Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Circuit through Iowa

The "Driftless Area" covers 16,000 square miles in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. It is so called because the most recent glacier that receded about 10,000 years ago missed this area. Therefore, the limestone bluffs and talus slopes escaped the grinding action of the ice sheet which turned rock into "glacial drift" elsewhere. Hundreds of small cold-water creeks, some home to native brook trout, flow down through deeply carved limestone bluffs to the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

An aerial image of the deeply carved landscape along the Mississippi River
in the Driftless Area of Iowa and Wisconsin
(Image from the Effigy Mounds National Monument)

As cold warm seeps down through the soluble limestone and sandstone bedrock, caves, sinkholes, and underground streams form. We visited one such small ice cave in the scenic Town of Decorah, in northeast Iowa.

Several sets of steps lead to the Ice Cave in Decorah, Iowa
Our travels through the Driftless Area took us along scenic Route 60 as it follows along the north side of the Wisconsin River. We crossed the Mississippi River in Prairie de Chien, Wisconsin over to Marquette, Iowa. North three miles on an equally scenic Route 76, we stopped at Effigy Mounds National Monument.

About 1,400 years ago local Indians began to build effigy mounds, thought to be religious sites or clan symbols used in seasonal ceremonies. The mounds are of low relief and in the shapes of animals, often bears. The mounds are best seen from above, so some suggest that perhaps these formations connected people to their land and the spirit world. There is still much mystery surrounding the purpose of these mounds. We did not have the time or group stamina to spend much time here, but there are rugged hiking trails that lead to many of the effigy mounds and excellent views atop the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.

After a night in Decorah, Iowa (and a dinner of paninis at Happy Joes) we drove southwest toward Waterloo and then on to Ames. The wooded bluffs and steep valleys gave way to flat expanses of what was once prairie and is now corn and more corn. The cornfields in much of Wisconsin were more than a foot tall, whereas most of the fields that we passed in Iowa were just getting planted. Heavy rains in May and June seemed to have wiped out the first attempt to plant corn and soybeans.

Between Waterloo and Iowa we saw another land use plopped in the midst of planted fields--wind turbines. In 2012, Iowa generated 24% of its energy from wind. We passed a 100-turbine wind farm located northeast of Ames, the giant blades were turning slowly in light wind. Several smaller groups of turbines were visible along our route. The turbines are huge and visible, but I did not feel in this landscape that they marred the view. Rather, it reduced the monotony of the corn rows.

In this part of the country I take pleasure in even the smallest undulations
of the landscape, in a patch of grass or prairie or alfalfa.

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