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.

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