An Artist Retreat

While I find myself somewhat mystified when newcomers compare and complain of having “nothing to do” here in our little corner of the prairie, I can also relate. Some 20 years ago I wore those same shoes.

Over time I’ve become more connected. Now there is hardly time to keep up with everything seemingly going on concurrently. This is just scratching the surface, for there are rivers to paddle and fish to catch, either by kayaking with my fly rod, or doing some river bank angling for my favored channel catfish. Nowadays I’m also connected with the area-wide arts community, and this weekend was chock full of activity. Once again.

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Audrey Arner at her culinary “Grasp the Nettle” foods at Moonstone Farm. (Photo by Susan Otterholt Kempe}

In terms of culinary arts, Audrey Arner held her annual “Grasp the Nettle” where she introduces “foodies” to the goods of the prairie wild, from nettles to morel mushrooms.

Kathy Marihart also opened her new “Smallest Art Gallery” on the main street of Ortonville with the first class of the season featuring an incredible artist, Naomi Shanti Ballard, working with young elementary artists from the two-state area.

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Naomi Shani Ballard explains a painting technique at the Smallest Art Gallery in Ortonville. (Photo by Edie Barrett)

In New London, potter Bill Gossman worked with Goats Ridge Brewing, the town’s craft brewer, to work with customers in decorating beer steins that he will fire in his wood fired kiln.

I suspect the list goes on.

Further on down the prairie some 50 or so of us artists gathered for the annual Southwest Minnesota Arts Council’s (SMAC) Artist’s Retreat. This two day, overnight gathering at the unique Danebod Folk School in Tyler was a multicultural event featuring a mix of native American artists and others that I found helpful, entertaining, fun and inspiring. Unfortunately, it was also rather limiting since the event offered a packed schedule with more classes than you could possibly attend, often concurrently.

Our gathering session was a presentation by the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre on “The Way of the Monarch.” This was my third “instructional” presentation by Heart of the Beast and all have left me humbled by both the puppetry and the message, and one that equaled an Earth Day presentation years ago on clean water.

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Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell demonstrates part of the alcohol ink technique to students at the SMAC Artist Retreat.

Our first afternoon session was by Granite Falls artist and SMSU English professor, Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell, who offered a “hands-on” activity with alcohol inks on tile, an art form that I’ve found intriguing as well as beautiful. Perhaps 20 of us were seated around tables blowing at colorful inks through plastic straws or blasting away with canned air to spread paints across both tiles and table tops. Melanie was rather kind about my efforts. “His tiles turned out just like his photography — the backgrounds were muted, and he had distinctive objects in the foreground. Just lovely.” How can you not like praise like that?

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My attempt at alcohol painting of tiles.

Charlie Roth strummed and sang into the night in the adjacent theatre, and as always, he was superbly entertaining. A songwriting and performing prairie icon, Charlie always makes his performances fun. This followed his afternoon workshop on songwriting, and he prefaced his songs Friday night with informative tidbits on either his singular efforts on originals or the explanations of songs he was covering.

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Songwriter and performer, Charlie Roth, performs.

Most helpful for me was Steve Gasser’s presentation on developing a web presence, which followed a long breakfast conversation when I shared my blog and frustrations with my photographic websites with him. His response: Not to worry, for it’s all workable. Provided I can gather the appropriate passwords!

Later in the afternoon was a grouping for a visual arts peer critique headed by sculptor/artist Eva Miller. Many of the suggestions were interesting and informative, although my favorite part was listening to each artist explain the muse and direction of their individual pieces.

Yet, the session that I drove home thinking about was by friend and native artist from Granite Falls, Super LaBatte. This was as much an insight on his personal struggles as it was on spirituality and his explanations of these unique native arts forms. His introduction into the arts began with his quest for sobriety many years ago, and his subsequent meetings with Native elders in his steps toward recovery, which was to dance. Dance, meaning at pow wows for personal and spiritual cleansing.

“To dance, I needed the vest. The moccasins. And I had no money,” he explained. This lead him through a long, laborious process into the tanning of hides, and of learning the ancient Native art of brain tanning. Brain tanning uses the brains of, in his case, pigs that he processes before applying it to the hides that he has taken through the preliminary tanning techniques … steps of which he explained in fine detail. The process gives hides a softness necessary to more successfully move into the other art forms. Softened hides gives you better moccasins and vests, both of which rely on beading. Then his chosen method of beading was as old school as his tanning process, and contrasted with that of another Native artist in the room. Their conversation of varied techniques was quite interesting.

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Super LaBatte confessional story of his personal life and his ancient forms of Native arts techniques were mesmerizing to the other artists attending the retreat.

Super’s presentation of the art forms was intertwined with interludes into his major life changes; of his confessions in his quest for a better life. In the midst of his presentation, Super told his mesmerized audience that his spirituality is rather individualistic, and that he rarely leans on the use of sweat lodge cleansings common among his peers. “My thoughts,” he said, “are that if you are good to people, if you make good choices, and if you live a good life, these are the keys to my personal spirituality.”

Of all the fun, new friends made, and important information gleaned from the retreat, Super’s life story and those words of his personal form of spirituality resonated with me driving home across the prairie.

Earth Day

As flames danced exotically against the blue sky, Earth Day 2017 became one we’ll not long forget thanks to a favorable wind and the Clinton Fire Department.

Ah, yes. My very first prairie restoration burn. And one I didn’t quite expect so soon. Initially we had plans to attend the important March for Science at the University of Minnesota-Morris. Age perhaps had a hand on my being home after two straight days of driving to Fargo and back with computer issues. Surprisingly the call came mid-morning from the fire chief. Yes, I had the burning permit, and yes, I would be home. All I had to do was activate the permit with a phone call.

About an hour later the trucks began arriving, along with the wind. “This won’t take us long,” said the chief, eying tree activity in the grove. Yes, even the larger branches were swaying. “We’ll start here in this corner and work around your farmstead.” Which I found interesting since I had envisioned starting on the northwest corner of the prairie and working down this way. Luckily I wasn’t in charge.

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Taking the canisters of mixed fuel, he and another fireman walked the edges of the prairie next to the garden and along the county road and my first, on-farm prairie burn was underway. All eight acres! Within moments the wind fueled the blaze, fanning flames high into the air. Smoke bellowed above the prairie sending the signal aloft for all to see miles away. Their burning plan created a natural fire break and kept the burn both within caution and reason. The burn was going extremely well despite my fear of being a bit late, for the undergrowth of grasses had already begun to green. That green was no match for the intense heat. Initially we had aimed for the first of May so the weed trees would have a bit of greening. An unseasonable, early spring had taken care of that.

My burn plan actually began a few weeks ago when the same Clinton fire crew suddenly pulled up in front of the farm and made preparations to burn a patch of prairie across the road. As they monitored the burn I approached to ask a few questions. “We really don’t have time to talk now, but will once we’re done here,” said the harried fire chief.

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About an hour later they drove up the driveway. And new plans were crafted. With the proximity of my studio to the prairie, the fire department would have been called despite the original plan made with a dear friend, with ample restorative prairie burning experience thanks to his work with Pheasants Forever, over a pizza weeks ago. He is also deep into wild turkey season, and frankly, the distant two-hour drive and unpredictable wind directions made it more sensible to do the burn with a local crew.

So on this sunny and windy Earth Day all forces joined together to renew our prairie. We were due a burn for both prairie age and to thwart the encroachment of the weed trees, mainly Chinese Elm. Now the wait begins to witness an amazing transformation. It might not look like much now, for the only green is in the walking paths we had cut through the prairie … for there were no matted prairie grasses there for kindling. Otherwise the prairie is charred black. It won’t take long for the prairie to recharge. Typically a beautiful flush of forbs and flowers will explode from that blackness, and hopefully the big bluestem will finally take hold to become the dominate grass.

We still have some important steps to take. First will be the arrival of Blayne Johnson with his brushhog to whack down the weed tree forest that has taken root over three primary portions of the prairie. Within an hour of his tasking, the small exposed trunks of the seedlings must be sprayed with a strong brush herbicide to kill them. Although the tops were likely “killed” by the heat of the fire, the roots … like those of the matured prairie grasses and forbs … are very much alive and have stored enough reserve energy to quickly send up new shoots.

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We have a serious an issue with weed trees. When the grasses went into dormancy last fall the true extent of the weed tree takeover was vividly evident. Those elm shoots remained green in contrast with the brown prairie grasses, showing a dominance of volunteer seedlings.

This will likely be a life-long fight on this little Big Stone County prairie regardless of our success with this initial burn. The real solution is to take out all of the “mother” elms, a decision I have yet to accept because I hate losing mature trees that add both physical beauty and shade for the farmsite. Especially the tree next to the studio, one of stature, character and beauty.

Certainly the elm issue is of topical concern, although we are beginning to see an influx of Eastern Red Cedar on the nearby hills and bluffs that aren’t farmed. Cedar can throughly dominate prairie lands as evidenced by the wild, unfarmed areas around Granite Falls, just little over an hour southeast of here. More and more of the cedars are dotting the hillsides up here which isn’t a positive sign.

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Fortunately, we’ve seen no cedars here on the farm.

Our Earth Day burn didn’t take long. About as much time as the march in Morris, I suspect. We’re quite fortunate to have a small town fire department in Clinton with the knowledge and tools to do a good burn. Soon after they motored off to do three more burns Saturday afternoon we sat on the deck sharing glasses of wine and marveling at the blackness of the charred prairie and talking about the resurgence of the native flowers and grasses.

Within a few weeks, perhaps, the greening will begin, and the entire eight acres will soon be in full flush of new growth. Lush with color and vigor. That is one of the beauties of growing an underground jungle. And, certainly, a reason for our sense of excitement. While we missed participating in a wholly necessary political march less than an hour from our doorstep, our Earth Day was hopefully spent in an equally important manner.

A Gift

For the past few weeks I’ve gone from website to website studying various features of different fly reels. Which was what I was doing about this time a year ago. Eventually I chose a fairly nice looking, mid-priced reel for my virgin fly-in trip into Ontario for a fly fishing-only adventure.

That reel, unfortunately, was a mess. Or, at least the amount of line that involuntarily escaped by my feet while casting created a mess.

Over my many years of fly fishing I’ve basically used Pflueger reels, and was on the verge of ordering another one last year when I mistakenly decided to try something “sexier.” So this past Tuesday morning I bit the bullet and sent in my order for new one. Later that afternoon a surprise package arrived from Apple Valley and it sat unopened on my desk for hours as I combed my mind for any reference of someone I might know there. Finally I opened the small, heavily taped box.

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My homemade rod and my new reel, a gift from Edward Hoffman.

Inside was a fly reel, one already lined with 10 wt. forward-weighted floating fly line, and a note from Edward Hoffman, a retired classical musician from the Baltimore Symphony who has since moved to Minnesota. Ed and I fished together last May in Ontario. Ed was the first person on the trip to ask if I would spend the day in a boat with him, and in fact, he was one of two fishermen two days later who basically saved my life after the boat I was motoring flipped over into the frigid waters.

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One that came to hand ….

Once we were back I mailed him a framed print in appreciation, and in October he surprised me by coming out for the Meander, a juried art crawl I’ve been a member of now for four years.

After placing the new reel on my 8 wt. rod, which was “overlining” the rod as he and others have suggested, I walked into the windy prairie to give the system a try. Interestingly, the rod was perfectly lined, and I wrote Ed an email to tell him so, and to thank him for the incredible gift. Moments later he responded by writing, “Bob Clouser gave me that reel many years ago, and his only caveat was that I give it to someone some day.  You are that someone.  If you don’t need it, just give it away to a deserving person.”

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This old VCR is still in my collection!

With that, I had to sit down. Clouser is one of masters in the sport of fly fishing, and his Clouser Minnow is a must for any fly box. A gift like this would be like getting a football from Brett Favre. Clouser’s minnow is my primary fly for river walleyes. A different choice of bucktail and hook size has caught pike and both largemouth and smallmouth bass, and a much smaller version tied with yellow and white bucktail has been a great choice for crappies and silver bass through the years.

Which brings me to this. Years ago I purchased a VCR tape featuring Clouser and Lefty Kreh (think Temple Creek fly rods and his own iconic fly, the Deceiver). The box says “1996.” Between then and now, Kreh was the featured fly fishing expert at the Great Waters Show in Bloomington, and was certainly approachable. He loves to talk and share stories. He also lays out a beautiful line, as he demonstrated at the hotel pool later in the afternoon. With incredible deftness and economy of motion, he double-hauled the tip of the fly line some 90 feet through an open door on the second floor where tables were set up for fly tying demonstrations. He was in his late 70s, or early 80s, and this one moment provided confidence that I could continue this passion for as long as I’m able walk.

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Dan Johnson and Edward Hoffman

I’ve not met Clouser. Kreh and the other “super stars” of fly fishing have totally destroyed a myth that this is primarily a sport for elite, self-important, perfectly-dressed jerks. Through the years I’ve been fortunate to hook up and chat with Kelly Galloup (his Zoo Cougar is a smallmouth must), Skip Morris (tyer of the SMP, a very effective bluegill fly), Tim Holschlag (perhaps the premier smallmouth fishing guru and author of books on the sport, and the host of the Ontario trips) and Dave Whitlock (who gave voice for years to warmwater fly fishing). Whitlock and I have talked at fly tying gatherings three or four times, and each subsequent time he has remembered our conversations. At an Eden Prairie fly shop one night he even said, “You trout boys, let me get with you momentarily. After John and I quit talking about bass and catfish fishing.” Talk about privilege!

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Whitlock’s signing of his book for me.

Holschlag is one of those people who you can ask about the weather, then a half hour later you’re still listening and wondering about the intent of the question. We first met at Bob Mitchell’s fly shop when it was still located in Lake Elmo back in the 1980s. He was giving a seminar that morning on smallmouth bass fishing, an event posted on a small blackboard in the shop. My late wife, Sharon, and I, along with the boys, were on an agenda-free Saturday morning outing, and she was kind enough to allow me to stay for the presentation. I hadn’t fly fished for smallies since leaving Dubuque years before, and it was a sport I simply loved. And, we four were his entire audience that morning. My how times have changed!

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Tim Holschlag and Dan Johnson with the camp dog!

So, here we are, years later, doing Holschlag’s trips to Ontario where the smallies are huge and plentiful, and the largemouth prevalent. Pike prowl the shallows, and if you’re patient and lucky, and know the proper technique, muskies can be brought to a fly. And you can meet and fish with some very fine people, like Dan Johnson (a boyhood chum of Holschlag’s and his right-hand man still today) and Edward Hoffman.

In about six weeks Hoffman, Johnson, Holschlag and another eight or so of us fly fishers will gather again in Fort Francis to fly into a small, deep woods resort surrounded by water teeming with hopefully hungry fish. Once again I’ll go with my own hand-made 8 wt. fly rod but with a reel handed down from Bob Clouser through Ed Hoffman. One of the flies I’ll no doubt tie on will be Kelly Galloup’s Zoo Cougar, and when that happens I’ll think of Garrison’s Keillor’s closing line in his last monologue on Prairie Home Companion … “What goes around, comes around.”

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Before an evening outing at Slippery Winds in Ontario.

(Written in appreciation for the vast appreciation I have for all the fine acquaintances and friendships that have resulted from fly fishing and tying. Besides the previously mentioned, to Rick Nelson, Roger Emile Stouff, Doug Peterson, Norway’s Erlend Langbach, Joe Norton, Dennis Ulrich, my nephews, Matt and Scott White, and so many I cannot remember and should probably list. Pretty good stuff for a guy who was given a fly rod for doing chores as a ten year old for a neighbor dying of lung cancer, and a sport I learned on my own thanks to Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and the old Herter’s catalogs. I may not be very good at it, but little does that matter. For I’ve always had fun.)

Good Timing

Call it maturing, or perhaps a sign of graying, for among the “life” things I’ve discovered is that it is more fruitful if not more relaxing to solve the world’s problems in the bow of a canoe rather than on a bar stool.

More evidence of that realization came Sunday while mixing a little catfishing with canoeing and bird watching on the Minnesota River with long-time friend, Tom Cherveny. Although our put-in at Kinney’s Landing south of Granite Falls was somewhat delayed with a misplaced tackle box, once we were on the river life and conversation seemed to ease right along with the natural flow of the passing waters.

Who could ask for more? Well, a stringer of catfish didn’t seem to hurt, either.

Although we weren’t serenaded by the continual blasts of Canadian geese, which is a somewhat common sound of the early trips on prairie rivers within the vast Mississippi Flyway, we had ample bird life to admire. Especially wonderful was watching the spiraling glides of the recently returned white pelicans high above us. Belted kingfishers traversed between riverbank perches, and an occasional eagle added interest to the paddle.
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We skipped from deadfall to deadfall, anchoring in the deeper holes, dropping weighted and baited offerings to the depths of the muddy waters. One of the highlights of river fishing is not knowing until a hooked fish breaks water alongside the canoe just what you might have on the line. Besides the tasty catfish, we also brought into the canoe several carp of various sizes, buffalo and freshwater drum. “We should smoke these,” we kept telling one another before releasing them back into the river.

Our trip just happened to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1997 flood, when waters kissed the treetops we were paddling beneath. Since I was busy doing stories and occasionally helping with sandbagging efforts on Hawk Creek, a tributary upriver of the Minnesota, Tom was covering the efforts in Granite Falls. As we passed the former Firefly Casino grounds, he explained the efforts the native Dakota went through to secure their homes and businesses.

We talked of subsequent trips we had made that spring after the flood waters had receded, of pointing out to others the rafts of grasses still entangled high in the treetops; of how canoers, especially exchange students, would look up at the high tufts then back down to the river, mentally measuring the differences of depth.

Oh, the subsequent trips. We have typically done a paddle not long after ice out. This year it was the first Sunday of March. We talked of fishing on that trip since a young friend had told me he had been catching channel cats all winter long due to the rivers being open.

Earlier trips are often referenced on our paddles. One I’ll never forget was several year ago when I took my kayak and Tom paddled with his son, Eric. The Minnesota was particularly high that day with a massive and dangerous  backup of waters from the Granite Falls dam … for several miles back upriver. I’ve never been so frightened. Not before, nor since. The river was a mass of spinning whirlpools, and my only motive was to paddle from one whirlpool to the next without spilling, keeping the bow headed as straight downriver as possible. A misplaced paddle causing a flip in that churning water would have been disastrous.
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Another early season trip was more fun, one in which we recorded both photographical and written reports on the state of the official DNR Minnesota River designated camping sites from north of Montevideo down to Frederickson’s, an island just above our pull-out on Sunday. At the first, which was overgrown in buckthorn and a fire-pit mounded with siltation, we found the skeleton of a deer that we surmised had hidden from a hunter only to die of wounds within a “fort” of buckthorn. I retrieved the skull that hangs here in my office. Between Churchill Dam on the Lac qui Parle Lake down to Morton there are five such designated riverine campsites, at least two found on remote islands. Our reports were logged before the 50 year anniversary of the making of the campsites so crews could do the cleanups and necessary refurbishing.

Not unlike the barstool conversations, our conversation treaded on politics, issues that created the incredible siltation of the river, chiding while offering encouragement of a catch, pointing out wildlife and bird sightings to one another, and so on. As we neared our take out we passed the third such campsite, then pulled between two deadfall for our final dunking of worms. As we waited rain began to fall. Off to the west came the intermittent roar of thunder.
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“Looks like we have good timing,” said Tom.

We caught a few more fish, and watched the skies. Finally we reeled in and padded a few hundred yards to the take out. Moments after we were out of the canoe and on dry land, lightning suddenly broke through the clouds just above us. It was still better than a bar stool.

Bliss in a Blind

Yesterday I was thinking about Tuesdays, which for a long number of years were “headache” days. Tuesdays were deadline days of my country weekly for 20 plus years. Tuesdays nights were city council meetings. Before that Tuesdays were years of nights on the road when the excitement of yet another business trip had waned and Friday seemed so far away from flying home. Lest I not forget, for a few years Tuesdays were men’s bowling league nights, a sport I tolerated because of friendships, cold beer and an occasional strike.
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So where was I this past Tuesday? Cocooned inside my pop-up “outhouse” photography blind on the edge of a wetland in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge listening to the first of the spring peepers, watching an industrious muskrat working a raft of cattails, waiting for ducks to not just fly in, but edge closer to within camera range. Perhaps most of all, simply enjoying an intermittent warm breeze on a sunny afternoon as small, puffy clouds floated by on a palette of deep, blue spring sky.

There I sat with two unzipped windows facing the south and west as the sun made a slow passage toward the horizon enjoying both the solitude and my peaceful existence. Time for deep, unlabored breathing. Time for reflection. Time for nothing but waiting and watching. Time on a breezy and sunny afternoon.
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An occasional car would venture slowly around the bends of the auto tour road doing as I’ve done dozens of times myself since moving here. Windshield observations, and most of the time serving as a “movable blind” with the camera at hand.

At the distant southern edge of the wetland was where it seemed the ducks congregated, and as I’ve seen from behind the windshield, as soon as a car approached all pushed frantically away from the road or burst away in flight. Once in the air they flew west away from the road before turning back to fly high overhead toward the dammed backwaters of the Minnesota River, only to circle back and glide back into the same pool moments after the car had eased safely away. Time after time. A cheap mystery solved.
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Time made me wonder if my camouflaged blind was too tall, or too visible, or if the pool in front of me was too shallow. Often when placed in the woods it takes a long half hour or so before the sounds of nature begin to fully return; when squirrels and woodland birds ease fully back into nearby branches. Was it the same here at the wetland? And if so, how long would it take? In the hours that passed, little changed. Those ducks stayed beyond camera range. Refuge employee Jason Ballard had told me that putting up the blind was fine as long as it came down by the end of the day, or that I could do what others had done … create a hiding space within what nature offered on site.

Then an interesting moment came. Off in the distance came the sound of motorcycles. That broken muffler sound common to Harley’s. Due to the location of the wetland, in the valley below Highways 7 and 75, traffic noise for the louder vehicles melded with the peepers, especially that from the random motorcycle and semi. This was steadier and easing closer. As the sound neared, many of the ducks and a pair of geese rose from the waters in flight. Then suddenly two motorcycles appeared over the rise, moving slowly. One with a hard rock radio station blaring. One of the riders then shouted loudly to the others, “Isn’t it great being in nature?”
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Ironically, most of the nature had flown away before they motored into view, although I’m sure the ride through the Refuge was blissfully beautiful on such a lovely Tuesday afternoon. To each our own.

A runner with his dog jogged along the distant roadside before passing behind me about ten minutes later. Earlier, not long after I had set up, a young woman on roller blades swish-swished by. I’d passed her as she was starting off from the parking lot just outside the entrance gate and was amazed in both the distance she had covered as well as the speed in which she had done it. Interestingly, the distant ducks simply skirted further from the roadside when both the roller blader and runner passed by. Observations on a breezy and sunny afternoon.

To break those occasional moments of monotony I raised the camera to take photos of the ducks flying over on those frequent escapes, or the shimmering sun-fed glaze of the pool in contrast to the silhouetted swamp grasses. I had watched a distant eagle float in invisible towers of air currents over the distant native prairie. Then there was my buddy, the muskrat, who wasn’t shy about his frustration and disgust in not being able to climb aboard the floating mass of cattails right in front of the blind. Oblivious to my being there, it has swam and dived around in front of the blind for much of the afternoon.
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My initial plan was to sit until sunset, which would have been another couple of hours longer. Then, as I focused on another flock of ducks, wings spread in descent, lowering toward the distant waters, my camera battery died. Suddenly I was as frustrated as the muskrat. With a final deep breath, I stood to fold the blind and make my way back to the car. All told, though, it was a beautiful afternoon. An incredible Tuesday afternoon.

A time for reflection. A time for nothing but waiting and watching. Time spent on a breezy and sunny afternoon.