I had two friends come up for RAGBRAI, and with the ride’s terminus just a short drive from my home in McGregor, they asked if I’d be willing to shuttle them out to Iowa’s west coast and drive their car back so it’d be waiting for their weary bones come adventure’s end.
They acted like it was really putting me out, which was funny, because never ever will I pass up a good excuse to visit the Loess Hills, let alone in the peak prairie season that is midsummer, and especially so if someone else is paying for gas.
I stayed with them the night before the ride began, and with the tent city vacated by 6:00 AM I found myself all alone on a beautiful day with nowhere else to be except home in time for work on Monday. So I did a little homework on the Iowa Prairie Network’s “find a prairie” page, and decided I’d try to stop at a few remnant prairies outside my floristic province.
I’d first visited a remnant prairie – at least with something resembling my present mindfulness – in 2017 at the Iowa Prairie Conference. To that point I’d loved prairie plants, and greatly relished our own little examples of remnant grassland habitat overlooking Motor Mill and Bloody Run from the bluffs above.
But with the conference taking place out west, I had another experience entirely. The loess hills had huge tracts, hundreds of acres or more, of remnant prairies. I fell in love.
Prairies are all different, remnant or reconstructed. But something else gets into your bones on a high-quality remnant. I recognize (some of) the plants, but the feel is different. Something you can’t quite put your finger on. I've been tapping great minds for insights on how to actually recognize remnants versus well-developed reconstructions.
I asked a prairie expert about this at Winterfest last February, and for a guy who had just gone through dozens of slides showing graphs and carefully diagramed photos cataloging prairie development under various conditions his answer surprised me.
“It’s kind of by feel.”
He did have some more science-y explanations. The distribution can sometimes inform; remnants tend to have a more even, undulating mix. Blazing stars weave in and out, the slightest depression gives way to prairie cordgrass and swamp milkweed before drying out like a wave on the other side. Some indicator species, like puccoon, won't likely grow from (or even be in) a seed mix. But I was still stuck on his first note. It wasn’t about the actual objectivity of a site, but the ethereal component, even for this hardcore academic. Seeing them, really seeing them, requires forging a connection by meeting them. Since then it’s been a sentiment I’ve heard many times over from my fellow grassland nerds. So when I had the chance to pick my way across the state, I decided it was a perfect time to get acquainted. I stopped first at an expansive preserve in the middle of Sioux City managed by The Nature Conservancy. Like any naturalist, I didn’t get far without immediate distraction.
White prairie clovers, Dalea candida, stood right inside the gate like greeters explaining where I was.
My eyes adjusted to see what else was waving on the hillside. I noticed a leadplant at my feet, and with the search image on my retinas I suddenly saw them everywhere. They were a dominant, vigorous shrub here, where I was used to their occurrence only as wee, scraggly cliffhangers on the edge of precipitous valleys.
I aimed for a lovely looking point, but I had no destination in mind. In the prairie there is no destination, just joyful wandering. An indigo bunting sang on the top of a short, skinny elm, stunted from years of fire damage.
The loess hills are essentially giant dunes, and soon I found myself on the other side of the angle of repose. The steeper hillside was covered in white sage, a whiff of the west, fragrant in the emerging sunlight.
I wanted to stay all day, but I knew there were others to see. I checked for any enticing parcels further east, and found a little 20-acre plot in what looked like 10,000 acres of corn on the google map. I raised an eyebrow, and started driving.
When I got to the Liska-Stanek prairie, I couldn’t believe it. A perfect square, surrounded on all sides by row crop as far as the eye could see, that apparently had the character to warrant state preserve status. I didn’t understand how here on the Des Moines Lobe, pancake flat, this tiny lot had escaped destruction.
Sure enough, two steps in, I’m glad it did. Wild rose - probably some weird one I don’t know so I won’t proffer a guess - formed the ground cover. The site has some of the richest soils in the world, but again I find easy walking with curiosities appearing with every step.
Another prairie enthusiast once told me he thought remnants generally felt “shorter” because there’s so much more root competition. A good prairie seed mix might have 100 species, but a high-quality remnant might have twice that, including parasitic species (not a bad thing here) to stifle growth and vary the structure. Many of the plants are more specialized than the more easily-cultivated seeds harvested for reconstructions.
That concept is on full display at Liska-Stanek. Despite the coal-black, almost mouth-wateringly rich soil, most of the prairie only brushed weakly at mid shin.
Giant compass plants formed the only plant of any real height, aside from some prairie cordgrass forming clumps in tiny wetter spots, where you could almost imagine an ancient bison wallow. Dickcissels chased me around the perimeter, scolding me from the interior and carefully avoiding the edges.
I checked my watch and realized I’d have to move on, but this was going to be an annual tradition. I could have stayed for hours taking pictures of every blooming beauty.
I trekked a little further down highway 20, to the brushy creek recreation area. The expansive wild space has just a few smatterings of remnant landscape, but I counted it anyway and it was a good place to get my legs a longer stretch. Plus it’s the site of the DNR’s prairie seed production program so it seems like it’d be worth a check.
I decided I’d have time for one more, so I found a little rails-to-trails corridor boasting remnant wandered some more backroads to get there.
It didn’t have quite the pop of the others. Sumacs had planted their feet firmly along the edges of the trail, no doubt valuable for shade, but blocking the view a bit. The prairie looked better from the road, but it still held more than a few surprises, like this Western snowberry, a shrub with high conservation value and solid remnant indicator status.
I decided other prairies would have to wait for future ragbrai shuttle adventures, but I came away with the sense that maybe I had a little better “feel” for these special places. I could hear them a little more clearly.
Like old growth forests, these prairies have something ineffable that you can feel, even when you can’t see it. We can plant the seeds, but we can’t recreate the hundreds or thousands of years it took for fungal relationships to develop, for anthills to poke up at just the right time to catch a seed otherwise destined to dry out in the thatch. But we can still enjoy it where it lasts.
I’m grateful for every patch of it we’ve got left, from tiny swales to rocky blufftops here in Clayton County. And in midsummer, there’s no better time to get out and see it.
The junior naturalist camps wrapped up their season in July. The exploring hidden treasures camp hopped on the Maiden Voyage with captain Robert Vavre in addition to trips to many of Clayton County's wildest places. The expedition: no boundaries camp (for the oldest campers) got a rousing adventure backpacking at Osborne and spending two days floating the Turkey River. Awesome group of kids, awesome weather... Not a bad few days at work.
Our annual Pony Hollow Trail Count took place on July 15th-16th. Numbers were down just a tick from last year, but once the bridge closure in Elkader is factored in it looks like the trail is as popular as ever.
Our last S.T.E.A.M. camp will take place down at Motor Mill on August 9th. Call here at Osborne for details and signups; this camp is very popular with limited space so get on it quick!
O.W.L.S. will visit the beautiful Porter House in Decorah on August 18th. The shuttle will leave Osborne at 10:00 AM, so if you plan to attend call in to reserve a spot.
You might see a little extra activity down at Motor Mill over the next few weeks. Contractors will be putting their bids together for the renovation of the inn, so don't fret if you see people who look like they're casing the joint.