My paternal grandmother, Ann, was more comfortable in the woods than anywhere. Nearly every photo I have of her shows her walking on a dirt road in the woods of northern Minnesota, most likely wearing a plaid jacket she picked up at Bemidji Woolen Mills. “Wild Wings,” the log cabin they built high above Leech Lake in the 1950s, was their summer home for decades. It was there that she perfected her observation skills and education about the forest.
Several years ago, I became the family archivist of her numerous wilderness books. They range from a full set of pocket-sized Golden Press nature guides to birds, wildflowers, trees, and rocks to signed hardcover first-editions. She had a full set of the legendary wilderness books by Florence Page and Francis Lee Jaques published in the 1930s by University of Minnesota Press. The beautifully illustrated “Canoe Country,” “Snowshoe Country” and “The Geese Fly High” are prominently displayed face-out on my living room bookshelves for the appropriate season. Sigurd Olson and Calvin Rustrum and other notable nature writers round out the collection.
Truth be told, I haven’t actually read most of these books, but I’ve looked through them all and enjoyed the various pieces of ephemera she tucked inside the pages. Newspaper clippings, birthday cards, hand-written poems, editorial comments penciled in the margins, pressed flowers and leaves — she clearly used these books. Even though I’ve lived in big cities like Chicago, San Francisco and Minneapolis nearly all my life, I do have an affinity for the woods. I definitely inherited some of her genes.
My favorite urban wilderness escape is Wood Lake in Richfield. Tucked behind some high-rise buildings on 66th Street and between the busy Lyndale Avenue and busier 35W, this 150-acre natural area was set aside by the city of Richfield in 1971. Three miles of trails circle the perimeter of the lake in a forested area filled with giant cottonwood trees. But the best part is in the middle: Wood Lake. Actually, the best part is what goes over the lake: a boardwalk. A new boardwalk, in fact, that was just installed this spring after being closed for more than a year due to damage and wear. The wood planks float atop the lake. It’s buoyant and bounces under your feet. Walking across it is truly a meditative experience. Minimal railings don’t interfere with the views. Other than one building poking up over the trees on the south end, it’s a pocket of unencumbered wilderness. I’ve seen geese, muskrats, turtles, fish and even a deer in this park.
Wood Lake’s boardwalk is just a quick 20-minute loop. By connecting our senses to the natural world, our busy and stressed lives can become calm and relaxed. It doesn’t take long to be effective. And this summer is the perfect time to immerse ourselves in the calm of nature — whether you venture far or stay in the city. I’m actually not a canoeist, but I understand the peace and tranquility that comes with floating on water. I just do it on boardwalks. Gently balancing on sparkling blue water and meandering through towering trees, I can feel my grandmother’s approval of her city-dwelling granddaughter.