proven true, Eklund will be the third woman and apparently the first of either gender to complete a solo trip through the numerous rivers, lakes and the oft dangerous Lake Winnipeg to the bay. And, perhaps, the first kayaker.

On two of her last four days on this lower stretch she paddled her sea-worthy kayak 20 plus miles in white capped waves and high temperatures to conclude the Minnesota River portion of her voyage. That stretch included nearly 300 against-the-current miles from the start to the Churchill Dam at the foot of Lac qui Parle Lake. Up next is crossing the Continental Divide at Browns Valley, MN, to push off into Lake Traverse en route toward the Red River of the North and Lake Winnipeg before jutting off into the two river descent to York Factory.

Madison Eklund begins her 26 mile paddle up Big Stone Lake early Sunday morning in calm waters, and ended up several hours later paddling through rolling white caps to reach her access point.

Oh, and about “those people” … people like many of us … and her quest of a journey? “It seems I’m always running into people who say they wish they had done this or that in their life, and now have regrets they never followed through. Maybe it was a marriage or their job. Time. Whatever, and now they regret that time has passed them by; that now it’s perhaps too late. I didn’t want to be like that. Sure, I could be sitting in an office or working a job somewhere, but why? This is my goal and I plan on being done and in the Hudson Bay by mid-to late August,” she said.

For years she had an eye open for embarking on such a trip, yet didn’t know where or when. She was considering several options. Then one evening while talking to coworkers in Grand Forks, ND, where she now lives with her husband, Ryan, an Air Force pilot stationed there, it was mentioned that two women had paddled from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay a few years before.

That trip was 11 years ago now, and the paddlers were Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho, a trip that Warren documented in her book, “Hudson Bay Bound.” After a Google search Eklund connected with Warren, and through the connection learned about Servareid’s book. Then she read that Warren was doing a reading in the Twin Cities and drove down to connect with her. They’re still connected, and Eklund has sent texts to Warren on occasion during the trip to ask questions.

She packs economically, storing her gear in waterproof bags in the compartments, behind her seat and between her legs.

“It was through my connections with Natalie that I decided this was the trip I wanted to make,” she said. “Since I started, she continues to be a great help.”

Eklund claims she’s been a paddler most of her life while growing up in rural Eastern upstate New York near the Vermont border. A kayak paddler. “So when people ask why I’m using a kayak instead of a canoe, it’s because this is what I’m comfortable paddling,” she said. She somehow packs her supplies in waterproof bags that she stores in the portals, behind her seat and between her legs. She is an economical packer. 

Yes, she has a deadline of sorts, for Ryan is scheduled to be re-deployed in late August to Edwards Air Force base located in the western edge of the Mojave Desert just east of Los Angeles. This places her in a race against time since she lost two full weeks due to flooding and dangerous debris as well as her paddling against the heavy flood-stage currents of the Minnesota until she entered the “chain of lakes” along the Minnesota-South Dakota border.  

Madison with her flathead catfish, one she caught after being “inducted” into a catfish clan near Vicksburg County Park in Renville County.

Like some who have paddled the route before her, she has found a friendly community along this first fourth of her paddle. Folks she calls “river angels.” One was a family who adopted her for two weeks during the excessive high waters, the mother of whom shared the same dietary allergy as Eklund so there were no food issues. There was also a group of five fishermen who inducted her into the “clan” complete with a heavy river rod and a hook baited with a bullhead that led to her catching a 20 pound flathead catfish. So, yes, she has stories and nice remembrances of many she has met along the way.

It was actually through an old “river rat” community that led her to Listening Stones Farm last Saturday. I drove down with my canoe trailer to meet her at the foot of the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, then ferried her to her Big Stone Lake put-ins and take-outs starting around 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, and an hour later on Monday … all part of a strategy to beat the heat and high wind warnings later in the mornings. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, for I also have a connection with Natalie Warren. Warren has stayed here at the farm in the past, and once even loaned me the paddle that was branded at York Factory at the conclusion of her trip with Raiho. Eklund plans on taking a wooden paddle for the very same reason.

Perhaps the most challenging aspects are behind her, although there remains some worrisome concerns. Among those numerous challenges are meeting up with her food supply along the way in quite remote outposts along with several paddling perils. Lake Winnipeg, for example, is as long as the Minnesota River and is much more temperamental than Big Stone Lake since it faces into the prevailing winds. Numerous rapids await on her final leg on the Hayes River. “I’ll need to often make split second decisions on whether to try to run it, line through it or portage,” she said. 

She chats with Big Stone Lake historian Judy Beckman at the foot of Big Stone Lake.

This doesn’t include polar bears that she might possibly meet once she begins the descent toward the Hudson Bay. She isn’t “carrying” either. “Where would I put a gun on a kayak?” she asked of the obvious. She added that her parents and others have concerns about her traveling alone as a woman, although she believes some of those worries have lessened the further she has traveled along with the experiences she’s faced so far. “I’ve met some good people along the way,” she said.

Much of her trip of a lifetime lies in front of her, and she says, “I’m so happy to have this lower portion of my trip behind me, and Big Stone Lake was the last of it. It wasn’t bad at all except for the heat. I grew up lake paddling, and after fighting the flooding and fast currents on the Minnesota, the lakes were relatively easy for me” even while facing white-capped waves on her first day on Big Stone Lake. “I’m ready for getting on the other side of the Continental Divide and having the currents in my favor.”

Taking “five” after her 20 miles of padding up Big Stone Lake on Sunday morning in 100 degree heat and white cap conditions.

Then there’s this … that move to the Mojave. “I’m a North Country girl used to blizzards and snow,” she said. “I mean, I grew up in upstate New York! And, I’ll be going from the cool Hudson Bay to the desert basically overnight.” That seemed to faze her even more that the nearly 1,200 miles remaining on her paddle to the Arctic. 

As Eklund paddles ever onward she’s proving, if she hasn’t done so already, she isn’t “one of those people.” “I’m living my dream,” is how she put it.  Nope, she’s not one of those people! 

Sunrise, Sunset … So Swiftly Flow the Days

I’ve never hugged my neighbor, the farmer. Perhaps I should reconsider now I’ve realized that my 78th summer will have an Eastern horizon, one open to both colorful dawns and a rising sun. He has planted soy rather than ethanol, meaning my horizon won’t be hidden behind 12 to 14 ft. tall corn plants for the rest of summer and fall through harvest. What a fine and unexpected blessing.

Perhaps my greatest joy in living here at Listening Stones Farm is having views of a horizon for both the sunrises and sunsets. I love both, and love how they bookend a fine day. Although I’m generally not a fan of musicals, the hallmark song, “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, has resonated with me simply because of the choruses:

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly flow the days

Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers

Blossoming even as we gaze

Sweet, isn’t it? Granted, I view more sunrises come fall through spring than I do in the summer although it’s nice being able to see the line of trees on the flip side of this quarter section even on the “Midsummer Solstice.” To be clear, I do see the sunrises in summer … not just as many of them. Often times I’ll note the ambient colors of a new dawn and walk into the prairie or take off with my camera for a tree, prairie or wetland I’ve somehow placed in my mental “database” to feature in what I hope is a stunning image. Remember, I hold only a camera. Same holds true of the sunsets. Colors that are never predictable, displayed on clouds rarely duplicated, painted on early morning and late evening landscapes and nature. So swiftly flow the days!

A sunrise toward the east from my prairie … while below, a sunset toward the west …

Those fine moments of special color and light reminds me of what a fortunate place to live, this last bastion of our glacial blessings, for there remains remnants of the mostly depreciated prairie pothole biome. Some are large, shallow lakes, of which we are blessed with numerous ones to the east across U.S. 75. Less than 100 years ago the potholes, or wetlands (some call them “sloughs” although that word is too close in both pronunciation and image to “slum” for me) numbered in the millions, beginning at the Glacial Ridge down to the loess bluffs region of NW Iowa. Now there are but a few thousand, and in some of the prairie pothole counties there might be but one or two scattered across an entire “black desert”, tucked away from sight and promised cropping land. 

Those wetlands make for beautiful mirrored images of the rising and setting sun, and in many instances are blessed with willows and other trees that may add interest and dimension to an image. Yet, just sauntering through my prairie or an oak savanna, all part of a rather unique and mostly obliterated geological offering to mankind that provides other elements to photograph. Birds, forbs, deer and damselflies all come to mind, all part of such a wonderful blessing. 

A tipster allerted me to a nearby wetland where a swan family had settled, making for a nice sunrise image.

A few evenings ago I again headed to the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, this time in search of the blooming of the rare ball cacti hidden and embedded in the roughened and craggy gneiss outcrops. There was just enough of the “Monet light” remaining to provide some drama to the few images of rare forbs I captured, and yet it was early enough to be blessed with the ambient backdrop of colors so often painting the clouds. Blooming even as we gaze!

While I couldn’t find the blossoms on the cacti, there were some blooms on plants common to this very rare and barely surviving ecosystem left behind by time — an ecosystem indigenous to an eon long passed and mostly unseen. Then, on the way home as the sun was setting, a beautiful purple painted the sky behind a pair of roosting wild turkeys, then several moments later, a vivid orange graced the sky behind a trio of trees on a ridge above Big Stone Lake, a ridge created by the Glacial River Warren when the ice floe dam of the humongous Lake Agassiz broke free just a few miles north in at what is now the small town of Browns Valley ­— the geological event responsible for the near desert-like ecosystem tucked within the outcrops.

And, on the drive home a bonus sunrise image of a foggy Stony Creek.

This was just a week after I rose at 5 a.m. to follow a tip of a swan family with a newly hatched brood of cygnets in a nearby wetland. I arrived just as the sun rose to capture them in a beautiful orange-ish glow spread across stilled waters. Then, as a bonus on the way home, I found a fog rising above a beautiful bend of Stony Creek just east of Ortonville. Although neither was of my home horizon, this was special nonetheless. Admittedly, sometimes these home horizons are invitations to promises beyond. 

Ah, but my home horizon! Hundreds of sunrise images have come from within my prairie in all seasons, and in multitudes of colors and light, and each time I believe what I’ve captured can never be topped. Until the next sunrise. The same may be said of sunsets, from capturing them alive with curtains of smoke from western wildfires to those clear and cheerfully painted by our rapidly escaping star … our sun. One season following another!

A sunset image of a dragonfly in a bluestem prairie …

Many of us have heard the arguments of those living in coastal Florida boasting of the most picturesque sunrises on their eastern shore versus those who claim there are no better sunsets anywhere than those crossing the Gulf on the western shore. I’ve witnessed both and can lay claim that neither can touch either the sunrises or sunsets here on the prairie, and from my horizons, in opposite directions, allow these nearly daily magical palettes of unequaled color to appear. Time after time, one season following another.

So sing it, brothers and sisters! Sing it loud and clear:

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly fly the years

One season following another

Laiden with happiness and tears

Hope … For Jenson’s Small ‘Island’ of Art

A Mourning Dove swept past me moments after I had eased into a weathered wicker chair on the small garden patio of rosemaler Karen Jenson’s iconic home in the small artist community of Milan,MN, mere blocks from the Milan Village Arts School (MVAS) where she held classes in the past. The dove landed to perch momentarily on a simple wrought iron guard rail, the work of Gene Sandau, the late blacksmith artist from nearby Madison, posing proudly if not symbolically.

Was the dove symbolically an omen for an era gone by? Perhaps an era even erased from current existence? Hope springs eternal for something many of us are holding onto as vividly and strongly as the dove’s talons grasped Sandau’s wrought iron.

I speak of her home, for Jenson is now a resident of a senior care facility in nearby Appleton. Her house has remained empty with exception of AirBnB out-of-town renters who’ve come for MVAS arts classes. Her house is in itself a work of art by an artist known even in the old countries for her freestyle rosemaling. Indeed, she was considered one of the best internationally, and artists traveled to this small prairie town for years to study with Jenson. 

Jenson’s “great room” is representative of her home of “old world art” in the small arts village of Milan.

Her garden, which surrounds the house with nooks and crannies just as it is within the exterior walls, is an island into itself. From the two patios, front and back, and from windows inside her house, the nearby streets are beautifully obscured from view. How could anyone not describe her house and corner lots as anything other than an island? An island of old world art?

A few years ago when her family decided for the move to the Appleton facility, a fund was started with hopes of saving her home as a living legacy to her influential life as a artist and teacher, which would be donated to MVAS to also house guests … as it did until Covid. “My hope is that someone will buy my home and donate it to the school,” she said, “that it will remain as it is. I didn’t want to sell, and I wish I could still live there. I loved my home.”

The house was recently listed and a “standard” open house was held this past weekend. A “lookalou” couple came in ahead of my friend, Wanda Berry, and I. Like us, they were audibly amazed by the art that seemed to evolve from every direction, from each of the numerous nooks and crannies, in all the rooms and an unexpected balcony, all emphasizing Jenson’s Norwegian rosemaling and Swedish dalmalning.

Her kitchen with the decorative cabinets is a treasure.

This wasn’t my first viewing of the ornate interior that was the work of Jenson’s painting and the carpentry skills of twin brothers, Aaron and Arvid Swenson of rural Flom, who constructed the beds and other decorative pieces. That initial viewing was years ago prior to the now annual Upper Minnesota River Arts Meander when friends Harland and Robbie Kasa, of rural Cannon Falls, came for a visit. We gave them a tour of the studios of area artists Dale and Jo Pederson of Wegdahl and Gene and Lucy Tokheim of Dawson before driving to Milan for a visit of the Arts School.

Harland, too, was an artist who recreated from scratch horse drawn buggies and ornate carriages, and got into a conversation with Jenson at the school. Interestingly, Harland had a client who was interested in having a rosemaled seat on his buggy, which Harland had explained to Jenson along with his frustration in finding someone to do the painting. “I do a little rosemaling,” she quipped before inviting us for the short walk to her house to show us her work. She was kind enough to show us all of her home but her bedroom. Her house back 20 some years ago was a wonder of awe. For those of us so fortunate, an awe that hasn’t changed.

A view of the ornate garden that obscures the adjacent streets gives one a glimpse of Jenson’s early morning cup of reflective coffee.

I knew Jenson only by sight at that point, and a few years later our booths were next to one another at an international cultural event in Willmar. Thus began our conversations and friendship, one that has continued to this day. She was working on a plate during the event and when we were packing up she was fine with selling it to me … which is now here on my wall at Listening Stones Farm. Since she has visited the farm a few times, and always smiles when she sees the plate.

And, yes, there is another connection between us, for it turns out that her grandfather and his brothers built this house I live in here on the farm, as well as others in the nearby area … all “Gustafson-built houses.” She grew up as a child at the foot of this road, near Big Stone Lake, and for a short while placed a small prebuilt log cabin on the top of a hill on land she still owned. “My family farm,” she called it. We were quite excited to have her as a new neighbor and envisioned sitting with a glass of wine to possibly view sunsets featuring a small oak savanna on the ridge across from the little cabin. Unfortunately her poor health kept her from enjoying her hideaway, and it was eventually sold and moved after she entered the Appleton facility.

Which brings us back to her beautiful “island” home in the midst of Milan. The house is listed for just short of  $200,000, and was initially part of an agreement set up by Jenson with ties to MVAS to hopefully raise enough funds to purchase the house and lot and donate it to the school. Contributing to that effort was area community organizer Patrick Moore, a 40-year friend of Jenson’s, who said that over the years about $70,000 had been raised. It wasn’t enough.

Her seating area in the “great room” offers a nice view of her west side garden.

Some family members had apparently, much to Jenson’s disappointment, run out of patience with the fundraising effort and as Jenson put it this weekend, “wanted to bring an end to it, to just get it sold.”

“Unfortunately,” said Moore, “negotiations broke down, and we couldn’t meet the family’s price, so now we are hoping that a friendly buyer can step forward.”

Hope is eternal, for Jenson, Moore and others … myself, included. Her home … yes, it is a home more so than a house … is a regional treasure, at least, and in itself a work of sweat, labor and art. Jenson’s sweat, labor and art. Although the fundraising efforts, which basically began after Pioneer PBS Emmy Award-winning staff did a Postcards segment on Jenson and her Milan home, have fallen short, many of us are still hoping for a just conclusion. Perhaps a wealthy buyer with a benevolent spirit might still purchase the home and lot, then donate it to MVAS while keeping the art home as is. As internationally respected rosemaler Karen Jenson has left it, a legacy to her life and career as an artist.

A wreath of greeting and farewell still hangs as one leaves Jenson’s former home.

Sitting in the stilled, ornate garden, hidden from the street, it was easy to find a moment of meditation among the bleeding hearts, allium and other plants in her beautiful gardened yard, with a warbler and sparrows cheerfully singing and with a dove momentarily perched on the wrought iron. You could close your eyes and vividly recall the painstakingly painted freehand rosemaling decorated the walls, doors of cabinets and rooms, of the twins’ wood crafted adormants and beds, along with intricate acanthus carvings.

When I opened my eyes, the dove had flown. Was it a symbolic omen? One suggesting hope is on the way, or one of a less fortunate conclusion? Many of us hold hope that Karen Jenson’s legacy, of her art and her importance to this small Norwegian village in the heart of the prairie, will be forever retained.