A Quest to Visit 67 Waterfalls Helped This Mother and Daughter Duo Heal

With the pandemic and a pending divorce, their lives were in free fall. But reconnecting with Mother Nature proved restorative.

Posted in , Jan 14, 2021

Colleen Radke and daughter Wynn; photo courtesy Colleen Radke

My old friend Rita, my daughter, Wynn, and I were sitting at the top of Big Spring Falls in Wisconsin in early June, watching the water pour over the falls, topple onto rocks and churn into rapids, pushing into the Eau Claire River.

How could anyone deny Mother Nature’s glory? I’d been raised Catholic, but the great outdoors was my cathedral, where I felt closest to God, most connected to the wider world, though I’d lapsed in recent years. Ever since my husband’s drinking got out of control.

Five-year-old Wynn dipped her toes into the sparkling, clear water. In spite of everything she’d been through—her father’s alcoholism and abandonment, the coronavirus quarantine, her preschool closing, my temporary unemployment, the upheaval in the Twin Cities—Wynn remained a spectacular little girl. Funny, strong, determined.

She loved waterfalls, and chasing them together gave us something to celebrate. I’m so blessed I get to be her mother, I thought.

Then my phone buzzed. A text from the attorney. “Your husband signed the divorce papers.”

Relief washed over me. Wynn’s father had waffled over our divorce for months, agreeing to a decree, then changing his mind at the last minute. What if he kept us in limbo, despite not having seen me in almost a year?

Being his caregiver, struggling to pull him out of his tailspin and get him sober, had consumed me for years. Now I could put that behind me. But worry overtook my relief. Could I really raise Wynn on my own? Could I give us both what we needed to thrive?

Our life hadn’t always been so stressful. Wynn’s father and I had met more than two decades ago, at age 18. We’d partied then, but we grew out of it, found good jobs (his as a warehouse manager, mine at a jewelry store), bought a house, had a child.

We lived in St. Paul then. Neither of us were city people, and we packed up our car—along with little Wynn—every other weekend to decompress with my parents in the country.

My husband idolized my dad. “He’s the kind of father I dreamed of having,” he said. My dad took him fishing and hunting, called just to check in. Incredible to someone who’d grown up with unreliable parents.

One Sunday in October 2016, Dad went out to check the trail cameras.

“Your dad’s been gone a long time,” my husband said and went to look for him. By the time he found Dad, it was already too late. Undetected heart arrhythmia. Dad was only 64.

My husband started drinking hard on weekends. It’s a phase, I told myself. A way to deal with his grief. But the drinking escalated to weeknights, at work and then all the time.

I learned he was picking up Wynn from preschool after drinking all day at work. He got fired. “You have to get help,” I told him. “I’ll take care of Wynn. Just get sober.”

In July 2019, I gave him an ultimatum. Us or alcohol. Just like that, he was gone.

I got counseling, a support group. He served me with divorce papers that October. That’s it then, I thought. His recovery was out of my hands.

By March 2020, I was worrying how long he planned to drag out our divorce. Another month? A year? Focus on keeping things stable, I told myself. Keep it together for Wynn.

That didn’t last long. With Covid-19 spreading across the United States, Wynn’s preschool closed. The governor ordered the jewelry store and other nonessential businesses to close. We knew so little about the virus in those days. Sure, I was 41 and healthy, but what would happen if I got sick?

For a few days, I let Wynn watch YouTube videos. Then I felt compelled to get outdoors. It was March 25. The snow was melting. I could see grass greening in spots around the yard. Spring was on the horizon, a big deal in Minnesota.

“Okay, Wynn,” I said. “We can do anything you want, but it has to be outside. What would you like to do?”

Wynn put a forefinger to her chin, thinking. “Let’s go see 67 waterfalls.”

We’d taken Wynn to see waterfalls two years ago on a family vacation to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a region bordering three Great Lakes. Wynn, her father and I had camped, breathed the fresh air and cooked over an open fire. Her eyes widened whenever we hiked to waterfalls.

“Okay,” I said. “We can see six or seven waterfalls.”

“No.” Wynn said firmly. “Sixty-seven different waterfalls.” Sixty-seven waterfalls! Whoa. Wynn was too young to understand what 67 really meant.

She’d just picked a number out of the air, but we had free time. Why not humor her?

The next morning, March 26, we drove to Fairy Falls in Stillwater, 15 minutes east. We bundled up and hit the trail. A half mile there and back.

From the trailhead, I heard the rushing water. “You hear that, Wynn?”

She nodded. “Let’s hold hands inbercase we slip,” she said. I smiled. Inbercase was Wynn’s word for “in case.”

At the bottom of the falls, surrounded by trees and moss-covered rocks, we tilted our necks skyward to take in the splendor of the cascading water. We’d stumbled into a real-life fairy tale. No need to worry about my divorce or the virus. I felt lighter, more buoyant, free from my troubles. How had I forgotten that I needed nature the way I did oxygen?

Wynn, practically twinkling with glee, grabbed my hand. I snapped a selfie of us.

We went to see Willow River Falls a few days later, jumping over rocks and balancing on every tree root. I checked my phone. The governor had just called for nonessential businesses to shutter for another two weeks.

“Don’t worry,” my boss texted. “I’ve applied for a government loan. You’ll still get your paycheck.”

I didn’t end up going back to work until mid-May. Wynn and I used that time to explore waterfalls within an hour or so of our home. On Memorial Day, we hiked around Hidden Falls in St. Paul. I noticed a video going viral on social media. Bystanders had recorded George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, being killed by police officers in Minneapolis. By the time we got home, the city was erupting in protests.

I looked at my daughter, playing with her toys in the living room. I gathered her onto my lap, and we made a list of more waterfalls to see.

We explored Buttermilk Falls in Wisconsin on May 28. That evening, looters ransacked the jewelry store. My boss closed indefinitely. “Sorry, Colleen,” she texted. “We can’t reopen until we repair everything.”

Maybe Wynn’s quest to see 67 waterfalls wasn’t so crazy after all. It seemed like the only part of our lives that hadn’t descended into chaos.

Wynn and I kept at it, hitting up to nine waterfalls a day. My mom joined us for some hikes, and we adopted Dyna, a German short-haired pointer, to keep us safe. Wynn’s father continued to ignore the divorce papers, but being outside, letting the glory of Mother Nature settle over me with a kind of spiritual bliss, made everything more manageable. I could accept the uncertainty.

By June, Wynn and I were pros at chasing waterfalls. I called my friend Rita and asked if she wanted to join us at Big Spring Falls near her home in Wisconsin. Rita had recently been through a divorce, and it was reassuring being around someone who understood what I was going through.

We were relaxing there when the text came that Wynn’s father had signed the papers. Some of the old anxiety and fear shot through me, my mind reliving the trauma from my time as his caregiver. I watched Wynn dip her toes into the water. Would I be enough for her as a single parent?

Turning my gaze to the waterfall, I thought back on the past few months. I’d taken care of Wynn and myself through a divorce, a pandemic, a job furlough and other upheavals. I’d navigated new trails. We’d even camped out a few times.

Every outing I’d grown a bit stronger, learning to go with the flow, confident I’d rise to the next challenge. I’d begun this quest for my daughter, but it turned out that I needed it as much as she did. Maybe even more.

In the end, the jewelry store stayed closed for almost five months, which gave Wynn and me enough time to see 67 different waterfalls. With each step we took on our quest, I felt a little more whole. I was being led back to myself, to the person whose spirit overflowed in the cathedral of the great outdoors.



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