Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 4, 2022

Colors, cabbage, cranes and a camp - a nice combination

Each season, we expect certain things - flowers blooming in springtime, wheat ripening in the summer, trees changing to bright red and yellow in the fall, snow covering the landscape in winter.

But when we traveled to husband Art's home state of Wisconsin in mid-October, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. We would be too late to see bright autumn colors and too early for fields of white.

What we found was a world caught between the two. Early mornings greeted us with a frost that quickly vanished when hit by the late- rising sun. Many birch trees still had their bright-yellow leaves which glowed in the sun and contrasted sharply with their white trunks. The now squash-colored tamaracks stood out against nearby dark-green pines and sparkling deep-blue lakes.

Other things were similar to mid-November scenes this Kansas girl has seen all her life, and they brought me a sense of order and a feeling that "all is right with the world."

But some were unexpected and brought me a different kind of joy. One of these was watching a cabbage harvest. Over the years, we occasionally have corralled stray heads that fell from overloaded trucks. But I had never seen a tractor-drawn picker skim the ground row by row and whisk the freshly cut heads into the bin traveling beside it. When full, the cool-weather vegetable was dumped into a waiting truck. The heads, so dense and heavy with water, require vehicles that look better-suited to quarry work than farming.

Last year, Wisconsin's 183 million pounds of cabbage was worth $19.2 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That made it the nation's number-four producer - behind California, New York, and Florida and ahead of Texas. Together, those five states grow about 80 percent of the country's supply.

The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center says 45 percent of the crop becomes coleslaw, 35 percent is sold as individual heads, and 12 percent is turned into sauerkraut. My favorites are Art's pork-and-sauerkraut and pigs-in-a-blanket.

After taking some harvest pictures, we headed on our way, only to discover a stray head next to the road. Art said, "Pigs?" I was quick to concur.

He steams cabbage leaves to soften them and then wraps those around meatballs made with ground beef, chopped onions, instant rice, eggs, salt and pepper. He places additional loose leaves in the bottom of a steamer, adds the wrapped meatballs, tops them with additional leaves, and then steams the lot until the meatballs are done. The savory, hearty dish certainly hits the spot on a cool late-autumn day.

Another surprise was coming upon 25 or 30 sandhill cranes in a harvested cornfield. Art frequently sees them while trout fishing, but I have rarely been very close. I've always wanted to see their annual spring migration through central Nebraska's Platte River Valley, but the timing was never right.

So to come upon such a large group feeding, flying back-and-forth across the field and calling to one another was a special treat. "Clacking" is the descriptor I used for the sound they made. Others have said they rattle. Apparently they have a range of calls, but I have only heard this one.

Once hunted almost to extinction for their pork-flavored meat, there are now around half a million of the 12-pound birds ranging from Siberia to the central United States. The International Crane Foundation, headquartered in Baraboo, Wisconsin, works to protect cranes and the places they need to survive. Together with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, it will sponsor the first Great Midwest Crane Fest next weekend. Thousands of sandhill cranes are expected to gather near the Wisconsin River before flying farther south for the winter.

These three-foot-tall, gray-bodied, red-capped birds gave us quite a show for a short time. They'd eat the remnants of what remained in the corn field and then a few would take to the air, only to swoop down a few feet away. Their nearly six-feet wingspan was impressive. I was thrilled to see this "convention" - the word for a group of cranes - in the cornfield.

While the cabbage and cranes were an unexpected bonus of our cross-seasonal trip, another "C" adventure had been planned. We met with Nancy and Owen Carson, who have a place a few miles east of our Three Lakes retreat. Nancy's grandparents, Leslie and Viola Lyon, operated Minne-Wonka Lodge, a girls' camp, from the 1920s through the 1960s in the nearby pine forest by Little Fork Lake. We became interested when the former graduate school dean at Kansas State University told us of his summers there while his parents worked at the camp. While we've done research, connecting with the Carsons - facilitated by Art's cousin Claudia, who was their neighbor for many years - will be crucial to adding details.

Nancy shared some of her experiences as a young girl at Minne Wonka and showed us her camper's sweater with various "patches" indicating skills she acquired, such as handling a canoe, swimming, horseback riding, camp-fire cooking, and others. She has the kettle her group won in a contest to see who could boil water the fastest. She said it wasn't as easy as it sounds, as they first had to fetch the water from the lake, locate and configure sticks to hold the kettle over the fire, and light the fire.

She also showed us a box of large-format photos and small brochures used to promote the camp and assure parents that their daughters would be safe, learn new outdoor skills, and make life-long friends.

Nancy's recollections and mementos, when complemented by additional research, will help us create a comprehensive history of the camp we can share with local and state historical societies.

So our late-autumn trip to the Northwoods proved to be a nice combination of the expected and the unexpected. In other words, it was pretty much what every travel adventure should be.

Left: sandhill cranes feed on the remnants of harvested corn (below) while others fly to a new location in the field; top-center-left: the cabbage harvesting machine is at the far left. It places the heads in the scoop at the top right, here shown being emptied into a truck for transport to the processing plant; bottom-center-left: holding the cabbage we "harvested" from the roadside; bottom-center-right: I'm ready to feast on some of the "pigs" made from our roadside cabbage; top-center-right: Nancy holds her camp sweater; top-right: Some of the badges on the sweater. Those for canoing and horsemanship are readily identified; bottom-right: despite fall colors being past their peak, settings such as this one on a wooded stream are still beautiful.

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