The pitch-black squirrel that crossed my hiking path felt like a bad-luck omen. I was at Great River Bluffs State Park southeast of Winona looking for fall color last October, and I wasn't hopeful. Heavy rains a week earlier had knocked most of the leaves to the forest floor. On the drive down Hwy. 61, part of Minnesota's picturesque Great River Road, I wondered if the center yellow lines would be the closest I'd come to seeing vibrant hues.
The trail cut through a mixed forest of maple, oak and birch. The afternoon sun slanted through the leaves, lighting up the few that were yellow and sparking my wish for more. When I reached the path's end -- an overlook that takes in the Mississippi River, some islands and Wisconsin on the far side -- I was underwhelmed. Greens and browns struck my eyes, without a hint of red, not even a cardinal flying by to offer that vibrant pop.
I lingered anyway. The day was brisk, an early calling for hat and gloves. Wispy clouds unfurled across the brilliant blue sky. A barge, the color of deep rust, slowly cut through the river below.
Then as I drove down a dirt road, cutting across the rolling upland at the state park, I stopped for a second chance at fall color, one I'd zoomed past on my way to the overlook hike. A field of prairie glowed white and red in the afternoon light, its flowers and grasses stretching out toward a stand of birch and maple, a tangle of yellow and red.
New perch for fall show
"Just hold the reins or walk in a circle for a while," my trail guide, Lorrie Rinn, told me nonchalantly before she disappeared to get her own ride. I was sitting high atop an animal more than five times my weight and infinitely strong. The fact that he was gentle -- and a brown beauty -- did nothing to calm my nerves.
Like all jaded trail horses I've ever ridden, he knew I wasn't the boss. He reluctantly responded to my requests, but didn't really perk up until Rinn and her steed emerged from the barn.
Through a field and past a gate, I soon found myself hugged by trees, given the added height of the horse. We rode the lowland trails, where we stayed since I'd declined the half-day ride to the bluffs. I listened to the leather saddle creak as I swayed with my horse's haunches. He quietly sighed and neighed. If autumn wasn't going to put on a top-notch performance, at least I'd added some excitement by taking in the show from a new perch.
Plenty of color in town, too
Later that day, I craned my neck again -- not to look at nature's handiwork, but at the ornate Tiffany stained-glass windows of the Winona National Bank. The stately 1916 Egyptian Revival building, which still serves as a bank, also acts as an odd museum, merging architecture and game trophies.
Like most visitors, I stopped there to check out the windows and the architecture. George Maher, a Chicago architect who was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the marble-clad Winona icon. You can see the Prairie School touches especially in the conference room, which is open for wandering.
For a close-up look at the centerpiece window, above the entrance to the bank, I wound my way up marble stairs to the mezzanine and second floor. There, I was surprised to find an unlikely display of taxidermied animals from Africa, collected by bank owners E.L. and Grace King and their son E.L. "Buddy" King Jr. at a time when game hunts were generally viewed as romantic and decidedly noncontroversial adventures.
Around the corner from a wood-paneled conference room, an ostrich stretches 8 feet tall behind a glass case, and a lion looks regal before a tableau of painted grass. A leopard strikes a stalking pose, forever on the prowl for what -- the blue lotus flowers in the stained-glass windows?
From the bank, I took a short drive to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, opened in 2006 along the Mississippi River. The building gets you in the mood for its watery collection: Its pitched roof and weathered shingle siding bring to mind coastal Maine. Inside, three galleries display maritime paintings, ship models, navigational instruments and the Burrichter/Kierlin Marine Art Collection, whose 450 pieces are on long-term loan. The museum -- its walls popping with works by Pissarro, Renoir and Van Gogh -- was itself worth the trip.
Outside, a walkway runs past a narrow river channel and along nice landscaping that includes prairie grasses. By the time I saw the strip of sumac, a brilliant red, I hardly cared about autumn's faded beauty. I had seen enough color in Winona.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282