River Bend Nature Center: A Historic Circle for all Seasons
By Alyson Levig
All nature is historic, constantly adapting and changing for the needs of people and wildlife alike. The 743 acres of River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, Minnesota, are no different, as the land has been altered time and time again since humans discovered it.
Research has shown that the Wahpekutey band of the Dakota lived on the banks of the straight River in today’s Faribault area. At what’s now called River Bend Nature Center, they found a varied landscape, suitable for human settlement. Here, the combination of prairie, forest, and the access to water made for ideal hunting and fishing grounds. Along Rustand Road, researchers have discovered evidence of the Wahpekutey’s everyday life and their early fur trading activity.
As European settlement caused the Dakota to move, the land of River Bend Nature Center soon sold to become farmland and the Faribault Regional Center, a vocational school for the developmentally disabled, was established. This farm included dairy, crops, hogs, and gardens, which caused the land to change. Evidence of these activities, including a fire hydrant, sidewalk remnants, tin cans, quarries, and a dairy barn can be found on the Arbor Loop and Walnut trails, Rustad Road, Dairy Lane, and the Southwest part of the trailside building.
In 1969, the operation of the farm became less economical and in 1975 the local Faribault Naturalist Club suggested using the abandoned land as a nature center. It took two and a half years for a bill to pass in the favor of a nature center. This allowed it to be converted back into a version of its original state for the public’s benefit and in the fall of 1978 members began staking out trails. A year later, the club decided on the name River Bend Nature Center, and in 1980, celebrated the grand opening.
Today, the non-profit provides environmental training to children as well as outdoor educational activities that invite people of all ages to learn about nature and history. Their mission is to “Help people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us all.”
My friend Celsey and I decided to meet up and visit River Bend Nature Center in November. Faribault was the same distance away for each of us and the nature center is in the heart of town. We were hoping to go skiing or snowshoeing, but the warm weather and lack of snow cover had left the trails in rough condition. We decided to go for a walk, instead.
River Bend Nature Center does a great job, teaching visitors about its history and mission as well as the creatures within its boundaries. After studying the interpretive signs along our hike we knew they take great pride in making individuals understand the connection between outdoor recreation and preservation.In the warm months, hiking, running, and geocaching are the main attractions (bikes on marked trails only), inviting both children and adults alike to outdoor adventures while learning the history of the area and nature around them. Throughout winter, River Bend Nature Center offers snowshoe rentals as well as miles of cross-country ski trails, highlighting all of the major overlooks. Snowmobiles are allowed, but only on Dairy Lane, Rabbit, and Teepee Tonka trails.
Not all the trails are flat and easy, either. Hills and valleys surrounding the Straight River create challenging hikes filled with rocks and roots toward scenic overlooks while wetland valleys make muddy patches along the numerous trails. In the winter, this means some icy spots but this shouldn’t stop you from seeing the beauty the winter season has to offer.
The barren maple and basswood forest allows visitors a better chance to view the year-round birds including blue jays, cardinals, and woodpeckers. The snow-covered prairies become a blank canvas for animal footprints that tell a story of life, and sometimes death. How various creatures survive and thrive in the bitter cold, with all odds against them, has always given me a sense of awe in creation itself. And, in the wetlands, muskrats build their dams like hills on the frozen water.
River Bend Nature Center reminds its visitors of the land’s history. With the help of interpretive signs, pieces of history from Native American settlements to foundation remnants or early farming operations, can be seen on almost every trail. Finally, the peaceful quiet of the forest, the cool, crisp wind within the prairie, and the calming ripples of the flowing river water are enchanting as well as inviting. Celsey and I will definitely return.
My favorite trail – the Arbor loop – is the one I’d recommend. It’s a short but challenging hike through a mixed landscape of prairie and forest with a scenic overlook of Faribault. Here, you can witness the competition between nature and development, a rivalry that’s as old as the arrival of the first settlers in Minnesota.
River Bend Nature Center is a wonderful, protected area that reminded me of how all of nature is historic and that new history is being made every day, either by people or wildlife.
Source: River Bend Nature Center website