The Heroes of River Bend Nature Center Part 1: Early Heroes


“Share a Dream”

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Orwin Rustad sharing his knowledge with students on a hike


It now has been almost a year since I started working at River Bend Nature Center and over the last year I have learned a lot of the facts about the history of River Bend Nature Center. Information like when it was founded, when its first building was built, and the names of the people who helped make this Nature Center a reality. It wasn’t until my last blogpost about quiet places at River Bend Nature Center seeing just how many plaques by trees and benches we have honoring people, which made me realize just how many people helped create this place we all love so very much. I began to wonder more about the people who worked to make this place a reality. What were they like? What dreams did they first have for this place when it was still old farm land? What things had we forgotten with time that the people who had come before us had done to make River Bend Nature Center?

Before white settlers the land was natural prairies and forests, and the Wahpekutey band of the Dakota lived here in Faribault with some possibly have been living where Rustad Road is today. Then after Alexander Faribault created a town here and the Dakota were moved to a reservation as a result of the Treaty of Mendota in 1851 the land was divided up to farmers and one farmer sold his land to the state and the Faribault Regional Center was created. The residents of the state hospital farmed this land from the late 1800’s to the late 1960’s this farm land provided food for all their residents as well as some of the other state institutions in the surrounding area. Through the 1970s until it was founded in 1978-79 and in 1980 when the opening and dedication of River Bend Nature Center and the Trailside Center building happened is when the story and the dream of the land becoming an Environmental Learning or Nature Center really began and is still being written.

If you are interested in learning more about all the steps that happened between 1970 and 1980 to make River Bend Nature Center than I highly recommend you check out chapter thirty of Orwin Rustad’s book “A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota” the chapter is titled River Bend Nature Center Early History . This chapter is written by Kay Janky who was one of the early people along with Orwin Rustad and so many others who worked to make River Bend Nature Center possible. From this chapter I actually found the title of one of their earliest publications a brochure called “Share a Dream” that was created to help build support for creating a nature center in Faribault. I decided to use it for the title of this blog in part because after reading a lot of the bios and history of these early River Bend leaders you could see how they all shared a dream for this place and worked together to make it possible. Share a Dream seemed appropriate for both the past and now the present because as River Bend Nature moves to celebrate our 40th Anniversary year from 2018 to 2019 we have done surveys with the community there have been a lot of discussions with the staff and the Board of Directors about what River Bend is and what we hope it will continue to be and become in the future.

Our Executive Director, Breanna Wheeler, has talked about gathering more of the history of River Bend and the stories of all the people who helped make River Bend whether they were an early founder, staff, board member, volunteer, or people a part of the River Bend community who have a story to share. So I decided with this week being Earth Week and to celebrate Earth Day today that it is an appropriate time to start a series of posts remembering the people who have made this place River Bend Nature Center. My intention is that this will be an on-going series of blog posts as we find more history and more people who have been a part of the River Bend story because we don’t know every single person who has been a part of River Bend Nature Center right now. Kay Janky had a great quote from the book about this “To begin to list all those who gave significantly of their time and support would most assuredly mean I would miss an important person.” So we ask that you please share the stories you know about the people who helped make River Bend Nature Center with us so that we can share the history accurately on our next blog posts and throughout our 40th Anniversary celebration. We also would really appreciate contact information to be able to get a hold of them in the future. So let us begin this series by learning about some of the early heroes of River Bend Nature Center.


Orwin Rustad, founder, ribbon cutting ceremony in 1980

Orwin Rustad – “The Father of River Bend Nature Center”

Orwin Rustad had been a native of Faribault and had grown up outdoors. Even before graduating from high school he was fascinated by birds and got his master bird banding permit while still in high school and did bird banding for 40 years recording what birds migrated through Faribault. He then went on to get a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in biology from St. Olaf College in 1942 and then a Master’s degree in biology and science education from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and did further studies at Cornell University and Oslo University in Norway. He then went on to teach biology and filed biology collectively for 42 years between Breck High School, St. Olaf College, and Shattuck St. Mary’s and was also Shattuck’s Naturalist after his retirement in 1988. In fact he first tried to get a nature center on Shattuck’s campus before turning to the land he loved to hike on. He was one of earliest founders of River Bend and he spent hours hiking on the land when it was still a part of the Faribault Regional Center. Before there were any committees for the Faribault Bicentennial and Nature Center he led the Faribault Area Committee for Environmental Quality (FACE-Q) on nature hikes. FACE-Q then became the Faribault Naturalists Club and then the core of this group became the group of people who ran and were a part of the committees and campaigns to start River Bend Nature Center and then the Board after it was started. Although Orwin was not well known for being active in committees as Kay Janky states he helped share the dream as the first dreamer and visionary for what River Bend could be. “However, his dream, his influence, his knowledge, his perseverance, his foresight, his unswerving devotion to the dream of a nature center kept us going.” This quote was from Kay Janky in the chapter of Orwin Rustad’s book about River Bend Nature Center. It is because of this and how even after retiring he continued to lead students and adults alike on nature hikes that he became known as “The Father of River Bend Nature Center” and is why the road leading into River Bend Nature Center was named Rustad Road. Orwin  was fascinated by birds and plants and the recording of natural events which led to his book “A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota” and thousands of dollars from the proceeds from this book went into River Bend’s Educational Endowment fund. Orwin Rustad received over the years many different rewards and recognition in honor of all the work he did including the Cum Laude Society at Shattuck-St.Mary’s, the Service to Mankind Award from the Faribault Sertoma Club, the Bicentennial Hall of Fame Award from the City of Faribault, WCCO Good Neighbor Award, and the Meritorious Service Award from the Association of Interpretive Naturalists to name a few. He passed away July 6th, 2008 but his legacy lives on in much of what River Bend is and still does today and all the people it has affected and will affect.


Charlie Turnbull from a recent editorial about his book “The Lean-To Boys of Bigfork, Minnesota”

Charlie Turnbull – The Organizer

Charlie Turnbull was the former Executive Director of the Faribault Regional Center and a co-founder of River Bend Nature Center.  He helped acquire the land from the State where the Faribault Regional Center used to be to create River Bend Nature Center on it. As Kay Janky said he “used his political savvy and organizational ability to help spearhead the dream.” In addition to Orwin Rustad, Turnbull was also credited by Kay Janky as being one of the two people who really made River Bend Nature Center possible. Charlie was a local citizen leader in Faribault with a lot of influence that he used to help get River Bend created.  Charlie helped lobby the Minnesota Legislature for River Bend Nature Center.  He also was the first do serve as 1st Vice-President for River Bend Nature Center from 1979 to 1980 and then was elected President and served from 1981 to 1983. During his time as President Charlie along with Ron Osterbauer one of the early Executive Directors of River Bend started the Endowment Funds which to this day insures the continuation of River Bend Nature Center. Additionally it was partly due to increasing these funds that he helped grow the employed staff at River Bend Nature Center from a single Executive Director to also including a secretary and a naturalist. In addition to helping found River Bend he wrote the book “The Lean-To Boys of Bigfork, Minnesota” about deer hunting in Northern Minnesota. Charlie still is alive today and lives with his wife in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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Kay Janky

Janice Kay Janky – “The Heart of River Bend”

Janice Kay Janky who went by Kay Janky was according to fellow River Bend co-founder and Kay’s friend Pat Rice: “Kay was really the heart of River Bend. Orwin Rustad had the original vision for River Bend and he sought out other people to carry his vision forward.” Orwin Rustad had the vision but he sought out people to make this dream a reality and just like Turnbull, Janky was one of these visionaries whose constant work made River Bend a reality. She put in many hours lobbying the Minnesota Legislature along with Charlie Turnbull and Greg Carlson, and reaching out to the community working over the years on different committees and positions to start River Bend. She was known for doing all the little things in between to the monthly meetings that added up and made River Bend possible. Then when River Bend Nature Center was created she served as 2nd Vice-President for the first Officer Board alongside Greg Carlson and Charlie Turnbull.  She spent years into the 1980s first creating the volunteer naturalist program that is still around today and then creating some of the earliest curriculum at River Bend Nature Center for teaching the children of Faribault. She also was a part of the first cohort of volunteer naturalists at River Bend Nature Center. Her friend Pat Rice has commented on how Janky was such a natural when it came to working with children. “She had a good eye to learning for children, could get down to their level and that made her a natural for developing the curriculum.” said Pat Rice in letter about Kay Janky. This letter was written when River Bend was looking for more information about Kay Janky to dedicate a memorial for her. The memorial that was dedicated to honor Janky and all the work she had done at River Bend Nature Center is the Big Woods Amphitheater which became the Kay Janky Amphitheater.

Gregory Carlson – the Adventurer

He was originally from Illinois where he also got his Law Degree before moving up to Minneapolis and then Faribault to work for the Rice County Attorney’s Office and then soon after opened up his own practice. He originally developed a love for rivers on the Mississippi in his Illinois and then continued this love in the Faribault area with all its rivers which was part of what drew him to the area. Greg was a passionate environmentalist. He volunteered on many projects to better the environment and community and it was because of all the work he did over the years for the years that earned him the Nature Conservancy of Minnesota Conservation award. He was involved with creating River Bend Nature Center from the beginning by helping build community support and lobbying the Minnesota legislature. Greg was instrumental in the land acquisition from the State of Minnesota for the River Bend Nature Center working with Charlie Turnbull to make this happen.  He served on the different committees Pre-River Bend and the River Bend Board throughout its inception until he died on February 13th 2017. Greg was the first President of River Bend Nature Center and served as president many times after that as well as other roles over the years on the Board. In his first letter as president he addressed the future members explaining what the new board hoped River Bend would become what they were working on and invited them at the end of his letter to “Come Grow With Us. Share Our Dream.” During his tenure as president he used his legal background to help create the bylaws, contracts, and handle other legal problems. He loved exploring the property at River Bend Nature Center and alongside Orwin Rustad and Charlie Turnbull helped cut and make some of the trails that we still use today. He was an adventurer going on many trips with his wife, Suzanne Gagnon Vininski, family, and friends. “Together they shared a common bond of enjoying life and nature to its fullest while raising their combined family. They loved to adventure travel to many unique destinations to experience nature” it was written in the pamphlets they had at memorial at River Bend Nature Center remembering and celebrating Greg Carlson.


Louise Wright, an active board member and volunteer naturalist

Louise Wright – Founder of the Prairie

Louise Coffey Wright was a member of the Board since its inception, serving as Chairperson for the Dedication and Grand Opening Committee in 1980, second vice-president from 1981 to 1983, secretary from 1984 to 1986, and president from 1986 to 1988. She also was an active volunteer naturalist, sharing her knowledge of nature with thousands of school children putting in hundreds of volunteer hours. She was a mentor and friend as well to many of the volunteer naturalists and teachers who came to River Bend Nature Center. Her friend Bev Finholt described the passion Louise had for educating children, how much knowledge she possessed and shared easily, and how she was never too busy for answering questions. “Louise had a special way of instilling in children, and adults, the desire to learn about our natural environment.” It was while she was president that the prairie was started she helped plant seeds, transplanting native wildflowers, collecting and sorting seeds, assisted with prairie burns, and provided educational materials about prairies for school children. As her friend Ron Osterbauer put it “Louise was at home with the prairie.” She was instrumental in creating the prairie at River Bend Nature Center and because of this in 1990 that the prairie she helped create and care for was dedicated in her honor. To this day a plaque and a bench honor her on the prairie loop trail. Memorial gifts that were received when she past went to her two passions at River Bend the “prairie and educating children about nature.”

Louise Wright prairie plaque wording (2)

These are only a few of the people off a list of countless people I have to do more research into to recognize the people who help built River Bend and to hopefully record the history accurately. So once again I would like to invite you to share any information you have about the people included above or anyone else you know who should be recognized for the work they did helping make River Bend Nature Center. I gathered my information from a sources listed below which includes RBNC publications and newsletters, articles, memorials, and obituaries. Please let us know if anything should be corrected because we were not using accurate information. So I hope you join us in the coming 2 years as we get ready to and celebrate River Bend Nature Center’s 40th Anniversary and all the people who made River Bend Nature Center possible we could not do it without all your help and support!


A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota – By Orwin Rustad

Memorial Pamphlet for Greg Carlson Memorial at River Bend Nature Center

Kay Janky Memorial Service & Amphitheater Dedication Press Release


Taking Prescribed Fires off the “back burner” at River Bend Nature Center

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Or at least, that’s the idea.

2017 shapes up to be a successful year for prescribed burns at River Bend Nature Center. This grassland/forest mix behind the interpretive center was one of the first locations burned this last Saturday.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

In a world where fire is often seen as a danger to life and property, it’s easy to forget that fire is actually a natural part of a healthy ecosystem, and that in some cases, it is necessary for the survival of native plants and animals. This leads many to ask how this could be possible, when the landscape after a fire looks as far from lively as you can get: shriveled and blackened grass, charred stumps, and an ashy sky. It doesn’t exactly look appealing. It takes a closer examination to discover the real benefit of allowing fire to move through our prairies and forests.

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Immediately following a fire, the ground is left dry and charred. But it won’t stay like this for long.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Underneath the burned ground, an incredible change is taking place—nutrients that were once trapped inside plants on the surface are now recycled back into the soil. In this way, nutrients are not locked away, but become available for new plants to utilize. This becomes especially true in prairie ecosystems, where grasses are prevalent, dying back every winter and holding nutrients in their dead stalks above the soil line. Perhaps even more amazing after a fire, some seeds buried in the ground begin to stir and show signs of life after what could have been years of dormancy.

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Large, healthy trees remain undamaged when a prescribed burn moves past. The removal of competition around it will even help it to thrive.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

In some cases, seeds are even coated with flammable oils to encourage hotter fires. These fire-dependent species require high heat for germination to be triggered, when otherwise it would not occur at all. Plants developed such traits in order to exploit the lack of competition following a fire. With other species removed, new plants that germinate quickly afterwards do not have to fight for sunlight or water with any nearby neighbors. A famous example of this is the Lodgepole pine, whose cones are sealed with a special resin that melts away in the high heat of fire and releases the seeds. There are many ways that plants have evolved to make use of fire—species may rely on fire, smoke, or a combination of both in order to prosper.


This knowledge flies in the face of years of misunderstanding—that ecosystems are always moving towards a state of equilibrium, where nature and all of its components end in harmony. The reality is far different—nature not only utilizes, but requires frequent “disturbances”, whether this be in the form of fire, flood, or landslide. And so rather than thinking of a forest or prairie as a linear progression towards an endpoint, it is better to think of them as a cycle, where plants grow, die, are recycled back into the system, and begin again. This mindset is known as ecological succession—old growth forests will inevitably become disturbed sites where new, younger individuals will emerge and age. In the end this results in a healthier ecosystem, which is easy to see when comparing pre-settlement forests to modern forests. Before human intervention, forests often had fewer but larger and healthier trees. Now, forests have far more trees, but they are overcrowded, smaller, and generally less healthy.





Ironically, it is the modern, “protected” forests that pose the greatest threat, both to humans and wildlife. When fire is prevented, forests mature beyond the point of being prosperous—food/water amounts and space lessen, and wildlife suffers as a result. Additionally, dead plant matter builds up, which creates more fuel. Eventually, the amount of fuel present in the forest may allow for a larger, hotter, and more dangerous fire to occur.

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Prescribed burns prevent fuel from building up in a forest or prairie ecosystem–the result is more frequent but smaller fires that are less likely to get out of control.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

And so it all comes down to word choice. Many of us may remember the famous Smoky the Bear phrase “only YOU can prevent forest fires”. This was a great and catchy slogan for a world where fire could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, both to buildings and natural areas. But as we began to learn more about this land we were trying to “protect” by putting out every fire we could find, scientists began to realize that our “help” was actually causing harm. And so rather than advertising a negative image on “forest fires”, Smoky now reminds us to stop “wild fires” instead—that is, fires that are unintentional or out of control in a region where lives and property could be lost. This change of heart helped reduce the misconception that all fire is bad—and that any forest or prairie fire is a villain in an ecological sense.

Nutrients are recycled back into the soil when dead vegetation is allowed to burn. Even greener patches along the river are able to be burned, as Emily Greger, Resource Manager, helps it along with a torch.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

But what does this have to do with River Bend? There is one more benefit from fire that River Bend will be utilizing very soon, and that is to use fire as a tool to remove invasive species. While hours of work every year go into removing invasive species from the property, pulling, cutting, and treating, it is not the most effective way to prevent the spread of non-natives. Fire works much faster and far more thoroughly than any “by hand” methods of removal, making it the most effective tool at our disposal. And while historically, prescribed fires have been used sporadically and on small sections of land, we plan to increase the area covered, and also begin burning on a regular rotation. One burn is not enough to bring a habitat back to “pristine” condition—it takes several burns in addition to other treatments, and the entire process might go on for years. However, in the end, after a lot of planning and work, the goal is that eventually we will be left with forests and prairies that resemble pre-settlement—healthy ecosystems filled with a large variety of native plants and animals.


Visitors can expect to see signs of burning through the end of April, and sites on the list of potential burns are the rain garden, the large prairie by the Interpretive Center, ditches along Rustad Road, the gravel pit, and the prairie on Teepee Tonka.

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Tall grasses burn readily–moving very quickly across a prairie landscape. A “back burn” will prevent fire from spreading to undesired locations.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Dates and times of burns are all weather dependent, and all burning will cease before May in order to protect ground nesting birds. Helping us with this process is the Faribault Fire Department, who has been donating their time and equipment for decades.

4357Fire creeps up to the banks of the Straight River which acts as a perfect fire break.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

And while we cannot ask for volunteers from the public to help with burns, there are several things you can do to help make this process as simple and safe as possible:

Take note of any and all signs posted notifying the public about potential burns. When burning, there will be a large sign posted by the park entrance asking that people stay away from the areas that are being burned, both for their safety as well as the safety of the staff—distractions can lead to dangerous situations. Another way that you can help is by attending several events that River Bend has coming up—the first is an OWLS (Older Wiser Livelier Seniors) presentation given by River Bend’s Resource Manager Emily Greger. The presentation will focus on invasive species, going beyond buckthorn and touching on lesser known species and methods for controlling them. Additionally, River Bend hosts Restoration work days where members of the public can come out and assist with a variety of restoration projects, including removal of invasive species. For more information on these programs and other opportunities please see our website:


Restoration Work Day –

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Fire will drastically change the appearance of a landscape, but in just a few weeks, this same location picture in both photos will be green with new and healthier growth.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Springing into warm weather!

Hello again, River Bend friends! As you have probably noticed, Spring has sprung and we are really enjoying all the changes that are happening here. Many snakes and frogs are waking from their winter naps – if you walk by Prairie Pond or Upper Pond, you can hear the frogs croaking!  There are so many new birds out and about, and they are all singing at the top of their lungs and hurrying to make nests in the forest, prairie, and pond alike. We have even seen Turkey Vultures, and though they neglect to sing, they are another sign that the warm weather is back.

Spring is a wonderful time to look up and take notes of the phenology of our area. Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events from year to year, and is really cool to discover – here at River Bend, we have a monthly Phenology board, where our visitors can come and write what they saw while out on the trails, and then this gets recorded and we can compare to several previous years. We also have a great book written by our founder, Orwin Rustad, which is a recording of 50 years of natural events!

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Orwin Rustad’s A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota, a fantastic phenology read.

To give you an example of phenology, I’ll tell you what his book says about the timing of Turkey Vulture spring arrivals: over 12 years of recording their comings and goings, the earliest they arrived was March 12th, and the latest was May 30th! Their average though is April 14th-17th, so they are a bit early this year.


Turkey Vultures are a fun bird to spot during the spring and summer; they spend their time soaring high, looking like they are rocking back and forth in the wind on their  V-shaped wings.

One of the reasons phenology is important is that it helps us note changes through time. The reason I chose to look up the Turkey Vulture (other than the fact that they are amazing birds!) was that they were not very common birds in this area 50 and 60 years ago. Most of their sightings started in the 80’s and 90’s, perhaps indicating that Turkey Vultures were expanding their ranges in that time frame to include this area! If you are ever in the interpretive center and want to know more about the natural history of this area, check out this interesting book.

You can also take advantage of the gorgeous weather forecast and come for a hike and see the spring changes for yourself. Just today, school groups spotted Garter Snakes over by Honor Point, a Bald Eagle over the Strait River, and saw the turtles that have come out at Turtle Pond too! There are also tons of frogs and birds to see and listen to, so come to River Bend, explore, and then come contribute to our Phenology board.

phenology board

As you can see, River Bend visitors have already seen some amazing sights, and we’re only a week in to April! Come add your own observations!

After hearing the frogs start up around town or here at River Bend, are you curious to learn more? Then come to our awesome program on Saturday, April 15th: Fabulous Frogs! Hop on over to learn about what’s jumping around River Bend’s ponds – We’ll be learning about what makes Frogs so unique, creating our own frog chorus, as well as meeting our two froggy Animal Ambassadors! The program fee is just $5/person, $15/family ($3/member, $10/member family), and it runs from 10-1130, so come make a day of it here at River Bend – see the program and then go for your own hike!

Hope to see you soon!



Come learn all about Leopard Frogs and others at our Fabulous Frogs Program on Saturday April 15th from 10-11:30!