Sunday, May 18, 2014

Paddling Pool 10 of the Mississippi

A guest posting by kayaker Steve Parrish of Des Moines

Some say paddling off-season is dumb.  “Why would you paddle when no one else is?”  And there is your answer: “because no one else is!”  No paddlers, no bugs, no competition for campsites.  

On April 26-27, six of us paddled the length of Pool 10 of the Mississippi, from Harpers Ferry, Iowa to Guttenberg, Iowa.  This scenic section is in the middle of a National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.  Using Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor, Iowa as our initial camping and staging area, our group consisted of John Pearson, Galyn Vande Zande, Kevin Beatty, Andy Stapleton, Rick Dietz and Steve Parrish.  Additionally, Forest Hoff was with us the first day and Diane Lowry joined us the next day. 

In preparation for this trip, I had reread sections of one of my favorite Mark Twain books: Life on the Mississippi.  Twain had taken a paddleboat north, and as he came to this section of the Upper Mississippi he recorded these still true words: 

“Such a people and such achievements as theirs, compel homage. This is an independent race who think for themselves and who are competent to do it because they are educated and enlightened; they read, they keep abreast of the best and newest thought, they fortify every weak place in their land with a school, a college, a library, and a newspaper.” 

This largely unblemished piece of the Mississippi may be carved up with locks and dams, yet I imagine it doesn’t look all that different from when Twain saw it. The river meanders through a maze of heavily treed islands while the shore juts up into alternating bluffs and rolling hills. Spring is a beautiful time for viewing because the leafless trees offer an open view while displaying buds suggesting warm days to come. 

View of  Pool 10 of the Mississippi River from Crow's Nest
in Pike's Peak State Park, McGregor, Iowa

The campsite in Pikes Peak is flat ground within walking distance of the peak and its trails.  The lookout from the park is spectacular.  Indeed, the broad vista of the Mississippi river valley almost led to the area becoming a national park.  A beautiful Friday night to begin our trip. Camping in this is the kind of weather and scenery beats any stay at a fine hotel. 

By the time the shuttles had been accomplished Saturday morning, we were able to put in at Harpers Ferry at 11 am.  Within eyesight of Lock and Dam 9, our plan was to paddle down the length of the pool to the next lock and dam - thirty-some miles depending on our route. The water was just below flood stage, and much of the tree covered shore was overridden with slack water. The current ran fast and smooth, and we experienced very little barge traffic - and even fewer recreational craft. For all intents and purposes, the Upper Mississippi was ours to enjoy. Flowing a blue/green shade against a cloudy sky, our vantage from the river revealed bluffs, railroad tracks carved into hills, and the occasional scenic small town. 

Around noon we worked our way out of the main channel, paddling into Ambrough Slough to be one with nature.  Immediately we saw a pair of juvenile eagles curious to check out our multicolored boats and gear. After performing an aerial acrobatics show for us, they flew away, allowing the herons and gulls to take over with their antics.   While the slough channel was sufficiently defined for paddling, the flooding caused the surrounding area to look like a Louisiana bayou.  It just had maples, ashes and willows instead of cypress and sawgrass.  And no sounds of banjos or smells of crab boil.

Once it became time for a break we went searching for a marked boat ramp.  Where a road and boat ramp were supposed to be, there was only a flooded park kiosk, with water covering up the brochures ensconced in plastic trays.  On either side of the submerged boat ramp were houses and cottages on stilts.  The water was half way up the walls of open car ports and garages, and there was little sign of life inside the buildings.  For now, these dwellings were only accessible by boat.  So we pushed on to the next boat ramp, hoping for higher ground.  No such luck.  No boat ramp; no visible roads; more partially submerged cottages.  We were about to take our chances looking for a high spot in one of the islands  when John noticed a hill in the road that allowed just enough above-water room for us to land and take a lunch break.  

Refreshed and recharged, we paddled back into the slough, looking for a shortcut to the main channel.  Much of the beauty of this part of the Mississippi is due to the hundreds of small tree-covered islands that dot the river, from the Iowa to Wisconsin shores.  These islands remind me of the mangrove keys of south Florida, where you can paddle through mangrove channels only to find yourself at a dead end with no access to the sea. Because of the flooding, however, it was possible to paddle over some of these islands, making a beeline straight to the main channel. 

Once in the channel, our speed again kicked up.  It was easy to maintain a 5 to 6 mph paddling pace because of the flow of the river.  Soon the Effigy Mounds towered over us on the western shore, demanding both our respect and admiration.  I had hiked up to one of the outcroppings the day before, marveling at the sight of the Mississippi below me.  The favor was returned when I craned my neck up to see how tall and sheer the overlook was from my river view.  The southern border of Effigy Mounds National Monument northern section is at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Yellow River. We paddled far enough up to say the Yellow to say we’d been there, and then headed back to the big river to work our way towards Manchester and McGregor.  We needed to drop off Forest in McGregor… his loss.  

The sky was getting cloudy and the east wind was picking up.  With almost twenty miles of paddling in, there was the temptation to just park the boats in McGregor and enjoy the brewpubs and hotels of the town.  We knew we were facing likely showers and wind for our evening camping.  We also knew we had a plan, and we were sticking with it.  So we did not stay long at the McGregor boat ramp, just long enough to bid Forest farewell.  

Venturing out into the main channel we encountered some barge traffic, but these behemoths were easy to spot, and we rarely needed to adjust our course. Plus, their wakes offered a brief respite from paddling the channeled waters.  On our five mile paddle from McGregor to the campsite, the sky was painted with a low canopy of clouds, and the ride become windy.  The current pushed us south, but the east wind caused the water to pillow.  We were again away from civilization and we began our search for the camping island.  We had been assured that the island would be above ground, even in flood stage, because sand had been dredged from the main channel and stacked on this island.  It was not hard to spot the one island with a sand beach on a hill.  The visible garbage accumulated near a fire pit broadcast that this was where humans camp.  

After getting out and being buffeted with winds on an ugly beach, we hoped against hope there might be some other, better positioned campsite.  We sent Andy out as a scout to check downstream for a possible site.  But, there were no other high ground clearings, and the wind was really picking up.  Andy struggled just to paddle back upstream to our location.  We were stuck on this dismal campsite for the night.  Surrounded by a field of poison ivy, we were sentenced to camp on a sand hill facing east into the wind. 

Pitching our tents was both an arduous and frustrating exercise. Even though we were wet and hungry, we knew the already clouded-over sun would set soon, and rain was likely to follow.  Time to set up shelter.   The gossamer material of our summer-weight tents turned into sails as we tried to wrestle them into poles and grommets.  Once we had them tenuously pinned to the sand, we used a combination of camp detritus, paddles and the actual boats to anchor the tents.  Anything with weight or that could be driven into sand became a way to secure our tents from flying away.  Dinner was a hurried process of boiling water, rehydrating dried mystery dinners, and a half-hearted cleanup process. Most of us were in our warm clothes, wedged into our tents by 9 pm.  For our evening entertainment we listened to the flapping and groaning of tents fighting with the wind.  

Others tell me they slept adequately.  I found the wind and subsequent rain too much for me of sleep.  The constant racket of trains from the Wisconsin shore heightened the cacophony.  Also, even though I’m not easily discomforted, the mouthful of sand I had consumed with dinner was irritating and grinding.  I must admit to feeling some stress that the tents might be unable to withstand the increasingly gusty winds.  By 3 in the morning, I gave up and went outside to make an inspection.  It was windy and rainy, and quite cold, but somehow it was comforting to see that the world still existed outside my tent walls.  I went back into my tent, posted to Facebook, and fell asleep. 

Come morning we could hear each other stir, but we mostly avoided getting out of our tents to face the rain. Eventually we recognized we had to engage with the outer world, and we began slogging around with our wet equipment, packing  gear in wet hatches, and attempting to make breakfast.  We were all waiting until the last moment to break down our tents, hoping to avoid stowing them in soggy piles in our boats.  This was futile, so we finally just broke down our tents in the rain- drenched sand, jammed them in the hatches, and prepared to launch.  We were to meet Diane three miles downstream and were already running late.  John Pearson was the master of understatement when he made two comments about our circumstances.  In his best scientific voice he said “there’s no word to describe these conditions but ‘raw’.”  Then, as we prepared to push off he commented “I would not place this campsite among my top ten favorites.” Indeed.  
There is an odd feeling I get when I’m in challenging conditions like these.  If I can get in my boat, I suddenly feel alive, in control, motivated.  The others reported a similar sense of relief.  We knew the forecast called for continued thundershowers, a number of storm cells having already passed through our campsite, but we were on the water, moving towards our destination. Notwithstanding a blowing east wind, the current slingshotted us towards a boatramp where Diane was nervously awaiting our arrival.  When we spotted Diane at the ramp, we saw she had wisely avoided putting her boat in the water, pending a discussion of whether to tough it out or call it a day.  The decision was to make a go for it, even though the radar indicated a bright red storm cell coming our way.  Andy estimated it was only a half hour away.
After inhaling fortifying cookies from Diane, we put in at the ramp and agreed to paddle directly to our takeout, about 8 miles downstream.  As predicted, a half hour later the storm cell blew in… hard.  The wind whipped up, and the rain became increasingly stiff.  It was pelting us so violently that I thought it had become hail.  Only by looking up and seeing no white pellets was I convinced this was merely a very hard rain.  Our hoods were on, conversation had ceased, and our shoulders were slumped, digging into the waves.  The rain hit so hard, the water popped up like millions of tiny little geysers.  

Caught in the rain on the Mississippi, photo by Andy Stapleton

And yet, I was having a great time.  This was a fun test of my ability to paddle through tough conditions.  Even though the shore was often steeply banked, I didn’t feel the same sense of being away from land that comes with paddling in the ocean or the Great Lakes.  I felt like there was always an exit plan... a nearby shore to exit to.  My only concern was that this fun storm might quickly lose its fun if it turned into a lightning storm.  And even though a gray veiled cloud curtain had dropped down from the sky, lightning did not accompany it. Thunder was heard, but lightning wasn’t seen.  

Just as I was starting to tire of the pelting rain, it stopped.  The deep cloud veil rose up, and the next act began.  Thickly overcast, there was a calm merger of sky and water.  I had a feeling of paddling above the water, witness to the Mississippi, but not in it. Sometimes we paddled past beautiful houses on shore, and sometimes we meandered among islands.  The fight with nature was over, and the friendship returned.  We were able to talk, tell tales and admire.  And so went the last few miles.  It wasn’t long before we saw the lock and dam that signaled the completion of Pool 10.  A few strokes to the boat ramp, and we could check the Mississippi off our bucket lists.  

I’m told the Upper Mississippi has some other pools, locks, dams, and challenges. I’m sure we covered the important stuff, but if not, perhaps another trip? 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Red Rock Reflections IV: Rewilding

Derelict boxcars on abandoned railroad
sunken into mud of delta at head of Lake Red Rock,
now a wildlife management area

Iowa lost its original wilderness, but could regenerate wild land on its man-made landscapes. Restoring wildness must include a determination to preserve and expand it in known strongholds - natural prairies, woodlands, wetlands, and streams - and a willingness to discover it in unexpected places. We can enhance the inherent wildness of White Pine Hollow, the Upper Iowa River, the Loess Hills, and the Mississippi blufflands… and the nascent wildness of Red Rock Reservoir. Indeed, wildness could be enhanced anywhere that undeveloped public commons - whether land or water, pristine or not - could be coupled with environmental stewardship of their private surroundings. With sensitive landscape management - an achievement that will require the cooperation of farmers, private landowners, and public land managers - all could become more completely and more permanently wild. Expanding, restoring, and recreating wild areas would allow Iowa to reclaim a long-lost ecological identity as a place for farms, cities, people and abundant wildlife, wild land, and wildness.

Compassplant on hill prairie overlooking farmland
along Upper Iowa River, northeast Iowa

 And the windsong in Iowa? Could we ever recreate a place big enough, quiet enough, and wild enough to hear that “background sound of silence”? Could we muster the collective will to restore a “ringing of the spheres”? I don’t know, but even if that utopian endpoint remains elusive, rebuilding a landscape with wildness near at hand would be its own reward. And perhaps - if we are bold, creative, patient, and lucky - our restored landscape will find a renewed voice.

This is the final part of a four-part essay on Wildness in Iowa; the series starts with "Windsong" .

Sources of quotes appearing in essay
1) Phyllis Fredendall, artist in residence at Isle Royale National Park, quoted in short interview in 2003 issue of The Greenstone newspaper of Isle Royale National Park.
2) Jonathan Waterman, “Humming Through Queen Maud Gulf” in Arctic Crossing: A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture, 2001, Knopf Press, New York, NY.
3) Rick Ridgeway, Below Another Sky: A Mountain Adventure in Search of a Lost Father, 2001, H. Holt & Co., New York, NY.
4) Henry David Thoreau, Journal for March 31, 1856, quoted in “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World”: Selections and Photographs by Eliot Porter, 1967, Sierra Club and Ballantine Books, New York, NY.
5) Gladys Black, “White Pelican” in Iowa Birdlife, 1992, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA.
6) Karl DeLong, “Des Moines River - Mid-March”, newsletter of the Central Iowa Paddlers
5(2):4, May 2001.
7) Gerry Rowland, posting on website.
8) Galen Rowell, “Yosemite’s Other Valley” in High and Wild: A Mountaineer’s World, 1979, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA.
9) Archie Carr, “The Big Cypress Swamp” in The Everglades, 1973, Time-Life Books, New York, NY.

Thanks to Roger Gipple of the Agrestal Fund, Mark Ackelson of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and Thomas Dean of the University of Iowa Project on Place Studies for sponsoring the Wild Iowa Essay Project in 2006 that prompted me to write this piece. An abridged version of this essay appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Iowa Outdoors (Brian Button, Editor), accompanied by beautiful photographs by Diane Michaud Lowry and Ron Huelse. Diane also provided the photo of the pelican, bobcat, and moonrise for this blog entry.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Red Rock Reflections III: Paradox

Despite the joys that I have experienced at Red Rock Reservoir, the wilderness purist in me finds it difficult to accept them in a man-made lake, as if nature had blundered in appearing here in violation of my environmentalist expectations.  Accustomed to a wilderness ethic learned outside of Iowa - the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, Canyonlands, Boundary Waters - I churn with ambivalence each time I paddle past the imposing gray hulk of the Red Rock Dam, my exhilaration of paddling across the expansive, bluff-rimmed lake tempered with guilt for a drowned river and an inundated landscape.  Is another dammed lake - an ersatz Okoboji - the kind of place that a wilderness lover can enjoy in good conscience?

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir below Kalona Peak
photo by King of Hearts, Wikipedia

Mountaineer Galen Rowell wrestled with this contradiction in an even more iconic place: California’s Hetch Hetchy, where John Muir lost a Sierra valley to a fake lake.  In Yosemite’s Other Valley, Rowell retells the story and adds a modern coda:  “Once the dam’s work was done, Hetch Hetchy entered a kind of limbo… Countless old Sierra Club Annual Bulletins are sprinkled with references to the sad results of having sacrificed [the valley]:  ‘What is Hetch Hetchy now?  Just another damned artificial lake.  Nothing but a narrow body of monotonous water with an ugly shoreline surrounded by stark stone walls.  Why would anyone go [there] now?’  Thus admonished, conservationists shunned Hetch Hetchy… Even climbers ignored the place… the ‘stark stone walls’ remained untouched.” 

Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, California

Breaking with decades of tradition, Rowell climbed a challenging peak next to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and later wrote: “We reached the summit, but the main event of the climb was the change in our attitude toward Hetch Hetchy. We had started this climb with a feeling of who-cares-what-they’ve-done-to-the-valley-we’re-just-going-to-climb-the-rocks; we finished it with a new sense of the meaning of wildness.  It was the look down that turned my ideas onto a different track.  There lay the valley floor.  But I saw no roads, no buildings, no campfires or smoke; heard no horns, motors, or voices.  Below was only a ‘narrow body of monotonous water’ whereas if I had been in Yosemite Valley, the same site would have been occupied by Curry Village, fifty motor homes, a dozen tour buses, and the Valley tram car… all the dubious benefits of national park status.  As the amber glow of the morning sun came creeping down the wall, I repeated my environmental catechism: Yosemite was made a national park, and the Valley was saved for posterity; Hetch Hetchy was ruined for all time.  It had a hollow ring.” 

Winter overlook of Lake Red Rock

In the paradoxical sense that Hetch Hetchy Reservoir deflected the trajectory of that Sierra valley away from over-development, Red Rock Reservoir disallowed its Des Moines River valley from remaining just another farmed floodplain in post-settlement Iowa.  Rather than destroying a wilderness, the reservoir and its narrow fringe of public land transformed a domesticated landscape into a man-made wild area.  Not a genuine wilderness, but an undeveloped public commons and a place for wildness to grow.  Kayaking there now - paddling over former farmfields, woodlots, roads, and towns - I encounter eagles, hawks, ospreys, vultures, pelicans, cormorants, herons, geese, ducks, swallows… otter, beaver, coyote, fox… long naturalistic vistas… and a sense of solitude and adventure.

Kayaking on Lake Red Rock near the Mile Long Bridge

Biologist Archie Carr writes of a similar experience with altered nature and regenerating wildness in the Big Cypress Swamp of Florida:  “The timbering of the Fahkahatchee prompted an all-is-lost attitude among most conservationists, and until lately this has hidden the fact that the place is still a treasure house of wild country.  I can remember my own feeling when they cut down the big timber in the Strand.  I did just what I am complaining about in other people: I wrote the place off and for years made no effort to visit it again.  But one day not long ago I drove out the Janes Road, the old timber road that runs northwest from Copeland, and I met a black bear and saw the royal-palm strand, and I realized how simple-minded it is to think that only virgin stands are worth saving.”  His story of unexpected wildness in an altered landscape serves as inspiration that all is not lost, even in places whose original character is gone - like Red Rock, like Iowa.

Bobcat at Lake Red Rock, photo by Diane Michaud Lowry

Forsaking altered landscapes as not “natural” or “wild” misses opportunities for appreciation and conservation of their remaining nature and relinquishes future decisions about their rebounding wildness to uncaring powers.  For conflicted wilderness lovers, the lesson is not that more valleys should be flooded (must large public commons necessarily be wet?), but that the wildness found in existing man-made lakes should be experienced, enjoyed, and fostered.  If we are to recognize opportunities for recovery in man-made landscapes, the self-fulfilling perspective of “there is no wildness left in those places” needs to be replaced with the outlook that “there is not enough wildness in those places, yet.”

This is the third part of a four-part essay on Wildness in Iowa.  The series starts with "Windsong"; the fourth and final part is linked here: "Rewilding".

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Red Rock Reflections II: Reservoir

Red Rock Reservoir is a large, man-made lake on the Des Moines River built by the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control.  At “normal pool,” it covers over 15,000 acres; at “flood pool,” rising up to 40 feet, it can swell to 70,000 acres, flooding a large marshland at the head of the lake.  The “Red Rock tide” is controlled not by lunar cycles but by actions of human engineers in a concrete bastion on the giant, riprap-armored dam.  The reservoir, bisected by a highway and buzzing with weekend motorboats, is a strange place for a wilderness lover.

Red Rock Dam, photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Red Rock is not a wilderness, but I have found wildness there - and opportunities for reflection.  Kayaking its coastlines and open water, I am impressed by its rugged sandstone bluffs, surprised by its wildlife, and captivated by its spaciousness.  Its huge size allows me to slip away from marina-tethered motorboats, pass beyond the bridge-bound highway, cruise isolated shores, and encounter natural beauty.  My discoveries of wildness have resulted not from a purposeful quest for a windsong grail, but from the incremental accumulation of unexpected encounters, experienced many times in many places.  Here are examples, vignettes from my kayaking journals:

Cliffs of Cordova, Lake Red Rock

March Snow geese fill the marsh and suddenly erupt into mass flight with wild screeching and a thunderous beating of wings.  The immense flock - some 10,000 birds - flies in a tight, swirling, amoeboid fashion, its black-and-white coloration changing kaleidoscopically with the frenzied flapping of black-tipped white wings, the shifting interspersion of dark birds among white ones, and the alternating sunlit and shadowed appearance of individuals as they wheel in and out of the axis between me and the midday sun.


June - Thick fog cloaks the lake and muffles the sound of sparse, Sunday-morning traffic on the Mile-Long Bridge.  Paddling west into the Red Rock Wildlife Area, I find a band of turkey vultures perched like gargoyles on a bluff, spreading their dew-soaked wings to dry in the rising sun.  Arrayed in uniforms of black feathers and red pates, they glare as if I have stumbled onto a secret meeting of druids.  Rounding a rocky point, I spot a coyote trotting along the clifftop just ahead of me.  I trail him for nearly a minute before he looks back and discovers me; he blinks in surprise, then glides into the forest and disappears.

Sunset over Mile Long Bridge on Lake Red Rock,
viewed from Elk Rock Cliffs

August - As the sun settles onto the humid horizon, I slip into the Elk Rock sea cave through its shaded entrance and paddle toward its radiant, sunlit exit.  As if passing through a magical dolmen, I emerge into a crepuscular otherworld, its dappled, watery plain dominated by the ochre orb of the sun setting in the ruddy rim of an azure sky, bordered with blackened bluffs, suffused with solitude.  I linger on indigo water, bobbing gently on languid waves, outlasting the sluggish sunset, flirting with darkness, then paddle through twilight to the final shore.

photo by Diane Michaud Lowry

October- A full moon rising over shaggy, wooded bluffs unrolls a silvery carpet across the dark lake and draws me past black, moon-shadowed cliffs.  Reaching the end of the Elk Rock bluffline, I enter the inky void of Whitebreast Bay.  For a mile, I paddle across black, featureless space, a spherical universe with a star-speckled dome above and black watery bowl beneath, bisected by a plane of moon-streaked water.

Winter view from Elk Rock Cliffs

December - Viewed from the Mile-Long Bridge, the lake is a vast sheet of ice.  In Elk Rock Park, I hike down a sandy trail into an oak forest and come to the sandstone cliffs over the lakeshore.  The long view of the frozen lake is beautiful.  Out on the ice, a bald eagle flies from one watery opening to another, hunting fish.  I am entranced with the solitude of this place and its elemental beauty of water, stone, forest, and distance.

Pelican, photo by Diane Michaud Lowry

Others have experienced magical moments at Red Rock as well.  Pleasantville ornithologist Gladys Black encountered white pelicans: “One evening I walked the trail though the woods in [Cordova] Park to the top of a high sandstone bluff, and there I could look down on the big birds on nearby sandbars.  Some were swimming abreast fishing… a few were in flight, coming quite close to the cliff, the flap, flap of the huge wings loud and clear… Later, all lifted gracefully into the air, formed into long straight skeins of thirty to fifty, and flew over the top of Elk Rock Bluff.” 5  Ecologist Karl DeLong of Grinnell once canoed in the delta at the head of the lake in early spring as winter ice was breaking up:  “There were over 100,000 ducks and geese and well over 100 eagles.  The current in the channels was close to top paddling speed and ice was scattered in the flow.  I felt like I was in the Yukon.”  River activist Gerry Rowland of Des Moines succinctly summed up a solo kayak trip:  “I was in awe of the red cliffs, the trees in the water, the wind and waves, and the vastness of the lake.” 

But no windsong, at least not yet.  I wonder if Red Rock - or any place in Iowa - could ever become a bigger, more complete wildland capable of sustaining one.  Presently lined with a thin band of public land, the emerging wildness of Red Rock Reservoir is only minimally shielded from intensive human use of its surrounding lands.

I dream of ways to enhance the place that I have come to cherish: protect its shoreline from encroachment, widen its buffer of natural vegetation, and manage its whole landscape as a wilder place.  Imagine that.

But a nagging philosophical question keeps returning: because it is artificial, could it ever count as wild?

Kayaks beneath the Red Rock Dam
This is the second part of a four-part essay on Wildness in Iowa.  The first part was "Windsong"; the next part is linked here: "Paradox".

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Red Rock Reflections I: Windsong

I’ve heard it twice, but never in Iowa.

The first time was in the Boundary Waters wilderness of northern Minnesota, four days out on a solo canoe trip: an odd drone - like a distant airplane, but one that never drew closer or receded into distance.  Like wind rushing though a forest, but on a day that was still.  Like buzzing from armies of cicadas, but there are none in the North Woods.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

The second time was in the desert, Big Bend country in west Texas.  My hiking partner couldn’t quite hear it, though he believed me when I told him.  This time it was two-toned, alternating low notes a subtle half-step apart, moaning softly like the slow push and pull of a bow across the bass string of a lone cello.  G and G-flat, long, slow, endless.  It came from beneath the horizon, rising over the hills, flowing acoustically through camp.  The wind, my rational mind speculated: a softly rhythmic zephyr sweeping the vast land, stroking countless grasses, shrubs, trees, rocks, and hills, eliciting a collective hum from an infinity of insubstantial vibrations.  Earth music, my poetic mind rhapsodized: bow of the sky drawn across cello of the earth, coaxing a wind song from the wilderness.

Big Bend National Park, Texas
Others have heard it, too, in other places. Phyllis Fredendall, an artist-in-residence at Isle Royale National Park, relates: “I became aware of a continuous, harmonic hum. Those two tones were with me as I paddled the outer islands, swam each evening, or cooked my oatmeal. I came to know them as ‘the ringing of the spheres’ - water, rock, and sky all resonating in perfect harmony.” Arctic kayaker Jonathan Waterman tells of hearing it while crossing Queen Maud Gulf: “the humming from outside the tent becomes so loud that my ears seem to be vibrating. Just like innumerable times over the last few years, I zip down the door to try to identify the source of the noise: Oyyy-oyyy-oyyy-oyyy-oyyy-oyyy-oyyy… I have heard it in midwinter out on the sea ice, miles offshore, and at all times along the shore… the sound speeds in intensity to a continuous hum, then stops as a pair of nesting loons quack past and the rain begins. Some things in the Arctic, I think, are best left unexplained. So I let it go.”  Mountaineer Rick Ridgeway, describing a subtle hum deep in the alpine wilderness of the Crystal Mountains of Tibet, states simply: “It’s the background sound of silence.”

John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

The hum of big, open, wild places.   Maybe that’s why I’ve never heard it in Iowa.  No wilderness left, not for a long time.  The prairie was here, big and wild, until about 1850, but I was born a hundred years too late to see - and maybe to hear - that wilderness.  Using the metaphor of nature as a book, Thoreau once lamented, “it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and read… my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages.”  Perhaps if Thoreau had lived in our era of digital media, he would have complained less poetically of missing tracks from the music CD of nature, the wilderness windsong among them.

Upper Mississippi Fish & Wildlife Refuge, northeast Iowa

But maybe I should go back to White Pine Hollow, the Upper Iowa River, the Loess Hills, and the Mississippi blufflands and listen more closely.  Maybe now that I know what to listen for, I might hear it in the biggest of our small natural landscapes here in Iowa.  Maybe a whisper if not a hum.

Loess Hills State Forest, western Iowa

Or maybe - if bigness and openness are crucial ingredients - it could be found, unsuspected, in big, open, man-made spaces like the watery expanse of Red Rock Reservoir, Iowa’s “inland sea.”  Maybe when the lake stops growling with motorboats and the Mile-Long Bridge stops whining with traffic, maybe at night when the daytime racket dies down, the faint music of a changed and diminished wilderness would seep back....

Red Rock Reservoir, central Iowa

This is the first part of a four-part essay on Wildness in Iowa; the next part is linked here:  "Reservoir".

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Reflections of 2013

Cold  Day at Cordova Cliffs (click link)

Frost on Bur Oak Leaf

Special effects in snowy road ditch
Expedition to Determine the Fate of the Peace Tree (link)
ACA Level 3 Instructor Certification (click link)

Fellow Honor
Bellwort, Dutchman's-britches, and spring beauty

Surprise snowstorm
Frost-covered pipistrelle bat in cold cave

Coast-to-Coast Hike Across England (click link)
First bobcat sighting (click link)
Project AWARE, Des Moines River

Another Adaptive Adventure in the Apostles (click link)

Fringed Gentian, Fall Color in a Fen

October Ladies'-tresses Orchid


Winter Kayaking on Lake Red Rock
Soundtrack: "Child's Garden" by Dax Johnson

Ice-bound Mississippi River