Midwest Traveler – Lindstrom, MN., knows how to warm up holiday shopping!

• Article by: KELLY JO MCDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
• Updated: December 12, 2014 – 2:01 PM
In Lindstrom, Minn., they’ve put the kettle on for you, and it says “Välkommen till Lindström.” A Swedish coffee pot/water tower welcomes visitors to this little gem of a town, only 30 miles from the Twin Cities, that offers charming holiday shopping, antique finds, coffee and pastries, and a glass of wine to top it off.
The town of Lindstrom, incorporated in 1894, was settled by Daniel Lindstrom, who left his beloved Sweden for America in 1853. Ever since, the town has attracted its fair share of Swedish immigrants. In a small park on the main street, visitors will find a statue memorializing Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson, fictional characters in a series of novels about early Swedish emigrants. The statue also honors the many Swedish peasants who immigrated to the United States and settled in the area in the mid-1800s. The town’s motto is “America’s Little Sweden,” but whether you have Swedish roots or not, this town has something for you.
Where to shop
This time of year, holiday shopping is on everyone’s mind, including the shop owners in Lindstrom. Park the car right downtown, which is decked out for the holidays, and walk to all the charming shops.
You can’t shop downtown Lindstrom without hitting the cornerstone, which is Gustaf’s Up North and Välkommen galleries. The UpNorth Gallery opened in 1973, and exhibits works by Midwest artists. The Välkommen Gallery focuses on art and gifts from northern Europe, including Sweden, Norway and Finland. During the holidays, Gustaf’s always has something going on. On a recent day, Minnesotans Lori Evert and Per Breiehagen were at the gallery to sign their book, “The Christmas Wish,” complete with a live reindeer outside the store, unlimited homemade Swedish almond cake and coffee (651-257-1821; http://www.gustafs galleries.com).
Homespun Treasures carries only locally created gifts. Sometimes the artists are roaming the shop, answering questions on their creations — from refinished antique tables to mittens and hats to jewelry, including necklaces made from old keys and locks (the artist works down the street at the local newspaper).
The Lindstrom antique mall, right on the main drag, holds handmade treasures from floor to ceiling (651-257-3340). Miss Elsie’s Yarnery, a part of Cottage Gifts, has wonderful handmade hats, including a “Downton Abbey” style, a great stocking-stuffer.
In the Moment Boutique, a little shop that opened this fall, offers quirky clothing and accessories for the holidays. It’s in the old State Bank building, with clothing displayed around the old bank vault doors. Holiday apparel arrives daily, including fur-topped tube scarves, sparkly wraps, leg warmers and cool, funky jackets (651-257-9855; http://www.inthe momentbou tique.com).
Deutschland Meats is easy to find — just look for the giant wiener on the top of the building. It’s a family-owned and -operated meat processing company that offers German sausage, pork and bratwurst. The place is busy during hunting seasons, as they process deer and wild game for local hunters. There are always samples sizzling when shoppers come in the door (651-257-1128; http://www.deutschlandmeats.com).
Raise a toast
What’s a little shopping without a little wine? WineHaven winery and vineyard is down the road from Lindstrom on Deer Garden Lane. The wine label imparts the owners’ other pursuit: They are beekeepers. Kevin and Kyle Peterson are the successful father-and-son winemaking team, and they have racked up the awards to prove it. The atmosphere is warm and comforting, and the wine tasting room and gift shop are open year around. White wines include a Lakeside Chardonnay and a Gewürztraminer. The reds include an intense ripple black cherry wine called Lakeside Red, and a Deer Garden Red, made from their Chisago grape. But the sleeping giant on the wine menu is their Stinger Honeywine Mead, a winner of 29 medals. It smells like flowers and honey and boasts a crisp yet sweet taste. Have it served last on your flight tastings; it’s worth the wait (651-257-1017; http://www.winehaven.com).
Where to stay
Just down the road from the winery is the area’s newest place to stay, the Grandstay Hotel and Suites. The hotel is perfectly situated for the Chi¬sago Lakes area and Lindstrom, sitting quietly next to woods and water. The rooms are large and immaculate, and guests can choose from king suites with a whirlpool to a one-bedroom with full kitchen (1-855-455-7829; http://www.grandstayhospitality.com).
Where to eat
A must-stop on your Swedish trail should be the Lindstrom Bakery, which boasts a full array of fresh-baked breads and Swedish cookies and pastries. Daily specials can range from Scandinavian doughnuts to savory tomato bread, but a must-try is the Swedish almond cake. Get there early; they can sell out of favorites fast (651-257-1374).
Just down the street, take your pastry to the Northwoods Roasterie. Swedes are known for their love of coffee, and this cheerful coffeehouse doesn’t disappoint. The outdoorsy motif is cozy, and visitors can sip coffee while gazing into the roasting room to see how it’s done (651-257-5240; http://www.northwoodsroasterie.com).
Once the downtown shops close, head to the lake for a little history with your holidays. Family-owned Meredee’s Bistro, newly located in the former Dinnerbel building, overlooks the lake in downtown Lindstrom and is the site of Daniel Lindstrom’s first log home.
A hotel opened there in 1889, where it thrived until the Depression. In 1946, it was bought and reopened as the Dinnerbel; the entire building is a historical treasure. Have a glass of wine or a local brew and some grilled portabella caps, and sample their gigantic, fresh salad bar while you hear tales from the locals on the “friendly spirits” who reside in the building.
The owners and staff know every story (here’s one: If you smell the scent of roses in the lobby or the ladies restroom, it’s Rose, a late resident who still visits). (651-257-9144; http://www.meredeesbistro.com).

Spring Valley, Minnesota

Midwest Traveler: Spring Valley, Minn., is a little bikers’ paradise

  • Article by: KELLY JO MCDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 6, 2014 – 9:25 AM


Who knew you could organize a bike excursion complete with caves, car races and a little vino sipping in between? Spring Valley, Minn., can get overshadowed by the other towns along the Root River State Trail, but this town holds its own. So follow the trail down to where the prairie meets the bluffs.

The basics

Spring Valley is a quiet town nestled in southeastern Minnesota’s agricultural heartland. It lies in Fillmore County along the Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway.

While road construction is in full bloom this spring, it’s still easy to get to on two major highways, 63 and 18, about 30 minutes from Rochester (1-507-346-7367; http://www.springvalley.govoffice.com).

What to do

If you’re looking to hit some bike trails for the weekend, this is the place: Trails will not disappoint anywhere in this little biker paradise. Spring Valley hosts one of the first self-supported gravel road races in the country, the Almanzo bike race, in which roughly 1,000 cyclists take part.

This Bluff Country region boasts more than 60 miles of paved rail-to-trail multipurpose paths.

The Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley Trails run along the Root River, and riders enjoy scenes from 300-foot bluffs to farms to postcard-worthy bridges, and of course, anglers fishing for trout in the Root River (www.rootrivertrail.org).

If you want a good warm-up for the Root River Trail, there are walking/biking trails right in the town of Spring Valley, where historic houses line the quiet streets.

If you like the action a little louder, head right outside town to the Deer Creek Speedway. On race night, it’s easy to find: Just follow all the car lights to the track, located in farm country on 60 acres (1-507-754-6107; http://www.deercreekspeedway.com).

If hiking is more your gig, head to Forestville State Park. It has a little bit of everything, with trails that climb about 200 feet from valley floors to ridge tops, and horse trails that are a local favorite.

There’s also a little town right in the park, “Historic Forestville” (1-507-765-2785; tinyurl.com/kcdwwod). The Minnesota Historical Society restored a portion of the old town of Forestville, where costumed interpreters portray Forestville residents and visitors can participate in special events, such as a hike up to Zumbro Hill Cemetery.

And don’t skip Mystery Cave, Minnesota’s longest known cave, stretching for 13 miles underground. Guided tours are available every day from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. (1-507-937-3251; tinyurl.com/2rze6).

History is important to the Spring Valley area, and visitors can get a taste at the museum at Spring Valley Methodist Church, built in 1876 with the help of the James and Angeline Wilder family.

Their son Almanzo married Laura Ingalls, who went on to write the “Little House” books. Several sites are open for tours (1-507-346-7659; http://www.springvalleymnmuseum.org).

Where to stay

The Glad Gatherings B&B in Spring Valley is a powder blue Victorian creation that offers weekend package deals for groups, geared to scrapbookers. It has a full craft studio in-house (1-507-346-2023; http://gladgatherings.com). Another option is the Spring Valley Inn & Suites, which sits right on the main drag (1-507-346-7788; http://www.springvalleyinnsuites.com).

Camping is also an excellent choice in this area, and Forestville State Park itself offers numerous opportunities (tinyurl.com/m64h7us).

Where to eat

You might think you have to travel to nearby river towns for a wine and dinner experience, but you can head just outside town on Hwy. 16 to Four Daughters Vineyard & Winery for a meal steeped in charm and elegance. The name explains its origins: Parents on the farm started a vineyard to entice their daughters to move back home and help with the wine business. Mission accomplished — and then some.

There’s a wonderful variety of wines, including local favorite Big Boy Blend Red, and the servers (usually family members) know how to pair them with food. As you sip away, you might see the father of the Four Daughters working in the farm fields that surround the grapevines.

The superb food includes fare to nibble with wine, such as artisan cheese boards and olive boards, and roasted green beans and smoked pork belly croutons. Dinner favorites include French onion dumplings (filled with braised onions and Parmesan cheese) and sizzling shrimp, which came doused with a roasted garlic spicy broth, and andouille sausage.

Each week, the chefs create a “Thursday Night Dinner,” a fun, multicourse meal paired with the wines (1-507-346-7300; http://www.fourdaughtersvineyard.com).

If you hanker for a cold root beer and onion rings, stop in at the A&W Drive-In, family-owned and -operated since 1956, with full service that includes jukebox and carhops. The chili dogs might be a nostalgic favorite, but the restaurant also offers Greek salad and some gluten-free options (1-507-346-7486; http://www.awesomeawdrivein.com).




My Job: Kelly Jo McDonnell, TV writer and producer

  • Article by: LAURA FRENCH
  • Updated: February 24, 2014 – 9:39 AM

By Laura French • jobslink@startribune.com


Kelly Jo McDonnell is a TV writer and producer for Ron Schara’s Minnesota Bound.

Description: http://stmedia.startribune.com/images/220*124/ows_139325626982904.jpg

my job

Kelly Jo McDonnell is often asked, “How do you get a job like that?” Her answer: “It was so long ago!” The Minnesota Bound program started in mid-1995, and by 1996, Ron Schara was looking for his first employee. McDonnell’s father, who worked in the fishing industry, heard about the job and told her about it. “I have a BA in Mass Communications. The few jobs I had before nestling here included working at a TV station, working at KDWB in the Twin Cities, and writing for newspapers and doing PR,” she said. “I picked up the phone, had the interview, and started the next week.”

It also helped that McDonnell is, as she says, “outdoorsy. I grew up hunting, fishing, camping.” In short, she was OK with wearing a lot of hats — even if some of them have earflaps.

Still, she said, back in 1996, “I don’t think we thought we’d be approaching show number seven hundred! When I started we were working with three-quarter-inch tape. Now everything is so fast, everything is electronic, the cameras are tinier. We started with one edit suite, now we have six and are building on that.”

Her job has also changed through the years. “I still produce and write for Minnesota Bound. I also took on commercial traffic for all the shows — there are eight shows now. I continue to do events like the State Fair and the Lake Minnetonka Crappie Contest. Of course, there’s just keeping Ron Schara on schedule. His schedule is very full. I handle all that so he doesn’t have to be bothered by it.”

The company itself has gone through cycles, McDonnell said. “There were glory days before the recessions. In the first half, we really were rockin’. The company was young, and we were upstarts. In the middle part, when we started hiring more employees, there’s a transition period where people are wondering who’s going to do what. I would say when Mr. Schara sold the company five years ago, it breathed some new life into us. I think it was his master plan all along. It’s a new, different focus than what we were used to. But it’s been a good thing.”

What does it take to be successful in a job like yours?

Being flexible to do every step of the process right down to logging hours of video, writing the script, passing it to someone who voices it and someone who edits it. You’ve got to have a thick skin. It can be kind of a grind. You get a lot of negative feedback. You just have to keep on keepin’ on.

Can you recall a favorite story?

We did a story on Seven Pines Lodge, a fly-fishing shack in Wisconsin. I went there with my dad and thought, “Let’s do a father-daughter, ‘We’ve never fly-fished’ weekend.” It was nice to get e-mails from people saying, “I want to do that with my dad or my grandpa.”

What has kept you in the job for 18 years?

We are great storytellers. Mr. Schara was always known for that. I think we believed what we were doing was telling great stories and people liked us. It means something to us. You feel like you’re a part of something important.

Hike, Dine, & spend a night in Jail

Midwest Traveler: Taylors Falls, the little town that could

  • Article by: KELLY JO MCDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2013 – 4:14 PM

Description: http://stmedia.startribune.com/images/630*387/ows_137012600252744.jpg


A paddleboat floats down the St. Croix River through Interstate State Park near Taylors Falls, one of the most visited parks in Minnesota.

When you travel into Taylors Falls, you’ll notice a sign that reads population 976. But don’t let this little village on the river fool you. The population swells to 5,000 plus during peak seasons — especially as the fall foliage puts on a show. What do all these people know that we don’t? The answer: Taylors Falls may be small, but what it offers is huge.

Taylors Falls sits right on the St. Croix River, surrounded by bluffs and high cliffs. The scenery is stunning, especially in the fall, and the area’s geology is intriguing. Geologists from all over the world come to visit the area; 10 lava flows are exposed in the area’s park, along with distinct glacial deposits. One thing is for sure: Mother Nature was busy in this area.


This time of year, there’s one logical place to “leaf peep” in Taylors Falls — Interstate State Park. The park was jointly founded by Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1895, since it straddles the border. During early fall, the hiking trails resemble a postcard. While the visitors’ center is now closed for the season, the park recommends taking the 1.25-mile River Trail to the “Glacial Pothole” area, and it proves to be a good choice. Trails are well maintained, and have several lookout areas over the St. Croix. This time of year, the views offer their own beauty, with a palette of green, yellow and brown. On the return journey, try the Railroad Trail, which is a 1.5-mile hike along the path where the old railroad used to run. This trail ends near the Sandstone Bluffs Trail. If you’re not afraid of a few hundred stairs, it’s worth the 1-mile journey for the views. There is also canoe rental and rock climbing in this park. There’s a good chance you’ll spy some rock climbers during your visit (www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/inter state/index.html).

While the government shutdown briefly halted boat excursions in Taylors Falls, and the tours are now closed for the season, Wild Mountain’s Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours were up and running just in time for some fall trips. Owner Amy Frischmon, whose family owns and operates all the Wild Mountain properties, had to play catch-up once she got approval from the government to operate her boats again on the St. Croix. Weather-permitting, during the season there are daily excursions on both the Queen and the Princess. Visitors can also view the glacial potholes from the water, and a licensed boat pilot and tour guide point out rock formations, including the Old Man of the Dalles. A seasonal note: When the snow flies, the action switches over to Wild Mountain, the area’s ski and snowboard resort (www.wildmountain.com).

While it’s not located on a mountain, Wild Mountain Winery is picturesque, and located just 8 miles from Taylors Falls. It specializes in cold-hardy grapes from grower Elmer Swenson. All the grapes are locally grown, the wine locally produced, and the winery itself is also locally operated, which gives the scene an overall homey feeling. Wandering through the vineyards in the fall offers a chance to see the picking process. The vines, full and heavy with grapes, are being harvested all fall. The wine tasting room, which used to be the greenhouse, is cozy and offers samplings of Prairie Star, Frontenac Gris or the ever-popular Elmer’s White, which is wonderfully fruity and aromatic (www.wildmountainwinery.com).

Visitors can also just walk along the river and enjoy the charming shops in downtown Taylors Falls. The shops are locally owned, including the Newbery House, a gift shop that also doubles as an art gallery featuring works from local artists (www.delarosegallery.com). If natural art is more your style, try the GLG Jewelry and Rock Shop, which designs and creates “Earth Treasures” from rocks and minerals. Both adults and kids will find a rock treasure in this shop (www.glggemstonejewelry.com).


Why not spend the day in jail? No, it’s not what you think. And the Old Jail Bed & Breakfast, right in downtown Taylors Falls, is the perfect place to feel right at home — even if it used to be a jail. It’s the first licensed bed-and-breakfast in Minnesota, with three suites that have a private entrance, private bath and kitchen. The “overlook” room is just that — overlooking the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. To experience the “lock up,” book the “Jail Cottage,” complete with the original bars. But guests seem to clamor for the “Cave.” This former location of the town saloon is roomy, and has the original stone arch leading to a “cave” where there’s a full bathroom (www.oldjail.com or 651-465-3112).


If coffee or cappuccino is on your mind, be sure to hit the Coffee Talk in downtown Taylors Falls. It sits in a renovated Victorian house on the north side of town, and the locals who work the coffee bar are the perfect folks to ask about the best local stops. There are also fresh baked goods each day (www.taylorsfalls.com/coffeetalk.html). Rocky River Bakery, owned by Bill and Beth Hughes, is full of fresh baked pastries and breads, and this time of year a visitor can find the “Croixnut” — a cross between a doughnut and a croissant. But ask ahead, as the Croixnut tends to sell out fast (www.rockyriverbakery.com). While it has seasonal hours, Tangled up in Blue is worth the visit. The interior is simple and perfectly lit for either a dinner for two or a party of 10. The food is fresh, and the chef often visits your table to check on your dining experience. The beef Wellington is one of the house specialties, and for good reason — it’s a hand-cut filet topped with mushroom duxelle and enclosed in a puff pastry. Local wines from nearby vineyards are also offered (www.tangledupinbluerestaurantintaylorsfalls.com).


For more information about visiting the region, go to http://www.ci.taylors-falls.mn.us/ or http://fallschamber.org/

A tale of two bridges

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In Hastings, Minn., history and natural beauty

If you’ve driven on Hwy. 61 into Hastings, chances are you’ve heard the Tale of Two Bridges (not to be confused with Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities”). A new, four-lane bridge — which was built off-site and floated into place — will replace the old two-lane bridge by the end of the year, and two lanes on the new structure are already open. Don’t let orange cones deter you from visiting this river town, with a downtown lined with historic buildings, river views and a roaring waterfall.

If there ever were a true river town, it’s Hastings. Set along the Mississippi, St. Croix and Vermillion rivers, it’s one of Minnesota’s oldest communities, established in 1857. And while this area has had its share of progress, the scenery still remains steeped in its history.

Why go now

The Afton Apple Orchard, just outside of town, does double duty. In addition to apples, you can pick your own pumpkins beginning this weekend (651-436-8385; http://www.afton apple.com).


Downtown Hastings has 35 buildings built between 1860 and 1900 that make up a historic district along the banks of the Mississippi. Shops include Mississippi Clayworks, which sells locally made pots and Pueblo pottery (651-437-5901; http://www.mississippiclayworks.com); Second Childhood, a toy store with a resident cat named Slinky (651-438-7949; http://www.secondchildhoodtoys.com) and Reissner’s Meats & Grocery, a classic third-generation butcher shop (651-437-4189). Locals claim that items in Hastings antique stores cost as much as 15 percent less than in other river towns. More information at http://www.hastings downtown-mn.com and http://www.hastingsmn.org.

Spring Lake Park Reserve, also known as Schaar’s Bluff, is a hidden gem in this Upper Mississippi River Valley area. Don’t let the cornfields fool you as you drive to this Dakota County park. The landscape changes quickly from farmland to bluff country. And once you hit the trails, the views are spectacular. This part overlooks the Mississippi. Its trails include the Schaar’s Bluff Trailhead, where views stretch to the Twin Cities. Locals say it’s the premier place to catch a sunset.

Trails at the park pass over rocky hills and through woods, grasslands and fields of wildflowers. Paved paths overlook the water. Once the snow flies, trails are groomed for cross-country skiing. The park includes Schaar’s Bluff Gathering Center, an airfield for model planes and picnic shelters (952-891-7000; http://www.co.dakota.mn.us/parks/parksTrails/SpringLake).

The Alexis Bailly Vineyard has been growing grapes since 1973, when the family planted the first vineyard in Minnesota. Today, second-generation owner Nan Bailly continues the family heritage of producing wines in a difficult climate.

First-class wine connoisseurs stand behind the sampling counter, ready to pour. The building, with oak barrels lining the walls, is inviting. Outside, visitors can play bocce ball or stroll through the sculpture park.

Guest favorites include the Country White, a full-bodied table wine made from University of Minnesota grapes La Crescent and Frontenac Gris, and the Voyageur 2010, a red that ages in oak barrels for 12 months. The vineyard is just a mile from Hastings, off Hwy. 61 (651-437-1413; http://www.abvwines.com).


The Classic Rosewood Inn and Spa is a piece of Hastings history, and it looks the part. The B&B’s building is an 1880 Queen Anne landmark, and it’s just four blocks from downtown.

Owners Dick and Pam Thorsen stress, “slow the pace and snuggle in.”

The atmosphere is easy, even allowing guests to set the schedule for breakfast, which they can have at a private table in the dining room or in their room. Never a small affair, the breakfast during my stay was a three-course feast that included an egg and hash-brown bake, fresh fruit and a baked apple pastry. The Rosewood also offers massages in a room on the main floor. There’s another bonus: a charming “help yourself” pantry for midnight snack attacks.

Rooms include “Spring Lake,” which has two levels with marble steps leading up to the whirlpool and bathroom; and the “Solarium,” with 15-foot walls of glass that overlook the town (651-437-3297; http://www.classicrosewood.com).


Locals and tourists alike line up outside the Onion Grill, where great onion-inspired dishes are only part of the draw. Owners Mike and Wendy Agen have created a fun atmosphere, with a model train circling the restaurant’s interior and big picture windows that look out at the river’s edge downtown (651-437-7577; http://www.theoniongrille.com).

Looking for the best steak sandwich around? Head to the Bierstube for fabulous German food. The wiener schnitzel, bratwurst platter and sauerbraten (marinated roast beef) are highlights of the menu. It’s a big local hangout, and the “Larry’s Special Steak,” named after the restaurant’s founder, Lawrence William Yanz, is a favorite (651-437-8259; http://www.thebierstube.com).

At the Busted Nut, peanut shells cover the floor like carpet. The restaurant serves casual fare like “big kids” mac and cheese and homemade pizza and has live music year-round (651-438 -6887; http://www.thebustednut.com).




Alpha Dog!

ImageForest Lake teen is building a top team of dogs for winter dogsled races

  • Article by: KELLY JO MCDONNELL  , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2013 – 10:34 PM

Ashley Thaemert was 10 years old when her grandfather built her first wooden sled.

The 17-year-old Forest Lake High School senior has been hooked ever since.

She gobbled up books about mushing, watched shows and insisted people help her out and teach her about racing. Not just any racing — racing dogs.

“I was fascinated with them,” Thaemert said. “Mushing and being with the dogs is one of the only things in the world that can really get me excited and talking. I could talk to someone about it for hours and never run out of things to say.”

That enthusiasm bubbles over into her busy teenage life. Thaemert is adamant about making time for her dogs in between school, a job and her other activities, including her spot on the Forest Lake Area High School danceline team.

When Thaemert started to build her team four years ago, she reached out to a Princeton breeder of Alaskan malamutes, some of the biggest, strongest dogs of the mushing world.

Her first puppies included Suka and London.

Her team now consists of four additional dogs, Saffron, Echo, Akira and her dad’s dog, Nanuq, each with their own personality.

“Suka is my big, calm giant boy, but he gets extremely excited about mushing and starts jumping around like a puppy again as soon as we hook up. London is a hyper sledding fanatic, and there’s no calming him down when I go to hook the dogs up. He has to be hooked up last, because he pulls so hard and gets so excited that he breaks stuff. Echo is my speed racer dog, and Akira is the crazy one. She’s been the challenge to train, as she’s wicked smart and a little Houdini. But she’s a fantastic working dog and pulls really hard,” Thaemert said.

From the beginning the slight, 100-pound Thaemert had to work to be “alpha dog.”

“They need to know who’s in charge or there will be fights and lots of problems. When they were little I would flip them all on their backs and hold them down lightly to establish my role as alpha,’’ she said. “These are big dogs, they can pull up to 300 pounds, and they are very close to wolves with the way they operate as a pack. If you have a dog that can’t calm down, you’ve got a real problem.”

But handling dogs doesn’t seem to be a problem for the teenager, said her mentor Ken Davis, competitive musher and owner of Elfstone Kennel in Twig, Minn.

“I was impressed right away,” Davis said, “especially with the type of dogs that she has. These are big, strong dogs…. They’re built for the Arctic and bred to run all day long. However, they’re not built for racing or speed.”

Davis explained that Thaemert is trying to train her dogs to race, and has done well. She placed second in her class in her first race last October in Wausau, Wis.

“She’s one of those kids that is rare in my book,” Davis said. “She’s going to go somewhere.”

Trying to trying to balance her busy schedule is a challenge.

After school, she hustles home to take care of the dogs, and then hooks them up for training. It takes her about 20 minutes to hook up the dogs by herself, but half that if her brothers Skyler and Logan and sister Carissa help. Her parents, Christopher and Mary Kay Thaemert, as well as her grandpa, Craig Thaemert, support her efforts, too.

After training for a few hours, she heads in the house to start homework. “It gets to be a late night,” said Thaemert. “Next year should be easier after I graduate.”

Thaemert works part-time at the Chuck & Don’s Pet Store in Forest Lake. She said it brings in a free bag of food once a month — it takes around 30 pounds of high-calorie dog food a week to feed her team. She said her job also has helped her learn how to better care for her dogs.

So, what’s next? Graduation, some travel and pursuing a degree in veterinary orthopedic surgery, she hopes. And racing.

Thaemert is expanding her team by adding two puppies to be ready to race by next winter. She would like to work toward larger races, such as the Beargrease in Duluth, the St. Paul Winter Carnival Race or the MushforaCure on the Gunflint Trail.

“It’s the most peaceful feeling — there’s nothing in the world like it,” she said. “I don’t even know how to put it into words. It’s just one of those things.”

Nature Center Guru retires….

Siah St. Clair: “A place like Springbrook brings out people who feel passionately about this place.”

Departing director St. Clair reflects on 35 years at Fridley nature center

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • March 12, 2013 – 4:17 PM

The job description of a nature center director isn’t an easy one. Duties can range from conducting classes with third-graders on aquatic invertebrates to repairing a plank on the boardwalk. From speaking at a Rotary club and writing grant requests to repairing a broken toilet.

No one understands the complexity of the position better than Siah St. Clair, who’s done those things and more during his 35 years at the Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley. He will be retiring as director in April.

He reflected on his experiences in a Q and A session last week.

Q: What changes have you seen through the years?

A: Technology. When I started, there was only one typewriter in the whole place, and it was the secretary’s typewriter. I would dictate, and she would type the letters. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Recently I was leading a hike on birds and pointed out a robin’s call. Thirty seconds later, we heard another robin call behind me, but it’s someone’s bird app on their phone, and they were playing the robin’s song on their phone. Everyone was listening to the app [thinking it was the real thing]. That’s a change.

But a lot of things have really stayed the same, like leading a hike on birds. People are still just as fascinated with birds today as they were 40 years ago. Or learning about wildflowers or prairie habitats. The part where you actually have people outdoors, identifying a mushroom, or a tree … all of that is the same.

Q: What about challenges — then and now?

A: The challenges have stayed the same. The challenge is always finding enough resources to accomplish your needs. We’re constantly increasing our ability to find resources. So we’re writing grant proposals, figuring out improved ways to bring revenue into the center to pay for materials we need. I think we’ve gotten better at it over the years, bringing in more revenue and finding more resources than we did 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

Other challenges are also the same: how you maintain the prairie; storage for props used for classes that we teach; finding part-time and full-time naturalists — those kinds of challenges continue. You get more resourceful because of your experience. Or maybe you’re not as intimidated, as you’ve done it so many times.

Q: What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?

A: I can think of three people who were full-time naturalists [at Springbrook] who went on to become directors of their own nature centers. I think that’s a good feeling; you’ve worked with people and had them able to move on into a position where they are now directing a nature center of their own.

Also, over the years, the use of the center has increased tremendously, way beyond what anyone had ever dreamed, and it’s part of my job to try to plan for how we’re going to address that increase in use. We’ve met with the Springbrook Nature Center Foundation and community groups and a plan was developed: Improve the outdoor classroom in the front of the park, and create space inside the building.

We’ve gone to the Legislature and requested bonding funds, and we’ve made it through three times. We made it to the governor’s desk three times. We were vetoed three times, but that was a big accomplishment to just get there. We’re working at it again this year.

It’s not just looking at the needs of today, but the needs for the next generation and how we can address that.

Q: What were the lessons you have learned along the way?

A: I’ve learned over the years that it’s hard to take credit for much. A lot happens, but there are an awful lot of people involved in making it happen. It’s never just yourself that’s doing that. It’s all these other people.

A place like Springbrook brings out people who feel passionately about this place. It’s the place that brings the people in, and makes them so committed. It’s a privilege to simply be in the middle of all of that, and to work with all those people who have a commitment to see the nature center continue in a vibrant way.

Q: Your favorite memory?

A: One night, during one of our summer camp kid/parent nights, we took the kids and their parents for a walk back in the park. I remember it was June, late and quite dark, when we were leading 20 children and 40 parents down into the woods.

We came out into a clearing in a meadow near one of the ponds, and it just happened to be a hatch night for the fireflies. There had to be 10,000 fireflies in this little meadow, and they were all flashing. Everyone just stood in awe of these thousands of fireflies that were flashing. You could have heard a pin drop. I’ll never forget those fireflies.

Another one isn’t a favorite, but one I’ll never forget: It was July 18, 1986, and I had taken my family on a vacation in Michigan. I got a phone call and was told to turn on the TV. And there was the famous Springbrook tornado, being filmed live. It was on the front page of the Star Tribune the next day. I had to leave my family and get on a plane and come back. I’ll never forget that date.

Q: What’s your funniest memory?

A: We have animals here at the nature center, snakes, frogs, salamanders, hissing cockroaches and tarantulas. Occasionally, for some reason or another, a few escape.

A number of years ago we had purchased new tiny baby tarantulas so we could use them in our programs. At the time, they were smaller than your thumbnail, but one of them escaped. About two months later, one of the female staff came running out of the ladies’ room. Let’s just say she was agitated. This little tarantula, which was now three times the size, came walking up out of the floor drain. I ran in there and captured it. We named the little tarantula Houdini. She’s quite large now, and we use her for programs all the time.

Q: You’re retiring after 35 years. Now what?

A: I do have some plans. I do nature photography, and I’ve planted a wildflower garden at my house. I have offered to continue to help with a number of activities at the nature center, though. There’s a bird banding program on Sunday mornings; a garden club and a photography club that meets every month; there’s a butterfly count, a dragonfly count, and we do a frog-calling survey that takes several nights. I’ve offered to help with those.

It’s hard to get my head around it. I’ve been working full time as a naturalist for 41 years. I can’t remember being unemployed since I was 16. But I’m trying to figure out what to do when you don’t have a job!

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

Iowa Corn & Wine

River valley holds simple pleasures

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2012 – 3:24 PM

This time of year, a mention of Iowa conjures up spent cornfields and soybeans harvests. But lush wine vineyards and rolling hills? Look closer at the northwest corner of our neighbor to the south, and

Photo: Cy Dodson

you’ll be surprised by what you find. Two sister towns, Peterson and Linn Grove, nestled next to the Little Sioux River, offer a charming getaway to enjoy a little history and the simple things in life.


Peterson has the distinction of being Clay County’s first settlement, established in 1856 on the floor of the Little Sioux River Valley. Its neighbor city, Linn Grove, home to a historic dam, has been around since 1910. Both are as picturesque as a vintage Iowa postcard. And both sit right on the Iowa Glacial Trail Scenic Byway, a 36-mile loop that begins in Clay County on Hwy. 10.


Fall suits this corner of Iowa perfectly. To see the area’s splendor up close, check out the wonders of the prairie at the Prairie Heritage Center, a few miles outside Peterson. The center offers environmental education and features a birding bonanza room with crafts and displays, including a section on the folklore of birds and how to “talk turkey.” Buffalo also roam the adjacent 160 acres (1-712-295-7200; http://www.prairie heritagecenter.org).

History is plentiful. Peterson Heritage Inc. can help set up a tour of Peterson’s historical gems — its office is located in one of the historic houses, the Boarding House of 1882. Other sights include the Fort Peterson Blockhouse, a fort constructed in 1862 by Civil War troops, and the Rock Forest School, one of the county’s first frame schoolhouses (1-712-295-8889; www. petersonhistory.org).

Jim’s History Barn in Peterson is an “American Pickers” dream. Owner Jim Hass has filled a restored 1928 barn from wooden floor to rafters with collections of western memorabilia, mounted wildlife, rows of military items from the 1700s through World War II and thousands of other items. Admission is free, and a bonus is that Hass is a font of knowledge on the area’s history (1-712-295-6551; http://www.peterson history.org).

Just a few miles from Linn Grove and Peterson farmlands is InnSpiration Vineyard, which covers 6 acres and whose tasting room overlooks a pond. Owners Paul and Sheila Thomsen have created a Midwest wine lover’s oasis, complete with acoustic music on weekends and annual grape stomps. Be sure to try the winery’s Touch of Sun, Squirrely Shirley or 2010 Frontenac Dry (1-712-296-4966; www.innspirationbandb.com).

Normally, the towns of Peterson and Linn Grove hover around a few hundred residents each. But if you roll into Peterson on the first Saturday of October next year, be prepared for the Hiney Wine & Arts Festival, which can draw 2,000 people. Crowds converge on Kirchner Park to browse artists’ wares and taste samples from beer and wine booths.


The InnSpiration Bed-and-Breakfast sits across the pond from the winery, and its four bedrooms feature queen beds, cozy fireplaces and double whirlpool baths. We stayed in the Lake Room, which overlooks both the rows of grapevines as well as the busy farm fields. From your deck, you might hear the soft bleating of sheep from the pastures. Breakfast included eggs Benedict, homemade jams, juice from the grapes and fresh honey from the owners’ beehives (www.innspirationbandb.com).


The area isn’t flush with the sort of dining choices we enjoy in the Twin Cities, but local eats aren’t hard to find. Lon’s Lounge is the place locals mention first for burgers and beer. It opened last October in Peterson’s quiet downtown. You’ll find owner Lon Frerichs waiting behind the bar as you enter. The Lon burgers were a finalist for the area’s “Best burger” in a contest by a local radio station (225 Main St.; 1-712-295-7006).

If you’re looking for a down-home breakfast, head to Sue’s Diner, right across the street from Lon’s (224 Main St.; 1-712-295-6231).

As many locals will remind you, it’s not a bad idea to call ahead before you make a trip. As Jim Hass at the History Barn explained, in this area, “businesses are open by appointment … and sometimes by chance.”


For more information about visitng the region, go to the website of the Clay County visitors bureau at http://www.explore claycounty.org.

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer based in Lino Lakes.

Lake of the Woods

Respite on the Lake of the Woods

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2012 – 12:52 PM

With 135,000 miles of shoreline and 15,000 islands, Lac des Bois, otherwise known as Lake of the Woods, deserves its legendary reputation for scenery, fishing and relaxation-inducing powers. But if you can only taste a bit of it, the Sioux Narrows in Ontario is satisfyingly sweet.


The Narrows got its name from the rocky, narrow channel that separates the south shore of Long Point Island from the Canadian mainland. A new bridge on Hwy. 71 has replaced a wooden bridge, which locals say was the longest single-span wooden bridge in the world. A fun little village is anchored on either side — voilà! The Sioux Narrows.


One word says it all: fishing. Lake of the Woods is best known for its walleye population, but northern pike, perch, crappie, panfish, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, lake trout and lake sturgeon also swim the waters. When the temperatures turn crisp, then it’s time to home in on the muskellunge, which are starting to bulk up for winter.

One doesn’t have to be a hard-core fisherman to experience these waters; there are lodges that offer boats and fishing guides who can take you to the honey hole of the day. Our guide was not only savvy at fishing, he knew the region’s history and pointed out abundant wildlife — which is another perk of Lake of the Woods.

Spotting local critters is downright easy here, and it’s a good idea to keep your eyes on the shoreline. The area is home to deer, bear, moose, eagles, wolf, lynx and fox, not to mention loons and many species of songbirds and waterfowl.

Kayakers love the shores of Berry Lake, Dryberry Lake, Black Lake, Blindfold Lake and Andy Lake. There are also many smaller rivers to explore. If you require a little more excitement, a tour company such as Green Adventures can help you out. Located right outside of Kenora, it can set you up to go rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding (www.greenadventures.ca).

The Eco History tour offered by Totem Lodge is new this year. It includes a tour of ancient rock paintings and a World War II prisoner of war camp, where Canadians held German POWs. The guides also point out the lake’s diverse ecology, as well as the best wild rice patches and berry-picking spots. Participants, who don’t have to be guests of the lodge, can even add geocaching to the package. (Call 1-800-668-6836 for details.)


The Sioux Narrows area has a healthy selection of accommodations.

We nestled in at Totem Resorts; owners Eric and Sandra Brown also own neighboring lodges Yellowbird and Wiley Point. The cabins at Totem don’t disappoint — they offer the knotty pine, rustic feel but also have such amenities as air conditioning, color TVs and screened-in porches. Our little cabin was charmingly named “Little Joe.” Yellowbird Lodge & Chalet has a more luxurious feel, with a wedding party prepping for their big day on its shores during our visit. Fisherman parties tend to choose Wiley Point, the most secluded of the three (1-800-668-6836; www.totemresorts.com).

If you’d rather float, there are houseboats for rent. One company, Floating Lodges of Sioux Narrows, offers sprawling 60-foot houseboats as well as a cute 40-footer complete with picnic table on the top deck (1-800-743-5171; www. floatinglodges.com)


Locals recommend Big John’s Mineshaft. Not only is the food comforting, the view of the lake is fantastic as the Mineshaft sits right on the water at the Narrows bridge (20 Paradise Point; 1-807-226-5224). You can also find locals at the Dockhouse Sports Bar, the hot spot for wings and pizza (Hwy. 71; 1-807-226-3625).

But the Lake of the Woods experience isn’t complete without an old-fashioned fish fry on shore. Ours was included in the trip we arranged through Totem Lodge. The guide prepared lightly battered fresh fish, seasoned potatoes and canned baked beans, all cooked over an open flame, serving us a meal from a true Up North restaurant.


Visitors can find information at www.lakeofthewoods.com and www.snnf.ca, a site maintained by the Township of Sioux Narrows-Nestor Falls.

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer based in Lino Lakes.

From shepherding to fishing….


After 46 years in the ministry, Fitzgerald retired this summer from the Church of St. Genevieve in Centerville. And while he’s scaling back on the “fishers of men” duties, he’s continuing with his other favorite job — fishing for fish.

, Star Tribune

Retired priest goes from shepherding to fishing

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • August 7, 2012 – 11:02 PM

The Rev. Tom Fitzgerald understands the verse from Matthew’s gospel — “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” — on several levels.

After 46 years in the ministry, Fitzgerald retired this summer from the Church of St. Genevieve in Centerville. And while he’s scaling back on the “fishers of men” duties, he’s continuing with his other favorite job — fishing for fish.

“Fishing can teach us so much,” Fitzgerald said. “You never know if you’re going to get anything. You can’t assume anything. It teaches you that you can’t assume. And it teaches you patience.”

And on days when the fish don’t bite, “you can just be there and fish and enjoy the scenery … and it just feels good to be alive,” he said.

“When you get out there on the lake, it’s just a very peaceful thing.”

Fishing has always been a part of Fitzgerald’s life, dating to no-frills trips with his father as a child.

“My Dad took me fishing at Turtle Lake, and we used to rent a boat for a $1 a day and row,” he said.

“My father was a railroad man, so we could have gone any place on the train, but he wanted to get away from trains on his days off,” Fitzgerald said. “So we went up to Camp Lake by Mille Lacs and we’d fish. That was always our vacation.”

A calling to the church

Fitzgerald, 72, graduated in 1958 from St. Agnes School in St. Paul. He was a counselor at the Catholic Youth Camp (CYC) and attended St. Paul Seminary.

He was ordained in 1966 and served at the Cathedral of St. Paul until 1973, when he was appointed pastor at St. Michael’s in Stillwater. Stillwater was home until 1987, and his next assignment was pastor at St. Rita’s in Cottage Grove.

It was 1999 when Fitzgerald came to Centerville as St. Genevieve’s 23rd pastor. He’s been there ever since.

“I like to set down roots,” he said with a laugh. “It takes a while to get to know all the people. It’s been 13 years at St. Genevieve. I come, I stay, and then I leave.”

Fitzgerald’s love and knowledge of fishing is well known among the St. Genevieve parishioners.

The chef’s secret

He has a reputation for cooking up homemade sunfish dinners after he’s been on the lake. Each year, his sunfish dinner is raffled off at the St. Genevieve’s Parish Picnic silent auction — for big money.

The top bidder gets a sunfish dinner party for eight to 10 guests, prepared, served and blessed by the chef at his lakeside home by the church.

“No secret to it,” he said. “Just grind up saltine crackers, and dip them in there, don’t use egg. It’s a dry batter, but very light. And fry it really hot until brown and crispy. Then you taste the fish, and not the batter!”

Now the retired priest lives in White Bear Township. Fitzgerald said he’s getting used to being able to fish on days besides Thursday, which was always his day off.

“I still help out [at the church], but there’s no responsibility,” he said. “That’s a huge difference. I can preside over the eucharist, but then I can leave. And I do like that every weekend I’m out somewhere new. I get to go to all the other places, and see the different parishes. Every parish is different, and people are people.”

A fish story

Fitzgerald added that anglers are anglers.

They don’t expect to cast nets into the water and pull up fish just because a priest is in the boat. He remembered a day a few years ago when he really wanted the fishing to be good.

A local TV camera crew was tagging along to do a story on the fishing priest.

“It was the worst fishing of my whole life,” he said. “It was just awful. I pulled up one tiny fish, and that was it. But even though I’ve had some really good fishing days, I’ve had bad ones, too. But it’s still fishing.

“If you catch fish, great. If you don’t, well, you don’t. At least then you don’t have to clean them.”

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

© 2011 Star Tribune