Posted in Star Tribune

Tapping into Spring

Tapping into spring at Wargo Nature Center

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 13, 2012 – 4:20 PM

Wargo Nature Center will celebrate one of the rites of the season with a maple syrup-making event.


Photo: Yannick Grandmont, Associated Press – Nyt

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It’s a sweet sign of spring.

The sap is running, and the Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes is ready to tap into it during Sunday’s Maple Syrup Madness festival.

“It started 13 years ago, actually as a maple full moon event,” said Deb Gallop, program supervisor at Wargo. “In 2004 we switched it to a day festival, and it’s been a wonderful family event.”

The event attracts an average of 100 participants, and it happens rain or shine.

But the conditions have to be perfect for maple syrup making.

“It has to be above 40 [degrees] during the day, and under 30 at night,” said Jennifer Fink, marketing and visitor services manager at Anoka County Parks and Recreation. “That’s what causes the sap to run. Some years are better than others, but it’s always fun to teach folks about it.”

All stages of the maple syrup process will be shown and demonstrated by the Nature Center’s naturalists. The history of maple syrup making will be covered, dating to the 19th century.

The actual process itself hasn’t changed much over the years. In the spirit of the old tradition, the sap will be collected from the maple trees, then cooked down over an open fire. But there also is an evaporator for use on-site, so participants can take in the modern-day maple syrup processes as well.

The Nature Center event incorporates many other activities along with the maple syrup making. Visitors can participate in a hike where they see tapped trees, learn about the process of making sap into syrup, as well as craft making.

“It’s a lot of families, from parents with young kids all the way up to empty nesters,” said Fink. “It really varies, and it’s a free-flowing event where people get to choose what they want to listen to, what interests them.”

Everyone’s favorite, especially the kids’, seems to be the taste-testing, Fink said.

All sorts of maple syrup treats are available, from maple syrup baked beans to log cabin sundaes, which are topped with maple syrup made at the center.

The syrup tasting is an education in itself, Fink said, with many people not believing the difference when they taste the product for the first time.

Fink and Gallop said it’s a treat to see the kids stick a finger under the spout and taste the sap.

“What they think is maple syrup from the store, and what true maple syrup is that gets made right in front of their eyes. … There’s definitely different grades of maple syrup,” said Fink. “Most of the stuff in the store is flavored with additives, to make it taste like maple. The actual stuff you’ll taste at our event is lighter in color, and it’s a much softer taste. … It’s just more subtle.”

Posted in Prime Magazine

Empty Nest? Prime Magazine

My son had training wheels on his bike for a long time. Longer than most, I would say. The reasons vary—perhaps I was too soft, and would keep my hand on the back of his bike too often. I’m a single Mother, and on occasion I carry the “mother Hen” role a bit far. Or that he just seemed to be perfectly happy with them on, so I left them on, long after the neighborhood boys took theirs off. He would adamantly deny that he was ready to take them off, even when I raised them up so they weren’t really even touching the pavement. When I tried to take them off, he insisted that I hold onto the back of the bike. He didn’t think he could ride it without my hand holding it up.
But on Mother’s Day in 2008, that all changed. It’s a very specific memory, since something in my heart “dinged.” A ding that meant I’d be feeling this again, but in a different circumstance. We were heading out on a bike ride, myself, my son Hayden, and my long-time partner Cy. Cy announced to Hayden that he would be riding his bike without the training wheels; he proclaimed this as he was taking them off his little bike. I still remember Hayden looking at me with complete fear and uncertainty in his eyes. “You hold onto me, Mommy?” he pleaded. I figured perhaps it was time for me to release my grip. But I really didn’t want to. “You can do it,” I reassured, and climbed onto my bike next to him.
My baby climbed onto his bike, and stared down the driveway. I expected a wipe-out, or at least a stagger getting started and trying to turn out of the driveway, so I braced myself. Without looking back at me, he started pumping his pedals and away he rolled…successfully. Down the driveway, then he turned and continued down the road. It was there he stopped and put his foot down, looked back and exclaimed to
me, “Did you see me! I did it all by myself!” And away he went down the road, not waiting for his mother to catch up. As I watched him go, I couldn’t help but get a glimpse of things ten plus years down the road. My little Hayden was well on his way to growing up, and when he leaves for college and leaves me with my empty nest, he probably won’t look back then either. And deep down, I don’t want him to. But it makes the heart sting just the same. I knew I would have to accept that Hayden would someday ride off into his own future. Then what? How would I handle that? With grace and composure? Not sure.
Other friends of mine, most of them baby boomers, are dealing with this issue currently, the dreaded “empty nest.” I notice that some have euphoria, like a newfound freedom. And some seem completely lost and are downright lonesome. And of course, I gleaned the most from my parental birds, who
According to research by Del Webb, 26 percent of baby boomers say they felt like newlyweds when their kids were gone.
seemed to soar after me and my siblings left the nest back in the 1980s. According to research by Del Webb, 26 percent of baby boomers say they felt like newlyweds when their kids were gone. 58 percent said they are or were ready for the kids to head out of the nest. The older the boomers become, the more ready they are to clear the nest. After researching both

books and friends, I’ve come up with a few gems that I’m going to keep in mind when my time comes.
First, and the most important in my book, is to keep the magic of “Challenge” in your life. Keep doing your routine in your nest as nothing happened will reveal parenting holes. What the heck else would you like to do? Learn Yoga? Learn how to make sushi? Get a tattoo? There are a lot of opportunities out there, and you only have to hop out of the nest to find them. I was confused when my 70-something mother decided to take up kayaking just last summer. “You have a bad back!” I blurted out. “Gotta have a challenge, honey,” was her answer.
Second, keep things interesting, especially yourself. I’m amazed at my mother and father who are always trying new things, including kayaking and fly fishing. Whether it’s a hip new TV show, the latest news, or a weird fashion fad, they keep up on it. While they have lifelong friends, they also keep “younger” friends. She and my father are interesting to talk to, and everyone likes their company, no matter the age. They don’t hole themselves up in the house I grew up in. Far from it. Seems like I can never catch them at the nest…they’re always on the road looking for a new adventure. And keeping it interesting.
Third, don’t let the technology at your fingertips allow you to “hover”over your birds once they’re out of the nest. There are many options today for staying in touch with our kids—texting, email, chat, Skype or just calling them on their
cell phones. I have one baby boomer friend who seems to keep constant dibs on her daughter while she’s in college. I think it’s her full-time job. While we’ll always worry about our kids, it will send the wrong message if we seem to be nagging them all the time…via technology. Use it here and there, as it used to be “in the old days.” Being a hovering parent isn’t good in the nest, or out of it.
And lastly, just like when your children were small, remem

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ber the little things. It’s those tiny moments that keep us going. It doesn’t have to be, “Now let’s sell the house, shave our heads bald and join the circus!” Take a look back and see what really mattered once. Look good enough and you’ll see it. What adventures do you want to have? They can be little adventures, not huge ones. Were you once an inspiring writer before family life got too busy? What were you passionate about at one time? Perhaps that flame never extinguished…it’s still there waiting for you. A small, tiny gem, but a gem just the same.
It will be interesting to see if I will handle myself grace- fully with my own empty nest. I hope to. Until then, I continue to watch my growing son head out on his bike, spending more and more time with his friends. His training wheels still hang in my garage, but he doesn’t need them anymore. On occasion he’ll wave to me as I watch from the door, but mostly he rides away full throttle without a single look back.

Posted in Minnesota Parent

Real Life: MN. Parent Magazine

Real Life :: Tony Carr

Tony Carr knows all about bridging the tough issues. Just one look at the Stillwater native’s collection of memorabilia and it’s easy to see why. It’s a part of history that’s tough to view for both kids and adults—and even tougher to talk about.

Carr, a former professional basketball player, and currently a professional diversity speaker, began collecting black memorabilia about 20 years ago. Every piece of Carr’s collection has a story, and he knows every word of it.

What was your first piece of memorabilia?

My first piece was an Aunt Jemima salt and pepper shaker [set]. I bought it down in northern Illinois for [about] 50 cents. After that, I started paying attention and researching memorabilia. I’d see an ashtray and wonder where it came from. That got the juices flowing. It’s history, but there’s no finger pointing. It’s not about that. It’s about everyone’s struggle.

Has having kids changed how you collect and display?

Once my daughters began arriving, I changed my collection a bit. I rotate my artifacts in accordance to my daughters, and what I think is appropriate to display based on their ages.

Without a doubt, the piece that children (and most adults) notice first is the Klansman statue. It’s an eerie thing…period. My parents could not even look at it. They had personal experience. I had to put it away when they were visiting.

How has your collection affected your children in a positive way?

One thing I’ve found, each time [my daughters] become more aware of my memorabilia pieces, it’s a history lesson. When it was Martin Luther King Day, they would see videos at school and see the KKK…they would come back to me and say, ‘I saw that (he gestures toward the Klan statue) in a video!’ This gives them an opportunity to talk about it.

I try to give my daughters positive role models to gravitate toward. All my girls love the Muhammad Ali doll from the ’70s, for example. They saw him on a video and it gave me an opportunity to tell them what he stood for, and how active he was in the civil rights movement.

What is it that you hope this collection conveys to your girls?

Two things: the first is to understand their ancestors, and how their blood, sweat, and tears gave them the privileges they have today. And number two, I tell them no matter what kind of day you have at school, it’s never going to be as bad as it was back in those days. It’s definitely a privilege to have that opportunity.

I would like to take all of my daughters to Mississippi. I’m waiting until my youngest is around seven or eight. I’d like them to touch the dirt. It’s a weird feeling to sit on your roots, to feel it—it does overtake you. It’s instinctual, and it’s home. I want to see if they feel the same thing. They’re just about ready.

Posted in Star Tribune

Back-yard skating traditions

Back-yard skating tradition continues in Lino Lakes

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2012 – 11:15 PM

Kids of all ages are flocking to back-yard skating rinks in Lino Lakes, thanks to the recent cold snap.


Bob Sproull’s backyard rink has drawn lots of kids, including, from left, Colin Pechman, Tyler Steed, Ben Sproull, Joey Summers and Will Steed.

Last week’s arctic blast gave an assist to one of those staples of Minnesota winters — the back-yard hockey rink — but even amid the mostly mild weather the tradition endured, as three hockey dads in the Centennial School District can attest.

This is Ben Peterson’s third year in the back-yard rink game. The Lino Lakes resident has two sons, ages 13 and 11, both hockey players. They went to skate on a buddy’s rink in Elk River a few years ago, and the idea took over. “I really wanted one,” Peterson said.

The first year didn’t come without problems. The ground wasn’t level, “so I ended up asking a neighbor who was a farmer, and we put it up in the old pasture behind his house.”

This year, the rink dimensions are 50 by 100 feet. The farmer helped level the ground with his Bobcat, and Peterson and some neighbors built the frame from old boards.

The rink attracts kids of all ages around the neighborhood. “The older guys slow the game down a little bit so that they can play with the younger guys. They all know the rules of the rink, and show respect,” Peterson said. “If they don’t, they aren’t going to be invited back.”

Rick Mathies lives nearby, and his 10-year-old son often can be found on Peterson’s rink — when he’s not on his own.

In Mathies’ case, Mother Nature gave a hand: When the family moved to the neighborhood in 2007, their property came complete with a small pond. Right away, Mathies went out and shoveled off the snow.

“People started coming out of the woodwork,” he said with a laugh. “Everybody showed up. Since it’s a pond, it does crack, and it’s exposed to the elements a lot, so I started running a hose off the water heater and flooding it once a week. It gives the kids a good skating surface. I added built-in nets, also.”

Mathies also says the neighborhood kids are respectful of the pond rink rules. “All the kids play on teams, and there’s always somebody out there,” he said. “All the neighbors got together and bought sets of 1,200-watt lights. … we have nine sets of lights up. I sometimes think a plane might land there!”

Both dads agree that the rinks have brought the neighborhood together. “We’ll keep this going,” said Peterson, “We’re making memories for the kids that they can remember for the rest of their life.”

Bob Sproull, another Lino Lakes dad with a 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, also is making memories. After tinkering with a 20-by-40 rink last year, he bought a kit last fall and put up a 30-by-62 sheet.

Sproull said the neighborhood kids have found his rink as well. “Everyone has liked it, it’s much smoother than some of the other rinks,” he said, “My rink holds 14,000 gallons of water right now.”

He has added some little touches, including LED lights mounted to trees, and has extra skates and dozens of extra pucks for the kids. He even has rigged up his own “PVC Pipe Zamboni” which hooks to his hose in the garage and helps smooth the ice.

So did the mild early winter cause any problems? “This year, it’s actually been really nice,” Peterson said before the deep freeze. “We got our rink set up and filled with water before that first cold snap, and it froze all the water in the rink…. Some days, the kids were out skating in their T-shirts, it’s been that warm.”

Mathies concurred that it hasn’t been “that bad” this winter. “I actually would like a little snow,” he said, “it’s so brown. Last year was a major task, there were three of us dads out there with our snowblowers getting the snow off the pond ice.”

Sproull said the warm weather has pros and cons. Pucks are easier to find without all the snow on the ground. However, all the leaves and seeds blow onto the ice on a windy day. He said he had to get on his knees and dig them out with a screwdriver.

“You definitely spend a lot more time preparing it and serving it than you actually use it,” said Sproull. “However maybe next year I’ll sell sponsorships!”

Kelly Jo McConnell is a freelance writer from Lino Lakes.

Posted in Star Tribune

Inside Track to the great outdoors

Inside track to the great outdoors in Lino Lakes

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2011 – 2:29 PM

A prominent naturalist will speak to parents of home schoolers to help infuse kids with a love of the outdoors.


Naturalist Maria Pierz guided a group of children as they explored the Wargo Nature Center together.

Sil Pembleton has a passion for the outdoors and works to share it with kids and parents, and that’s what she’ll be doing next week at Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes.

Pembleton, a naturalist who has written several wildlife books for children, among other endeavors, will be a guest speaker for the Home School Program presented by Anoka County’s Parks and Recreation Department. The program offers monthly environmental, recreational and natural history sessions for home school students and their families.

Pembleton “is a conservationist with a real connection,” said Jennifer Fink of the Parks and Rec Department. “She gets kids connected to the outdoors. … They are the people who are going to help us preserve and take care of the environment. We have to build it when they’re young.”

Pembleton’s Dec. 15 presentation will be aimed at parents. “The kids will be off doing some education classes at that time,” Fink said. “She’s working with the parents and offering them tips and ideas for how to get their kids engaged in the outdoors.”

Pembleton said that, while introducing kids to the outdoors is key, so is reaching their parents. “My program offers simple and fun things that parents can do who don’t feel extremely comfortable in the out of doors,” she said. “Parents and teachers are so influential in a child’s life, so if I can get them going … I’m happy.”

She said outdoor lessons build life experiences and can help children as students.

“They have a better understanding of science in school in the early years,” she said. “When you have the chance to play in the stream, or dig in the dirt, or watch the clouds, or build with blocks, it gives you this feeling of how things work.”

Pembleton and her husband, Ed, have always been passionate about nature, and they’ve pursued that passion for more than 30 years as educators, naturalists and conservationists.

During her career, Sil Pembleton worked at the Smithsonian Institution and was director of environmental studies at Hard Bargain Farm in Washington, D.C., an outdoor educational facility on the Potomac River. One of her favorite “disconnect” stories comes from her time there.

She was demonstrating how to milk a cow, and a young girl asked: “But where does the meat come out?”

“This was right in our nation’s capital,” Pembleton said with a laugh. “I had daily reminders of how disconnected the kids were. They had no idea that their food, their automobiles, their computers in the schools, come from the Earth. It’s all Earth material. We’ve just changed it so much it’s hard to recognize.”

Pembleton’s program includes giving parents a weather guide calendar that explains day-by-day what is going on in nature. She said it gives parents a “heads up” on what kinds of things they and their children can look for while outdoors.

“For example, in the calendar there’s a chart to help you figure out how fast the wind is blowing. You can start with bubbles! … It’s fun, but learning at the same time.”

Pembleton said she gets all sorts of parents at her programs. She notices that particularly young parents aren’t quite sure where to start.

“Every child needs to keep that sense of wonder,” she said, “and needs the companionship of one adult who can share it and rediscover the joy and the excitement of the world we live in. I want to help the parents feel adequate about sharing the simple, fun activities that they can do. … And the kids take it from there.”