Falling leaves and eagles’ wings

A couple of extra vacation days and a forecast for sunshine sent me to Minnesota’s eastern boundary last weekend to admire the beauty along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers.

Spectacular fall color.

I know I’ve said it before, but I just love this time of year. The variety of maples, combined with the river bluffs, made for spectacular views on a journey that included my parents and eight-year-old niece, Katie.

My Kindle was charged and ready to keep the little girl happy on the road trip, and Greta Garmin was programmed to lead us northeasterly to my favorite needlework shop on the western edge of the Twin Cities. From there, we wove through traffic across the metropolis to Stillwater.

Along the St. Croix River.

The premise for the trip was to visit a little shop in one of Minnesota’s oldest towns — Kathe Wohlfahrt. My mom and I visited the Christmas shop by the same name while in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, in July. Little did we know then that there is one Kathe Wohlfahrt shop in all of North America, and it’s just a few hours’ drive from home.

While the Stillwater shop is much smaller than the one we spent more than an hour in while in Germany, it was neat to see so many of the same ornaments. Still, Mom and I found extra-special trinkets that will garner prominent placement on each of our Christmas trees for years to come.

A view on Lake Pepin.

Day two took us through a couple of Wisconsin towns — including Ellsworth. Since Katie attends school in southwest Minnesota’s town by the same name, we had to snap pictures of her standing by the city’s population sign, boasting nearly 3,000 more residents than our Ellsworth; along with another sign declaring Ellsworth, Wis., as the Cheese Curd Capital of the World. Unfortunately, we did not find any cheese curd shops on our brief jaunt through town.

A quick stop at the Red Wing Shoe Factory back on the Minnesota side of the river left Katie in awe as we admired a giant leather boot — Size 638.5 D — to fit a giant of a man, the sign exclaimed. We also strolled along the riverfront at Red Wing before getting back into the Buick and heading toward Wabasha.

Another view at Lake Pepin.

While you may remember the Grumpy Old Men movies were filmed here, the town is also home to the National Eagle Center — a new addition since the last time I visited this Mississippi River town.

The view outside the National Eagle Center at Wabasha, along the Mississippi River.

The center’s exhibits and programs held appeal for all of us — the greatest being our front-row seats to hear about the center’s five eagles, the wing injuries that have left them incapable of being returned to the wild, and the habitat and environment that draws them to the river at Wabasha by the hundreds each winter.

The featured eagle for the program we attended was Angel, but we learned the favorite among frequent visitors to the center is Harriet, the eagle who suffers from a bad hair day every day due to the injuries she suffered when she was struck by a vehicle.

Harriet was the model for Minnesota’s Support our Troops license plate. Thanks to a little airbrushing, she will always have a good hair day for the people who see her outside of the center.

I will think of her, and our great little get-away when I see that majestic eagle on license plates from now on.

Angel, one of the eagles who resides at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. She’s dining on some rabbit meat in this photo.

With a forecast calling for warmer temps through next week, here’s hoping you have some time to get outside — perhaps take a little road trip — and enjoy these wonderful fall days.

** Click on the photo to enlarge the image.

On the hunt for pheasants

My blurry pheasant in flight photo. :)

If there was a dream shot to be taken during this past weekend’s Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener in Nobles County, it wasn’t to be done with a gun.

Nope. I had a camera.

My dream shot was to get a hunter perfectly poised, aiming his gun toward a beautiful ringneck pheasant as it took flight over a field in its attempt to escape.

Leave it to an award-winning photographer from the Mankato Free Press to burst my bubble (or perhaps take the self-imposed pressure off!). John Cross — a graduate of Worthington High School who worked at the Daily Globe early in his nearly 40-year career as a newspaper photographer — told me it’s easier to shoot a pheasant with a gun than it is with a camera.

Nevertheless, I tried my best. (That’s all the Chief asks for, right?)

Congressman Tim Walz (right) watches for a pheasant to flush.

Clad in a bright orange sweatshirt that made my eyes hurt, blue jeans, a worn-out pair of walking shoes and an awesome pheasant-adorned, blaze orange cap courtesy of Runnings, I set off with my hunting party minutes after Saturday’s 9 a.m. Pheasant Opener start.

Pheasant hunter and habitat promoter extraordinaire Les Johnson served as our hunting guide, and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz was among those carrying the guns. Cross and I followed along with our camera gear; and Johnson’s dogs, Darby and Brandy, led the hunt as they sniffed out and spooked up more than a dozen pheasants, albeit mostly hens.

Bret Amundson shows off his two roosters as four excited dogs surround him.

I’ve always considered myself an outdoors person, so to be walking through tall stands of prairie grasses like Indian Grass and Big Bluestem that towered over my 5’8” frame, I was as happy as a lark … or perhaps more appropriate for this adventure, as happy as a pheasant hen.

We’d traversed more than a quarter-mile of land before we saw our first action. I was in awe as Darby bounded through the grass, his nose seeking, then finding the scent. The faster his tail wagged, the more imminent the potential for a bird to flush, I learned.

I was so mesmerized by the dog that the first pheasant to fly out from under cover flew off into the distance without so much as one click of my camera’s shutter. I think I forgot what my job was to be on this hunt!

I’ll be ready next time, I declared, as visions of blank newspaper pages flashed before me. Yes, I must get a shot — a good shot.

We kept on walking through brief clearings and thick brush as Johnson and Walz talked about government funding for habitat and the array of wildlife on the land, mixed in with occasional praise of the hunting dog.

After joining other hunters in our group, we divided up again. Johnson and Brandy walked through the cornfield, and I trailed behind Walz along the field’s edge. Hunters to our right had four working dogs to help scare up the birds.

We hadn’t walked far when Johnson shouted that a deer was on its way out of the corn field.

The thought of being pummeled by a 10-point buck immediately interrupted the serene feeling I had about connecting with nature.

A pheasant hen safely flies away after being scared up by one of the hunting dogs.

While I missed any photo ops with deer, I captured a few shots of pheasants in flight — and missed the closest opportunity of all. A hen flushed about two feet from my walking shoes, scaring me enough to elicit a scream. Walz laughed at the surprise encounter and said we were close enough to feel the breeze of the flush.

Yep … that wasn’t all I felt!

All in all, it was a successful hunt — the gun-toting members of our hunting party bagged three beautiful roosters; the photographers had opportunities aplenty; and our First District Congressman experienced a hunt on some amazing Reinvest In Minnesota prairie ground in Nobles County.

Kudos to all of the people who made the 2014 Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener not only happen, but one to be proud of. It was well-organized, educational and fun, and Mother Nature did her best to provide perfect conditions for a hunt … whether we carried a camera or a gun.

In search of stitchers and knitters

WORTHINGTON — I was probably about six or seven years old when my Grandma Elizabeth taught me how to hold a needle and thread and stitch along the pink lines imprinted on a cotton dish towel.

I remember trying to speed up the intricate work by making long stitches — stitches my grandma would rip out — only to have me do the work again, this time with smaller stitches. She was trying to teach me the right way to do embroidery work.

A couple of years later, as a 4-H member learning from expert needleworker and patient 4-H leader Jean Weness, I learned how to cross-stitch. Like my grandma, Jean has certain standards. I eventually learned if I couldn’t do it right the first time, it was all the more painful to rip it out and redo it.

It sort of applies to everything in life — if you can’t do it right, it isn’t worth doing at all.

Anyway, because of those patient women and their willingness to share their talents, my life was set on a course to stitch.

Bad day at school? I’d go home and stitch. Good day at school? I’d go home and stitch.

When kids my age were partying on Friday nights, I was home with a needle and thread, creating works of art for family, friends and eventually the walls of my own home.

Stitching has often been my refuge — a way to relieve stress in this stress-filled, deadline-filled career that pays my bills.

I can’t imagine how boring life would be without my needlework stash.

Anyone who does needlework, whether knitting, crochet, quilting, embroidery or what have you, has a stash — a stack of patterns, a pile of fabric, a collection of threads — they hope to use up “some day.”

My stash, having grown in recent years thanks to donations from local retired stitchers, now makes me feel sad — sad that there are so many projects waiting to be completed at home.

Some might say my needlework hobby is an addiction, and I’d have to agree. I map out needlework shops on vacations; and I will drive three and a half hours to buy a special scissors for cutwork.

If anyone ever saw my stash, they’d probably also call me a hoarder. Yes, that would be accurate as well.

So, with the encouragement of some other local stitchers who are working to reduce their stash, we are establishing a Stitcher’s Group in Worthington. (I’m so excited!)

On the second Tuesday of each month, all area stitchers are invited to bring their projects for stitching and socializing from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., at the Center for Active Living, 211 11th St., in Worthington. Our first Sit-n-Stitch is next Tuesday.

Over the next few days, look through your stash, pick out a project and bring it Tuesday night to the CAL. Who knows, maybe with some dedicated stitching time and encouragement, we’ll be able to finish some of those projects in our stash.

Wistful thinking

A few weeks ago, I was looking longingly at my calendar and wondering if somehow, some way, I could manage a trip to the North Shore this fall for a little relaxation in the leaf-peepers paradise.

I love the drive between Duluth and Grand Marais – or really, anywhere that offers water views as far as the eye can see, perhaps a lighthouse or two, some walking trails amid the trees and the unmistakable sounds of seagulls.

I’ve been up and down the North Shore enough times to know where to go and what to do. I guess that’s probably why one of my brothers texted me the other day asking what there was to see and do in Duluth.

After texting back ideas for must-see things like the North Shore’s state parks, Duluth Harbor and Split Rock Lighthouse, I suggested a ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad, a lunch stop at Betty’s Pies and a bit of shopping in the towns along Highway 61 – all the typical touristy kind of stuff. And, if they wanted to take a scenic drive through the trees, a trip up Highway 1 to Ely is pretty cool as well. The one and only time I drove that route, I saw a moose – a real – roaming in the wild – moose!

Gosh, any more talk about Duluth and the North Shore and I might want to ride along! Ah, but who wants to be the third wheel? Not me!

Well, at least not until the next text came through inquiring about the fall colors. After I’d directed him to Minnesota’s fall color guide online, he replied back that this very week is slated to reach peak color along the North Shore.

Hmm, do you have an open seat in the car for me?

I’m pretty sure my hopes of getting to the North Shore this fall have, well, fallen through – thanks to a rough couple of days for my credit card. My clothes dryer died, and then I was informed I needed three new tires on my car. There’s nothing like a couple of big bills to bring me back to reality!

So, while some people in my family get to take a little trip to our northern Minnesota paradise, I’ll be staying closer to home for the next couple of months and doing what I usually do on my weekends – laundry – with a dryer that works.

The fleeting days of summer

As much as I enjoy the crisp feel of the autumn air, the beauty in the changing colors of the leaves and the sound of Kenny Chesney singing “The Boys of Fall” on my MP3 player, I’m feeling a bit melancholy about our fleeting days of summer.

From beginning to end — a mere 13 weeks — the summer season seems hardly long enough to pack everything in.

That first weekend of summer began with a Daily Globe picnic at Chautauqua Park and a first birthday party for my beautiful one-year-old great-niece Elsie, and it seems every weekend since has been filled with one activity or another.

It must be a built-in trait of Minnesotans to cram as many outdoor activities as possible into a span of just a few months because, as we all know, the snow is going to start flying soon enough.

So, from birthday parties and trips to the lake to weekends at the office and lazy days with my nose in a good book, I whittled away yet another summer. I didn’t watch a single Twins game  – and I didn’t get to Fairmont to watch my nephews play in Little League. It seems my summer was spent “preparing for Germany”, “being in Germany”, dealing with a quick recovery from Germany before “fair week”, followed by “post-fair week” and State Fair week. Boom. Just like that and it was over.

But, there are the memories … my first limit of northern pike; putting leeches on hooks for nephews too scared to do it themselves; bonfires; watching wild turkeys grow up on the farm; listening to pheasants cackle; four-wheeler rides; conversations with neighbor kids in my backyard; princess and dinosaur birthday parties; croquet.

I find the greatest memories come from the kids.

A couple of weeks ago, my great-nephew and I hopped on the four-wheeler and took off for the back pasture just as the sun had begun its descent and a light fog was settling over the Ocheyedan River.

I had just turned down the lane when the pungent odor of skunk hit us in the face. I sped up. Brody was chattering about the stink and then told me to slow down because he was cold. Yes, fall is in the air.

We drove a little farther.

Brody started chattering again. Apparently he just saw a kangaroo hopping through the soybean field.

“Are you sure it was a kangaroo?” I asked.

“Yes, it was a kangaroo!” he exclaimed in his confident, almost-4-year-old voice. “I saw it!”

“What did it look like?”

“Like a kangaroo! It was jumping!”

“Could it have been a deer?”

“No Julie … it was a kangaroo!”

It wouldn’t be the first kangaroo sighting in Back 40. Not too many years ago, probably about this same time of year, I tried to convince one of my nephews that the creature we were admiring — again in a soybean field — was a kangaroo. All we could see was the head and neck.

I almost had the boy convinced, too, if the deer hadn’t been spooked and started leaping over the bean rows.

I’m pretty sure I took a sock to the arm for stretching such a tale. This time around, with the next generation of the Buntjer family along for the ride, it wasn’t the boy that needed convincing, but his aunt. This time around, I didn’t get a sock to the arm. Instead, I got “the look.”

You just don’t argue with an almost-four-year-old.