River Bend

A couple walks their dog Sunday at River Bend Nature Center. The center was crowded, but visitors minded the warnings to keep a 6-foot distance from one another. (Audrey Kletscher Helbling/Minnesota Prairie Roots)

The need to get away from it all — the barrage of COVID-19 thoughts and media reports — and the need to exit the house brought Randy and me to River Bend Nature Center in Faribault on Sunday afternoon.

The weather still feels very much like winter here in southern Minnesota with a cold wind, temps in the 30s and 40s, and patches of snow remaining in shaded areas or unmelted piles. So we dressed warmly, pulled on gloves and snugged on stocking caps before setting out.

As our vehicle rounded the curve and descended the hill into the heart of River Bend, I noticed something unusual in the parking lot. Social distancing. Most vehicles were parked every other space, with more vehicles than usual.

I grabbed my camera, photographed the parking lot and then started downhill toward the trail-side center, eventually angling right toward the Turtle Pond. Along the way we met clusters of people, whom I assumed to be families as no social distancing was happening. Most, in passing, dropped into single file lines to distance themselves from others like us. I found myself fully aware of the space between us and other hikers on paths not always wide enough for the suggested six feet of separation.

At one point I stepped to a side look-out and waited while other walkers passed, thus avoiding the too-close contact. I noticed, too, a young couple cut through the woods with their dog rather than come near us.

It was an odd feeling, this conscious effort to keep at a distance. It didn’t feel right. I tried to make up for that by greeting others with a smile and a “hello.” We can still be friendly.

As Randy and I walked, I scanned the woods for signs of spring and that seemed mostly fruitless. Ice still sealed the pond. Icy snow still covered sections of trails. Dried leaves still clung to trees while carpets of green moss and maple sap collection bags hinted of spring.

Yet, I felt grateful to be outdoors, healthy and walking beside Randy.

We stopped once to talk with a friend who was out with her two young daughters. The 4½ -year-old showed off her bike riding skills. And for a moment or ten, we three adults forgot about the global pandemic and focused on the joy of watching a preschooler who recently mastered biking without assistance. The world seemed normal in that small space of time. Except for the awareness that we needed to stay six feet apart.

Then we continued on, eventually crossing the windswept prairie. There Randy spotted a fuzzy caterpillar and we wondered aloud about its early appearance in these still too cold days of March.

After a brief stop at the prairie pond, we decided we were too cold to continue on. We turned back toward the interpretative center—now shuttered to the public—and aimed for the parking lot. But in getting there, we passed a group of young people tossing a football. Had it been any other day in any other time, I likely would not have thought much of it. But I found myself wondering, “Should they really be doing that?

These are unsettling times when even a walk into the woods to enjoy nature feels anything but normal.

Audrey Kletscher Helbling is a Faribault writer, blogger and former journalist who grew up in a little house on the prairie. Really. Find her blog, Minnesota Prairie Roots, at mnprairieroots.com.

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