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Afton conservancy celebrates Winter Solstice with public bonfire

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Belwin Conservancy Facilities Specialist Eric Palman spent seven hours building a Winter Solstice bonfire with logs and branches collected during routine maintenance throughout the acreage. The whole process took about seven hours. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 5
Belwin Conservancy in Afton welcomed visitors to its second annual Winter Solstice bonfire as part of an effort to open the land more to the public. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 5
Staff at Belwin Conservancy kindled a massive bonfire to celebrate the Winter Solstice Dec. 21. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 5
Visitors to Belwin Conservency's annual Winter Solstice bonfire enjoyed hot cider and a performance by Minneapolis storytelling ensemble Impossible Salt. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 5

For the second year in a row, Belwin Conservancy in Afton invited the community to huddle up around a roaring bonfire marking the longest night of the year.

The blaze ignited around noon on Dec. 21 as facilities specialist Eric Palman loaded on logs from fallen trees with a skid steer.

"It's to get a nice bed of coals going," Palman said of the seven-hour process. "If I just throw all this stuff on a new fire, it may just go out."

Hours after sundown, the stack towered over visitors' heads as embers shot into the sky to celebrate Winter Solstice.

The event was part of an the conservancy's effort to expose more people to its work.

Afton landowners Lucy and Charles Bell donated more than 60 acres of land to the newly-founded Belwin Foundation in 1970 for preservation and education purposes.

For more than 45 years, Belwin has partnered with St. Paul Public Schools to provide students with hands-on environmental education programs.

Today, Belwin covers nearly 1,400 acres and hosts more than 10,000 students each year.

But Belwin Program Director Susan Haugh said the conservancy hopes to offer opportunities for a broader range of visitors to experience its sprawling natural features including hiking trails, prairie acreage and a herd of bison.

"The idea is to start opening up to more people and have more public events to bring people into Belwin," she said.

Visitors at the bonfire enjoyed hot cider and an performance by Minneapolis storytelling ensemble Impossible Salt.

The troupe offered a theatrical retelling of "The Night Troll," an Icelandic Solstice folktale about surviving the "longest, coldest, darkest night of the year."

Belwin's next public event in February will feature stargazing, woodland and s'mores around the campfire. Minnesotan Painter Lindsy Halleckson and composer Mary Ellen Childs, who will both embark on an Arctic Circle expedition next year, will also speak at the event.

If you go...

What: Belwin Conservancy Annual Winter Open House

When: 6-9 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 17

Where: Belwin Conservancy, 1553 South Stagecoach Trail, Afton