An Afternoon Walk at Carley State Park

A budding tree

“What should we do tomorrow afternoon,” questioned my husband on a Saturday evening in mid-April.

            “I think it is too early for bluebells to be blooming,” I answered thoughtfully, “but it might be fun to hike again at Carley State Park. We haven’t been there in a really long time.” Carley State Park is only about eight miles from where we live so it is a local activity.

            The next day dawns cloudy and cool. The temperature barely touches the low 50s. Not willing to abandon our plans, I check the weather radar on my cell phone climate app. The forecast calls for a 15% chance of rain all day, but the radar shows that green morning splash that touches the screen as sliding off the display by two p.m. Maybe there is still hope for our plans.

            Claire, our dog, barks as we both put on our jackets and then eagerly jumps into the back seat of the car. She knows something exhilarating is happening. Tiny splashes of water dash the windshield as we start towards town. Ugggh… It is still trying to rain. Well, we are going to plow ahead in spite of the windshield wipers flapping back and forth. I am hoping that we will have the trails and the park all to ourselves.

            A gently curving route leads into the entry area. We follow the right road split to the vicinity where a little DNR cabin used to sit. The cabin is gone. All that remains is a small kiosk at which to register. Apparently, it has been a lot longer than I thought since we were last here. The small parking area which I remember as usually being empty is full of cars. That’s strange. Is there a special event today, I wonder? We wind our way down the forested gravel lane to the lower-level parking area. This parking lot is full as well. I don’t think there is anything special today. I guess people have nothing else they can do in the midst of the Covid pandemic. This state park used to be pretty much empty when we visited in prior years. Since the gate is closed to the camping area, I pull up to it and park in front of it. Afterall, there is no “NO Parking” sign. My hubby, the rule follower, doesn’t say a word. Claire is excitedly prancing around – ready for a new adventure.

            We choose the path along the north branch of the Whitewater River which gurgles and loops slowly through the park. The sky still hangs heavy, but the misty rain has stopped. The trail has a dark brown firm mud underlay from the numerous footsteps that have traversed its length since the recent rain. The trees are just starting to shoot out their buds and the underfloor of the forest is covered with green. Carley SP is known for its bluebells in spring, but I think we are just a couple of weeks early. Many of the plants have purple buds peeking from their green but they have not fully opened. A few shoots display fine cone shaped white blossoms. The day is perfect for a walk such as this. Claire eagerly sniffs every new smell of this fresh unexplored place. She weaves to the right and then the left and then circles back for another snuffle. She soon puts it in 4-wheel drive and tries to drag me along.

            We leisurely mosey along the narrow trail, sometimes stopping for Dave to take pictures, sometimes stopping off to the side for others to pass. Claire, of course, wants to bark at everyone but she soon settles down and waits quietly when I cling tightly to her harness handle. Soon we come to a double river crossing where it looks like one part is only water filled when the river is high. The river crossings at this park are not bridges but huge concrete steppingstones that have been placed parallel to each other but perpendicular to the flow of the water. One needs to jump from stone to stone to traverse the river while maintaining dry feet. The absence of recent maintenance also means the riverbanks have become eroded leaving the base along the bank muddy. This calls for some ginger stone stepping attempting to miss the mud. Claire is not sure what to do so she wades out into the water for a splash around before clawing her way onto the concrete steps.

            Safely across, we continue our amble through the woods. Soon the trail turns and begins an ascent along the bluff. Hubby and I are panting with the effort. Claire decreases my effort needed as she attempts to drag me along. We climb upward for about ten minutes and then stroll along the ridge for another ¼ mile before the trail begins its decent to the river below again. This river crossing presents a much more challenging dilemma. The erosion along these banks are much more extensive on both sides of the river. Someone has dragged three separate sections of six-inch diameter trees to the riverbank and slid them into place side by side to make a slanted bridge to the first concrete step in the water. This could be hazardous for two sixty something-year-old persons. There is nothing to hang onto, the bridge is uneven, and neither of us have the balance of a younger individual. I wonder for just a moment if we should retrace our steps back the way we have come. But that is an overwhelming thought, so a different plan is needed. Claire is not in the least bit interested in stepping onto that rickety makeshift crossing either, so this also presents a problem. There is no way we can carry her.

            I finally give Claire’s leash to Dave and step out onto the round trees. I quickly realize that I will be in the drink if I try to walk across these logs with nothing to grab onto when I lose my balance on the unsteady surface. There is a larger tree at the bottom of the dip just below the makeshift bridge. Maybe I can walk on that and use the trees for balance. I lower my butt to the threesome of trees and gingerly shuffle partway across the larger tree until I can take a flying leap to the concrete step. Once safely landed, I turn to help retrieve Claire. Dave has ended up sitting on the muddy riverbank and he pushes her towards me on the rounded trees. She quickly gets the idea and comes bounding across. That just leaves Dave to traverse the dangerous crossing. At least, I can extend my hand to him for balance. Like an old pro, Claire leaps from concrete step to concrete steps and scrambles up the muddy three-foot bank on the other side. That just leaves the old people to claw their way up on hands and knees. Well so much for being clean but we are safely across! And we didn’t even fall in the river.

            It is just a short walk along this side of the stream back to the parking area where our chariot waits to ferry us home. But first, we must cap off the day with a Dairy Queen treat.

Celebrating Our 29th Wedding Anniversary

“What should we do to celebrate our wedding anniversary?” questions my husband.

“We can’t go to a movie, eat out, or visit any museums with all the restrictions from Covid,” I reply.

“How about if we go to a different State Park that we haven’t been to before in the southeastern part of the state?

That sounds good to me so the evening before our planned adventure, Gordon researches the various state parks in Southeastern Minnesota and decides upon Beaver Creek Valley State Park close to Caledonia. Neither one has ever heard of it before and we definitely have not visited it before. He prints off some Google directions to help with our navigating.

We decide to take Claire, our puppy, with us for the day. I am beginning to think that we should have a diaper bag ready to take along just like for a baby. We need a water bottle, bowl to drink from, harness, leash, a towel to clean feet, and last but not least, doggie poop bags. By 8 a.m., we have all our supplies gathered and are ready for our conquest.

Deviating from our printed Google directions, we drive to Plainview for our usual Kwik Trip breakfast. Travel continues down Hwy 42 to Kellogg, then south on Hwy 61. We make a stop on Garvin Heights in Winona to give Claire a break. Of course, she instantly leaves her calling card after getting out of the car. Time to use those extra plastic grocery bags.

Not really knowing where we are going, we finally plug the address for Beaver Creek Valley State Park into the GPS. Oh no! Its first command directs us to Interstate 90 and insists that we get on it. No ma’am. We do not want to travel the interstate. We want to take back country roads, so we just keep driving on right over the interstate. The sign says this is County 19. The road travels along I90 for a while then turns south. Soon we find ourselves on a back-country gravel road. The landscape is rolling. Steep bluffs are contrasted with farms nestled in the valley. The trees are just starting to turn color. We wind around the sides of hills, through valleys, and along meadows with herds of beef cattle. Surprisingly, the direction goddess is silent. Now this is more like it. This twisting trailing path we are on takes us almost exactly to the state park after a sidetrack down what looks like a minimally maintained road.

It has been a densely foggy morning. A damp coolness still hangs in the air as we start our stroll across a well-crafted five-foot-wide wooden bridge. The creek gurgles lazily beneath our feet. The blacktop path transitions into a well-worn dirt track. It has rained recently so there are widely spaced mud puddles. Claire is excited and she leans into the body harness dragging me after her. It is all I can do to hold back her thirty pounds powered by four-wheel drive. Us old people behind the dog are much slower. Gordon has been struggling with plantar fasciitis making for a painful hobble at times. Still he is determined to hike and take photos today.

We soon arrive at the first creek crossing. A free-standing bridge is balanced over the water. There are no handrails, just a few wooden slats securely fastened together. Clair eagerly tugs on the leash in her hurry to investigate the flowing water. She has never been near open water before and as part Golden Retriever, Gordon and I suspect she might like water. Soon she wades into the green lilies along the shoreline. What reappears is a dog with four very muddy feet and legs. Ah! This is fun! She must be thinking. Before I can stop her, she rolls upside down in the shallow mud. No…o…o…! Now our cream-colored dog is brown on her back and top of her head. Well there is not much I can do about it right now. Maybe, I will throw her all the way in later. She pads around in the shallower areas of the flowing water until it is time to move on.

The hiking trail runs parallel to the river. Gordon and I stroll slowly along taking in the beauty of the day. Some of the trees are starting to change color. Gordon stops occasionally to take photos. Claire pulls me along with enthusiasm. I am not moving fast enough for her. She finds every small trail that divvies off to the river and turns to try make her way there. After several turns like this, she looks a sight. There are green and brown seed pods clinging to her face, her legs, and her body. What a distressing mess! Claire’s hair is wavy and about two inches long and these, what I call, prickers seem to become well enmeshed deep into the soft, thick layers.

The path we have chosen to walk is about a three-mile round trip. There are two separate loops within the greater circle. We decide to trace both loops. The day warms as the sun burns away the fog and climbs higher. Off comes my coat and then, the sweater. Gordon begins to have pain between his shoulder blades which is not uncommon, so I offer to carry the camera bag and the tripod. Both of us are starting to feel our weariness as we reach the furthest most point in our trek and turn back towards the beginning.

Claire barks robustly and loudly at every person we meet. This is unacceptable. We seem to be able to mitigate this by stopping to sit and be quiet when humans come by. It is harder to bark and lunge while seated on one’s butt. Our stops become more frequent as the number of hikers increases with the passing of the day. She also wades into the gushing water with every creek crossing of which there are many. Finally, there is a splash as she gets brave enough to jump in from one of the bridge crossings. She has lost none of her energy and continues to pull actively, trying to drag me along. The same cannot be said for us. We are moving slower and slower.

As we make our way back to the parking lot, I mark off in my head each segment of the trail as we come to a signpost. We are almost there. Finally, we come to a river crossing that does not seem to have a bridge across it.

“I don’t remember ever crossing open water,” Gordon comments.

“I don’t either,” I agree, “This must not be the right place.”

As we continue along the path, I step on a protruding rock in the path. Without warning, my left ankle turns over and I pitch forward. Claire, who I have been leaning back on trying to slow her forward motion, continues her dive forward. I have no way to stop the forward pitch. I slam into the ground with my right knee first followed by my right arm. The leash handle clatters along the ground before Claire stops and looks questioningly back at me. I lay there stunned. I want to cry. My knee hurts. My arm hurts. The camera bag and the tripod have clobbered me from behind. Gordon rescues me from the extra load. We can hear people coming so I stumble to my feet. I am glad no one saw my ridiculous spill onto the ground. Everything seems intact so we start out on our hike again. We haven’t gone more than a few hundred feet until we meet a lone older gentleman who throws a question our way, “Are you going around again?”

“No,” I reply, “Just trying to get back to the parking lot.”

The man does not say any more but as he moves on, Gordon and I look at each other.

“That’s a strange question. Are we going the wrong way? Did we miss the turn back to the parking lot?”

Now we are totally confused. “I don’t know if we are going the right way.”

“Well, let’s go back to that last crossing again and see if we missed something.”

Disheartened, we turn and trudge back the other direction. Within a few hundred feet, we arrive again at the crossing we had discussed earlier. The bridge we could not see coming from the other direction is now clearly visible off to the right.

“This must be the path back to the car.”

A few hundred more feet and it is evident that we are now going the right way. If we hadn’t met that man who asked a strange question, we would have walked another mile before realizing that we were totally turned around. It reminds me a little of life’s journey. There are others along our walk of life who try to point us in the right way. Sometimes, we don’t pay any attention to the wisdom they are offering us and end up way off course – a difficulty we could have avoided if we had been tuned in.

By now, it is pushing three o’clock in the afternoon and we are thirsty and hungry. Claire has had all the water needed from the river, but we did not remember a water bottle for ourselves.

“Where should we eat?” is the next question of the day.

I grab the local Minnesota county map book that I keep under the car seat. I quickly peruse it. “If we keep going just a few miles south on this road, we should arrive in Caledonia,” I announce, “Let’s see if we can find some fast food there.”

Caledonia turns out to be a good size town with many businesses and several franchise eating joints. We grab some Subway sandwiches and cool refreshing pop and take our treasures back to a city park that I had spied on our way into town. There we have a quiet lunch in the shade of a few trees. It is time to head for home. Our last stop at Dairy Queen in Chatfield is the “icing on the cake” as the saying goes. Time to begin year thirty in our married walk of life.