Seasons Come, Seasons Go

Seasons come, seasons go. And our autumn, a time of migrations and leaf transformations of color, seems on the brink of closure as October winds blast across the prairie, littering the rivers and plains with dead and dried leaves of varying colors. Truly it was merely a matter of time, and after my hitting the colorful peak last week at both Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and Maplewood State Park, my desire to capture the last of an autumny essence at Buffalo River State Park meant time was of essence. With that in mind I set my alarm for a 5 a.m. wakeup call.

My thought was to drive up to Buffalo River State Park just east of Moorhead before dawn with hopes the winds hadn’t already denuded the trees alongside this small, picturesque river. Then, either I didn’t hear or ignored the alarm all together, my day was off kilter before it had barely begun.

As I left Listening Stones farm early that morning my initial rationalization was that although I would miss the sunrise at Buffalo River some two hours up the road, there might still be ample post-sunrise color for my photography. At the end of my road, though, my plans abruptly changed. Left to Buffalo River, or right to the Minnesota River. I’d be turning right.

Time was running short either way. For prime color and light, that is. Yet, there was still a whole day to come. Without speeding I made it to a bridge over the Minnesota River with moments to spare as the sun was just barely below the horizon. Pulling the car onto the shoulder, I grabbed my camera and rushed for the bridge ahead of two cars heading toward Ortonville and actual paying jobs. One of the pure blessings of retirement.

So my day began on the Minnesota River and would eventually end several hours later on the Buffalo River up in Clay County. If timed correctly, there would be ample time for some hopeful late afternoon light and color near  sunset. A rapid assessment showed many of the trees had already been hit with winds from across the floor of the sheer flat Red River Valley, though a hint of leaf color peaked through along the waters edge. Later in the afternoon an overcast sky doused any intent of adding ambient afternoon colors to those beautiful waters. 

My morning brought some nice images to the camera. Perhaps nothing like my Klimt-like image of the leaves I made late last week, but decent enough. Same for my afternoon on the Buffalo River, although once again I longed for a pathway to the bottom of the bluff just below the park headquarters. That was my mental image when I left home, for when I was there last winter the snow was too deep and this time the hillside growth seemed too much of a hassle for a descent dip into the valley floor with no idea of the eventual view. From the hilltop there appeared to be a nice long stretch of river pointing toward a setting sun.

Back on the Minnesota my sunrise image was calm and colorful with ambient light from the rising sun reaching over the hillside village of Odessa. Across the bridge a reflection of the moon, though smaller than a button, awaited against a “rainbow” dawn-ish sky. 

Moments later, on a whim, I found the gate into the Big Stone NWR open so I took the loop. There would be hours to kill before I would leave for the Buffalo River. Oddly enough I can usually capture a few interesting images on each trip through the Refuge, and I would again.

Once again the few birds I saw were cooperative, including a great blue heron … before an erosion of patience hit for a launch skyward to head across the pool shallowed by a summer of drought. A few hundred feet down the loop road four geese shared a rock that in normal times and water levels would have been under the pool’s surface. And so it went. On this morning there were numerous geese and cormorants, though little else in terms of avian species.

After circling the loop I found leaves floating in the calmed river, and fortunately it was early enough that I could leave the car in the narrow, one-way canopied road without fear of traffic. I could take my time in search of something interesting. Several attempts had left me wanting, although I found one of the images rather interesting when I downloaded the card. 

Up on the Buffalo River there was barely enough color to be interesting. Among my joys photographically is playing with water imagery, and I was able to make a couple of nice images. One in particular I thought was really nice was of two trees reflected on stilled waters with a few leaves floating through. Further upriver was a newly fallen leaf perfectly caressing the surface with its shadow reflected by the mirror-like water.

Once again I tried to photograph the magic of gravity, of how leaves weighing less than a butterfly are drawn toward the earth. “That’s why they call it ‘fall,’” said a friend. Years ago I sat both on a balcony and later on a bench of a cobblestone patio at Suzanne Kranz’s boutique hotel in Breda, Holland, as leaves got their call from gravity as they broke loose from a stately old oak tree in the hotel courtyard. Though it was like a rain with so many drifting down at once, I had no more luck along the Buffalo River than I’d had in Breda. 

Then the winds came. You could hear it above and see the sway in the treetops even if it was calm on the trail. That would change out in the open away from the timbered land, some of which was also protected by a tall river bank. A day that had been reasonably warm for mid-October was suddenly chilly with a drop in temperature of some 13 degrees by the time I had returned to my car off the trail. The experiences between the two rivers couldn’t have been more different.

Out on the plain on the drive home the winds were brutal. My car would be hounded on the two hour drive home as singular windblown corn leaves sliced across the beams of the headlights like thrown knives. Where was the early morning calm and peacefulness on the Minnesota near Odessa? The night offered a wholly different aspect to the day than the calm I had experienced earlier that morning on the bridge over the Minnesota River, and even earlier in the state park. It seemed as if in an instant our autumn was coming to a windblown conclusion, offering a closure for both leafy color and warmth on the threshold of winter. Seasons come, seasons go … on a day between two prairie rivers.

The Unencumbering

On my saunter hardly a leaf was stirring, not even a grouse. On a quiet afternoon the wind was silent. So silent this wooded path along Big Stone Lake was so stilled the snapping of a stepped on twig seemed to pop like a cheap firecracker. Perhaps even echoing through the woods and across the waters.

Although I had stopped twice for meditative reasons, once just into the woods and then later on a storm ravaged oak on a distant hill near a meadow of autumn blessed sumac, for I enjoy and sometimes need dipping into a forest “bath.” And there I was, pleasantly alone, on the lakeside trail of Bonanza.

I kept my eyes coursing through the timber in hopes of seeing deer. Those “snapping” twigs were unrelenting, so chances were slim if not impossible. Not just any deer, for I wanted a nice, regal buck with stout antlers, ambling slowly along within lens view surrounded by colorful leaves. Later I would scare up a doe and her twin, nearly fully grown fawns, and luckily a couple of shots were made as they bounded away. 

My hope was for photographing a regal buck with stout antlers, although a yearling would do.

Initially I had concentrated on hearing, and high in the treetops birds were busy with hasty flights high in the canopy and song. Later when I tried to enlarge the images it seemed as if I had come upon a small migration of blackburnian warblers. One of the birds I could identify later was a redpoll. It was the only one without the markings that so closely resembled the blackburnians. 

In previous saunters on this trail, piliated woodpeckers would flutter in and out of camera range, and on this afternoon the same held true. As patient as I could be, my only images were of their backs that blended so perfectly with the tree bark. There seems to be a trio of trees with deeply hollowed holes, all almost perfectly symmetrical from the pattern of pecking. I’ve considered bringing a blind into the woods to place between the trio of trees. It seems I only think of the blind after entering the woods.

Before the destructive derecho earlier this summer the trail was pristine and cathedral-like with towering oaks providing a nearly perfect canopy. Limbs, thick and heavy, arched gracefully from stately trunks over the trail. Often I found myself searching for angles that might illustrate such a seemingly perfect portrayal of woodland form, strength and beauty. Now the trail is littered with broken trees with shattered limbs laying askew in the aftermath of that shuddersome storm. Trees seemingly so strong and indestructible were simply no match for the straight-line winds barreling across the lake. 

A “sumac” meadow brought color on a cloudy day.

Park workers have cleared the trail itself of the trunks and limbs, although the damaged oaks remain throughout, snapped and broken as if they were Tinker Toys. I wondered if the broken trees would be somehow removed and perhaps burned, or if the decision was made to allow them to slowly rot and degenerate into the soil of the forest floor. What is time to a forest? 

Bonanza is much like the rest of the eastern shore of Big Stone Lake with a steep bank cut through the prairie by the Glacial River Warren. Cutting through these tall shoulders of the lake are numerous ravines, and one such ravine cuts across the trail about two thirds of the way through. Spring-fed waters trickle through the forest and over stones before entering the lake, offering hikers a heavenly sound, one that eases away strife and worries if the time is taken. A boardwalk bridge offers a fine place to sit, or even to lay down, to allow the magic to work.

At the upper “lip” of the ravine, the reds from the sumac and yellow from the dogwood brought a lovely brightness to the otherwise cloudy day. I laid so the colorful horizon was in view so I could take in the color as well as the sound of the trickling waters. On rare occasions I will encounter another hiker, and I wondered what one might think of seeing an old guy laying on the boardwalk bridge, a camera at his side, with his hands clasped as a pillow behind his head. Perhaps he or she might come and sit, too, or maybe find the necessary space to find a similar prone position.

A spring fed steam cuts through the ravine en route to Big Stone Lake.

Eventually the inertia came to right myself for the rest of the hike which would take me up the hill into the sumac meadow. Here the sumac, ever invasive, spreads in a sea of autumn redness across the meadow with clusters dotting the distant hillside. 

At the “end” of the trail rest two picnic tables, and taking a brief seat always seems like fine idea. More so to collect one’s thoughts than to rest. Interestingly I had not heard the boats motoring on the lake until I sat, and there was only a few off in the distance.

Then it was time to head back, to look at the woods from a behind previous prospectives, This time there was no stopping to sit or lay on the bridge, and some of the worked over trees trunks and limbs were laid so the cut ends seemed to face me more so than I had noticed on the hike in. I sensed more destruction, more mayhem of a storm so strong. Nature taking its course in time.

What had once been a beautiful canopy lays tattered and torn along trailside.

It was a fine saunter, and a relaxing one after a taxing weekend. I debated on whether I should process my images, or to wait a day or so. My walk wasn’t necessarily meant for photography. My intent was merely to recharge the soul, to breathe unencumbered with stress and busyness. Meditation was more in need than the adding a few images to files that will one day be long forgotten. As I neared the trees at the start of the trail, the warblers were still fluttering from high above though the stillness remained. 

I was reminded of the thoughts shared by songwriter and singer Beth Wood recently on social media: “I just want a few days of doing nothing, with no plans and no to-do list and no agenda and nowhere in particular I have to be.” My saunter through Bonanza felt like that, and I’m quite blessed to have such a beautiful trail nearby for such moments.

Moments of a Season’s Passing

First came the boulder, and after high stepping through the sedges and prairie grasses, there was a flattened space wide enough to simply sit. A glacial remnant perfect for meditation. I had come for my fifth straight day of easing through the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge’s auto tour where presently an interesting and seemingly ever changing array of bird species are easing through in migration.

My meditative stone was surrounded by acres of prairie grasses, countless cattails and soaring gulls. When you feel a need to be “grounded” and back in touch with your inner self and nature, you do what you must do. Within moments of the yoga-like breathing the essence of the surrounding nature began to seep into the soul. On this afternoon the air was still. Grasses were stationary and the water surfaces mirror-like. About the only sound came from the gulls overhead as they seemed to soar effortlessly if not gleefully. If only I could see a gull smile.

It was time for the outer world to seep inward. Sounds. Smells. Sights. Interestingly enough, the sun that hadn’t seemed so intense before suddenly seemed to sear my exposed forearms, and then came the realization that my floppy old weathered hat was in the other car along with the small collection of artwork from the street fair from the day before. Perhaps it was the street fair that brought the necessity for this need of internal grounding. 

My five days afield in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge began with the unexpected sighting of this pair of sandhill cranes.

Moments later my walk began anew along a worn and grassy roadway. Perhaps I was on the long-discussed bikeway from the nearby town of Ortonville. About ten minutes later a lone bicyclist peddled past turning to ask if this area was open to hunting. “I haven’t a clue,” I said loudly enough in hopes he could hear my response in his passing. I wondered then what one might hunt for the only animal life I had seen was a yellow butterfly, a few grasshoppers and the gulls. 

At  one point I stopped to survey the possibilities of catching the gulls gliding over a distant wetland through the framing of leafless trees. The scene was quite distant, a bit hazy, and if the photograph worked, it might make a nice image. One of muted colors with a mix of life and death, of a gliding of life mixed with the weathering of death. After another quarter mile or more down the grassy lane I turned back. 

Once in the car I headed toward the circular tour road. Five days before a pair of sandhill cranes were in marshy grasses along the inner wetland across from the edge of west pool. My returning was in the ever hopeful event they might still be around although they had flown the next day. Within this near week I had captured some nice imagery, one of migrating great egrets resting on the canopy of distant trees. I was able to capture one coming in to perch with the resting flock thanks to an old friend, Bill McBean, who was along, and said, “Hey, look! There’s one flying in!”

One of the three adjacent trees where the great egrets had perched in the canopy.,

It was a perfect warning, for otherwise I might have brought my lens down and missed the arriving egret. Moments later we passed a log covered with perched and resting wood ducks in the wood-strewn Minnesota River. So much deadwood floats in the river that it is impassible for kayakers and canoers. Only one group of the “Canoeing with the Cree” paddlers to the Hudson Bay have attempted to paddle this stretch of river because of the deadfall. Since, most have portaged the Refuge via the highways.

On this afternoon of my latest circling of the loop, my first Western grebes caught my eye, along with dozens of ducks and cormorants. A pied-billed grebe dipped underwater just as I pressed the shutter and didn’t surface within my sight range, but its cousin, the Western, did so along with a youngster. My dream is to one day catch the Westerns in their “rushing ceremony” when two males vie for the courtship of a nearby female by skimming across the water, their necks curved and the bodies arched high as they rush across the surface.                                                          

The Western grebe and its youngster in the West Pool of the Refuge.

When turning at the big bend at the end of the inner prairie I slow to watch for shorebirds in the shallows at the foot of the pool. One year I caught several plovers coursing through the edging plants, although this year the growth between the loop road and the pool is much too dense and high for such an image. I’m ever hopeful to someday see an American avocet, and they’ve been spotted here numerous times before. Not by me, though.

Around the bend in the marshy wetland was a pair of great egrets and a lone great blue heron, and all seemed  willing to ignore my presence. The three birds quickly made up for the absence of the sandhill cranes, posing for both stalking as well as flying pictures. I couldn’t have been more blessed.

A great blue heron goes “hunting” amidst the resting ducks.

Sometimes I wonder if this loop around the Refuge has become much too common, too familiar, for I cannot count the number of times through the years that I’ve driven the loop. A few times I’ve walked the four miles, too, and always with a camera at hand. Over the years I’ve caught images of dozens of water birds, plus bob-o-links, yellow headed blackbirds, orchard oriels, the never quiet dickcissels and dozens of other birds in the prairie grasses and cattails. That familiarity never seems to tire for it seems as if there are rarely disappointments. Each time seems to offer a special treat, and over these past several days there have been many.

Sometimes I wonder, too, of those who drive up behind me, and while they seem to offer patience and kindness, once they pass by my car pulled far off to the side I will see them across the way speeding along. I wonder what they must see or experience, if anything, for I find myself slowed and curious, patient and watchful, always looking for some gem in the waves or leaves. 

Although it seemed as if the large flock had departed, this great egret was still hanging around.

Earlier in the summer I explored a flattened piece of bedrock so many times in search of a ball cactus bloom that even now, months later, my paths are still visible. So many times I’ve pulled to the side to capture the cone flowers, or sunflowers, or to follow the flights of rare bob-o-links across the prairie grasses. On this afternoon I crept from my driver’s seat to capture the Western grebes, then later, I spent at least a half hour of crouching to photograph the pair of egrets and the great blue heron. Thoreau offered thoughts of such moments: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

I’m game enough to believe my moment on the glacial rock adequately prepared me for those other moments afield, to make the time to see and feel and record the natural beauty around me for it felt so fleeting. Now is a time of change, of a season’s passage, and with it these birds are here only briefly then gone leaving behind silence and a promise of an oncoming winter. All in a season’s passing.

Travels with Tom

About two or three times a year we have a “dinner date,” Tom Watson and I. Generally we’ll select a nearby steak house that serves a decent wine, ribeyes or pan fried walleyes. The wine comes in small individual  bottles; just enough to almost fill a standard wine glass. This time, though, we chose a relatively new Mexican restaurant in his hometown of Appleton which has both his favorite el camarón and my blessed carnitas. And, we opted for margaritas as our choice of beverage. 

Tom is an outdoors writer who writes kayak-based articles for a paddling website, nature columns for weekly newspapers around the region, well-chronicled guidebooks as well as articles for various magazines. Having a nearby writer friend is a blessing, and besides our interests in silent water sports and the outdoors in general, we don’t need to highly define or explain what we have faced professionally. 

Most nights after our dinner we will end up either on my deck or his, although his has a huge hammock chair where he often sits with a cigar as classical music from the local MPR channel drifts across the driveway from his garage. We’re not so fortunate here. Prairie winds and whatever birds are available for song.

Our first stop was to capture native sawtooth sunflowers in the the rich, fading sunlight.

On our last dinner I asked if he would mind if we took a drive to the nearby “twin bridges” that crosses a narrows of Lac qui Parle Lake with my hope of seeing and photographing an American avocet wading along the muddy edges of the shallow waters. We were blessed with great light for imagery. As we left the restaurant he suggested a detour that turned out to be a narrow graveled, minimum maintenance road that cut between the Marsh Lake dam road and the Twin Bridges.

I don’t know if this graveled lane has a name other than perhaps “the short cut.” My river-based friends have called it that for as long as I’ve lived here. The Marsh Lake road is Ct. Rd 51, and 119 cuts across southwest from Appleton over the Twin Bridges and onward to Dawson if you don’t take the Madison fork. Dusk was on heaven’s door as we veered off the beaten path into a patch of near wilderness along the short cut and it was immediately obvious our little detour might offer some interesting possibilities. I reached for the camera as we entered the prairie’s edge and the marshy woodlands just in case. 

The heron flew from a marshy area to perch behind us on the limb of a dead tree.

I was immediately rewarded. First to beckon was a field of sawtooth sunflowers being kissed by the lowering sun. A couple of quick images were made just as the flowers went into the deep shadow of the oncoming nightfall. So on we moved, slowly, and it seemed every few turns of the wheels was like slipping past the layers of an onion with new sights being presented with each peal. A great blue heron lifted from a backwater slough, then turned to land behind us on a sturdy branch of a long dead tree. Again we stopped, and I leaned through the door for a couple of images. 

Then a stand of long weathered whitened trees stood tall and defiant against a timbered growth of younger trees, ghosts of an earlier time. And so it went, layer after layer, until we reached the Twin Bridges road. We then passed a small deer partially hidden deep in the cattails before moving onward to the marshy lake views as the light that made Monet famous descended upon us. As we neared the second bridge a sudden and unexpected sandhill crane crossed the sky over the marshes. A singular bird, and we couldn’t find its landing nor mate. 

I’ll admit being a sucker for the whitened skeletons of long dead trees.

Ornate views were offered on both sides of the bridges, to the east an afterglow glistening off distant clouds, and to the west, the fading remnants of the sunset. Although the afterglow was more colorful, you couldn’t help but take a deep breath to breathe in all the goodness of the surrounding nature and the beauty unfolding around us.

“Sometimes when I see a forecast for a Northern Lights display I’ll come down here to attempt a shot,” said Tom as we slowly rolled on down into the access point to turn around. “There isn’t much light pollution.”

The afterglow showing the “rainbow” sky above the lake at Twin Bridges.

Two nights later another old friend and I drove down in anticipation of the Aurora display, but the traffic was too heavy to safely stop for the long exposures seemingly necessary to capture the full array of the painted skies. We would quickly drive up the short cut road to the Marsh Lake dam where we were able to secure a decent half dozen shots before the flares died down for the night. If not for the short cut we would have missed the short display that lasted well under 30 minutes.

Taking car forays with the camera is something I frequently do, although it’s more commonly done around my Listening Stones Farm in rural Big Stone County. My little acreage is surrounded by beauty, by both prairie and woodland, and offers perhaps the last remnant of the original Prairie Pothole Biome left behind by the last glacier 10,000 or so years ago. All but one percent of that biome no longer exists.

Tom had mentioned the bridges as a possibility of capturing Northern Lights, which led to this image two nights later at Marsh Lake dam … which we reached early enough by taking the short cut road.

Some might argue that the nature Tom and I witnessed the other night along the short cut road wouldn’t have existed back in time, for about the only trees native to the prairie were burr oaks within savannas on the northern slopes of the sometimes rolling terrain of the prairie or along the carved out banks left behind by the Glacial River Warren, or further toward the northeast of us, on the distant moraines and occasional esker … what is called the “glacial ridge.” Lake country. 

As we left the Twin Bridges to drive back toward Appleton darkness had settled over the prairie. At Tom’s place he built a brief bonfire and we shared a glass of wine before I headed for home. My short drive was accompanied with a smile in acknowledgment of a long and fine friendship along with those few unexpected images from the little shortcut he had suggested ­— those travels with Tom was a nice dessert not long after such a delicious Mexican dinner.

Mysteries of Migration

It was during one of those late summer, early autumn tea breaks on the deck when I noticed the swallows. How can you not notice swallows with their jet-like, acrobatic flying? Oh, what joy it might be to spend even just a few minutes of your life with such a freedom of flight! To think that the youngsters were emerging just weeks ago from the hollowed mud nests their parents like to mold to side of the house and wood shop, to now seeing them flying about like their parents. Actually it’s hard to tell them apart as the lessons and endurance of flight seems so important now.

Their flight from the studio elm into the adjacent prairie and back was the tipoff, for they would swoop off and make a loop or two around the studio, and maybe a short jaunt over the big bluestem, before heading back to perch and rest in the treetop. Not being privy into “swallow talk” they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. 

My deck almost seems like the center line of the flyway highway, and my old friend was here for a visit and had joined me for a glass of wine as we watched distant murmurations skitter across the prairie sky, then later as hundreds of distant birds careened across the farm fields with little hesitation and much determination. 

Swallows swooping over the canopy of the old elm mere moments before they suddenly disappeared on their autumn migration.

It is that time of year, and you can see it along the wetlands as well as the pools at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge with geese, ducks and even the wading birds. Especially with the geese, for they’re now making flights across the prairie as family units. Up at the North Ottowa Impoundment geese families are spread along the banks, one family platoon after another, all along the water. They’re now all equal in size, yet the parent geese have their necks stretched a bit higher supposedly in the watch for danger. They’re likely here for awhile yet.

So the fall migration is upon us, and began with the redwing blackbirds back in early August. It seems bird species are here one moment, gone the next. Mysteriously disappearing. Sadly so. Poof! Gone! I find it the opposite of springtime when each new arrival is a reason for joy. Up go the grape jelly feeders for the oriels. Then it’s to Google to recall the mix for the hummingbirds. My sunflower feeders are up all year making the nuthatches, sparrows and finches happy, and the new arrivals make it seem a reunion.

This once again was a colorful summer here at Listening Stones Farm. Goldfinches and oriels were joined by shy brown thrashers, wood ducks in the grove, a couple of yellow warblers and rose breasted grossbeaks all around. The swallows were here, too, although their flight is more remarkable than their addition of colorful feathery. 

Great egrets are gathering on the edges of wetlands in small groups. Is this a clue to a near migration?

Now autumn beckons and whether we’re here on the deck overlooking the prairie skies or, as we did on a recent afternoon at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge where we sat as seeming hundreds of Franklin Gulls swept overhead in a steady stream of migration. We were seated on a comfortable, shaded bench next to a beautifully carved natural wetland surrounded by outcrops as the gulls navigated the flyway highway. Looking toward the north we could not see the birds, but as they came over us suddenly they became visible. And they kept coming and coming.

Driving around you’ll see the gatherings of great egrets on the edges of wetlands. Not just the singular bird wading in the mucky edges, but three or four. Perhaps they’re the quickly matured of the summer’s hatch. Who can tell? Soon they and the smaller shorebirds will all have headed south, and along with the ducks and geese, and the wetlands will be barren of bird life as we await winter.

Hopefully I’ll have one more trip this fall, on the first week of November, when sandhill crane enthusiasts gather near Baraboo, WI, for the fall gatherings of the beautiful birds. This will be along the Wisconsin River near Aldo Leopold’s sand farm that became a shrine with the publication of his book of essays, The Sand County Almanac. Last year when visiting his old farm on the bend of the Wisconsin and near the International Crane Foundation, we learned about the annual fall migration of humans to witness the concluding gathering of the sandhills. After a few visits of their annual spring migration in central Nebraska, this seems like a pilgrimage I’d love to join.

A small sampling of franklin gulls flying over the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge this past weekend, a steady stream that seemed to last forever.

Now, though, back home on the farm, murmurations sometimes land here in the grove as birds fly en masse from one set of treetops to another, back and forth, until suddenly they’re gone. Poof. Ah, yes! The mystery. 

It’s said all birds migrate. Some like the thumb-sized hummingbirds travel from these parts to southern South America. Others, like juncos and perhaps the snowy owls, from a colder region to one less chilly. There seems to be no concrete knowledge of why or when, and food supplies, moon phases, available light and any number of other human-based theories exist and are utterly unproven. 

For a few weeks now we’ve witnessed hundreds of swallows on the gravel roads, neatly rising when a car or pickup approaches, all safely gliding off in different directions. And here we were sitting on the deck watching as swallows glided around the old elm and the studio, coming and going, landing and swooping off again and again. I told my friend about such a moment years ago when another friend and I had been watching such a scene with the swallows, although those seemed more prone to land on the eaves of the wood shop and studio, on the clothesline or on the gutters above us on the lips of the roof rather then in the old elm.

Geese families are gathering in places like the North Ottawa Impoundment, feeding and practicing their flying before their huge fall migration.

“We had gone inside for a sandwich at noon,” I said, “then came back out here after eating. The swallows were still swooping and making their crazy racket when we sat back down to watch. We were still sitting there when my friend suddenly asked, ‘Hey, where did the swallows go?’” 

Our piece of the prairie was suddenly deafly quiet, and there wasn’t a swallow in sight. Not on the gutters nor on the eaves of our outbuildings. They had suddenly and simply disappeared, and that was that.

So here we were, the two of us with our respective glasses of wine, when my friend looked over at me and asked, “Like now?”

Looking around I suddenly realized that the mysteries of migration were still alive and well, and all that cheepy chatter was perhaps just “swallow talk” … that chatter of excitement we all seem to have before we embark on a huge journey. “Yes,” I said. “Like now.” 

Bathing at Bonanza

My apologies to Tony Menden, the fair and fine husband of my silversmith artist friend, Jean Menden. He had invited me to share a meal of baby-backs I had smoked for him the day before and this was my moment of delivery. With a temporary loss for words, it was several moments later after I drove away that I realized I was just feeling funky. Seemingly there are two widely held definitions; one where you feel aligned with the spirits of the soul, or when you aren’t. My alignment was certainly off.

The Mendens live about a mile south of the Bonanza, or northern portion, of Big Stone Lake State Park, and is basically an oak savanna nestled against a bank of the old Glacial River Warren. This is where I turned when I pulled from the Menden’s lakeside gravel road. Heaven knows why I turned toward the state park, yet there I was slowly navigating the park road along the savanna aimlessly looking for deer. Or, so I thought. When I reached the Education Center I stopped, parked, grabbed my camera and headed off into the woods.

Obviously they were calling. Initially perhaps it was to see if I could find a puffball mushroom, for photos of the prized mushrooms have started appearing on social media sites. What could be better than a juicy, grilled steak alongside a slab of buttery and garlicky puffball? 

The weathered path at Bonanza meanders through the savanna.

Then, less than a hundred meters down the path came the realization that what I really needed was to do some forest bathing. Based on a physiological and psychological exercise that emerged in Japan in the 1980s, and is called “shinrin-yoku” in their language, forest bathing combines yoga-like breathing, meditation and awarenesses while sauntering through the woods. A few months ago I took a class at the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Gathering Partners “convention” at Prairie Island outside of Redwing. Although I’ve thought of forest bathing several times since, I just haven’t.

So I stopped and sat down off the weathered trail and slowly began taking in and releasing deep breaths. After some 40 years of doing yoga, meditative breathing is nearly second nature. With my eyes closed to concentrate on the meditation, to temporarily close out all that surrounded me, some of the funkiness began to fade away. My mind was feeling freer, and I was feeling, well, even a little “high.” Yes, that kind of high.

Among the keys of forest bathing is to bring awareness to all of your senses so you can experience the timbered environment on all levels. Smell was my first concentration, as it had been in the class. Then I began concentrating on sounds. Although the sounds of boats came through the canopy there was no real interference. It was then I realized my hearing aids were still in the charger back home, so perhaps the worst was not being able to hear the birds. Honestly, this isn’t much of an issue for sometimes bird sounds are simply too much for me to handle, and my goal was to relax, to ward away the funkiness in search of some internal peace. 

Like an eye in the forest poking out from a long dead and prone oak …

Those exercises seemed to have helped, so I stood, reached for the camera and headed down the trail. I found myself stopping ever so often to breath in the cool, morning air, that search for smell, to search more deeply for various scents of nature. Yes, there was a muskiness, especially as I neared a stream meandering through the wooded ravine. Searching the treetops, I started seeing the fleeting flights of brownish birds although I couldn’t make the species. Little did it matter. 

My strongest sense is sight, and there was much to see. Wild flowers dotted the path, and I became keenly aware of the ever changing treescapes, both along the forest floor and in the canopy above. The path led through an overreaching canopy of burr oak, dogwood, ash and maple, traversing down the hill toward the small stream. There a new wooden walkway had been built over an older bridge, and the two created a nice, comfortable place to sit for a rest while listening to the hypnotic sounds of rustling water. It was perfectly meditative, giving me a sense that mentally I was feeling more free of any lingering stress or mental discomfort. My forest bathing was working wonders. Something about a saunter through the woods and a burbling creek.

Visually I was becoming increasingly more aware of the small wonders of the forest, things I may have overlooked on another day. One was an incredible view inside the soul of a downed oak, peeking out at me like an eye of the forest. And there was a flower beside my knee that strangely and suddenly introduced itself, a streamside orangish flower I couldn’t recall ever seeing before. iNaturalist suggested it was an Orange Jewelweed. In the woods White Snakeroot poked through the grasses to create small, woodland “meadows” around the bases of tree trunks, and even a view of a hillside of sumac caught my attention, the reddish berries poking up from the green carpet of leaves.

As usual when I’m in an oak savanna, above me the stately limbs of the oaks once again fascinated me. There, deep in the woods, a sense of comfort came from being surrounded by the haunting beauty of a rich, oak savanna. Although I’ve made numerous images of oak limbs over the years here at Bonanza and in other savannas, here I was raising my camera again and again. As J.R.R. Tolkiem, author of the Hobbit tales, wrote:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

The worn pathway curved alongside the lake for a few hundred feet before angling back toward the heart of the savanna. Suddenly I sensed some familiarity as I began to recognize different features from past walks and photography events below the Education Center. There would be a climb up the hill, although thanks to the deep breathing before and intermittently throughout the saunter, the walk up the hill was hardly a bother. Memories of an art and science camp with fifth and sixth grade students began to come to mind, bringing brief smiles of recollection — one of many memories gathered here.

I can never seem to have enough of the stately limbs of the oaks.

Then I thought of the Mendens, and felt fresh misgivings of my turning down their kind invitation. I simply wasn’t ready, and in the brief conversation we had as I handed off the bag containing their racks of ribs, I realized that without knowing why. As I reached my car I felt rejuvenated and mentally free, far different than I had felt nearly two hours earlier. It was then I realized that not all who wander are lost, and the old that is strong does not wither. And that the shackles on my soul were lifted.

Drive-by Shootings …

Yes, I carry. Nearly everywhere I go. Right close to my hip. Having it so close severely reduces my anxiety. I’m seemingly intent of seeking an opportunity to secure my rights and my sense of freedom. At home or on the road. Especially on the road. With it I can whip off several shots per second. Come nightfall I can peer into the darkness like the sharpest sniper to get off a shot depending on the target and lunar light. Through the years I’ve made hundreds of drive-by shootings!

Ah, so there’s your clue, for I speak not of a gun but rather of my trusty Nikon, a brand of camera I’ve had along my side since I entered the photojournalism sequence at the University of Missouri School of Journalism back in 1965. Over the years there have been a few upgrades, though not as many as one might expect. These were, and remain, sturdy tools. Dependable. As an example, while I was working for the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald in 1968, fellow photographer Chuck Anderson inadvertently left one of his three Nikons on the ground as he rushed for a different angle with one of his other cameras … when a bulldozer scrunched his abandoned Nikon deep into the sand.

Realizing his mistake and at least temporarily traumatized, Chuck rushed to retrieve it. He brushed away the sand, peered through the viewfinder and pushed the shutter. “Wow!” he shouted. “It still works!” 

I was thankful to have my camera with me on the way home from a dinner party while passing through the Watson Sag in a twilight moment.

I’ve never given my trusty tool such a test, although peach juice once made a lens inoperable after covering a story on the Palisade peach harvest a few years later while working at the Denver Post. Both a handful of juicy ripe peaches and my cameras were sharing the passenger seat of my car.

Back in those days it was normal for working photojournalists to carry two to three camera bodies slung over shoulders and neck, each outfitted with lenses of varying focal lengths. Watch the end zones during a football game and you might still see this. One was fitted with a wide angle lens ranging from a 28mm to a 35mm, another with a medium length105mm to 135mm, and finally one with a longer telephoto, say of a 200 or 300mm focal length. Nowadays with much sharper and refined optics, I carry a 28-300mm zoom along with a 150-600mm zoom. Oh, and I have a 10mm in the bag for the rare chance of capturing a Northern Lights display. Three lenses and a single body, a Nikon D500.

These two larger lenses are typically laying in the front seat of my car within easy reach (minus the ripe peaches!), with the camera attached to the smaller zoom. Old habits die hard. When I head off into the prairie or into the woods, or even just driving into town, typically the camera is by my side. When in the field an over-the-shoulder bag totes my other two lenses. Holsters, if you wish. I carry because it’s fun, and like a 91 year old artist told me a couple of years ago when we shared a site at a Christmas market, “What else would I do?”

A moment caught on a narrow gravel road while art meandering with a friend.

All of these components, however, are simply tools. On of my favorite comments was when a Meander customer said, “You are an artist  ….  with a camera.” I loved that split second emphasis, for he equated a camera with a potter’s wheel, palettes and paints, or whatever other tool one uses to create his or her art. His comment wasn’t taken lightly, and it comes to mind when in the field or here processing images.

Speaking of processing, there is this frequent comment: “These must be Photoshopped.” Well, certainly. My images are captured in something called RAW, which is basically a digital “negative” that must be “processed” before being converted into a JPEG file so it can actually be used. RAW gives us much more data than does shooting in a standard JPEG format. For me, this generally means capturing much more shadow detail along with a broader color range. There is just so much more digital data to access. 

Often it’s the clouds that cause me to pause for a drive-by shooting.

That said, my “processing” of digital images is significantly less than what I formerly did while working with Tri-X back in my newspaper days with an enlarger, light sensitivity photo paper of varying contrasts and those horrible smelling chemicals in a darkroom. Like any professional in those days, working in the dim, yellowish darkroom light meant I had to master “shadow art” ­— the art of dodging the shadows, and the burning in of the highlights between the negative and print. Each image offered different and sometimes unique challenges. All of which was far more intense and manipulative than digital processing, of which there is little on my part.

While I would never in any shape or form compare myself with Ansel Adams, the noted nature and landscape photographer of Yosemite and the Tetons, who was known for manipulating his images extensively through the use of “push-and-pull processing”  when he developed his sheets of film, and then later when he went through his extensive dodging and burning to make his prints. “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships,” he once quipped.

Much of Adams’ work with his film plates and prints are now more easily accomplished with digital technology both in the field and at the computer. There are no apologies for that. Only blessings.

A friend called with a report of an American Avocet, which I couldn’t find … although this great egret caught me in the dimming twilight.

Yet, it all starts in the field. With an eye for subject matter and natural ambient lighting and colors. For cloud shapes, and for incredible and usually unique natural canvases spreading across the skies. God rarely errs with his offerings. From twilight through dawn and the short “Monet light”period until midmorning. Then hours later with the afternoon “Monet Light” through to sunset and the closing twilight of the evenings. In short, using the natural light and color while framing through composition, among other various visual offerings, all captured with tools called a camera and a lens. And a software program for the eventual processing of those “digital negatives.”

Adams mentions God frequently in his writing, yet for all those elements I’ve listed, perhaps credit is due. For me, an unabashed “carrier”, I’m forever thankful for whatever is presented in those ever changing and interesting skies, and for whatever nature provides me with subject matter. Be it a deer or native flowers, a sunrise or sunset over a wetland, or even stormy skies across a prairie landscape. Such blessings cannot be understated or under appreciated. Camera or not, we are fortunately blessed! Yet I “carry” and will hopefully be ready to pull off yet another drive-by shooting, one that brings someone a moment of thought and pleasure. 

Hopes Arising from a Homey Homily

“Longer Livin’” read the homey homily on the weathered rustic cabin edged against the Big Thompson River downriver from Estes Park. It was one of those cute commentaries folks tend to paint on the stern of their boats or on the metallic husks of their travel campers, and on this cloudy and sometimes stormy afternoon, the Big Thompson was cascading beautifully and peacefully alongside the highway guiding down from Rocky Mountain National Park.

Interestingly, our drive was on the 46th anniversary of when a 20 ft. wall of water surged through this very canyon and 146 people were “no longer livin’”, including five of whose bodies have never been found — surging right past where this weathered, rustic cabin now sits. My long ago friend from my Denver Post days, Ernie Leyba, who had covered the tragedy for the newspaper, posted the reminder of this sad and deadly anniversary on social media mere moments after I’d pointed out the sign to my son, Aaron, who was driving, and his wife, Michelle, here on holiday from Bergen, Norway.

Forty some years ago Colorado was home, when my work with the Post took me into numerous nooks and crannies of the state, from small towns in the Plains through the mountain passes, from peaches on the West Slope to “wheaties” harvesting the golden grain out in the Plains. This is where I grew up, where I began to become a man despite too many missteps to count, and even now in my late 70s I sometimes cringe on the number of people I may have hurt on my journey of growth.

About a half hour from Denver a peek of the Front Range mountains briefly broke through the clouds.

Earlier in the week, as we drove across those same rolling Plains toward Denver, my eyes kept venturing toward the approaching Front Range mountains hoping to witness another majestic welcome as I had on my career- and life-changing trip back in 1969, entering a world yet to be explored and experienced. On this drive the skies were bluish-gray and overcast, then about a half hour from Denver a peek of the Front Range mountains momentarily broke through the clouds. Staunch and proud, and once again welcoming!

I was even able to capture a “textured” image of a tree on the mountainscape.

So began our nearly week-long journey of visiting family, a handful of old friends, a beautiful bookstore and an incredible farmer’s market on South Pearl. An old home week with the Norwegian branch, and my other son, Jacob. Midway through we were off to the mountains so Aaron and Michelle could make their traditional horseback trail ride they attempt to schedule on their trips. After hitting the trail on the saddled horses, Urchin and Grain, Rocky Mountain National Park beckoned. We realized going in that we had a limited time frame due to a patio party being hosted by another former “Postie”, Mardy Wilson, in nearby Fort Collins.

My daughter-in-law, Michelle, had a great sense of vision in noticing our first elk, lazing off the graveled jeep road in a pocket of wildflowers.

Ah, but the mountains. With Michelle at the wheel, we entered the Beaver Meadows entry point before veering off the pavement onto the one lane, one-way Conata Basin Road, for a climb up and through the alpine meadowlands on a picturesque graveled jeep road. It was an interesting trip beyond the physical beauty, for I learned the youngsters from Norway were taken in by the vast and tall mountainous vistas while I sought flora and fauna; they leaned across the front seat grasping views of the massive mountainscapes as I once had while now I craved for quick stops along the pocket meadows on the opposite side for wildflowers featured in palettes of vivid colors.

Apparently the road “engineers” agreed with Aaron and Michelle, for the half-car wide pullouts certainly favored the mountainous views over the pocket meadows on my side of the road. Plus, there were too many cars on the one-lane gravel for her to suddenly stop to allow her eager father-in-law time to jump out for a few moments of floral imagery. I also learned that my viewing of mountainscapes had shifted, for I was now looking for patterns and rhythms of those same shoulders of the valleys and peaks, of how the mountains framed and offset the towering clouds that rose above them, of how they lent themselves to an overall composition rather than as stand alone towering mounds of stone. 

This was about a fourth of the large herd we saw easing down a mountainous slope as we drove over the pass.

It was in the midst of such thought when Michelle suddenly braked the car to point excitedly, “Look! An elk!” Indeed, lazing beside a log and partially hidden by pines and tall grasses was a majestically antlered bull elk. I quickly changed lenses to more closely capture the reclining beast.

For a long while this was my highlight of the drive … until we climbed toward the top of our last pass where an entire herd was easing down a slope of the mountain. Dozens, perhaps, all easily ambling and grazing along their way. Cows and a few bulls, yearlings and calves among them. Moments later, as we capped the apex of the pass, two more elk were spotted at the crest. It was like the topping of a sundae. A few hours earlier, upon entering the park, we joked about even seeing one elk and now this!

I learned my vision has shifted from the brawn and boldness of the peak to seeing the rhythms of the ridges as elements of overall composition, factoring in the clouds and other features.

My aims for flora and fauna were certainly satisfied despite the steady passings of the numerous pocket meadows with hundreds of wild flowers beckoning from each. Besides the elk and the few flowers I was able to capture on our one stop at a gravelly, toilet-friendly pullout, the mountains with their patterns and rhythms were heavenly. It was splendid afternoon for a photographer, and actually an afternoon I hadn’t expected. After all, it had been four years since we’ve all been together as a family, and to share such a grand experience was godsend. And this doesn’t even factor in seeing my late wife’s family and a few old friends.

As we descended from the gravelly pass past the park exit, ambling along the Big Thompson, my thoughts drifted toward wading the beautiful cascading river with a fly rod angling for a colorful, battling trout or two.  Another sense of being back home in the Rockies, however briefly.

I realized while passing through the cascading Big Thompson that these river views truly captured that essence of being back, offering an odd sense of familiarity and comfort. “Longer Livin’” read the sign on the rustic cabin as we traversed the curvy and picturesque Big Thompson Canyon Road toward the Plains, providing an unexpected message that gave this guy a ray of everlasting hope that maybe someday, God willing, we’ll pass this way once again.

Serendipity

Count me among those who can tell the difference between luck and serendipity. Just for the record, and without a drop of DNA proof, I’m not of Irish descent although I do know luck when I see it, or experience it. Luck is when a five dollar raffle wins you a kayak, or an incredibly beautiful quilt fashioned by state park manager Terri Dinesen for a $2 raffle ticket through the Pezuta Zizi Environmental Learning Center, Friends of Upper Sioux Agency State Park.

Then there was that “win” of a Final Four bracket thing back in the late 1990s at a local bar just before losing  most of the windfall through the custom of buying rounds of drinks afterwards. Luck? Because I didn’t know who two-thirds of the teams in the bracket.

Being serendipitous is an entirely different matter, for that is when unexpected fortune falls in your lap. As an example, take Wednesday afternoon of last week. I had been tagged to present my 18-minute “film” of  images, fashioned together beautifully by artist friend, Lee Kanten, for the newest class of Minnesota Master Naturalists at nearby Lac qui Parle State Park who were here for the 40-hour course on the Prairie Pothole Biome. 

Round three of my serendipitous afternoon overlooking Big Stone Lake and an incredible storm front.

This was an afternoon without humidity, which nowadays is counted as one of the blessings of a Minnesota summer. For which we were lucky! I left the farm with ample  time before the potluck mainly to make sure our technologies matched up correctly for the presentation, which gave me some leeway for possible fun in the field. For one, surrounding the state park’s office and headquarters is a beautiful native planting with gorgeous prairie flowers. So, yes, this happened to be in my thoughts. This was neither luck nor serendipity. This was knowledge.

A prairie meadow at the base of the turnoff from the state highway to the state park headquarters, however, wasn’t part of the plan. Last fall area prairie lovers lost one of the most beautiful prairie meadows in the river valley, located just a few miles further down the highway. Apparently the CRP had played out so the owners, who had the land for sale along with their beautiful house, had the prairie converted to cropland. Nearly 80 acres of perennial prairie turned upside down with soybeans supplanting coneflowers … meaning once harvested that former prairie will be exposed and vulnerable to the winter winds. So much for combating global warming.

The doe and fawn appeared suddenly on the turnoff, and she bolted to the apex of the hill, soon joined by one of the two fawns. Round 1!

Seeing this new meadow, now in full bloom, was a stopper. I knew I had time to spare so out came the camera and lenses to play with various compositions and textures. What fun! Unexpected fun! Yet, I wouldn’t quite label this as serendipitous. With an eye on the clock, it was soon off to the headquarters and the obligations. Once the technical issues were squared away, the prairie garden surrounding the office beckoned. More of the same. Playing with imagery through wind-blown grasses, which typically give me a sense of stilled softness along with color. 

My luck would continue with an incredible potluck by the naturalists, many from the Cities, that included fresh mozzarella bruschetta, dolmes and a two-grape “salad” that I couldn’t get enough of. Plus the main “course” was “pulled” roasted chicken with a dandy BBQ tangy sauce on the side. Not your typical church basement potluck.

Those “students” were very kind after the presentation, and two women provided wonderful comments even I was climbing into my car for the drive home. My afternoon, my actual serendipity, awaited down the road apiece. All those native wild flower images and an incredible potluck were simply a prelude.

At the base of the hill, I found the doe and one fawn in the creek, joined by another door. Round 2!

As I turned off the “lake road” a couple of miles from home it suddenly happened as a doe and two fawns turned suddenly in surprise as they were crossing the road. The fawns scattered as the doe bounded to the apex of a sharp bank cut by the Glacial River Warren back in “geological time” where she stood poised with concern before being quickly joined by one of the fawns. Perfect! I was able to capture three or four images while silently hoping the second fawn would join  its mother and sibling at the crest of the hill. Then, just as quickly, they disappeared over the top. 

Up the road about 100 meters while looking over the leeside of the crest I spotted the deer family in the small creek at the base of the steep incline. Oh, man! More pictures, with both the crested portrait and the creek images being rather special, for although deer are quite common around here, these two rather unique images was, well, serendipitous.

I could hardly wait to drive the two miles home to get into the card. Then further up the gravely road my eyes were diverted to a towering set of clouds to the west with the sunset looming. Turning off on one of the narrower country gravel roads, I began searching for one of my singular “lone tree” possibilities. Corn covered both sides of the road for a full mile, so at the first junction I turned north. More of the same, and the sky was becoming ever more interesting and dramatic. Knowing how quickly this all drama changes, I became more frantic.

Capturing this image of a prairie rain was my final image of my special afternoon. Round 4!

Nothing but corn, which is now nearing 10 to 12 feet in height. Tall enough you can’t see tree bases, let alone a horizon. I made it to the “colony road” and headed west. At the “T” up ahead about three miles beyond the colony were meadows and a possibility of something interesting in the great, low valley panorama of an oak savanna. The light was wrong, so I sped down the hill back to the “lake road.” The cloud bank was ever changing and  becoming ever more dramatic. The sun had moved behind the heavenly high curvature of what was shaping up as a huge storm cloud with sunset mere moments away.

Speeding up the hill from Mallard Point I thought of the Bonanza Educational Center shorelines, although at the crest of the hill I realized the drama, including the setting sun, wouldn’t last that long. When the picnic turnoff appeared, I pulled in quickly and jumped from the car, camera in hand. Suddenly the cloud broke into two different rain events across Big Stone Lake over the South Dakota Coteau. The drama of the skies was amazing. A handful of images were captured just as the deluge hit on this side of the lake, rain so thick that distant vision was impossible. 

And, it all began with the wildflowers earlier in the afternoon!

Was this the same quiet, beautiful Minnesota summer afternoon I had experienced just an hour earlier? Of shooting pictures of a pristine and picturesque prairie meadow? Or of the doe and fawn on the crest of a hill, and just seconds later as they waded in a shaded stream?

As quickly as it hit, though, the rain stopped, so it was off toward home on the “Clinton road.” As I drove a  tremendously heavy rain was descending from the towering grayness off to the north. Yes, more “drama in the  prairie sky  —  now a wall of grayness and a down-pouring of rain, and I captured my final image of an incredible afternoon and evening of unexpected imagery.

No doubt there is a thrill in being lucky, though the difference lies in your involvement. Experiencing serendipity is different for this is when things magically open up in front of you with no expectation whatsoever. Having just flowery meadow appear would have been enough. The deer? Such a dramatic sky, and the gift of the heavens that just kept on giving? As actor Charlton Heston was quoted as saying: “Sometimes life drops blessings in your lap without your lifting a finger. Serendipity, they call it.” Indeed!

A Prairie Wonder

It could have been worse. For one, the afternoon had the look and feel of one of those stressfully hot and humid days that have become more common with climate change, and it felt as though this was in store as I mowed my lawn Saturday morning. 

On our trip that afternoon toward Canby for a promised prairie walk, sprinkles dotted Don Sherman’s windshield and we were without rain gear. While neither of us Minnesota Master Naturalists knew much about the trail at Stone Hill Regional Park nestled along winding Canby Creek, there might be a likelihood of a mosquito invasion if we were hiking through a shaded, woody area. Nope, mosquito masks weren’t packed either. We were to meander unprotected through whatever elements we might face.

Fortunately there were no mosquitoes. No rain. No heat and humidity. Just one of those fine July Minnesota summer afternoons for the dozen or so of us venturing on a saunter Canby area Master Naturalist Todd Mitchell organized and led along the winding Canby Creek, the feeder of the Del Clark Reservoir. He welcomed the help of another one of us Master Naturalists, Dave Craigmile, who lives in nearby Boyd. Cragmile is noted for his knowledge of the natural geological history of the area. None of us on the saunter suffered external stress and perhaps not even any internal stress since the trail was level and was cut through a dense, and mostly shaded riverine ecosystem.

Damselflies offered joy on the trail in Stone Hill Regional Park alongside Canby Creek.

It was a day of colorful milkweed and purplish-blue iron weed, both now in full bloom. It was a day of berries, including a somewhat hidden gooseberry plant found by Sherman and which promptly got the attention of Mitchell. Sherman is known in our Ortonville area for his gooseberry sorbet, and Mitchell laid claim to gooseberries being among his favorites. Various vines crawled up and left shoots dangling off into the prairie air. It was a day of blooming wild morninglory and purple prairie clover. Stalks of big bluestem were beginning to head out, and the sideoat grama appeared through the sedges and other grassy species, minature red seeds clinging a single side of the spindly stalks. Damselflies scurried about adding magical flight and sweet poses. Bees were about, too, buzzing in busyness. Above us dogwood blossoms laid contrast to native burr oaks that seemed to offer staunch guard to the small, meandering creek.

At a U-bend of the creek, Mitchell took a moment with a small etch board to describe the dynamics of the creation of an oxbow lake, and Craigmile told of how brown trout are released into the creek each spring, of how fishers and great blue herons competed for the salmonoid species that were initially brought into the country during European migration back in the late 1800s. That briefly caused me wonder of how they managed to keep these delicate fish alive on such a journey back in the days of ship, train and possibly even covered wagon travel. Or, for that matter, how they even survive in such a shallow prairie stream, for trout are inherently a cold water species. Perhaps the runoff from higher elevation of Buffalo Ridge and spring water is enough, although the warming climate is undoubtedly a concern. 

Craigmile spoke of ancient newspaper accounts of parties catching hundreds of trout back in earlier times. “That wouldn’t go over today,” he joked. Next to portions of the Redwood River, and specifically in nearby Camden State Park, this is about the extent of trout in SW Minnesota.

At upper left, Dave Craigmile, and below him, Todd Mitchell. Bottom right, Jody Olson. Two Master Naturalists, and Olson, a Master Gardener. She provided the greeting table complete with native prairie species from her garden

Before the saunter, though, the group was met at the trail head by Jody Olson, a Master Gardner longer than most of those on the tour had been alive, with a collected display of native prairie species she nurtured in her Canby garden. It was through Olson, actually, that Sherman learned about the trail hike. Olson was one of his “students” the previous weekend when he was in Canby for one of his paper making workshops. She’s perhaps the oldest person to ever take one of his workshops and is now in her ninth decade. 

Olson told him about the prairie park and its adjacent neighbor, Del Clark Reservoir, and invited him down for the hike. This combination of a “controlled” 30 ft. deep flood control reservoir, camper haven and playground along with this interesting nature trail were all created in the 1980s as part of an integrated and ambitious plan to  protect the nearby small town of Canby from floodwaters off the nearby Buffalo Ridge moraine. The reservoir is about four miles from the outskirts of the prairie town and offers a pristine and picturesque jewel to the prairie. It is also, as was alluded to numerous times, the only swimmable lake in Southwestern Minnesota due to the absence of runoff of agricultural chemicals. There is a reason why ­ —  all found upstream.

All along the trail various species of milkweed were in bloom.

Nearly 20 years in the making, these efforts began after a five inch rain once again caused immense flooding in the community in 1963. The town historically suffered major damage from flooding every five years or so as the overflowing waters of Canby Creek rushed across the prairie. Enough was just that: enough. Following that flood a local committee was formed to address the issue. In 1972 the project was turned over to the Lac qui Parle-Yellow Bank Watershed District, which worked jointly with farmers and landowners and the Yellow Medicine and Lac qui Parle soil and water conservation districts to create the installation of water control projects both above Canby and for miles upstream. 

When the ambitious Del Clark Lake project was completed in 1986 it received a “Seven Wonders of Engineering Award” from the Minnesota Society of Professional Engineers (MSPE). Perhaps an even greater wonder, though, was in convincing cooperating agencies, farmers and others in three Minnesota and three South Dakota counties to work in concert to create grassed waterways, grade stabilization structures, crop residue management, contour farming, strip-cropping, terraces, field windbreaks, and pastures in the upland watershed. Yes, a thorough water conservation concept was sold to those upstream of what is now the reservoir and town of Canby to provide clean, chemically free water to Canby Creek and eventually the reservoir. 

Toward the end of the saunter, a hole in the canopy gave us a glimpse of the natural stream bed of Canby Creek, complete with a small rapids. Yes, perhaps this does appear to be a trout stream.

Remaining in the “wake” of this marvelous group effort was this meandering creek, park and adjacent trail, where odd masks and humorous figurines can bring a smile. At one juncture, a Vietnam veteran named a portion of the trail as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That peaceful jaunt crosses what is now a hay field and is a shortcut from the far end of the Canby Creek trail and is a far cry from the noted supply route where communist-led North Vietnam sent weapons, manpower, ammunition and other supplies to their supporters in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Mitchell said the veteran, Ron Fjerkenstad, manager of the park, named the trail as a respectful homage to his enemy.

Yet, this saunter along the meandering creek wasn’t about politics nor the huge earthen dam and the reservoir behind it. Both Mitchell and Craigmile offered a relaxed and educational saunter along a possibly unique prairie trail, one that seemed quite distant from the broad-sky views just a few miles distant. Toward the end of the jaunt a hole in this seemingly rare “prairie jungle” offered a glimpse of the natural stream bed of Canby Creek, complete with a small rapids, which brought the thought that, yes, this could make a home for a beautiful trout. Yes, even here in the heart of the prairie! It could be worse.