Where the Heck Can I Go On Retreat This Year?

Clockwise: Crystal MAC Wildlife Management Area (courtesy of the City of Crystal), the author in Wolsfeld Woods, splashes of color on dead branch, new growth (photos by Pat Samples)

With virus-related restrictions in place, you may not have access to a resort or retreat center for a quiet time of self-reflection this year. But closer to home are some pristine, tucked-away woodlands that invite relaxation, gently adventurous discoveries, and communion with self and nature.

Waking up in Crystal MAC Wildlife Management Area

The northwest Minneapolis suburb of Crystal is home to a quiet gem of marshland and woods, with an easy walking trail to take you around and over the water. Next to Crystal Airport, this small, out of the way wildlife area is owned by the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

I enter the park over a new sturdy wood bridge that appears to be air-supported just above the water. Crossing it, I pass close to cattails and other reeds broken and beaten by winter. I wonder if these reeds are the kind suitable for basket-making. What patience and respect it must take to shape and dry them so they can hold together and give service as a thing of beauty. Could I learn such reverence for how living things hold together and serve us, by honoring their needs and their generosity?

I feel a kindred spirit with a lone duck that seems content idling solo amid the reeds. Then its sudden flurry of movement rolls out an enticing palette of blues across the surface of the high waters this spring day. My eyes widen in awe at the many surprising hues. Did I never notice before that water is not one color?

Surrounding the marshy area are sky-reaching trees. Each one has its own bends, shoots, textures, size, colorations. No one-size-fits-all when it comes to describing a tree. I can’t see the roots, but I know that some have been extending themselves there for dozens, even hundreds of years. They reach out generously to each other, sending signals and nutrients among this entire stand for mutual support. We have much to learn from them.

One sprawling, dead tree trunk is suspended between two tall neighbors. On one section of it I see a substantial cluster of sizable holes, obviously created by more than just woodpeckers, but by what? Which insects or other creatures are finding its contents worth massive numbers of chews or pecks to reach? And why this particular trunk in this particular section of it? What draws me to give immense effort to one thing versus another?

Another tree, standing tall, has a hole in its side at human eye level, two inches wide and deep. Is this a knothole without a knot? Might I find holes in myself that need filling? Or ones that are best left alone?

The floor of this woodland is carpeted with layers of tan leaves scattered months earlier by oak branches above. My feet and my ears discover that these layers have not lost their crunch. My eyes catch multitude shades of tan – not such a boring color as I had always thought.

A blackbird perches next to the trail on a willow shrub (pussy willow, I wonder?), calling and being called by potential mates nearby. Hints of green on the ground and in the branches offer glimpses of new life emerging. As I leave this haven of wildlife after my leisurely stroll, I am refreshed, ready to bring forth new life myself.

Observations from a log in Wood-Rill

Not a sound greets my friend and me as we meander into the Wood-Rill Scientific and Natural Area in the western suburbs near Long Lake. Wood-Rill is one of dozens of preserved natural areas in Minnesota that offer the solace and renewal of quietude and natural wonders. These Scientific and Natural Areas (SNA’s), cared for by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, are less known than state parks, yet easily accessible and generally uncrowded.

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Situated near Long Lake, just off Highway 112, Wood-Rill offers a small parking area near a trail entrance, but no other amenities. No buildings. No wood bridges over the water here, just a thrown-together collection of long branches, where needed, that walkers have put in place to keep from having to step into muddy trickles of water along the way. An old board stretched across one such muddy spot tips like a teeter-totter when I step onto it. Where in my life do I have to make do with whatever is available to get through slippery spots?

Smattering of fresh grass tufts and moss growth show up as we amble up and down hilly terrain full of basswood, oak, and sugar maple reaching skyward. Dead trunks sprawled everywhere remind me of the long-evolving transience of living things and the value of what remains after death.

I spread out my body on one of the logs. After adjusting to its uneven support along my spine, I spy the highest tree branches, and my breath slows as I notice them waving gently back and forth. They entrance and comfort me, like a lullaby. I could stay here for hours but for the body’s awkward positioning. Too often at home I let my body keep straining past the point it should, lulled there into some false comforts offered on a screen. Could I learn to let enough be enough?

Nearby I spot meal leftovers on a log — acorn shells, probably left by chipmunks. We are careful as we walk not to leave behind anything unnatural to this sacred space.

Up the trail a short way my friend points out a few blood root plants showing off their small white petals. They seem brave, poking out before the sure end of snow season. How willing am I to show my fledgling brightness when things still look bleak around me?

Click on the map to get a PDF that you can print-out to color or add detail! Map by aarondesign.biz

Red surprises in Wolsfeld Woods

A few days later, another friend and I visit Wolsfeld Woods, another SNA, along Highway 6 near Long Lake. A bombast of chirpy sound greets us. Birds? Frogs? Crickets? We move near a marsh and the sound abruptly stops. As we move away again, they break out in full volume. How little I know of our woodland friends, I realize. I become more attentive, watchful.

Outcroppings of mushrooms grab my attention. Not the ones found in the produce aisle. Rather, white fan-shaped ones, bulky shelf-like protrusions, and then bright red ones. Yes! After being dismayed by what I thought was plastic discarded by some wayward visitor, I leaned over to discover garnet-colored red growths on one small branch. I nearly danced with delight at my discovery. How could this be? Such bright declarations of color on a gray day! What bright glory right at my feet evades my attention in my everyday life, I wonder?

Twelve thousand years ago, this area was a spruce forest. Now basswood and maple flourish in the hilly terrain near the 35-acre Wolsfeld Lake. While Wood-Rill and Wolsfeld Woods are in western Hennepin County, similar SNA’s are found all around the fringes of the Twin Cities and beyond, and no fees are charged for their use. Nor – be aware — are bathrooms or parking lots generally provided. Some don’t welcome dogs. Visitors are asked to be respectful, leaving no trash and being careful not to track invasive species in or out of these pristine areas. I find them to be worthy of revisiting to observe the changes in growth and sounds over different seasons.

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State parks

Turns out I’m not alone. Many who are in addiction recovery, or who just appreciate self-renewing opportunities, also seek soulful discoveries in nature’s havens.

Melissa O., with her husband and two teen children, frequent Lake Maria State Park, another less-used natural get-away spot west of Monticello. If you like horseback riding, backpacking, or hiking, you’ll enjoy this hilly area of the Big Woods dotted with lakes and wetlands.

During a recent visit, says Melissa, “I noticed how secluded it was, even though the parking lot was full.” She and her family walk in this park quite often. “There are benches along the way that usually overlook a pond or some other scenery.” She describes “a cool well there, where you hand-pump water.”

On Lake Maria itself, you can kayak and canoe. If you like backpacking, there are remote campsites, “pretty far away from each other,” she points out. Do we all need time alone? Even in this time of virus “isolation”? Perhaps we do. Or maybe we do as well if we enter these serene places with family or just one friend, maintaining social distance as we go.

Growing up with a mother fond of birdwatching, Melissa has recently started her own watching and listening for birds. She can remember from her childhood the distinct call of the black-capped chickadee, which she thrills to hear again with fresh interest. When she doesn’t recognize a sound she hears, she snaps a photo of the bird and asks her mother to help her identify it. Sometimes, like Melissa, we deepen our connections with family members by reviving past enjoyments we had with them in nature.

Suzanne found her getaway early this spring at Wild River State Park, walking along the St. Croix River with a friend. “I was aware I need to be in nature,” she says. “The quietness was lovely, renewing.” Despite the damp coolness of the day, she says, “We laid down in some leaves for a while. It was comforting, very relaxing, looking up through branches.”

Yes, I remember the feeling.

“It was grounding,” she says, and she is so right. Touching our earth and all it grows brings us home to ourselves.

Pat Samples is a Twin Cities writer, writing coach, and champion of creative aging. Her website is patsamples.com

Last Updated on May 16, 2020

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