Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Canoeing the Shell Rock River, Floyd County, IA, December 6th, 2015

Shell Rock River Paddle
Nora Springs to Rockford, Floyd County, IA
December 6th, 2015

December in Iowa is not traditionally canoe season, but December in Iowa is also not traditionally 45° and sunny. But even before we knew the forecast, we had planned this trip, hoping the date would afford us some isolation and unique views of the riverside and valley. We, here, is myself and Steve, one of the few people I know with the affinity and willingness to enjoy the outdoors as I do in the part of the country, and my frequent travel companion.

We had gotten a good amount of precipitation, both rain and snow, in the weeks before our trip, and so the river was high without being too aggressive or unpredictable. We launched, conveniently, from Steve's backyard in the middle of town, but because of the soaring bluffs that started almost immediately down stream, and then flood plain beyond that, we saw few buildings. Our trip was on the Shell Rock River, a tributary of the Cedar River that flows from Albert Lea Lake in southern Minnesota and joins the Cedar near Janesville, IA. Our trip today would be about 10 miles in the middle of the river, from below the dam in Nora Springs to just above the confluence with the Winnebago River in Rockford.

Shortly after departure, we approach two bridges in sequence. The new, modern highway bridge that was maybe 40 feet above the water, sterile but safe from regular floods, and then a block later the older, lower, arched concrete bridge. I can only think that the trend of small, rural towns turning their main streets into highway like roads, eschewing any concern for visual appeal or pedestrian comfort, is a band-aide to declining traffic, and not a way to reverse it. Though, on a river that floods like the Shell Rock does, the new elevated bridge will do much less to constrain and focus the river during a flood and instead gives unmitigated access to the flood plain the river needs.
We pass under the second, ornate concrete arch bridge and pass two fishermen, like us enjoying the unseasonable weather, say a quick hello and drift on. A doe is on the bank too, sheltering in town no doubt on this opening day of deer hunting season. A sign of wilderness to many who grew up in the nearly deer-free mid-century Iowa, these animals now exist in such numbers they are more pest than joy to many others because of a lack of wilderness. The have no competition from other large herbivore like elk (native to Iowa) which cause more crop damage than deer and are eradicated when they do show up; nor predators, as wolves are generally unheard of in Iowa and can still be shot when seen. In an interesting sign that nature will find a way to bring balance, coyotes have started to display more wolf like behavior to take advantage of the food opportunity and are packing up and attempting to take down the larger deer.

Deer are symptoms of a lack of wilderness, but also harmful to what remains. Deer do amazing damage to woodland under-stories, making recovery from flood or fire much more difficult as they graze on seedlings. They are even sometimes more at home in town than the country and I personally feel they don't deserve the high esteem many give them.

Past the deer, we pass under and old steel pass-through bridge, where the truss is above rather than below the deck you drive on. Steve tells me it is closed to vehicles and remains just for bikes and pedestrians. I take this as a sign that towns are starting to recognize the value of recreation and active transportation, and save assets like this bridge to be developed some day. 

Below the bridge are some very minor rapids, shoals really, but as my hands were on my hot chocolate and not my paddle, a good reminder that it was December, and tipping would be more dangerous than in July. At 40° water temperature, we'd have maybe 30 minutes before losing consciousness. We will be avoiding that today.

Past the water treatment plan, we had one last visage of town. A once grand brick estate on 10 or so acres of pasture right along the river, now a shell of itself. Apparently the owners have no desire to restore or sell it, and so Nora Springs will probably eventually lose this little piece of cultural history like so many grand homes in so many small towns.

After the estate, the river became wooded on both sides. On the left, the western bank rose up a wooded slope that was a county conservation area, then downstream turned private, any home that was up there was hidden for the most part though. The right, east bank was a more typical bottom land floodplain forest, full of strong trees like White Oak, Bitternut Hickory and Willow. Trees that withstand the occasional flooding and frequently saturated soil. On the left we scare up a deer. As I noted before, this is deer hunting opener, and she has a pretty severe wound on her rump, though it looks like a coyote attack more than a bad shot based on how focused and bloody the wound was. She hobbled off deeper into the woods. Moments later a shape in the water caught my eye. A deer carcass? Steve was confident it was just a boulder, as we had been tapping the river bottom with our boat and dodging some rocks. But to satisfy a gentlemanly bet, we paddled up to it, and it was indeed a young spike buck. He had no signs of injury, and may have fallen in when there was a thin sheet of ice. The lack of decay indicated it was probably a recent death, though also that the imbalance of predator and prey was such that a scavenger wouldn't even stand in ankle deep water for a free meal.

As we approached the dull roar of the US-18 bridge, homes were closer to the river and more visible. An impressive set of stonework and concrete appeared to the the remains of an old saw or grain mill, a reminder of a more independent and industrial time in North Iowa. We pass under the bridge imagining the passing motorists, if they even notice us, to be calling us crazy fools, braver than them. But I really do doubt many would even notice. South of the bridge are again more homes down near the water, I suppose to balance out having to live next to an interstate highway. Apart from one, they are modest homes, set on a short bluff to avoid flooding. Fortunately, after this development we will only see one or two more homes before landing.

Around the bend from the homes, the banks generally open up and we can see cornfield stubble and grassy pastures. Occasional silos or windmills dot the horizon. With the surroundings being flatter here and having more loose topsoil than in the woods, the river starts to braid and meander more, developing small islands. We see one off to our left that appears to come back to the main channel in a hundred yards or so, and decide we have enough time to explore. The fact the water seemed to be flowing out of the inlet rather than with the river should have been a sign, but no, it must have been an illusion, right?

40 feet up what was of course the mouth of a tributary stream we knew that no, this did not connect back to the river. And of course we could not turn around by the time we realized this, and moving backwards shifted the weight in such a way we struck bottom and couldn't move. So we paddled another 15 feet up until we could get the bow against the bank that was not a four foot embankment, and I could climb out followed by Steve. 400 lbs lighter, the craft spun effortlessly, and save a single boot getting a little damp, we launched back into the Shell Rock without fanfare.

Shortly thereafter a monstrosity of a “log cabin”, still actively being landscaped, arises on our left. If it weren't so grandiose, it's position high above with a gentle slope to the river would make it a perfect place for a river rat to live, but I'm pretty positive whomever owns this house would not use the term river rat on themselves. Luckily, there is an island here, and we paddle to the far side, quickly hiding the house. In fact, were it not for that house, the island, a sort of savannah mixture of grass and trees, would have made a great lunch spot or even overnight stop. The surroundings on this stretch of river are almost entirely grassland, and threes would offer a good windbreak and place to hang a hammock. Of course, it's private property, so maybe not.

Just below where the river comes back together around the island is a small bridge, the only one for 5 miles in either direction. We had considered this as a stopping point during our planning, not knowing the stretch of river we were going to be on or how tolerant we would be of the cold. Now slipping under the bridge I was very glad we opted for the longer challenge of Rockford for a stopping point.
Past the bridge was the expansive Nagle Wildlife Management Area, providing us with uninterrupted grassland on both banks for over a mile. Only in the far distance could we see even a tall silo, and when we beached the canoe to look around, we could see even less signs of development. Sturdy evergreens popped bright and loud against the brown, monochromatic tallgrass that ran off to the gray-blue horizon, rolling over the sort of hills that while significant up close, fade quickly into a flat prairie background. The grasses, too, were so much more different up close than when viewed en masse. A dozen or more species every square foot, stalks of varying height, girth and shape. Blades of grass, seed head striped bare. Even some scattered flowers, petals still clinging but turned brown again, almost like they just want to belong.

We linger at Nagle only five minutes or so, making a loop on foot and commenting it could be a fun place to camp in the summer when being earth bound (i.e. not in a hammock) wouldn't be so cold. Back in our boat, the banks of the river slowly take on an almost Northwoods feel as bedrock is again exposed and pine and other evergreens become more dominant. The river briefly winds north, and we are buffeted by a wind that had hitherto had kept us moving at a brisk pace, and really was still unseasonably warm, but as the river turned south, we were quickly disrupted by something much better than cold.

A large trumpeter swan entered the water from the bank at sight of us and began paddling ahead. It's a little redundant to say a “large” swan. With five foot wingspans and large bodies, they are some of the heaviest birds in North American skies. Our swan, an uncommon but no longer rare sight since being reintroduced to Iowa in the mid-1990s, stayed a few yards in front of us for several minutes, allowing us to get as close as we felt appropriate (which was not very). As we rounded another bend around a floodplain grassland, this swan turned to face us. But before we could get a good picture, a hawk swooped from a long tree, catching out eye. Either scared itself or sensing us to be distracted, the swan began it's long take off, running and flapping, slapping the water loudly on its way upstream and back around the bend. We sat for a moment in awe of our experience with this more exotic charismatic megafauna.

The next mile or so we were quiet, and while there were more quiet, and while there were no obvious houses, someone had flooded a pasture right up to the water, the barbed wire removed any false hope of wilderness, and though the opposite bank was more rustic, there were signs of habitation as well, like a (vacant?) deer blind. But the steep slope did at least hide the cornfield beyond, more than we could say for most of the final stretch of our trip. The river has a decent bugger strip of grasses, but for the most part, corn stalks or a barren field were always just a few yards beyond.

But we did have one last reminder that wilderness once ruled here. As we passed another rocky outcropping, Steve spotted a bald eagle making slow circles above the river, occasionally disappearing beyond the trees. Then, it landed in the barren crown of an oak tree, just on the bank. As I attempted to catch it in my binoculars, I suddenly noticed another eagle in the same tree, and they started screeching, or really a loud chirp. Eagles do not make as impressive a sounds as TV would have you believe. And then, the nest. It was not as a grandiose as the other nest I know of locally, but still massive. As the nest does not appear in any satellite imagery, and breeding season is right around New Years, I believe this was, so to speak, a pair of newly weds preparing to be yet another boost to the recovering Bald Eagle population in the Midwest.

We left the lovebirds and rounded a corner again surrounded by two columns of flood and fertilizer buffering grass strips with cropland beyond. Soon, houses start to line the banks, marking the outskirts of our destination town of Rockford. There is, oddly, a jet ski parked behind one, and I'm glad it's too cold for that person to be out ruining my quietude. There was a serious of small rapids leading into town, making the last half mile of our trip someone more exciting. Helping, too, were the several hundred geese that took off as we arrived at our park, the thunder of wings making it almost impossible to hear my shipmate.

With the water at a winter low, we had to take a few steps in the river pulling the canoe out, but with the truck a few steps away, we weren't concerned. In the same park, last spring, a black bear was spotted and tracks were cast, one of at least two, and as many as six bears that were roaming the northeast corner of the state at the time. I am anxiously waiting now to see if any return this year.
When we depart, we check out a recently removed low head dam father downstream in Rockford, a restorative effort for the river which we appreciate, and we talk about how we could pass here via canoe if and when we paddle the last few miles of the Shell Rock.

This would end up being my last trip of the year, and the weather combined with the relatively undeveloped portion of the river combined to reinforce my belief there is wilderness to be found, and even more areas that should be protected and restored. There are animals big and small, beautiful vistas of grass and water, and quiet.

We drove the canoe home to Steve's house and I returned home. I decided I would buy my own life vest and paddle, and begin planning my 2016 adventures, because to me, half the fun of travels outdoors is the planning, when time off from work and endurance are unlimited, and anything can be conquered.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Hiking the Rolling Prairie Rail Trail, Franklin and Butler Counties, Iowa

Hiking the Rolling Prairie Rail Trail
Franklin and Butler Counties, Iowa
October 10th - 11th, 2015

Enjoying the outdoors in the Midwest can sometimes mean being exposed to some great, unknown experiences. It can also men, and maybe more often does mean, taking advantage of what comes your way. And because the Midwest is largely private land, this means accepting whatever public land you can get onto as good, public land which often comes in the form of vacated railroad Right of Ways, laid out to bring hordes of people west, stopping every 5 or 10 miles to load up on water for engines and grain for market, but now surpassed in efficiency by trucks and cars for moving commodities and people.

Various groups, nationally spearheaded by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, have been working to take these right of ways and convert them into bike trails. The logic is great as these paths are already graded and ready to be paved (a casual biker, like a train, doesn't do well going up a slope greater than 5%) and they connect existing places. In the rural Midwest especially, these trails can serve as valuable drivers of tourism and economic growth as bikers want amenities like cafe's and bars to make a trip complete. The Rolling Prairie Trail, between Coulter in Franklin County and Shellrock in Bulter County, Iowa, is one of the these trails, spearheaded not by the Rails to Trails Conservancy by the County Conservation Boards, with a goal of making this nearly 40 mile trail an attraction for Iowa's very active bicycle community.

However, in the time between being a path for trains and a path for bikes, this trail, like most, sits as just a very long, narrow, conservation easement; open in most places to hunting and all places to hiking, though without a designated “trail”. And because it was once a railway, there are few houses near the trail. All of which combined to make it a perfect east overnight for me and my friend Steve. As the date grew closer, the unseasonably warm weather also meant it would be a great chance to try hammock camping.

My wife and I picked Steve up from work on Saturday afternoon and made the trip south to Hampton quickly. Despite not being the end of the trail, Hampton is the largest town on the route, and getting on the trail as late as we did (4:38 pm) we didn't want to risk walking through here later when we might violate the city's park curfew. Plus, this got us to the secluded areas much faster. With our backpacks and hiking book, I'm sure we looked odd to the joggers and bikers we passed, but by a mile or so out of town, we were alone.

Like most Rail Trails in the Midwest, Rolling Prairie is generally arrow straight, however decades of lack of use have at least allowed nature to reclaim some of the sides and trees and bushes now give us a little change of scenery. Also changing was the path under our feet, from paved to hard pack gravel to dirt with smatterings of railroad ballast. At some points, the ballast grew large, even melon sized; this feature is probably the most difficult and off-putting aspect of the whole trail.

I had anticipated this first section of trail would be more well trodden and have more signs of use, but in all reality, it was not that different from the more remote sections we would cross later on. Except in one regard. Roughly three miles out of Hampton the trail crossed a road and there was a “road closed” sign across the walking section. Beyond, the trail looked more well maintained than behind, so we assumed it had no impact on us and was to keep people from accidentally turning here, being as there was an intersection just a few yards away. Of course, we went around the sign and enjoyed the well packed trail. A half mile ahead, the reason for the road closed sign became evident, and it did impact us.

As I would later learn, in 2013 the Franklin County Conservation Board received a gift from the North Iowa Community Endowment Fund to install functional bridges over creeks in this section of trail. And this, a 100 ft long wooden beauty, made our walk much easier in the starting to fade sun. Wide enough for an emergency vehicle or trail groomer pulled by a snowmobile, but filled in enough to allow crossing by bikes and people. No skipping from tie to tie for us this night. Instead we could stop and take some pictures of the setting sun, a tractor in the distance combining corn, racing the same dark we were. We would cross another shorter, though just as attractive bridge just a short distance away where we stopped to relax and watch cows watch us. 

Shortly thereafter, we passed through Hansell, a town of under 100 people 5 trail miles from Hampton, and exactly the sort of place that will benefit most from the trail when completed. But for now, it's just a grain elevator and a place we breeze through, aware of the sinking sun and a barking dog we are not quite sure is fenced in.

Out goal for the night is a conservation area adjacent the trail where we can hang our hammocks out of sight, because even though we are within the law, we don't feel like dealing with inquisitive locals. Once it came safely into view, though, we felt it was okay to pause and view the blazing sunset behind us. The uninterrupted Iowa horizon giving us a nearly 180° view of orange and red and purple. 

We regretted, a little, waiting so long, as it was pitch black by the time we did make it to the trees. But after a short amount of fumbling, first through what I was afraid might be a marsh but was just grass, then over a berm into the trees, we found a suitable place to hang out hammocks, without cover tarps in the 50° warmth, and set about making supper. The dehydrated chili was, as should be on any long hike, much more delicious than it could possibly be on a normal day. We crawled into bed by 9, having hung our food a hundred yards away and were treated to quite the show of stars through the trees.

In the dark, in the openness of a hammock, the small Iowa woodlot did take on a more unearthly wilderness than I expected. Of course, this being October in Iowa, a combine ran most of the night, and a grain dryer all of it. Buy beyond that, the natural world made itself much more known. Paws crushed leaves and scratched bark. At one point, something suddenly, I don't know, screeched (?) an cawed in a nearby tree, loud as if startled, but made no other noise then or the rest of the night. We spent some time wondering aloud what it could be, but eventually drifted to sleep.

A brisk but not brutally cold, sunny morning woke us. No sign of our mystery beast, though we did realize walking another 50 feet would have given us much better options for hanging hammocks, We ate a quick breakfast of cold oatmeal and were on the trail by 7:30 or so. 
We quickly cross the next road, the county line, and the difference on the trail is stark. Franklin County, where we are coming from, has maintained most of the trail to a level of passibility throughout. Butler County, where we are entering, has opted to focus on certain sections more in-depth, this western edge is not one of them. The trail is thickly covered with tall prairie grass, brambles and bushes. The ground looks intentionally broken up to dissuade passage. We push on. Eventually trails made by deer, or hunters, become passable, and human activity is obvious. A washing machine in the ditch hints why the county might have made the trail impassible. ATV trails and a bridge hand-made from a pallet hint that plenty of people don't care.

Here, we again feel more isolated though, with the thick trees and a slight ridge to the north blocking our views. We saw some wildlife, a deer, a pheasant, an maybe most interesting, a black skink, a sort of lizard native to Iowa, which was warming itself in the sun at the mouth of its burrow. We also saw indications of an older type of agriculture, with hog huts hidden deep in the woods, from a time when pigs were free range instead of manufactured. And, at a home just outside Dumont, horses, now pets instead of instruments of farming or transport.

And at Dumont (population 633) we stepped off the trail to poke around, refresh our water, and make comfort adjustments to boots and packs. I am quite sure anyone who say us thought we were homeless hitchhikers, but to their credit, said nothing. We walked through downtown and up to the city park, then wound through residential streets past the vacant school.

Dumont, at about 13 trail miles from Hampton, is another town that will benefit from a functional trail. They already have that small downtown with a cafe (to be fair, I'm not sure it is in business or not) and a bar, as well as space adjacent to the trail where a pavilion could be built. And there is at least a convenience store where we stopped to get water (the park water was off and we didn't want to try our filter against the heart of Iowa farm country water if we didn't have to) and snacks. Again, I'm sure we were discussed after we left.

Just outside Dumont we came to what I think will be the biggest roadblock to completing this trail, as well as the defining feature (again, this will be a good thing for this town!). 400 ft long, 20 ft over the confluence of two streams is a massive, but damaged rail bridge, this time with no fancy covering. The base seems sturdy, but some ties across are missing and other have been burnt or rotten beyond passage. 
After some time surveying from solid ground, we took a few steps out. The bridge seemed solid, so I proceeded as far as the where the burnt gaps started, but Steve held back. It seemed he has having some vertigo issues, and felt crossing the span wouldn't be the est for him. He opted to follow the river to the road and meet on the other side, while I inched across.

The worst area was about 100 ft out, where 3 and 4 ties were missing at a time, and even the supports showed signs of having been burnt. Someone, it seemed like they were out here regularly, had laid ties over the supports perpendicular to their normal direction, so at least there were 6 inch balance beams to cross on (with ample hand holds). I slipped off my pack so as to improve my balance, and scooted it in front of me while I crawled almost on all fours. The opening gave me a good view of the impressive structure holding the whole thing up, a little comfort to know the whole thing probably won't collapse under me. I just need to stay on top. Massive pillars of wood two feet wide where they sink into the river at 10 foot intervals, with a trellis of equally impressive beams building up to the deck I should have been able to walk over much more easily than I was. Once I was past the gap though, walking became much easier, and at the middle of the bridge where the truss system transitioned from wood to metal, I was able to stop and take in the scenery. 
I was standing above the confluence of a relatively large but unnamed stream with the West Fork of the Cedar River, which occurred in the middle of a woody cow pasture. Aside from some fencing and the bridge itself, I could see no sign of man, not even the cows. Even in October, most of the trees still had leaves here down along the river, and many prairie flowers still bloomed. The water here moved quickly, and there were an assortment of well worn logs washed up on the banks of braced across the pylons of the bridge. The water was clear, and I could see fish. I would later learn the West Branch is an official water trail, and now I can't wait to pass under the bridge I was walking over.

I continued to the other side, know I have some time to kill before Steve catches up but not wanting to make him wait. At the east end, I make a quick descent to the water to fill a sample bottle for a citizen-science project on micro-plastics in water, run by an organization called Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. This sample, along with hundreds of others will be analyzed at a lab in Maine to build a model of how and where these pollutants are entering the world's waters.

Strapping the sample into my pack, I proceeded on what may haven been the most idyllic portion of the trail, a place someone clearly cared about and for. A think, brushy tunnel 10 feet wide and arched 10 feet tall as far as the eye could see. This was something out of a story book. Twigs were trimmed back cleanly and there was no debris or trash anywhere. But while it was pretty, it had a more urban park feel than wilderness, and so I was glad to leave it behind in a sense as well. It would be the last time on this trip I would have to worry about that.

I met Steve where the trail crossed the next gravel road. He looked hot and uncomfortable, and said he had to walk along the highway rather than the river because it was too marshy. We ducked off the road onto a much more overgrown and shadier section of trail, alternately following deer or ATV tracks, We passed a Christian Service Camp, but the most interesting thing we noticed was the rock we walked on.

It varies radically, sometimes every few hundred feet. Different sizes, colors, textures. Clearly it was fill from the construction of the rail bed, and the variety indicated they were bringing in whatever they could to fill fast enough to keep construction on schedule, not just relying on small local quarries. 
When we wandered into Bristow, a down that despite being farthest from a completed trail was obviously excited and expectant. The new town welcome sign even had a metal bicycle on it, and was positioned where the main through road crossed the trail, visible to both driver and biker. On the far side of town though we found the trail was essentially non-existent. There was an obvious right of way, but no mowed path or deer trail or even shorter grass growing out of rocks. Nature had seemingly totally reclaimed this section. But it was barely lunch, and we wanted to take advantage of our time out, so we pressed on. Luckily the hidden ground was stable and level, and only after a few hundred yards we opted to stop for lunch in a small clearing rather than eat on the go where we couldn't walk without looking at our feet.

Not long after that then, the path did open up, and we were treated to something I had expected much more of, wide open views. This section of the trail was largely pasture, prairie and farmland, where the western end of the trip ad been more woodland and farms. The constant wind rustling through the blue stem and high, midday sun gave us much more in adventure feelings than the mostly distant farm houses took away. There were several short bridges to cross, again no problem despite being untouched since the last trains went over them, and we spent a fair amount of time deciding when we should tell our ride, Steve's wife, to pick us up.

About four miles from our chosen destination, after passing through a grove of trees near a home that had started to be cleared, apparently for the trail, we could see we'd have one more tree covered hill to surmount. It's rise on the horizon, with the cut of the trail right up the middle, was quite the landmark, though the ability to see we'd be making such a straight line all the way to the horizon did detract from the experience somewhat.

The rise was, as this was an old rail bed, gradual. I would suggest to anyone building a trail here in the future to use any adjacent public lands to create short, winding, more difficult trail to garner some more interest. But at least as we did go up, trees again became more present. There were signs of old culverts and stonework as well. Sumac was present here but nowhere else along the trail, and perhaps most oddly, there was an obvious spring that made our walk much wetter than expected, so much so that eventually a small stream formed adjacent our walkway. 
This is the section of trail I would most like to return to and explore. The tipping point came near the peak, just half a mile from Allison, our destination. A short trestle bridge, maybe 20 feet across, was positioned over a seemingly man-made cut in the hill, below which was an exposed concrete culvert, complete with an ornate arch, that allowed a small creek to flow from one side of the hill to the other, as if the hill had been built over the creek, or the creek diverted from a different route.

Only now, too, as I remember and record this trip, does this odd location stand out as an especially important spot. Wilderness, the outdoors in general, in the Midwest is an awkward balance of actual unique features and nature holding strong against the crush of humanity, and the pure reality of human desolation. While Iowa is actually an urban state (more than half the population lives in cities) it also has townships with fewer than 20 people, or .5 people per square mile. We are not the endless loneliness of the Sonora, or the Great Basin, but nor are we the megalopolis New England, and we never were. But we were a much more crowded pace a century ago, like Appalachia or the Adirondacks, places that now have wilderness within them. And I think we need to look at Wilderness here in the sense of Eastern Wilderness, to an extent, not Western Wilderness as our position relative to the Mississippi River would dictate. 
We should leverage our loneliness, and our remnant patches of tall grass and bottom lands and meandering rivers, and not be discouraged or dissuaded by an old shack or pilot mound station. There is great beauty and much to be learned from uninterrupted horizon of grass, but also from the first peoples to try and live here, among the “wild” and establish our modern culture. And besides, if we want our wilderness to be totally virgin of the human existence, I think there are some tribal groups we ought to speak to. 
Past the oh-so-strange bridge, the trail descended quickly towards a highway. There had been a bridge here the last time I passed through, but it was narrow to go under for cars, so I assume they cleared it to widen the road for “safety”. Beyond the gap we could see the paved trail start and head into town, then on beyond our view another 15 miles.

When this trail is complete, it will be a slight loss from the limited isolated natural areas we have here, but such a gain for all the small towns it will touch. And it's a needed gain. Our ride meets us on the edge of the road, and on our ride home on this Sunday afternoon, we drive through town and town looking to have a beer and a burger, and in four towns, each of well over 1,000 people, we find none. Wilderness indeed...

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Paddle-Packing the Cedar River, Mitchell County, IA

Paddle-Packing the Cedar River
Mitchell County, Iowa
July 5th, 2015

I had been looking forward to this trip for some time. We would be combining two of my greatest outdoor passions, hiking and time on the water – while also providing a rare experience for a full day adventure in the Iowa outdoors that required little to no backtracking. My co-adventurer Steve and I would paddle about 6 miles down the Cedar River from Mitchell, Iowa to just south of Osage, Iowa; then hike back along a county nature trail for 9 miles.

We picked up our aluminum canoe from a friend along the way, half pleaded him to come with, and then hit the road. What should have been a quick 30 minute ride was delayed though, as, while roaring down the highway at 55 miles per hour discussing the price of Iowa farm land, the bow of the boat, visible our the windshield, slowly lurched right, then violently swung off and hit the gravel shoulder of the road with a sickening crunch. Then the middle, still attached to the bed of the truck, caught, and caused the canoe to be dragged the boat twenty feet along until Steve could safely stop the truck. But what looked like a fatal blow to our trip just ended up giving us a more charismatic canoe. The bow was dented, badly, but otherwise she was structurally sound. The bow loop, which had been connected to the strap that broke and started the whole mishap was also ripped off, but we recovered it and Steve thinks he can repair it all.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, and we pulled into Mitchell's Interstate Park around 9:45 to find it full of campers still waking from the 4th of July festivities the night before. Interstate Park is named for the large dam, built by Interstate Power (now Alliant Energy), which is still functioning and providing power to the area. The dam, 15 or 20 feet tall, creates a long, gentle portion of the river above, and flood control below. It is one of only a handful of operational hydro-electric dams in Iowa today.

We put in on a gravel beach below the dam, kicked off and passed under the highway bridge we had just crossed over, and very quickly it was very quiet. Quieter, in fact, than we expected as it was a holiday weekend, and also because we had gotten quite a bit of rain in the last week and the Cedar flood easily, even below the dam. But it was not flooded today and with a strong headwind we actually had to paddle most of the day.

There is a road to one side of the river here, and the trail we will return by on the other, but for a long time all we see is a great blue heron and some swallows. We were down stream nearly two miles before we were able to do anything more interesting than watch a car go past, but it was still nice to sit in the warming morning sun and chat.

About two miles down from the dam, there is a small island separated from land normally by a slough, but with today's higher water, it was perfectly passable. We slipped over the rocks and debris that normally pile up at the head when the water is lower, and entered a pleasant green tunnel. But it was not just a pleasant green tunnel, it also hosted one of the more exciting elements of our trip.
Steve saw it first. Just fifteen or so feet off the ground, a massive Golden Eagle sat watching us from a branch. This river is home to many Bald Eagles – the year prior we often counted 4 or 5 at a time and even now there was a nest we'd see if we had stayed in the main channel – but a Golden is a much more rare bird. We are able to get close, probably within thirty feet, and confirm there was not way it could be a juvenile bald eagle, but certainly a Golden. A firm reminder that there is still much to be protected in Iowa.

Downstream again we joined the main channel, and it was calm and tranquil again. This is a simple, relaxing river, at least at this time and place. We are passing along the heart of a county conservation area, where things are left more natural and we can see what kind of power the river can unleash. Up on the bank, sometimes ten or fifteen feet about the currently elevated water level are dozens of branches, logs and tree trunks, some twenty of thirty feet long and wide enough around that two grown men wouldn't be able to reach. And this river tossed them like Lincoln Logs.

One thing Steven and I wanted to try today was paddling upstream. We had read about various people doing so while adventuring more remote places and were eager to give it a try and see if we were capable explorers. We chose a mark, a power line running along the Highway 9 bridge, and just after passing under it began a gentle paddle, time it for 60 seconds, then spinning around, we began to paddle furiously. It was harder than we expected, especially considering the strong wind now at our backs, and we worked every muscle to move the boat. We did eventually get back to our marker at the bridge and much to my surprise, it took us only twice as long to go upstream as down. But that was maybe 100 yards, I don't care to know what it would feel like over days and days and miles and miles.

We relaxed after our push upstream and the river slowly started to become more meandering. As a river rolls along and picks up silt, it begins to flow a differently. Water can only keep a certain amount of particles in suspension at a given speed, so when it becomes overloaded, the water slows, the particles drop out and build sandbars and islands, forcing the water into smaller spaces, which means that for the same volume of water to go through it must go faster, so it can and as it does it carries more silt. This is how any larger river will eventually for a set of sand bars, islands and channels that constantly move, and we were experiencing a miniature version on this upper stretch of the Cedar.

The high water meant the islands and sandbars weren't so much a navigational issue, but a problem of choice. We picked our way between clumps of sand and vegetation and did go down a side channel that we were unsure would let us out at an appropriate place to approach the upcoming rapids, but that only made us feel like we were in a little more remote locale.

We did get back tot he main channel is plenty of time, and were able to beach our boat in a campground called Spring Park and survey the situation. The rapids, a mix of just shallow water and large rocks, as well as rip-rap meant to solidify the parks position at the bend, went all the way across the river. With the damage from our transportation event we weren't keen to press out luck on any rocks, but after considering a portage had no logical re-entry point, opted for a relatively calm area against the far bank.

We hopped back in the water and had to paddle hard across, as our launch point was only 30 or 40 feet upstream of the rapids, and as small as they were, we did not want to hit sideways. As we approached the far bank, we swung the bow left just in time to hit the first crest and...nothing. We tapped a few spots of gravelly bottom, but otherwise the short section was no different than any other, maybe a little faster. Lesson learned: we need to spend more time in rapids to understand them.
Below the rapids, the last mile of our paddle took us between high wooded hills mostly devoid of obvious humanity. We spotted our bridge and pulled off to the bank, and scouted ahead on foot to find a place to fully pull out that would be close enough to both the road and a place to lock and hide the boat. We decided on a thicket of trees that would keep the boat of out sight, and still just at the bottom of the embankment to the road that would make it an easy carry out.

We first unloaded our small amount of gear, and I hopped into the back of the boat to paddle closer to our storage spot and Steve walked down to catch the bow and lift it over the rocky bank under the bridge. I waited until after he had pulled his canoe out completely to inform Steve that I had never paddled a canoe alone. We used a bicycle cable lock to secure our ride to a tree, grabbed out bags, and hit the road.

* * *

Iowa is known, accurately, for straight, flat roads overlooking corn, beans and hog confinements. But there are exceptions, and Lime Kiln Road is one of them. From the river, we followed a long, slow curving slope, passing a few small hay fields and cottages, and one massive deep ravine. Woodland crept in close to the road, and with almost no traffic, we felt more like we were in northern Wisconsin than northern Iowa. Knowledge that multiple black bears had been spotted locally in the past few weeks heightened the feeling. All in all, this was a very pleasant part of the trip instead of the slog I was expecting. And I'm sure we gave the few drivers we encountered a good smile with our odd combination of hiking gear and wooden paddles.

Lime Kiln Road took us eventually to the Harry Cook Nature Trail, operated by the City of Osage Park Board. It is a gravel and dirt trail, similar in appearance to what you often see in a rails-to-trails conversion, though that is not in fact it's origin. As near as I can tell from researching the history of the area, this is the old stagecoach trail townspeople would take to the same park we were headed to, but more on that later. We start by walking in a narrow wooded corridor between homes and a cornfield, but after a half mile or so cross a road into a more isolated, wooded section.

The sun has gotten high by this point, and the move to solid shade was very welcome. The trail moves closer to the river again, rolling over a number of small ridges between gullies. We pass through a dry creek bed, the same creek bed where the water that cut the massive gully along the road flows. It's unclear if the creek is just not making it this far (we know it exists farther north) or if flooding has caused it to re-route and join the river at a different spot. The hills start to make us feel isolated, glad there aren't many nature lovers out today. We are reminded, though, of the true rugged and secluded nature of our situation when we pass two older women out for a Sunday stroll. So maybe there is some “take what you can get” mentality here. Oh well.

When we come into sight of the river, we stop for lunch at the top of a slope 50 or 60 feet over the water. We finally saw our first boaters here, an impressive family with two adults and two small children in a canoe and a teenager in an inner-tube tied behind. I ate simple sandwiches and dried fruit and jerky, Steve a series of trail meal type items he was testing for a trip to the Boundary Waters later this year. As the conversation turned to “what would you do in a Zombie apocalypse”, we decided we were ready to move along. We met a young woman on a bike who demonstrated great trail etiquette by announcing herself when she came up behind us and walking her bike past us. She would be the last trail user we would see that day. I have yet to decide if it's great to get the isolation or sad to see such resources go unused.

The Harry Cook Nature Trail is technically just the portion of trail that runs from Osage to Spring Park, where we had surveyed the “rapids” a short time before. We arrived here on foot now to see a few more people preparing to hit the river for some afternoon cruising or waiting to pick up those started upstream with trailers. There were also people camping and generally enjoying the park, but again not as many as I'd like to see.

Spring Park is a very old piece of public natural space, especially for this rural area. It's use as a camping and recreation area goes back to 1894, when early citizens of Osage purchased it as a semi-private camping club from a local farmer. Eventually, after growing the park to protect more land, it was deeded to the city, the caretaker now since 1938.

The park is named for an artesian well that has been the central feature since the beginning. It is still tested and available as potable water year round (a service we happily utilized while visiting); and was in the past even used as a liquid refrigerator by early park owners, who had semi-permanent containers with holes that allowed cold water the flow through. This kept perishables like milk around prior to ready supply of ice while people often camped here for a week or more at a time.

Now the park has some nice shelters, playground equipment, bathrooms and about a dozen campsites which we passed on our way through before hooking up to the Cedar River Greenbelt Trail, our route for the rest of the day. Greenbelt trails in Iowa are generally trails on land that has been purchased from private land owners after flood damage, ideally to protect them from further losses while allowing the public access to this less-valuable land.

The southern section of the trail (north of the park) is less used, and we find ourselves hopping over downed trees and walking single file instead of abreast as we did on the stagecoach portion of the trail. One backwater stream had a nice tall iron bridge like you would find in an urban park, but another albeit smaller creek had only stepping stones and a wooden plank. The trail stayed on bottomlands for about three quarters of a mile, giving us occasional river views, and then after a last pass by an obviously regularly flooded bend in the river it veered uphill.

The soil on the trail was hard and well worn, as unlike other places it was not overly washed out and gullied. This was a testament to both good trail building taking the hill at an appropriate pitch and angle, but also the fact this was a hill that had seen probably thousands of years of floods by the Cedar and still stood its ground. All that remained was harder, packed rock and soil.

At the top of the hill we were greeted by a cornfield, and the trail took the form of a lane through some private ground. To our left, opposite the corn, was a woody savanna pasture that included perhaps an old farm site or a family's person vacation spot, complete with a pavilion, tire swing, and of course, a no trespassing sign. It obviously looked over the river and I'm sure that sign has been ignored many times. Someday, I hope, the land can become part of the greenbelt, but I don't blame the owner for keeping it to themselves.

This lane leads to a blacktop road, which we had to follow for a quarter mile, and then to a somewhat major highway (though still just a two lane road) which we walked on in order to cross the river and get to where the trail restarted. This minor inconvenience highlights one of the major inconveniences facing the construction of long distance trails in Midwest: access to public land. Even in this very progressive, outdoor-minded community, the trail has to follow one of the busiest roads anywhere within an hour just to connect. There is plenty of undeveloped or privately protected land, but whereas in other parts of the country easements are often utilized, here we get nothing. Combine this with the fact that Iowa, Central Illinois, Eastern Kansas and Nebraska lack almost any large tracts of protected land and it's a wonder we can go backpacking at all!

Once our route does rejoin a trail, after we went under the bridge to avoid crossing traffic, we are officially in the Falk Wildlife Area owned by the Mitchell County Conservation Board. In Iowa, County Conservation Boards act as a sort of mini-Department of Natural Resources, and were founded originally when some counties felt land was not adequately being protected for public use. Unfortunately county budgets can only carry conservation so far. We pass a few buildings – conservation office, heritage museum – and enter the woods. Like much naturalized land in these parts, this is an old quarry, probably for gravel, and the pits are now small ponds. One here hosts a family of swans, and because the prairie potholes that used to dot the fields nearby have largely been drained (as they have been across the region), these ponds are a welcome addition for naturalists and migrating waterfowl alike.

The trail climbs a small ridge which in reality is an old flood levy and turns to follow the river. There are a wide variety of trees here, mostly old large ones that predate the quarry operation, and smaller ones that have grown in since. On the river side of the trail, where sunlight has better access, there are many wildflowers, though mostly past peak now.

When the trail splits, to a higher pasture path and a lower river path, we stick with the river. It is at first a shelf of dirt and ruble at the base of tall cliffs, just a few feet above the river, if that. Presumably the reason for the split trail is to allow access during annual floods, though it also allows for looping without so much repetition. There were still a few places that were difficult to access given the recent floods, but horse droppings and hoof prints indicated it wasn't that bad.
We did start to see people utilizing the river, especially more social groups of kayakers and tubers. It was mid-afternoon now, so apparently people just needed more time to get going. Many would holler and wave, probably confused as to why we were bothering to walk with paddles. Hopefully some caught on and were inspired.

We came to the spot near where we had seen the Golden Eagles, but on our northbound pass, it was the trail condition that was much more interesting.

A sign indicated we would be crossing private land for a few hundred yards, and the trail instantly fell in quality. It became narrower and full of tree roots. Where it went up a hill, it was a muddy gully; no leave-no-trace practices here. I could not imagine taking a child or a horse here (though obviously the latter had been done often). Again, private land owners unwilling to share the (unutilized) portion of their land for anything but the most marginal public use seriously hampers and entire communities exposure to the to outdoors. What could be a premiere destination is instead an afterthought.

Fortunately the next landowner is more open, and has allowed a wide gravel trail to be build just outside the fence of their cow pasture. We see a small herd in the distance on a hill, but they pay us next to no mid. The trail is very well built here, as much for bikes as hiking it seems. Rip-rap boulders of concrete and re-bar protect the bank where the trail touches the river, and a built up dam/bridge gets us across a woodland gully. It was almost too much, too far away from the natural setting I seek, but the river valley's overall beauty, and location in otherwise endless farm country, made it all worth while.

The path curved around the edge of the pasture between the fence and a surprisingly deep gully. No, not a gully, a ravine. We were in very short order 300 feet from the river and 200 feet above it, and the cleaved out portion of earth here between us and the water was almost vertical, and yet full of trees and underbrush. At the head of the very short ravine, we passed back onto public land at a small parking area, and the other side of the valley rose into a magnificent bluff top oak savanna. Trees often 4 or 5 feet around created a park like setting, though the grass was only loosely being mowed by a farm implement and there was much bull thistle. A burn would do the area well.

But it was inviting enough, and the trees were just the right distance to show off and trial his new hammock set up. I had never set up a camping hammock, and so the ease with which Steve set up a surprisingly complex hammock and cover was impressive. Sitting and laying down, I was amazed at how comfortable I was. I could easily imagine using this as is for many nights of the year, an a sleeping bag would make it capable of replacing any other means of outdoor lodging (provided of course there are trees). I quickly feel the urge to travel more wildlands, explore more remote corners of the continent, but first, to finish the day.

Even standing still for 30 minutes, we saw no hikers, no horseback riders. And we were less than ¼ mile from a parking lot on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Perhaps, I think, the first step to a more naturalized Midwest is to get people to use what we have. And while there is something counter-intuitive about wanting a more crowded trail when seeking wilderness, there is still something to be said for supply and demand. And if people choose occasionally to paddle the Cedar River instead of the Brule, or hike the Loess Hills instead of the Foothills of Arizona, we might prove to the people at the purse strings that it is worth setting aside and protecting, or even restoring land here in the heartland. But we've got two more miles of hiking and these are thoughts for the wrap up of a story, not the middle.

Once the hammock is packed up (again, incredibly easy and fast), we keep moving north. The conversation dips back towards apocalyptic, with a question of how long could one stay in woods this small unnoticed, then paused on what large predators could survive here, then to another thought provoking incident.

Steve had been on this section of trail before, and had seen two men in camouflage, with guns, hunting. Unexceptionable for rural Iowa, hunting is the main driver of our Natural Resource program. But this was well out of any season, and they had rifles, illegal for hunting in Iowa. Poachers. Scary on its own, but troubling on a whole other level when we consider again that hunting is the main driver of Iowa's Department of Natural Resources.

Hunting is a huge driver of public land acquisition and protection across the whole country, along with fishing. The Federal Pittman-Roberts Act, which places a tariff on guns, fishing poles, and other related products has funded hundreds of thousands of acres of restored habitat that is also used by hikers, campers, and boaters. Hunters are often the leading conservationists in a community, and groups like Ducks Unlimited and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation supplement Federal and State land purchases as well.

But when land is protected primarily, or even in extreme cases solely, for the use of hunting and fishing, and not the many other wide-ranging social, ecological and environmental benefits, a certain small sub-set of the hunting community can take the impression that other groups should be excluded. Of course, there are hikers who act out of line and interrupt hunters, the game gets away. When a hunter confronts a hiker, it involves a weapon in the hands of a the aggressive party. A totally different dynamic. And when the aggressive party is operating outside the bounds of the law anyway, it is best to avoid the situation all together.

I do not want to drive a wedge between hunters and hikers though. Quite the contrary, it makes the most sense for those groups to work together as closely as possible. The best times for hunting are often not the best for hiking (I don't want to spend all that much time with deer trying to make babies). And many times the best places for hiking don't offer the cover or clear shots needed for hunting. So if we can work together, demonstrate the demand for land is there, and then cooperate to acquire that land, we will all be better off.

After passing the poacher area, we were within about a mile and a half of the end, as several signs indicated, and with the trail being less than riveting here compared to much of the rest of the day, talk moved to plans for the future. And the quiet, isolated but well worn nature of this section lended itself to being more in thought than watching for other people or roots to trip on. We talked about what to do that night, where else to adventure in our back yard. This last mile, as I said, is flat, with nice views of the river. It's a good cool down for our legs and would be a nice warm up if coming from the opposite direction. The trail leads up to the road, and we must again walk on an unprotected shoulder across a bridge to get where we are going, the truck.

* * *

We cover the same section of river for the third time in a day, but again it feels totally unique. We are now focusing on houses and land for sale and moving at 40 mph instead of 3 or 4. We pull up to our canoe hiding bridge and gingerly descend to avoid parsnip as we go, eager not to get burned on this otherwise nearly fault free day. We haul the canoe up and load it awkwardly into the bed of the truck. We take back roads home for everyone's safety, and in doing so discovered there are more small creeks to explore than we ever knew. We just need to look, reach out, find partners for ourselves and for our missions, and regain access and protection for the land that can help us all.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hiking the Lost Creek Trail, Fillmore County, MN

Lost Creek Trail
Fillmore County, MN
June 5th, 2015

When my wife dropped me off on the side of the road, I was stunned to see how much the trailhead was overgrown. I had helped with a native seed planting here years ago, and cut trees out after that, and both times it had been fairly barren. But now, despite the trail seemingly getting regular use, the healthy plant community had restricted the path connecting the road walk shoulder to the small bridge that started the more “natural” section of the trail to less than a deer trail. It bothered me that the trail maybe wasn't getting the attention I think it deserves, but it was good to know too that I would probably be alone.

The Lost Creek Trail in Chatfield, MN is a 7.5 mile long hiking trail modeled after the Appalachian Trail and the Superior Hiking Trail; which cuts across private and public land on the western edge of the Driftless Area. The first mile or so is a paved path in a city park and a broad shoulder walking lane on a county road leading out of town. I helped one of the trail's founders, who also happens to be my father-in-law, bushwhack the route early on, as well as build a few sections later, and we chose to start at this spot specifically because the county had the foresight to add a walking/biking lane when they rebuilt this road last.

The road trail goes as far as a property owned by the local historical society, meant to preserve the historic landscape of dense woodland. It is separated from the road by a small ditch/stream, that now has enough water flowing in it and plants surrounding it that it is actually quite pretty. There is a small old bridge someone donated that crosses the stream, and this is where I begin my hike.

The historical society site sits on a relatively gentle slope that has been selectively logged over the years to encourage good habitat and timber. The dominant feature I note immediately is soaring, arrow straight walnut trees. They create a wide open but shade filled domain that has allowed dozens of species of woodland wildflowers and the like to form a dense, waist high mat of green that I could almost hear respirating. Unfortunately, I could also still hear the occasional car zip past just beyond the confines of the woods. And so I was grateful as the trail got into a little steeper area where more trees had been left for erosion control and created a stronger barrier to the road. The path was also less interrupted by low-lying foliage, and soon turned up hill, into the defining landscape setting of Southeastern Minnesota. 

Here, a small stream has cut into a hillside, exposing the Decorah Shale Edge. Long, thin bands of limestone stacked on top of each other, remnants of an ancient sea bed, compressed over millions of years. The semi-permeable nature of the rock, called a karst topography, means water – even full blown streams – can disappear into the ground; and that springs pop up everywhere. All these springs and the streams they create combine with the easily erodible limestone to form a maze of canyons, valleys and ridges that can't be farmed and so make great woodland habitat to explore. This would make up a large part of the rest of my day.

The trail continued up the slope before turning sharply to the right and climbing near the top of the same hill that was being eaten away. Another quarter mile and the woods thinned. I came out into a grassy spot between the woods and a newly planted cornfield, and followed a line in the grass to a gravel road.

The road that I would be walking for the next half mile is a relatively light use gravel road, one that doesn't really go anywhere itself but connects two other roads. Running between farm fields with a few houses along it, this road does offer a stark contrast to most the rest of the hike. Along the road, in the ditches, are several sets of bird houses. 10 inch tall pieces of 5 inch diameter PVC pikes with wooden lids on metal poles, 15 feet apart with a hole cut into them.

These are designed for Eastern Bluebirds, a native species that has been negatively affected by the transition to bigger fields, which means fewer trees and fence posts for them to nest in. The nesting boxes provide perfect size cavities with the perfect size openings for Bluebirds. Of course, other birds, particularly wrens and swallows, are about this size as well, which is why the nests are placed in pairs. Those wrens and swallows are very territorial within their own species, but not towards bluebirds. So by placing the two nests close together, enthusiasts risk giving up one to ensure the availability of the other. And the metal pole? That's snake protection.

The road turns 90 degress and passes a field marked with signs pointing out the farmer is integrating hay into his rotation of crops and practicing terracing, both means of soil conservation. The road turns again but I continue straight, down a field driveway into a farm field. This is a corn field, you can see the stalks just coming up, but it also appears that this is the same conservation minded farmer. There is a wide grassy path around the edge for the trail, sandwiched between the tilled ground and a thick, lush green fence row. Milkweek, raspberries, ditchweed and a host of other plants are still in grow mode, just a few have started to flower or even bud out. These are the types of places that are critical habitat in farm country for species like bluebirds, but also games birds like pheasants and quail and even whitetail deer. They can use the habitat to shelter in bad weather or hide from predators and nest, and it provides for more food like seeds and insects over the year than the corn and soybean fields otherwise would.

The next section, though, shows not all fields leave this kind of space, as the planted ground goes right up to the forest edge, and would probably go farther if it weren't for the fact the forest was hiding a steep drop-off. Still, the property owner has allowed people to cross their private land, a rarierty. And they have their own conservation practices, particuarlary no-till planting, meaning much more organic matter stays in the soil and it won't run off as much. There are many ways we can have a little less impact on the land, and where we use them is as much a factor of where and how as who; it's important to recognize that and celebrate every step someone takes rather than berate anyone for lacking purity. I am able to keep a good pace here, too, and the position of the trail does provide an interesting contrast between the woodland and modern agriculture. I pass through a few places where the woods have taken a bite out of the corn and soybeans before pushing through a bramble of bushes and out onto another gravel road, this one a dead end with a few houses.

Where the road reached the trail marker to turn, there was an interesting sign. This section of trail is on a cartway. Public land, owned by the township that was meant to provide a right of way and nothing more. Not paved, no power lines, just a two track path that allows land owners a sort of back door to hard to reach places on their property. It is a legal tool used almost exclusively in Minnesota.
Along the cartway but facing the road is a house, with several paddocks in back, and then a fenced in pasture, all very bucolic. At the crest of a small hill, there is a small but broad canopied tree, and a turn in the trail past that. The trail enters a massive grassland there. Still being spring, it is bright green with only specks of purple and white dames rocket, or tiny bits of yellow from the just budding golden alexander. The next miles is a walk in this wonderland, and after only a few steps the rolling hills block out the last cornfield I will see until the end of my route. And in fact, the rolling hills of prairie grasses and flowers block out almost everything, and combined with the woods to the other side create a real illusion of wilderness. I pause for a while to really relish in the sight.

With the sun inching ever lower in the evening sky, I barely half done, so I moved on. I entered the woods on a bluff top ATV trail used by the landowners to harvest timber. The broad, clear trail allowed me to look up and take in my surroundings more than I had been doing in the grass while still moving, as the regular rain and sunshine had made the trail overgrown there and less visible.
The woods here were full of large, majestic trees. Oak, maple, and walnut dominate, in a few variations. But I have learned to identify stray apple, hawthorn and others as well. These are hardwoods and the northern edge of their habitat for the most part, and on north facing slopes coniferous woods like pines are more prevalent. This blend makes logging all the more attractive, as landowners have some flexibility to follow prices in choosing what to harvest and leave the woods more diverse. These landowners are definitely conservation minded as they take only the most choice trees, encourage the growth of others, and leave underbrush to secure the topsoil on the often sloping ground. The underbrush here includes myriad woodland wildflowers, shrubs, forbs and sedges, a carpet of green still transforming the woods out of its winter browns.

The logging trail rises and falls repeatedly, and my legs feel it. This is a fairly aggressive section of the trail and I'm taking it at a quick pace. I really hope to get out more, and while a six week old baby would hamper most, I hope to use trail time as bonding time. And a baby in a carrier makes for great training weight that looks less ridiculous than a full blown pack on a city street.

Heading down a hill I started to hear the trail's namesake, Lost Creek. Or so I thought. Finally emerging from a particularly dense bunch of trees I found a tiny creek, maybe two inches deep and four feet wide, the small canyon it was in echoed the babbling and making it sound much louder. Crystal clear water cascaded over fairy tale stepping stones, clearly someone was showing the trail some love.

And across the creek, yet another steep embankment that displayed the bedrock hidden just below the surface. City into that bank, where it was muddy instead of rocky, was a staircase, at the top of which a sign indicated it had been constructed by the Iowa/Minnesota Conservation Corps. Being an Iowa resident, it was a little sad to see we have so little outdoor space, so little to conserve, that we have to tacked on to a neighbor in order to have enough work to justify a team of teenagers and college students time. But it was a nice set of stairs and though I had spent a good five minutes resting at the creek, I didn't mind the help getting up the hill.

The trail here was back to a narrow single track, the type of trail that allows hikers to present they are so much further away than they really are. But here, one doesn't have to wholly pretend. Sheer cliffs and dense woods mean you are often several hours from disruption, or help. It is because of this that southeastern Minnesota harbors more wildlife that similar or even more northern parts of the state. In the last few years, bears, cougars, wolves and bobcats have all been sighted, some with enough frequency you might think there was a resident population. (Between when I took this hike, in fact, and when I am writing this, three bears have been spotted to the south in Iowa, along the southern rim of this Driftless area, and logic would point they would have moved through this very area last fall, and one seemed to be on the way back.)

But no sightings today, and shortly after a bit on this single track, I came to a fence with a special device that allows people to cross, but not let out the cattle that were being held within. After crossing the gate, the trail split into a high road and a low road, with westbound traffic (me) indicated to go low. The trail here was effectively a cow path, and in short order it finally led me to Lost Creek! The cattle, which were rotationally 'flash grazed' through here, had left a broad, grassy plain at the bottom of the valley and the creek had cut another two to four feet through the rich soil that accumulated during floods. Because the cattle had not apparently been here in a few weeks, and indeed were not here while I was hiking, the grass was long and tall, and the whisper it played so nicely with what could only be called a babbling brook.

Since this was a place cattle congregated, not passed through, there was no good trail. Instead, the blue arrows posted on trees that for most of the trail were just a gentle reassurance, were here the only sure way to know where you were going. These were joined by the occasional metal fence pole with a Lost Creek Trail sign and arrow attached. Normally, I would not be so fond of this intrusion into nature, but I recalled my first time crossing this pasture, the day we bushwhacked the predecessor to the trail. That day was not as fine a day as I was experiencing now, and our time was cut short in this field by a crash of thunder and a deluge from the sky. I would not want to be in that situation not knowing which way to go if I were a day hiker or with a small child.

I did eventually make my way out of the creek bed, and in walking up a small slope saw a sign that read “60 Foot Tall Cliff;” and sure enough, peering through the thick trees I realizes I wasn't able to see all that far because a great beige limestone mass was rising up out of the ground. I could see the top of the sheer cliff was covered in foliage and trees that looked identical to what I was walking in. The new awareness that this sort of topography existed in these woods, and in fact could so easily be hidden made me a little more cautious as I passed over another cattle grate into denser woods.
After crossing another small creek and climbing a valley wall the long way, there began to appear signs put up by the local conservation authority along the small logging road I'm now on describing sustainable forestry practices that were in use, as well as identifying some key tree species. Small 1985 and 2010 clear cut sections of woodland show amazing regrowth when there are plenty of seed producing adult trees around the edge. And the shot of sunlight through the canopy can help other plants there in the short run as well.

This is all the same idea as the rotationally grazed cattle, wildlife development and no-till farming. This is fragile land here, and not terribly receptive to “traditional” row cropping methods of farming much of the time. So some landowners have chosen to diversify their operations, and in doing so seem to have found caring for the land above and beyond in the short run leads to greater reward in the long run, as it so often does.

The trail turns off the small logging road for one last time and winder through a stand of large hardwoods before opening up to a massive prairie bordered by evergreen trees. Christmas trees in fact. White pines, spruces, and whole host of pointed top green giants that make of the older plantings of Thorn Apple Farm's Christmas Tree operation, though many of these are beyond being used for your normal family gatherings. They have now grown to full blown habitat and are headed towards timber status, though some are still used for churches and very large homes, which helps thin the stand as needed. The trail here is a broad, mowed path, and as it moves through big blue stem and gentian, it also passes one of the more impressive man made features on this landscape.
Decades ago, someone built an earthen dam in one of the many ravines, nearly 30 feet tall, it is erosion control and creates a small pond of water if you were to graze cattle here as a previous owner did. It also allowed for a road, probably for early pioneers, to be built back down to the creek bottom, which the trail now follows.

This section of Lost Creek was more native-esque than the cattle pasture, which also means the creek was much less often visible. Rather than able to see if for hundreds of yards, it was only though windows between walnut saplings and lush sedges that I could see the creek. The owner here was in the midst of a multi-year program eliminating the invasive Reed Canary Grass with a mix of tactics revolving around helping trees grow large enough they could shade it out. This allows a broader diversity of native plants to thrive, creates a more pleasant woodland, helps flood control, and again in the future will more for a better, more profitable timber stand.

I cross a small wooden bridge built just for hikers on this trail, which is anchored on only one end so it can swing out in a flood without being washed away, and then the creek disappears behind a wall of grasses. Crossing a culvert from Thorn Apple Spring, I can see a few dozen, well, wooden poles in the ground. They are young trees, willows and cotton woods, roughly two inches in diameter and 8-10 ft tall. They were harvested a few miles away, near where I started this hike in fact, and are inserted into small holes dug into the thick roots of the Reed Canary Grass. Because of their species, they will sprout both roots and branches, the roots below those of the mat-like grass roots, the branches above the reach of browsing deer. Freed from these two impediments that have held back reforesting, the trees grow into a canopy, eventually providing better deer habitat an shading out the destructive invasive grass.

The trails turns up a long hill out of the creek valley and into a forest of oak, hickory and cherry. It essentially doubles back and is now on top of a ridge 50 or 100 feet above the creek. I get my first reminder in a while that I am still in farm country, as corn becomes visible through the trees on my left. I am nearing the end, but this last mile has some excitement in store yet.

Just off the trail, near a sign marked “Blow Hole” is a unique little ecosystem called an Algific Talus Slope. Specific to this small part of the world, this quirk of geology occurs because of the wet, porous nature of the rock, the slope of the hill, and the wide variability in temperature through the year. In the winter, cold, damn air flows into the open fissure, freezing to sides and chilling the wet rock around it. Come summer, the cool air inside the mini-cave draws more air in, but cools it and the cool air flows through the cracks underground to other openings, creating cool spots that have harbored plants and animals that long ago migrated north or went extinct. This was thought to be the case with the Iowa Pleistocene Snail, which was rediscovered in 1955. These remnants exist throughout the Driftless area of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Shortly after my visit to the blow hole, the trail leaves the logging road it has been on and enters a thick, rolling section of woods as a narrow but well trodden track. This is my favorite part of the trail. Steep switchbacks and obvious yet hidden presence of wildlife, tracks and calls and the like, makes it feel so much more remote.

After a long, steep descent, the Lost Creek Trail crosses one last small stream, a spring that has carved out an impossible valley for how small it is. Stepping stone rocks have been put in place, and standing on them I look back upstream into a fairytale glen of greenery. This is in a way the boundary of the deep seclusion of the trail. Crossing over I climb up the steep opposing side of the valley, actually slipping a little along the way, and finally emerge into an open prairie. In the distance I can see a few silos, and I hear a car go past.

There is still though interesting and impressive scenery. The landowners have direct seeded thousands of walnuts, acorns and other seeds in the past decade, and this is now a chest high forest where was once a cornfield. Opposite that, pine and other coniferous trees, particularly the impressively deciduous coniferous tamarack trees (which have pine needles which brown and die off in the winter), have created a pleasant savannah like setting. I pass by this and a hay field, trying to absorb the last bits of quiet as the sun creeps ever closer to the tree lined horizon.

I round a last outcropping of trees, again they hide a steep valley that feeds a spring into Lost Creek, and pressing up against a corn field the parking area and road come into view. I would take a short road walk and then cut back to the family house I was staying at, but most people will get in a car or turn around here. Someday, maybe the trail will be extended though, there is a bit more interesting terrain and landmarks to the west, but now now.

I have spent many hours on the trail. Scouting out a route when it was just an idea, building, maintaining and just enjoying parts of it. But this was only my second “through hike”, and my first alone. It was a wonderful reminder not just of the physical beauty that exists in Middle America, but the community beauty. This trail is almost all on private land, organized and maintained by private individuals, and paid for with donations and a few grants. We really lack access to nature in the Midwest, but the Lost Creek Trail does a little to fix that.