Living in Morton with time to spend exploring the Minnesota River Valley made quite the impression on a young Darby Nelson.
During his formative years, Nelson explored Morton Creek, hiked Minnesota River bluffs, observed aquatic creatures and collected gneiss rocks. After seventh grade, his dad — a teacher — moved the family to northern Minnesota.
The change in scenery impacted him deeply. He missed exploring the river and never forgot what he learned. He went on to earn degrees in the sciences, including a PhD in ecology from the University of Minnesota. Along the way, he met his future wife, Geri, a biology major, while working in Itasca at a biology station. He taught biology and environmental science for 35 years at Anoka Ramsey Community College. He also made time in the 1980s to serve three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives and was active with Conservation Minnesota, the Freshwater Society and the Nature Conservancy.
Always ready for adventures, the Nelsons traveled extensively, making time for lots of canoeing in hundreds of lakes and rivers in the Midwest, New England, Alaska and Canada. Yet, the Minnesota River always had Nelson’s heart. Thus, it was only natural for him to eventually write a book about it. And the best way to share the river’s history, geology and botany was to experience it firsthand by canoeing its 335-mile length with Geri as his paddling partner.
The couple, who reside in Champlin, spent two summers in their 17-foot Kevlar canoe paddling through navigable sections from the Little Minnesota River near Browns Valley to Fort Snelling State Park in Bloomington, where the Minnesota flows into the Mississippi. They would be gone for five to seven days at a time, avoiding high water and camping on sandbars, which made for easy and safe landings. Along the way, Nelson took copious notes of what he saw.
The couple also routinely checked and recorded water clarity evaluated with a Secchi tube. Whenever they stopped, if he couldn’t see over it, Nelson would climb the riverbank to see what was on the other side.
“Canoeing into Morton was most meaningful for us,” Geri recalls. “We met kids fishing on the bridge and we talked with them. They knew a lot of people and family we knew.”
Nelson was intent on writing a book about the river. It would be his second tome on Minnesota waters. He published his first book, “For Love of Lakes,” in 2012. This book would be entitled “For Love of a River: The Minnesota.”
By now, however, Nelson had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. He finished his first draft in 2016 and he and Geri continued to refine it. They contacted friend and writer-film producer John Hickman for help in revising the text and doing final edits.
“As I joined the team and the editing process, I was well aware of Darby’s stature in the environmental community and his writing ability,” Hickman says. “Geri was Darby’s first reader and editor, bringing significant ability and knowledge of biology. Plus, she was with Darby for every paddle stroke. That’s why it was possible to bring this book to completion.”
“For Love of a River” was published by Beaver’s Pond Press in 2019. In June, the book was recognized as a finalist in the nature category of the 30th annual Midwest Book Awards, sponsored by the Midwest Independent Publishers Association.
Every Minnesotan would gain considerable knowledge from reading For Love of a River. Nelson discusses the glacial forces that formed the Minnesota, the geology left behind, the river’s place in history and the current land practices that affect it today. The former teacher in him shines as he explains science and shares stories of their paddling adventures and discoveries.
A lifelong learner, Nelson says it best in the book’s prologue:
“Far too prevalent is the uninformed opinion that the entire area contains nothing but corn and bean fields cultivated by farmers who callously pollute the river for their own short-term profit. Not true! There is a much richer story to tell and this book is my way of telling it.”
From the river’s 3.6-million-year geological history, to the region’s first inhabitants, to the displacement of indigenous populations, to the development of agriculture, Nelson discusses it all with an open mind and examination of facts.
Also included are special chapters titled “Voices for the River,” which feature Minnesota citizens who have been active in various ways to improve the river’s quality. Clyde and Shirley Ryberg, Lemuel Kaercher, Del Wehrspann, Patrick Moore, Scott Sparlin, Ed Crozier and Elaine Mellott have worked to inform the public about the river’s health.
In particular, farmers may remember Moore, former executive director for CURE — Clean Up the River Environment. He worked with Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center, and hosted “friendship tours” that brought together residents and area farmers to discuss concerns about the river and to learn from each other.
Farmers would be interested in the book’s final chapter, “It’s what we do on the land.” Nelson has done his homework to understand issues and positions held by farmers and environmental groups. He recognizes the balancing act between water quality and agricultural production. He encourages the refinement of science and technology in agriculture to improve water quality and for everyone to work together.
Nelson concludes: “My motivation in writing this book has been to help people learn about and appreciate the river I love. Awareness comes first, which leads to appreciation, which leads to a commitment to act. I invite you to get out and spend some time on the Minnesota River. You might just fall in love.”