Iowa Outdoors (#201)

Iowa Outdoors | Episode
Jan 6, 2012 | 28 min

Hi, I’m Scott Siepker. 

And I’m Kellie Kramer.

Welcome to this wintertime edition –

And our second season of Iowa Outdoors.

On this episode of Iowa Outdoors, we brave the frozen tundra and perhaps some common sense to cycle an icy Iowa tradition.

We pay a visit to the trout streams of northeast Iowa where winter has yet to slow some avid anglers.

We’ll journey back in time to the gateway of an Iowa state park. 

And we’ll gaze through the lens of an Iowa adventurer on his journey through the Northwest Passage and around the Americas.  We’ll have all that and more. So sit tight –

Iowa Outdoors is about to begin.

Funding for Iowa Outdoors was provided through a REAP conservation education program grant.  Up to $350,000 are available annually to support educational projects about Iowa’s natural resources.  Information is available at  The Gilchrist Foundation – founded by Jocelyn Gilchrist – furthering the philanthropic interest of the Gilchrist family in wildlife and conservation, medical care and social services, the arts and public broadcasting and disaster relief. 

Many of Iowa’s natural wonders you’ll find on Iowa PBS can be found in Iowa Outdoors magazine, the Iowa DNR’s premiere resource for conservation, education and recreation activities.  Subscription information can be found online at

Welcome to Pammel State Park in south central Iowa.  Tucked in Madison County near the town of Winterset, Pammel is much more than a pit stop on your way to the next covered bridge.

The Middle River forms a horseshoe that passes through this park.  Pammel is one of the oldest state parks in Iowa and has the relics to prove it.

This tunnel stands as the only one of its kind in the entire state, and it was the first excavated before the Civil War.  More on this story in just a few minutes.

First, we’re going to pedal into a brisk winter headwind on the cycling journey that brings Iowans out of hibernation, even if it’s just for one day.  If you squint your eyes just a little bit, this may look like RAGBRAI, except for the snow-covered fields and 20-degree temperatures.  Every February a mix of cycling deprived Iowans descends on the towns of Perry and Rippey for a one-day winter expedition. 

If you know somebody that deer hunts, they don’t miss deer hunting season opening.  If it’s 80 below, they’re going to be there, snow, ice or slick.  This is opening day of cycling for Iowa.

This is the BRR Bike Ride, the 24-mile down and back cycle between two rural Iowa towns.  Instead of ice cold Gatorade, these Iowans stock up on hot chocolate and piping hot potatoes, not exactly your traditional RAGBRAI fare.  But tradition is strong on BRR.  For more than thirty years, Iowans have braved the February weather and perhaps common sense to cycle amidst our state’s most adverse winter conditions.  Cyclists have seen it all, whether the temp is dipping near zero or the occasional 40-dagree February afternoon is just right.

You definitely should not be riding in shorts when the weather is below freezing, because you can damage your skin, so you just layer up.  I’ve ridden near-blizzard ones and have ski goggles on so you can keep all exposed skin covered, your eyes protected.

I actually like it better when it’s cold because then the weenie bikers don’t show up.  The weenie bikers are the guys that show up because it’s 65 when it’s not a real challenging ride.  What makes it a challenge is that it’s cold.

BRR will mark its 35-year anniversary in 2012.  Like RAGBRAI, it started with a handful of diehard Iowans.  Today hundreds descend on this rural winter ritual, and most start their day with a warm breakfast in Perry.  After a series of annual cannon blasts, the cycle is on, but it’s not a race. There are no trophies for speed here.  You get the sense most cyclists aren’t interested in one.  I’ve got the official gloves and the unofficial gloves.  I’ve been training exactly zero days for this.  I think I’m ready to go.  Strapped with cameras, I experienced BRR at a casual pace.  Halfway to Rippey, a hot chocolate oasis arrives just in time.  Hundreds stop by this farmstead for warm beverage treatment.

I’m dressed perfect except my toes.

Others take the time to warm their fingers and toes – just another reminder that a warm, muggy RAGBRAI is still six months away.  But the small town appeal that charms thousands for this summertime adventure is still present on BRR.  So we’re making the stretch run here into Rippey.  I have to say, even on my zero days of training, I’m doing okay.  With its days of economic vibrance long past, Rippey’s Main Street transforms into a modest party town, if only for a few hours.  But the main food event sometimes happens elsewhere.  When you bike into Rippey, there’s not a McDonald’s or KFC, but there are churches that are serving up delicious, delicious American food.  Yummy.  Tables stocked with everything from pies and desserts to stomach filling potato bars are a perfect spot to thaw your extremities and recharge those muscles – okay, maybe just my weenie muscles.  And just in time for that afternoon nap, only 12 scenic miles lay between Rippey and your final destination of Perry.

Hundreds of Iowans fighting cabin fever, two small towns and one winter cycle that’s hard to beat.

This mill wheel at Pammel State Park connects visitors to a tale dating back more than 150 years.  Once used to grind corn at a gristmill on the Middle River, it now connects Iowans to a man who unknowingly dug a gateway for all of us.

In 1855 William Harmon and his sons used hand tools to slice their way through the soft shale underneath this limestone bluff.  Harmon wanted the river water to flow through the passage, creating a pressure-based energy source for his up-and-down sawmill.

After three years of wielding picks and shovels, Harmon and his sons created the original 6 x 6 foot passage.  Years passed and the Harmons moved on, selling the family mill.  New owners would add a gristmill, but the entire operation was eventually abandoned in 1904. 

In 1925, seventy years after the first shovel of shale, this tunnel was expanded for something much more than rushing water.

It stands today as the only highway tunnel in the entire state, and it serves as the gateway to Pammel State Park.

Streams like the Middle River here in Madison County can be a haven for a variety of fish in the spring and summertime.  But it’s the solitude of an Iowa winter that brings freshmen to an angling oasis in northeast Iowa.  When temperatures hover near freezing and a soft coat of snow blankets northeast Iowa, you’ll find Kent Kleckner knee deep in a gurgling creek.  Tucked amidst the rolling valleys near Decorah, Iowa, streams like North Bear Creek present a mix of beauty and solitude when falling temperatures drive away much of the angling traffic.

I’m probably the first guy out here today and likely going to be the only guy out here on this stretch of water.  A nice 12-inche brownie.

Winter trout fishing is surprisingly abundant here, and a warmer winter afternoon isn’t necessarily a positive for frozen anglers.  Ice cold snowmelt can drive trout deeper and make them less active, a recipe for a slow day on streams like North Bear.

You don’t want to land too many 18 or 20 inch fish with this rod.  You’ll tire in a hurry and you’ll lose them too.  That’s pretty deep water over there, so there is fish in there and they’re just hanging out.  When they’re in this deep, slow water in the back of a pool like this, they’re telling me they’re not necessarily looking for food.

Kent is a pro, well equipped with tools and flies required for an action-packed day.

This is a Griffith’s gnat.  I tie that with a little peacock pearl and then a feather tied around that.  That’s supposed to imitate midges that are on the water.  Actually today we’ve seen a few, and we’ve seen a few fish rise for them.  So that’s pretty common, for me anyway, a common winter fly.

He shares those skills with Iowans on all experience levels in all seasons, spreading the joy of catch and release fly-fishing.  Despite North Bear’s reputation as one of Iowa’s cleanest streams, it still requires the stocking efforts of the Iowa DNR.  A few scenic miles away in Decorah, DNR staff are hard at work at the year-round trout hatchery. 

The natural reproduction of our streams is getting better and has improved over the last twenty years, but if we did not stock trout in our streams, there wouldn’t be trout fishing available for the anglers.

Spring flow is warm enough in the wintertime that it keeps the water open and the water does not freeze.  Behind me here, the water is completely open in trout run.  You can fish all winter long, as long as the streams are open in our better trout streams.  Because of that good, solid spring flow, that’s actually warmer in the wintertime than the ambient water temperature.  Those streams stay open and you can fish them all winter.

While the famous Decorah eagles nest looms in the background, the trout stocking efforts spread to dozens of streams across Iowa.  It’s a major tool for fishing guides throughout our state.

It’s the high 30s or mid 40s, somewhere in there.  So their metabolism slows way down.  They eat a lot less, but we’ve been out here for half an hour fishing and caught three fish.  That’s pretty good.  They’ve got to eat whether it’s cold out or not.

Kent, who learned to fly-fish on the roaring Fork River in Carbondale, Colorado, said some of his favorite streams still reside right here in northeast Iowa.  It’s a hidden gem he hopes to share with anyone willing to pick up a rod and reel, even in the coldest of seasons. 

Oh, there he goes.

As open water dwindles and ice-covered lakes become the norm, Iowa’s wildlife goes in search of a rapidly disappearing food source.  Here on the Middle River, eagles gather amongst the treetops for a fresh meal, but plenty of birds aren’t as keen.  That’s what makes this time of year a bird feeding extravaganza.  Few joys are as simple as birding in Iowa, and it doesn’t mean cold hours spent trekking across our state in search of an elusive migratory guest.  While it can be very enjoyable, you don’t have to camp out at one of Iowa’s abundant bald eagle feeding grounds.

Stephen Dinsmore has a passion for bird watching.  We’ve got a bunch of these tube bird feeders like this.  Looks like they’re full and ready for the birds.

He has turned his backyard into an oasis for Iowa’s woodpeckers, fly catchers and songbirds.  What kind of birds are we going to find in Iowa in the winter that people might see in the backyard?

There’s probably about 15 or 20 familiar birds that are in back yards in winter in Iowa, the standard blue jays and cardinals are really common.  In the winter we get some other visitors, things like dark-eyed juncos, maybe American tree sparrow, some other resident finches, things like house finches and the American gold finches.  So there’s a lot of diversity like that.  About 15 or 20 species of birds would be typical of most yards.

According to the National Audubon Society, there are nearly 50 million birdwatchers in the United States, and Iowans play a significant part, spending more than $300 million each year in wildlife, using everything from seed to feeders and binoculars, even wildlife watching trips.  Dr. Stephen Dinsmore, an avian ecologist at Iowa State University, was the past president of Iowa ornithologists, which boasts 425 members statewide.  During the winter Dr. Dinsmore has 18-20 active feeders in his yard.  He reduces the summertime number, but adds 6-8 hummingbird feeders.  He’s also planted an area in his yard specifically for birds.  The seeds and berries provide food and the plants provide cover for predators.  A nearby pond provides year-round water.

I went through a series of trial and error with birdbaths, of heated birdbaths.  I’ve done that before.  I had problems with deer tipping them over in the winter, so I went a step further and put this ornamental pond in my yard.  Then in the wintertime I take out the pump system, and I put a little, small low-amp heater in there and a really small pump to keep a little water circulation and this pond never freezes.  It will freeze down in the coldest weather, but there’s always a little bit of open water.  Invariably that’s where the birds go for their water supply.  That gives me an advantage with respect to attracting birds.  These are the shelled peanuts here.  Those go in and there’s a mesh grate here.  The birds can come up and cling to this.  Then they can go ahead and access the peanuts there and end up breaking them in small pieces get them out.

According to Dinsmore, the best seed for drawing a variety of birds is black sunflower.  However, he mixes a special blend. 

So this is mixture of black oil sunflower, sunflower chips, and then the white seeds are safflower.  That I do mostly black oil and chips with a little bit of safflower.  This is a favorite of a lot of the ground feeding birds, so I take a good few handfuls of this and then I just scatter it here on the ground underneath the feeders.

Dinsmore’s approach is a sure-fire way to experience the simple wonders of Iowa’s birds and the occasional guest.  Even in a mild winter, a cold front can transform your home into the perfect viewing platform and another reason to enjoy Iowa’s outdoors.

David Thoreson, a seafaring adventurer from Okoboji, has traveled the globe.  He’s spent time battling natural elements beyond imagination, and he’s seen spectacular environments.  Through the lens of his camera, he’s captured it all.

It was a love of adventure that led David Thoreson to a career in photography.

I was all set in college to go on into medicine, and when I graduated from college, a friend wanted to go on a long bicycle trip, which I had never done before.  We took off and went down to New Zealand and rode about 1,300 miles.  It was during that time I was taking lots of pictures, and I came back bound and determined to be a photographer. 

David Thoreson grew up in Algona, Iowa, spending his summers playing along the Des Moines River and learning to sail from his mother and grandfather on Lake Okoboji.  Those skills led him to adventures that have literally taken him to the ends of the Earth.

Once you learn the basics of small boat sailing, you can really take that anywhere in the world.  Sailing has been the vehicle that has taken me to all the different places in the world for the last twenty years that have really shaped my life.

In 1992 Thoreson and five others sailed below the Antarctic Circle.  Accomplished by only a handful of sailors, it was an adventure that was filled with peril.

Thoreson Diary Excerpt: Thursday, January 23.  I’ve never felt fear like I’ve felt fear in the past 48 hours.  These huge ice kingdoms can be your friends on calm days, shimmering like a city of angels or chill you to the bone with the face of the devil in a storm.  This is now survival sailing and death has crossed my mind a few times.

Two years later, David found himself at the other end of the world, above the Arctic Circle, in an attempt to sail above North America in what is known as the Northwest Passage.  The attempt was aborted when ice prevented further progress and threatened to crush the boat.  But in 2007, when Thoreson made another attempt at the Northwest Passage, he found nearly an ice-free environment.  According to David, it was proof of negative human impact on the natural environment.

Thoreson Diary Excerpt: This is what I have waited thirteen years for, an opportunity to make it through the Northwest Passage.  But this is a moment of truth.  It seems to prove without a doubt that climate change is happening and possibly at an accelerated pace.  The Northwest Passage is ice-free, and we are witnessing history, planetary history.

It was Davis’s skills in photography, along wit his knowledge of the Northwest Passage, that helped him secure a position on a never-before attempted trip that would circumnavigate the American continents from north to south.  Beginning and ending in Seattle, Washington, it was much more than an ambitious adventure.  The crew would collect scientific data while working to increase awareness of environmental issues that are impacting the world’s oceans.

And the whole idea was to demonstrate the interconnectedness between the land and the sea and vice versa and how we really are just one big island surrounded by one big ocean.

Dubbed Around the Americas, the trip began in 2009 and took one year to complete the 28,000 mile sail, with stops in 53 different ports.  Over the course of the trip, David took more than 77,000 photographs and shot over a hundred hours of video, documenting the voyage and telling the story of the connection between land and sea.

As we get more and more people on this planet, 7 billion people and counting, the wild spaces, the wild places are just getting squeezed.  It’s just really good to know that they’re still there. 

Of the 77,000 pictures Thoreson shot, 350 were selected to tell the story of the expedition in a book, One Island, One Ocean.  These pictures give a glimpse of the beauty and harshness of the world that only a few others have witnessed, and they are a call to action to save the fragile environment.

We wanted a book that you could really pick up and open up at any point and get the story.  This book accomplishes that, but I think the pictures really tell the story of the voyage, even if you don’t read the book.

Since returning from the voyage, Thoreson has been dedicated to two missions.  The first is a traveling exhibit that uses his pictures and shares his thoughts regarding environmental change.

There is a lot of new frontiers out there, but I’m kind of really honed in on one these days.  That’s really what’s going on up in the Arctic right now with climate change and the fast-changing Arctic.  So our whole voyage that we did around the Americas, this 28,000 mile voyage …

David is also using his worldly adventures to inspire young people with a message that anything is possible and that a dream will remain a dream until you dare to chase it.

Someone recently coined me the accidental explorer, and I think that’s exactly kind of what’s happened.  I didn’t really intend to be.  I just started on what I thought was a small adventure, and they just kept getting bigger.

That wraps up this edition of Iowa Outdoors.  We want to remind you that the outdoor adventures in our state don’t disappear as the temperatures drop.

If you’re looking to travel to the state parks in Iowa, be sure to check ahead for seasonal closings at

Captions by:

Here’s a sampling of what’s coming up on our second season of Iowa Outdoors.  Dubuque has always been known for its steep rock cliffs that descend into the Mississippi River Valley.  Now a group of sky-high adventurers have built Iowa’s first ever zip line course in the treetop cliffs above the river city. 



All right.

The Sky Tour course contains seven separate zip lines, each one providing a different treetop view of Union Park. 

More on the story of Union Park and its sky-high rebirth on our second season of Iowa Outdoors.

We’re always working on a story about a sport that combines wakeboarding and kite flying.

Stay tuned to statewide Iowa PBS for these stories and more on our second season of Iowa Outdoors.

Funding for Iowa Outdoors was provided through a REAP conservation education program grant.  Up to $350,000 are available annually to support educational projects about Iowa’s natural resources.  Information is available at  The Gilchrist Foundation – founded by Jocelyn Gilchrist – furthering the philanthropic interest of the Gilchrist family in wildlife and conservation, medical care and social services, the arts and public broadcasting and disaster relief.  Many of Iowa’s natural wonders you’ll fid on Iowa PBS can be found in Iowa Outdoors magazine, the Iowa DNR’s premiere resource for conservation, education and recreation activities.  Subscription information can be found online at