Waste Not, Want Not!


Reduce, reuse, recycle. We have all heard those words, and we know what they mean, but are they really important? YES!

Every household, every business, every school…everyone creates waste. In this day and age, it is really hard to avoid that. However, there are things we can do to minimize our waste and dispose of it responsibly. I’ll even let you in on a little secret, however first I need to explain where our waste is currently going.  

 Here at River Bend Nature Center, we have a winter educational program that brings us into the elementary schools throughout Rice County. We discuss the importance of managing our waste and practicing the “3R’s” both in school and at home.  This program serves as a good reminder, not only to the students, but to us Environmental Educators as well.  It’s easy to forget how big of an impact we can make. Rice County is not the only county with a landfill, nor is it the only county that produces waste. This information is important to all of us, no matter where we live.  

whats in the landfill

The average landfill has many unnecessary materials. How many of these need to be in the landfill?


The landfill that serves the entire Rice County is located in Dundas, at the Solid Waste Facility.  All of the garbage we put at the edge of our cub, or into our dumpsters, ends up at the Rice County landfill.  Our landfill is a way to safely dispose of our waste, and when landfills follow regulations, the environmental impact is minimized. However, it is definitely not the perfect solution. We are still disrupting habitats of animals, and using valuable land for our garbage. So what is the ideal solution?


Recycling is the easiest of the 3R’s, especially in Minnesota. Rather than putting waste in the garbage can, we put our recyclable waste into a recycling bin, and someone else does all of the work.  Our recycling is single sort, which means all we have to do is put it in one bin, similar to our garbage cans. A truck will come and pick up those recyclables, and the facility they are taken to will sort them into the different categories: Plastics, Metal, Glass, and Paper. At the recycling center each of those materials are shredded, melted or broken apart. Then they are sold off to companies that make new items from the broken down materials. The profits from selling the materials helps to cover costs of the recycling center.  Are you questioning if something is recyclable? Check the bottom, and specifically look for a recycling triangle; recycling triangles with any number (1-7) are recyclable, as well as anything made of metal, glass, paper, paperboard, and cardboard. If you still have questions, visit the Rice County recycling page: http://www.co.rice.mn.us/node/2218


Make sure you know what materials are recyclable!


The numbers in each triangle explain what kind of plastic it is made up of. In rice county, all plastics are recyclable.

Reusing is the second easiest of the 3R’s.  Reusing involves a little bit of creativity. Rather than sending waste to the landfill, you can create something new from it. In the classrooms we visit, we take toilet paper tubes and make bird feeders. We spread vegetable shortening on the tube, roll it in bird seed, stick a popsicle stick through the base, tie a string on it, and call it a bird feeder. This is a very quick and simple reuse project. The list of possibilities goes on and on and on.  bird feeder.png

Reusing is the second easiest of the 3R’s.  Reusing involves a little bit of creativity. Rather than sending waste to the landfill, you can create something new from it. In the classrooms we visit, we take toilet paper tubes and make bird feeders. We spread vegetable shortening on the tube, roll it in bird seed, stick a popsicle stick through the base, tie a string on it, and call it a bird feeder. This is a very quick and simple reuse project. The list of possibilities goes on and on and on.

Reducing is the most difficult of the 3R’s. It takes thought, time, and planning ahead. This is also the hardest to conceptualize because it is not tangible; it is a thought process.  The main idea with reducing is just that: to reduce, or to lessen, your waste. For example, when you go to a fast food restaurant and order a meal for a child, you get a plastic toy. I remember being so excited when I got those toys because it was new and shiney. But the excitement never lasted, and when I was finished with a toy, or even more often they broke, where did they end up? The landfill. My father often encouraged me to not take those toys, even though they were awesome, because they were just food for the landfill. Another way to think about reducing waste is thinking about a picnic. Packing paper plates, plastic utensils, and paper napkins is very convenient because there are no dishes involved; we can just throw them away and forget about them. But where do they end up? The landfill.  Rather than using those disposable materials, we can use cloth napkins, metal utensils, and plates that we can wash and put back in the cupboard. In that case the only waste we create is food waste which leads us to…

Composting is the bonus word for waste education. 14% of what goes into the landfill is food scraps, which can all decompose and be returned to the soil as nutrients.  However, in the landfill, engineers have discovered that decomposition creates excess gas (methane) which can create explosions and cause serious problems to the landfill.  Because landfills are packed so tightly, there is no air or space for decomposers to break the food down. Compost is broken down by worms living in the soil; they slowly eat things we throw into compost bins, and then they defecate the nutrients, returning them to the soil to be absorbed by plant life.  Rather than throwing food into the garbage and sending it to the landfill, we can put it in our compost bins, and then use that soil in our gardens to help our plants flourish.

Finally, my secret for you: the landfill in Rice County, the landfill that all of our garbage goes to, is going to reach full capacity in 20 years.  In 20 years, we are not going to have any place for our garbage to go. Up until this past year, it was estimated to last about 5 more years. Luckily, the engineers have come up with a solution to extend the life of the landfill, but I am sure we all still plan on having waste in 20 years. And at that point where will we put our garbage? Just about all of our land is currently being used for homes, schools, parks, and farms.  

Here is my challenge for us all: let’s start thinking about what to do with our waste now. Why wait until we have no more room for garbage to create a solution? Let’s focus on what we are doing with our waste now, so we can extend the life of our landfills even longer. This earth is our home, and we need to take care of it.  


For more information:

Rice county solid waste facility:  http://www.co.rice.mn.us/node/920

Rice county recycling: http://www.co.rice.mn.us/node/2218


Come Check Out the New Mural at River Bend Nature Center!


Hello everyone! As some of you may know I have been working on designing and painting the prairie mural of River Bend Nature Center’s north wall. The wall is coming along great and we are nearing the end of this project. However, before I go any further I would just like to say a big thank you to everyone who donated paint and helped make this project possible; as well as Anne Foxen, Johanna Beam, Erika Tipp, and Liz Brown for all you help over the last two Sundays with painting the foreground, detail, plants, and animals you all are amazing artists so thank you for helping make the ideas and designs come to life! Below I have included more information of what has been going into making this prairie wall come to life; as well as some sneak preview pictures of the wall. If you haven’t had the chance to come to River Bend Nature Center yet and see the wall I highly recommend it!

Designing the Prairie Mural

When it came to designing the Prairie Mural there were a lot of things I had to take into account. We already had the river mural on the west wall and a small prairie wood edge mural in the Kid’s Corner to the east of the wall so it made the most sense to incorporate these both into the prairie mural so it could flow almost seamlessly from one mural to the next. Additionally we have a beautiful large painting by Dan Milbert on this wall called “Pre-Settlement Spring” – Sandhill cranes, so I did not want to design a scene or landscape that clashed with this painting. Lastly we also have many mounted animals on the wall that we wanted to keep out on display so I also had to incorporate these into the wall, sounds easy enough right?


So how I designed the concept sketch and eventually the wall was taking the river from the river wall and having it flow on the wall from the west across the north wall to connect with the river on Milbert’s painting. I then extended the landscape of the forested hills in the back of Milbert’s painting on to the wall and connected it with the landscape in the background on the river wall. After this it got easy. By relying on my knowledge of prairie ecosystems I had a natural change in the landscape between oak savannah, mesic prairie, and wet prairie. I sketched forest along the river and transitioned it to oak savannah as the river bluff got steeper and blending into the rolling hills of the mesic prairie and into the depressions of the wet prairie. Lastly when it came to designing the overall concept of the wall other River Bend Staff and I moved some of the taxidermy around the wall to spots that made more sense for the habitat that species lived in.


The process of moving the bison head to paint

Then came the fun part compiling lists of the plants and animals I have seen here at River Bend Nature Center or other restored prairies in Minnesota as well as what you would historically find in oak savannah, mesic prairie, and wet prairie. I then divided the mural up into sections and started dividing the different animals and plants into these sections on the wall that made the most sense to see them. This also made it easier to keep track of what volunteers were working where on the mural.


One of many concept sketches


Painting the Landscape

After the overall design was approved I did a rough sketch on to the wall for where things went and then the painting began! I and Jason, River Bend’s Land & Facility Assistant, then primed and painted the wall the base sky blue. From there it was the process of mixing colors and giving color, shape, and shadow to the landscape; and depth to the sky with increasingly darker blues and clouds. Once the rolling prairie was achieved I moved on to the more complicated section of the mural adding the tree covered bluffs and the trees to the oak savannah as well as the river flowing behind them. The landscape has turned out great and I will continue to add touch ups and details here and there but it is the next step that I am really excited for that will really make the painting coming to life!




Adding the Plants and Animals

So now for the last two weeks Anne, Johanna, Erika, Liz, and I have been working on painting the foreground and adding the detailed plants and animals to the mural. My big project that is pretty much done now was painting a body for our bison head mount which if I do say so myself has turned out very realistic! Depending on where you stand looking at the wall it looks like the bison really is coming right out of the wall which is pretty incredible.


Elsa finishing up painting the Bison body

Erika, Annie, and Liz worked on adding the detailed grass in the mesic prairie under the bison. Additionally Erika and Liz did all the detailed flowers and plants under the bison, Erika also did a tiger swallowtail butterfly, and Anne painted the rocks and the thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Johanna took on the challenge of standing on a ladder painting a turkey vulture flying over the oak savanna which has turned out beautiful and so realistic!

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Lastly I did the foreground painting of the wetland and today and tomorrow I will be adding some wetland plants to it. The project is almost done with only some more detailed animals and plants that need to be added and each day we work on the mural it becomes more realistic and beautiful! So I hope you come to River Bend Nature Center to check it out as we finish it or when it is done!


A Day at the River Bend Sugar Bush – part II

We last left off with sliding down snowy and icy paths to collect buckets of maple sap. It’s been a few weeks now, and the River Bend sugar bush is working at full steam. With a total of about fifty trees tapped, we are continuing to collect sap every day with the help of staff and volunteers. On March 6th we collected a record amount of sap for the season—145 gallons! (This was produced by the trees in less than twenty-four hours)

Photo Credit: Stephanie Rathsack
In a record total for this year’s sap season, we collected 145 gallons of sap in less than twenty-four hours.

With that much sap alone we’d be able to produce about three and a half gallons of maple syrup. Our recent collection runs have been less icy, but far more muddy, making the treks through the sugar bush tricky at worst, and extremely messy at best.  But shoes full of muck is a fair price to pay for the increased sap production that occurs with days in the 40s and 50s.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Rathsack
With warm weather, sap bags (which hold about 2 gallons) can fill up quick!

And though increasingly warmer temperatures hark the end of the sap season, we expect to continue being able to collect through the end of the week, and into the following week as well. Meanwhile, the maple sap that has been collected up to this point is getting boiled down to begin the transformation from sap to syrup. This process requires high heat over a long period of time, for which we use a maple sap evaporator, which looks a bit like a giant wood burning stove. The sap is fed into the tank via gravity, and heat from the fire evaporates the water out, slowly decreasing the liquid in the sap and increasing the concentration of sugar.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Rathsack
We let gravity do most of the work, as the sap starts in a bin held high off the ground before traveling down into the boiling chambers.

Maple sap generally has a 2-3 percent concentration of sugar, and this must be increased to about 68 percent found in maple syrup. This immense reduction in water requires large amounts of sap to be boiled for several days before it is ready to be bottled as syrup. Again with the help of volunteers and staff, the evaporator gets up and running early in the morning, and requires constant supervision throughout the day in order to continue feeding the fire, monitoring sap levels, and preventing scorching.  Even after several days on the evaporator, the syrup still is not completely finished—it requires a period of time on a stove top where the heat can be more fine-tuned and the syrup can move through its final stages of processing.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Rathsack
Sap is “finished” over a stovetop where temperatures and consistencies can be monitored more closely.

As the sap reaches higher and higher sugar concentrations, it must be watched closely until finally after filtering one last time, bottling can begin. For long-term storage of maple syrup, specialized jars are purchased in a variety of sizes. River Bend bottles their syrup in large gallon jars down to tiny half-pint jars and everything in between. These jars of “liquid gold” will make appearances in a variety of River Bend programs and activities.


Want to learn more about maple sap production/taste a sample of this year’s bounty? River Bend is offering a variety of opportunities for the public to get involved in the fun of maple syruping:


Maple Syrup Open House– Celebrate syrup season at River Bend Nature Center! On March 18th, 2017 from 10:00AM to NOON there will be a variety of fun and FREE activities to participate in. Learn about the maple syruping process with trivia and taste tests and visit the sugar bush to collect sap, and see the evaporator in full swing.

Maple Syrup Fun Run- scheduled for Saturday, May 6th, 2017. Our races include a 50K, 25K, 10K and 5K trail runs (all jumbo clock timed) and a one-mile fun walk on an accessible paved trail (untimed). Race entry fee includes entry to our Pancake Brunch after the Fun Run, and a race shirt.

Maple Syrup Pancake Brunch– Come out to River Bend on Saturday, May 6th for delicious pancakes topped with River Bend’s own real maple syrup. Our pancakes will be cooked by the expert staff from Bernie’s Grill! We’ll also have sausages, coffee, and juice to accompany our pancakes.


Relaxation & Reflection at River Bend Nature Center


Hello everyone! As promised, here is my blog post about the quiet and less visited places at River Bend Nature Center. I hope your River Bend Bucket Lists are coming along great, and here is a post to help you check off another thing off your list! (https://rbnc.wordpress.com/2017/01/31/let-us-help-with-your-new-years-resolutions/) Recently, there has been a lot of research and news coming out about the health benefits of having quiet time in nature.  I have included links to some of the news articles that cover this research below but overall the research can be summarized into two groupings physical benefits and mental benefits.

The physical benefits make sense and include a lot of effects, from increased exercise outdoors, like a healthier physique, decreased risk for diabetes, decreased risk for asthma and respiratory disorders, and increased heart health. There is also growing evidence to support the mental benefits of being out in nature that may confirm your own personal experience of feeling mentally clear and emotionally better after spending time in nature. The list of mental benefits from spending time in nature includes: decreased risk for anxiety & depression, lower stress levels, increased cognition, and decreased risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s, just to name a few. Additionally, the last link I have included talks about how the brain benefits from silence because I am one of those people who likes to double dip on my health benefits, so in other words I meditate outside in nature.

List of some research on the health benefits of nature by topic


News Articles Covering Health Benefits of Outside




News Articles Covering Health Benefits of Silence



Below, I have included some great trails and spots for relaxation and reflection at River Bend. This is by no means a complete list, and each location has its pro’s and con’s. So I have divided them into 4 rough zones focusing more on the central part of the park that is easier to reach. I then have described the noise/traffic, how far/hard of a walk, and seating; and then the elements of the location views, sun, and mosquitoes so that you can pick the spots that fit you. I have also included a link to a map for places to park and trails to take to get to the spots. My personal opinion is that spring and fall are the best time of the year to sit in quiet places in nature because of the lack of bugs, the relatively warm temperatures, and if it’s a little damp in the spot you pick, all you need is a blanket or tarp and that makes it more fun. A quick thing to note is most of the locations I picked had benches, but some did not. When using the park at River Bend you should always use the trails and not create your own so if you plan on sitting on the ground, you can do so next to the trail. Additionally we want you to have a fun and safe time here so make sure to take the proper precautions depending on the time of year accounting for things like mosquitos, ticks, sunburn, ice, etc.

Here is the link to the Google map I have created with the different loops and spots labeled and more details about the spots as well as pictures to go with them when you click on them on the map!

Quiet Places at River Bend Nature Center

Here is an additional link to our trail map to help you find other trails and see exactly where the steep spots are located! http://www.rbnc.org/pdfs/TrailMap15.pdf


Overlook Loop – Prairie, sunnier, great views, more people, less mosquitos

The trails to the North Ridge Overlook, depending on the day and the trails you pick, can be busy. There is a nice mixture of habitat including prairie, woods, and some bluff habitat that at one time might have been oak savannah but now is a mixture of oak, aspens, and buckthorn. The trails can be a little steeper so you can get a mild work out in on your way up but the loop is only about 1 mile. The spot with the best view is the North Ridge Overlook itself, although close seconds are the Walnut & Overlook intersection and Ash & Raccoon intersection. I always find this loop very inspiring and invigorating and I feel that most of this comes from the views.  This loop gets a fair amount of traffic since most people like a spot with a view so my recommendation is to come during the early morning or work day if you want spots with views that are also quiet. Additional spots along the route I really enjoyed were the spring banding station that is the Ruth Wiberg Memorial, a collection of small hills by the North Ridge Overlook that were already dry after this most recent melt, and a bench hidden beneath some cedar by the Upper Parking Lot.


Walnut Loop – less people, can have more mosquitos, more peaceful scenery

The walnut trail gets its name from the stand of Walnut trees on the section of the trail that is a part of this loop. Walnut is less used by people so this makes it usually a quieter trail but there can be more mosquitos. The best way I can describe this loop is that the scenery is more peaceful – I always feel a calming effect when walking on or sitting along this trail. The whole loop is about 1.42 miles from the upper parking lot and back and at a gradual to steeper incline. There are also no benches so if you want to stop and sit for a while it will be on the ground next to the trail. There is however some great spots to sit on a blanket right next to the trail, just don’t forget to tuck your pants and wear bug spray!


Prairie Loop – more people, less mosquitos, sunny, great views

The Prairie Loop that I take has only three bench areas for sitting on, with two in the prairie and one sitting area on the Prairie Pond dock. There are, however, many spots next to the trail to sit down on the grass. The Prairie Pond dock is usually shadier and can have more mosquitos in the summer but in the spring and fall it has just as great views at the prairie spots. The prairie spots while they are the sunnier spots , but are more exposed to the wind and on a beautiful day can have a lot of traffic. This trail is also about a mile loop to and from the main parking lot by the interpretive center and is a pretty easy trail except for one steep part up into the prairie by Prairie Pond. The bench on the hill overlooking Prairie Pond is one of my favorite spots at River Bend Nature Center. It is a peaceful spot and I always have a hard time leaving this bench.


Cherry & Raspberry Trails Loop – less people, more mosquitos, mixture of sun & shade, great views, lots of peaceful spots

The Cherry & Raspberry trails loop had the least number of people I encountered at one of the peak times for people out in the park which is around 4 to 5 pm when everyone is getting off work. So if you are looking for less people on your quiet walk or coming by your quiet spot, I highly recommend this trail. This loop has a good mixture of habitat but the bulk of it is thick, damp, and shady woods, so the mosquitos can be a nuisance depending on the time of the year and the location so wearing bug spray in the summer is a good idea. Some highlights for this loop is that it takes you through some of the less visited restored prairie habitat and at the bend in raspberry there is a bench under a huge ancient tree that is a very quiet and peaceful spot. However, most of the sitting benches or spots with great views are near the road including the gravel pit, Upper Pond Dock, and the Waterfall. Depending on the time of the year the water falling is so loud it provides great background noise for covering up the sounds of cars. In the heat of summer it is a nice cool spot to visit, though there can be quite a few mosquitos and people there since it is close to the road. The Gravel Pit usually has wind blowing through it that pushes the sound of cars toward the prairie so it is not as noisy as it could be right next the road and it also tends to be more sunny are is one of the best spots for watching the sun set at River Bend Nature Center. This whole loop is about 1.25 miles and a mixture of gradual and steeper trail sections; I found the easier walk is going down cherry and up raspberry back along the road and you can either park at the waterfall or the upper parking lot. I have another favorite spot along this trail, but this one is a gem, so I challenge you to come out and hike it and see if you can find it!



River Trails Loop – less people, more mosquitoes, great river views, shady & cool in summer, calm and peaceful

In all honesty, I did not have the chance to explore the River trails as much I would have liked but they are what you would expect for floodplain forest trails along the river. They have great views and are very quiet. Maple trail seems to be less used by people and same with Trout Lily. In the summer I usually biked down trout lily so I don’t know how bad the mosquitoes were, but even with a good breeze from the river it probably would be a good idea to wear bug spray since it is a floodplain forest. There also are quite a few benches along these trails meaning if someone is on one bench you can walk farther down the trail to another one. The highlights for this loop I felt were the overlook bench on Maple trail above the river, the straight stretch of Trout Lily trail with all its benches where you know from the previous blog post was where the ice dam was located, and the view from Honor Point at the end of Trout Lily trail looking over the river and beach. Overall, this complete loop is about 1.65 miles starting and ending at the main parking lot; however with the multiple maple and owl trails connection to the loop you could break it up into shorter loops if you would like. The big thing to remember with the trails along the river is most of the trails leading down to the river are somewhat steep so it is going to be a work out getting back up to the parking lot either way.

I hope you enjoyed learning more about some of the quiet loops and spots closer to the parking lots in the main section of River Bend Nature. There still are many spots not mentioned here in the main part of the park as well in the outer trails just waiting to be found. So we hope you can come to River Bend Nature Center and explore some of the trails we mentioned and find some of your own favorite spots to read, relax, reflect, meditate, pray, etc. and as always enjoy being out in nature. I look forward to seeing you on the trails in these different spots, and good luck finding my other favorite spot!