At the end of winter, sap starts flowing from tree roots back up the trunk. This sap contains the vital nutrients that trees need to survive and thrive. We visited Waubonsie State Park in Fremont County on a warm day in early March to practice tapping trees with Park Manager Matt Moles. Always check with property managers before tapping trees on public lands. We received approval to do this for educational purposes.
The process is a lot simpler than many people might expect. Basically you find a tree you want to tap and drill a hole that will fit the size of your spile. The hole should be at a slight upward angle to help the sap drip down the spile. If the sap is flowing, you will likely see it dripping out already.
We used inexpensive plastic spiles found online but traditionally the spiles were made of metal.
Next, attach a tube to the spile and tap the spile into the drilled hole so that it fits tightly and will not fall out of the tree. Measure beforehand to ensure the tubing will fit on your spiles.
Below you can see the sap flowing from the spile into the tube. Put the other (bottom) end of the tube into some kind of container like a bucket placed on the ground. You could also hang the bucket on the tree and eliminate the need for the tubing. Make sure to wash the bucket, tubing, and spiles before and after each use, and don't use a bucket that has stored any toxic substances.
Depending on the tree, the weather, and other factors, the sap my drip quite slowly or flow fairly rapidly like this one:
It's best to cover the bucket to prevent insects, dust, and other debris from settling into the sap. Check the bucket regularly to make sure it doesn't overflow.
Now you've done the easy part! Turning the sap into syrup requires boiling it down until the water evaporates, leaving mostly sugar. Maples generally have higher sugar content than most other trees, which means it takes less boiling to get more syrup. Still, many other species can be tapped. Even with maples, a rough estimate is about 40 gallons of sap boils down to one gallon of maple syrup. For other species, the difference is even greater. If you don't have the right equipment to boil down that much sap, start small and try it out on your stovetop or over an outdoor fire.
You can also skip the boiling process completely and drink the sap alone or with other beverages like coffee or tea. Sap, or maple water, as it's been branded, is marketed as a healthy alternative to sugary drinks. It has a slightly sweet taste and includes some nutrients and electrolytes.
For more details on tapping trees, check out this recent blog post from Perennial Homestead.
"One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the Spring." - Aldo Leopold
The first week of March is recognized as Aldo Leopold Week. Leopold, born in Iowa, is known as one of the founders of the modern conservation movement. His book, published in 1949, continues to be a staple of conservation literature today. It is fitting that here in southwest Iowa, the first week of March often fittingly coincides with some of the earliest signs of spring.
The videos below were recorded in Fremont County on March 2, 2021. Large flocks of snow geese are flying north from their wintering grounds. Fremont County is an especially good place to see bird migrations, as it is located near the confluence of the East & West Nishnabotna Rivers and the Missouri River. Numerous wetlands on public and private land offer the birds places to rest on their long northward journey. Riverton Wildlife Management Area is one example of a public area where you can see bird migrations. Waubonsie State Park and several other wildlife areas in the Loess Hills also offer excellent birding and wildlife viewing. Driving along the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway is another option. If you decide to stop along roadways, be sure to pull completely off to the side and turn on hazard lights.
Golden Hills is planning several events in Fremont County this spring and summer to get people out into the great outdoors, including a Spring Wildflower Walk at the new Blackburn State Park Unit near Thurman. Learn more at our Fremont County Outdoor Adventures page.
Golden Hills is excited to welcome two new members to our Board of Directors. Kathy Fiscus of Council Bluffs and Seth Watkins of rural Clarinda were recently approved by the Board as West Pottawattamie and Page county representatives. They both bring a wealth of skills and knowledge to help guide our organization and fulfill our mission of collaboratively developing and leading community, conservation and cultural initiatives to improve our quality of life in rural western Iowa.
Council Bluffs native Kathy Fiscus enjoyed a 40-year career in television broadcasting in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. After retiring from TV, Fiscus spent 14 years at the Council Bluffs Convention and Visitors Bureau in various capacities. While at the CVB, Fiscus worked closely with Pottawattamie Conservation and became an avid enthusiast and promoter of outdoor conservation and activities. Now fully retired, Fiscus concentrates on several board positions, advisory committees, and being a full time artist. One extensive artistic passion is the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway (TM). Fiscus has a daughter and family living in Kansas City, Kansas, and a son living in Des Moines, Iowa.
Seth Watkins is the fourth generation to care for his family’s heritage farm near Clarinda, where he raises beef cattle, corn, hay, oats, and various cover crops. Watkins is passionate about stewardship, especially water quality, the restoration of prairie, woodlands, & riparian areas. Watkins believes that when you have a healthy and diverse landscape combined with the values of inclusion, equality, & accessibility you can accomplish anything. Watkins serves on The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation board of Directors and the Leadership Council for The Iowa Learning Farms. His wife Christy is an Early Childhood Specialist for Green Hills AEA. They have a son Spencer and a daughter Tatum.
Please join us in welcoming Kathy and Seth to the Golden Hills team!
Learn more about our B0ard of Directors here.
Although Iowa is not known as an extremely diverse place, the state has a long history of civil rights successes. Iowa desegregated schools, legalized interracial marriage, and allowed black men voting rights before most other states and the federal government. Iowa was always a "free" state, not allowing slavery.
The first documented black person in what is now recognized as the State of Iowa was York with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. York was a slave owned by William Clark and passed through during the 1804-1806 trek (Source: Iowa PBS). He helped care for Sergeant Floyd, who fell ill while the crew passed near current-day Sergeant Bluff and was the expedition's only death (Source: National Park Service).
While slavery was still legal, fugitive slaves found safe harbors in many Iowa communities along the Underground Railroad.
Among the most important Underground Railroad sites in southwest Iowa were the Todd House and Tabor Antislavery District. According to the National Park Service: "Townspeople met in the square to discuss and reinforce their controversial, yet strongly held beliefs in opposition to the “flagrant sin” of slavery. As a result, they developed strong networks of resistance to slavery and assistance to fugitive slaves. The square was also used for camping and drilling exercises executed by local militiamen and by abolitionist John Brown before his raid on Harper’s Ferry."
The Reverend George B. Hitchcock House near Lewis, on the banks of the East Nishnabotna River in Cass County, was another important site.
In the Loess Hills of Monona County, a little-known all-black cemetery hides on a rural gravel road. According to a 2004 Sioux City Journal article: "[T]he site is alternately called the Black Cemetery or the Negro Cemetery. Only nine headstones remain and the history of the people buried there can't be determined from the inscriptions.
But the tale is that there once was a thriving African-American settlement in the Loess Hills of rural Moorhead..." (Source: Sioux City Journal).
Preston Love, a jazz musician from Omaha, played his first professional show at the Aeroplane Inn, located in the Loess Hills in Honey Creek. The Love's Jazz & Art Center in Omaha honors his name and legacy. From their website: "His big break came when he joined the Count Basie Orchestra at the age of 22, and from there, he went on to play in the bands of renowned artists like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Love traveled worldwide, headlining jazz festivals, touring with bands and fronting his own Preston Love Orchestra. With other local musicians like Buddy Miles, Anna Mae Winburn and Lomie Washburn, among others, Love helped make Omaha a destination for jazz from the 1920s to the early 1960s." (Source: LJAC.org)
Oscar Micheaux, a Black writer and filmmaker, lived in Sioux City in the early 20th Century. Micheaux focused on race relations in many of his works, and has influenced many well-known fillmmakers since then (Source: Sioux City History).
According to Sioux City History, "The Sioux City Ghosts were an all-black fast-pitch softball team. They started in Sioux City and began touring the United States, Canada, and Mexico during the 1930s, and played until 1956. Because of their pranks on the softball field, they were often compared to the famous Harlem Globetrotters" (Source: Sioux City History).
In Council Bluffs, the historic Cooper House "once belonged to a couple who helped found the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known as the NAACP." (source: Des Moines Register).
Many black Iowans experienced discrimination through legal practices like redlining. While segregation was technically illegal in Iowa, many communities were still, in reality, segregated (Source: Iowa PBS). Sundown towns, where Black people could be arrested for being in a community after dark, were found throughout Iowa. New Market, in southwest Iowa's Taylor County, had a sundown law on the books until the 1980's (Source: Undesign DSM). Despite these challenges, Black people have continued to live and thrive across Iowa.
Visit the national African American History Month website here.
Today is World Wetlands Day, an annual event to "raise global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and our planet. This day also marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971"
What is a wetland?
According to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, "Wetlands are lands transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems where the water table is usually at or near the surface or the land is covered by shallow water. For the purposes of this classification wetlands must have one or more of the following three attributes:
(1) at least periodically, the land supports predominantly hydrophytes;
(2) the substrate is predominantly undrained hydric soil; and
(3) the substrate is nonsoil and is saturated with water or covered by shallow water at some time during the growing season of each year." (Source: USGS National Water on Wetland Water Resources).
Why they matter:
A few wetland facts from Iowa Association of Naturalists' Iowa's Biological Communities series on Iowa Wetlands:
Most of Iowa's wetlands were located in the Des Moines Lobe, known as the Prairie Pothole region due to the abundance of small lakes, ponds, and wetlands from the most recent glaciation. But even western Iowa had plenty of wetlands. The early General Land Office surveys from the mid-19th Century shows wet areas in the rolling hills of northern Shelby and Pottawattamie counties, for example. While these areas are generally well-drained, beaver dams on small streams likely helped create many of the wetlands. The Missouri Alluvian Plain and valleys of other large rivers also had wetlands, as they flooded regularly prior to channelization and damming.
Wetlands offer many benefits to people, wildlife, land, and water. They are sometimes called "nature's kidneys" due to their ability to cleanse water before it enters streams and rivers. They absorb excess nutrients and chemicals from agriculture and industry, as well as trap sediment from soil erosion. They capture excess water and slowly soak it into the ground, which reduces flooding.
Wetlands can also provide recreational opportunities like hunting, trapping, fishing, wildlife watching, birding, and paddling. Living or even spending time near biodiversity, greenery, and water have all been shown to improve well-being and happiness.
Areas that are often too wet for farming can be problematic for farmers, but several funding programs are available to restore wetlands and make it profitable, including the Wetland Reserve Program, Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and Farmable Wetlands Program (Source: NRCS Restoring Iowa Wetlands).
This video from Iowa Outdoors provides a great summary of wetland restoration in Iowa.
And this video from The Nature Conservancy is an excellent primer on the benefits of Iowa's wetlands.
Learn more about World Wetlands Day and how you can help protect and restore these fragile and endangered ecosystems at worldwetlandsday.org
More Links & Resources
Solvitur ambulando – It is solved by walking.
Many people, including great thinkers and philosophers, swear by this mantra. Walking is known to provide innumerable benefits for our physical, mental, and spiritual health. It is also an excellent way to boost creativity, focus, and even productivity. When a global pandemic caused Iowan Kelly Madigan to cancel her 2020 travel plans, she took a long walk—270 miles—through the Loess Hills of western Iowa.
The Loess Hills are a globally significant landform. Loess soil deposits of this depth are unique to the western hemisphere; in fact, China's Loess Plateau is the only place in the world where you will find larger ones. The region is known for beautiful vistas, small communities, farmland, woodlands, and prairies, and is popular for tourists looking to escape to rural and wild spaces. The Hills encompass parts of seven counties: Plymouth, Woodbury, Monona, Harrison, Pottawattamie, Mills, and Fremont. Several coordinated conservation and recreation efforts have and continue to take place in the landform, such as the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, Loess Hills Alliance, and Loess Hills Fire Partners.
While more than 99.9% of Iowa’s native prairies have been removed from the landscape, the majority of the state’s remnant prairies are located in the Loess Hills. Similarly, although Iowa ranks nearly last in public land access, the Loess Hills offer some of the largest public conservation and recreation areas in the state. These public areas include many miles of hiking trails, including some of the longest and most rugged trails in the Midwest. Over the years, many people have discussed the idea of a through hiking trail, similar to the Appalachian Trail, connecting these parks and trails over the the length of the Loess Hills. Until recently, however, the concept had not been attempted.
In October and November 2020, Kelly Madigan hiked the entire length of the Loess Hills, totaling about 270 miles miles. She visited public conservation and recreation areas as much as possible, hiking on gravel, dirt, and paved roads in between. She calls it the LoHi Trail, short for Loess Hills. Kelly used Facebook to post regular photo, video and text updates during her journey, which took just over six weeks. She hiked between 2 and 10 miles per day and took off eight days. She has already gained significant interest from outdoor enthusiasts and is spurring a conversation like never before. A new LoHi Trail Facebook group gained more than 100 new members in its first two weeks and continues to grow.
Kelly was born in Massachusetts. Her father was a career Air Force officer and the family moved around frequently as Kelly was growing up, which may have contributed to her longing for a deep sense of place. Today she lives in the heart of the Loess Hills in rural Monona County. Kelly and her partner Doug Chafa and his daughter, Isabel, live near the Turin Wildlife Management Area, which Doug helps manage with his job as Wildlife Biologist with Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Kelly says, “I had visited the Loess Hills for decades, and then lived in them, and spent time hiking them. I trained to become a wildland firefighter and volunteered to assist with prescribed fire. I attended the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar year after year, and occasionally helped hand-collect local ecotype seed. Still, I wanted to understand the Loess Hills better. Literally, I wanted to know what I was standing on, what was under me. Experiencing the hills on foot was an opportunity to take in information at a human pace, and form a relationship with this landform that would live in my muscle memory. I had dreamed about it for a long time. The set of conditions the pandemic created made it seem like it was time.” While she often walked alone, Kelly occasionally had people join, with Doug and Isabel being her most frequent companions on the trail.
Patrick Swanson, a Loess Hills landowner and author of a book about his story, wrote this article about a similar idea after attending the opening hike for Brent’s Trail in 2019. Brent’s Trail is part of a trail envisioned by staff at Loess Hills State Forest connecting the largest public land complex in the Loess Hills with a hiking trail from Preparation Canyon on the north to the southern end of the Mondamin Unit. Brent’s Trail is currently just under 8 miles with an additional 5 miles under construction.
The route Kelly hiked already exists. It uses a combination of paved, gravel and dirt roads connecting existing public lands and trails wherever possible. Existing trails in the region are maintained by state, county, and municipal government agencies, nonprofit land trusts and trail groups. Roadways and streets are also maintained by the state DOT, county roads departments, and cities. Parts of the on-road route follow the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway’s main spine and excursion loops, which offer some of the most beautiful views in the Midwest. Kelly paid special attention to respecting private property, always seeking permission before walking on any privately owned land. The route Kelly hiked may not necessarily be the best route, but she tried to choose lower-traffic and more scenic routes over busy highways and the most direct routes.
Kelly’s walk began at the Iowa/South Dakota border at Millsite Access on the Big Sioux River in Plymouth County. She followed the roads east through Westfield. County roads led her through The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands, the largest remnant prairie and roadless area in all of Iowa. South of Broken Kettle, her route went through Five Ridge Prairie State Preserve, The Nature Conservancy’s Knapp Prairie and Hummel Tract, Heendah Hills State Preserve, Mount Talbot State Preserve, Stone State Park, and Sioux City Prairie Preserve.
Sioux City, the largest city on her route, offered a very different experience than the wild, rural terrain to the north. Fortunately, some recreational trails and sidewalks are available to provide hikers a more pleasant walk through the city’s downtown, industrial, and residential neighborhoods. This urban stretch includes Perry Creek Trail, South Ravine Park, Cone Park, and Sertoma Park. In Sioux City, her route crossed the Floyd River and was at its closest point to the Missouri River. After Sioux City, the LoHi route continues southeast out of Sergeant Bluff.
In rural Woodbury County near Smithland, Kelly passed through Woodbury County Conservation Board’s Oak Ridge Conservation Area, Fowler Preserve, and Southwood Conservation Area. Kelly got permission to hike through a small parcel owned by Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) connecting these public areas.
After the small town of Rodney, her route passed through Monona County Conservation’s Peter’s Park/Rodney Pits, Iowa DNR’s Loess Hills Wildlife Area and Turin Preserve Wildlife Management Area (WMA). South of the unincorporated community of Turin and the Maple River, Kelly hiked through INHF’s Monona Complex, which she got permission to hike.
In southern Monona and northern Harrison counties, Kelly hiked through three of Iowa DNR’s four Loess Hills State Forest units (Preparation Canyon, Little Sioux, Mondamin), including part of Brent’s Trail.
Kelly's route through Harrison County also included Harrison County Conservation Board’s Gleason-Hubel Wildlife Area and Old Town Conservation Area, Soldier and Boyer river crossings, and the city of Missouri Valley.
In Pottawattamie County, Kelly hiked through unincorporated Honey Creek and then used hiking trails at the popular Hitchcock Nature Center, managed by Pottawattamie Conservation. She then hiked through the town of Crescent and into Council Bluffs, entering at Lewis & Clark Monument Park. Parts of Council Bluffs are similar to Sioux City, with a large urban center surrounded by older traditional neighborhoods and newer suburbs. Kelly's route went through Council Bluffs’ Fairmount Park trails, Vincent Bluff State Preserve’s prairie, and the Wabash Trace Nature Trail.
Near the Pottawattamie-Mills county line is TNC’s Folsom Point Preserve with remnant prairies and a well-worn footpath. Mills County Conservation Board’s Pony Creek Park and Glenwood State Archeological Preserve were also located on Kelly's route in addition to the city of Glenwood.
South of Glenwood, Kelly mostly took gravel and dirt roads into Fremont County, where she passed through Possum Hollow WMA, Waubonsie State Park and Eli Slusher WMA.
Finally, Kelly passed through Hamburg near the Nishnabotna River, then one final public land area at O.S. Wing WMA, before reaching the Missouri state line.
Kelly is currently collaborating with Larksong Writers Place to host a (virtual) place-based writing workshop focused on the Loess Hills that begins January 19th. “￼From the Black Angel statue in Council Bluffs, to a cave in Sergeant Bluff, to a lighted star on a bluff in Turin, to a young female cougar with a radio collar, a long-lost uncle with a steep driveway, a badger letting you know to back off, a voice heard in the night, the view from a turkey blind, or a miraculous harvest of morel mushrooms, the Loess Hills are alive with stories. Using a variety of examples, prompts and exercises, we will explore the hills creatively, crafting poems, stories and short memoir that reflect the unusual terrain and the experiences held there. Participants will be invited (but not required) to share a sample of their completed work at a Loess Hills Writers event.” Learn more and register here.
Kelly is also working with other hiking enthusiasts on planning a multi-day trail hike in Monona County in 2021. Stay updated by joining The LoHi Trail Facebook group. The group is a place for people to share ideas for conserving the fragile Loess Hills while promoting low-impact recreation and ecotourism.
As part of the tri-county CabinItiative project spearheaded by the Loess Hills Missouri River Region, eight new cabins were constructed or are currently under construction in southwest Iowa's Harrison, Pottawattamie, and Mills counties. Willow Lake's cabins opened this year, and Arrowhead and Pony Creek's are expected to open in early 2021. Sasquatch has been sighted at all three parks recently, and offers ringing endorsements of the parks and cabins.
Arrowhead County Park
Pottawattamie Conservation's Arrowhead Park near Neola includes 147 acres for outdoor recreation and is a popular camping spot. In 2020, three new cabins were built on the east side of the park overlooking the 17-acre lake. They are expected to open in early 2021. Explore the park by hiking several miles through wooded hillsides and around the scenic lake.
Willow Lake Nature Center
Willow Lake Nature Center near Woodbine is owned and managed by Harrison County Conservation Board. Like Arrowhead, Willow Lake offers camping, hiking, and a popular lake for fishing, paddling, and swimming. Two smaller cabins and a third deluxe cabin opened in 2020 and have been booked since!
Pony Creek Nature Center
Mills County Conservation Board's Pony Creek is getting two new cabins, which are currently under construction. They are expected to open in late winter or early spring 2021. This park also includes a popular lake, campgrounds, hiking trails, a new educational nature center, and more.
Despite major changes and challenges this year, Golden Hills made progress on our mission and goals. Learn more in our 2020 Annual Report below or click here to download a pdf.
The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs in the northern hemisphere between December 20 and 23. This year, it happens on Monday, December 21.
From USA Today: "The winter solstice is the precise moment at which the Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest from the sun.
The solstice occurs at the same instant everywhere on Earth: Here in the United States, it happens at 5:02 a.m. ET on Dec. 21.
At that moment, the sun's rays are directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, a line of latitude that circles the Earth in the Southern Hemisphere.
Though the solstice marks the astronomical beginning of winter, meteorologists view winter as starting Dec. 1, which is the start of the coldest three months in the Northern Hemisphere."
This year, stargazers have a couple things to look forward to in the longest-of-the-year night sky.
The "Great Conjunction" occurs Monday evening, where the planets Jupiter and Saturn will appear to cross paths in the sky.
According to NASA, "It’s been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky, and nearly 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter occurred at night, as it will for 2020, allowing nearly everyone around the world to witness this 'great conjunction.'" To view the conjunction in western Iowa, look southwest after sunset. The planets will be visible above the horizon between about 5:30 and 7:30pm CST.
Later in the evening into Tuesday morning, the last meteor shower of 2020, the Ursids, will be visible. While often overshadowed by the Geminid meteor shower that peaked a week earlier, the Ursids are still worth a look. "Observers will normally see 5-10 Ursids per hour during the late morning hours on the date of maximum activity...There have been occasional outbursts when rates have exceeded 25 per hour" (Source: Accuweather).
The Ursids will "radiate" from near Ursa Minor ("Little Dipper"), meaning the best viewing will be looking north towards Polaris and the Big and Little Dippers.
To view these celestial events, find a dark place away from urban and industrial light pollution. Some parts of the Loess Hills, especially in Harrison and Monona counties, are good places to view the night sky. Several areas along Western Skies Scenic Byway are also good places to avoid light pollution. Whiterock Conservancy is recognized as one of the darkest places in Iowa.
If you don't like the darkness, don't worry--the days will slowly get longer from now until next June!
November 17 has been designated as National Take a Hike Day. It's a great time to head to your favorite trail or explore a new one. Western Iowa has many great places to hike. Golden Hills has several resources with information about parks and trails for hiking, including:
This blog post about places to hike in the Loess Hills Missouri River Region of Harrison, Pottawattamie & Mills Counties.
This post about parks and trails along Western Skies Scenic Byway in Harrison, Shelby, Audubon and Guthrie counties.
Golden Hills maintains the Loess Hills Hiking Guide, which includes information about all the Loess Hills counties (Plymouth, Woodbury, Monona, Harrison, Pottawattamie, Mills, & Fremont).
Where are you hiking today?