It’s a love story that took five years of writing and has been a lifetime in the making.
Ever since he was a kid growing up in the small river town of Morton in western Minnesota, Darby Nelson has held a deep love for the Minnesota River.
Now, the Anoka-Ramsey Community College biology professor emeritus has come out with a new book, “For Love of a River: The Minnesota,” which has been named a finalist in the Nature category of the 30th annual Midwest Book Awards by the Midwest Independent Publishers Association.
Nelson’s love of the Minnesota River was immediate as a young child, exploring its river bottoms and bluffs. That love sparked a passion for the natural world he would later carry with him into his professional career as a professor and state representative.
“My parents gave me great latitude to explore,” Nelson said. “When I had read all the stories about water in the library, I decided to write some of my own. As an adult, when I had finished my first book, ‘For Love of Lakes,’ the Minnesota River rose to the top of a long list of topics for the next one because of my deep emotional ties to Morton and the river.”
Following “For Love of Lakes,” Nelson, alongside his wife, Geri, took an even more hands-on approach in “For Love of a River.” The pair paddled the length of the river, with the book broken down into sections similar to the water’s path.
The book took about five years to write, including 60 days of paddling on the river and 40 lakes in the Minnesota River Basin.
“We also spent hundreds of hours learning about the river by attending meetings and conferences with scientists, elected officials, activists and the agricultural community,” Nelson said. “And hundreds of hours more in my writing shack in the backyard!
“The river is paddle-friendly as you are intimately close to both banks and there are lots of places to stop and camp on sandbars as long as you avoid high water. The river begins as a series of three connected lakes, formed by nature and now controlled by dams. From the headwaters all the way to the confluence with the Mississippi, the river is really fun to explore, and people who have only seen it from shore would be amazed at how beautiful it is.”
Even with a deep knowledge of biology and the river already, the paddling experience showed that there’s always more to learn and discover. And always more to fall in love with.
“We were learning new things all the time,” Nelson said. “Two things that stand out are that the river is a great place for catfish and walleye fishing, and that there are countless people up and down the river who are dedicated to cleaning it up. Most of all, we were surprised at how beautiful the river is when you’re paddling on it. You’re isolated from civilization and there are long stretches where everything is quiet and peaceful.
“Great fun. We broke the river up into nine sections and took five to seven day trips with writing and research between paddles, allowing for some initial writing while the experiences were fresh. We met lots of fellow river lovers along the way and got to see bald eagles almost every day. … There are three dams in the first 50 or so miles, so the river is very wide there with lots of fun backwaters to explore. After that the river narrows, but gets wider as the 11 major tributaries join. The last 15 or so miles of the river have been straightened to allow for barge traffic.”
One of Nelson’s top accomplishments in the Minnesota House of Representatives was working on legislation creating the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. He also served on boards with Conservation Minnesota, the Freshwater Society and the Nature Conservancy and received several environmental and teaching awards.
There’s a part everyone can play in protecting Minnesota’s abundant bodies of waters, as there is something for everyone to enjoy in Nelson’s biography of the river – science and adventure.
“There is something for everyone,” Nelson said. “In addition to recounting our paddling adventures, it addresses topics as diverse as geological history, early and modern agriculture, citizen advocacy, water-quality challenges and solutions, river-based recreation, dams and dam removal, prairie pothole lakes, the river’s rich diversity of plant and animal life and the Dakota-U.S. War.
“As a college professor for 35 years, I always strove to make science understandable to a general audience. And I have to give a lot of credit to my wife, Geri, who reviewed every word of the manuscript. She’s a retired high school science teacher herself, and she made sure that what I wrote was correct and comprehensible. Then, as my Alzheimer’s progressed, we enlisted the help of our friend John Hickman. He’s an excellent writer and editor who knows a lot about the Minnesota River, so he was the perfect person to help us bring the book to publication.”
The Midwest Book Awards gala will be held online this year June 27. The competition was open to books published and copyrighted in 2019 in MiPA’s 12-state Midwestern region: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
“A great honor,” Nelson said. “My goal in writing this book was to inspire as many people as possible to explore, appreciate and ultimately help to protect the Minnesota River, so any recognition the book receives is welcome.”