Mild weather in the final days before Christmas let our family enjoy a hike in nearby Lake Ahquabi State Park. We followed the loop trail around the lake (highlighted in Hiking Iowa) taking us through the spectrum of natural communities in the park. Starting at the beach, where a broad view of the lake allowed us to observe a huge flock of Canada Geese standing on its frozen surface, we first walked through an upland forest dominated by mature white and red oaks. Most of the trees forming the canopy here were approximately 100-150 years old, having regrown from timber-cutting after pioneer settlement, but scattered here and there among them were older, larger white oak trees up to 300 years old. Recognized by their greater girth, elephantine limbs, leaning stature, and smooth white bark (the rough bark of youth having sloughed off during the years), individuals passed over by the pioneer cutting stood out distinctively amid the smaller, younger trees around them. Ironwood (also known as hophornbeam) trees filled the understory, their marcesent leaves clinging to slender twigs in rufous defiance of winter defoliation.
|Mature forest of mostly middle-aged white oak and red oak|
|A 300-year old white oak patriarch|
|White oak (left) and red oak (right) leaves on the forest floor|
Beneath the trees, the reddish-brown forest floor extended in all directions in open vegetation of sparse shrubs and scattered grasses. Although brightly filled with colorful wildflowers in spring, today we passed only wispy clumps of dried bottlebrush grass standing between scattered shrubs of native gooseberry and ever-troublesome honeysuckle invaders. Although shrub honeysuckles are the non-native bane of forest restorationists, their bright red pairs of fruits were admittedly pretty.
|Bottlebrush grass seedhead|
Lichens of several species populated the bark and branches of the trees. In the shade of the interior woods, I recognized the wrinkled, bluish-gray plates of Speckled Shield, the minty green patches of Dust Lichen, and the hieroglyphic streaks of Script Lichen (low light combined with their tiny size made photography with my point-and-shoot pocket camera difficult, so I ended up with decent shots of only the lattermost). At the sun-drenched edge of the woods, bright orange patches of Sunburst Lichen shared treetrunks with bright gray patches of Rosette Lichen.
|Gray rosette lichen and|
orange sunburst lichen
-click to enlarge-
As we continued along the trail, we encountered small patches of snow and mud bearing the tracks of turkey and deer.
Coming to the dam forming the 100-acre lake, we crossed its spillway on an arching footbridge. A treeless shoreline provided a scenic vista of flat, frozen water rimmed by black forest. A cacophony of cackles wafted across the expanse from the geese congregated on the far shore.
In the swampy floodplain beneath the dam and along the wet shoreline of the lake, we spied the elegant, white boles and branches of sycamore projecting eye-catchingly above the dark-limbed canopy of oaks, basswoods, and ashes. Its stellate, platter-sized leaves covered the floor of the floodplain forest, which is brushy with thickets of dogwood and willow.
We passed through a grassy opening filled with Indiangrass and clumps of black oaks; its savanna character is a legacy of its south-facing aspect, its long-ago clearing and pasturing, and its present-day maintenance with prescribed burning by park managers. It is thickly bordered with elm and black locust trees that would quickly colonize the opening if not held at bay by recurrent fires. In the trail bordering the tree-lined meadow, we found a hefty, green, cross-corrugated, grapefruit-sized ball, evidense that we had walked under an Osage Orange tree, another pioneering species. (This species was formally introduced to science with a specimen collected in 1804 by the Lewis & Clark expedition when it passed the mouth of the Osage River in western Missouri as the explorers ascended the Missouri River.)
|Leaf and bark of black oak|
|Fruit of Osage Orange|
We finished our 4-mile hike around Lake Ahquabi at the beach, where the geese were still talkatively congregated on the ice. At a high hilltop overlooking the lake, we stopped for a family photo by the sandstone lodge originally constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s and beautifully restored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in recent years. Filled with sunshine and shared experience, conservation and conversation, and hiking and habitat, our amble around Ahquabi was satisfyingly complete.
|Family outing: Peg, Will, Tarek, Beth, me|