Iowa Outdoors (#202)

Iowa Outdoors | Episode
Mar 30, 2012 | 28 min

Welcome to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium – located here in Northeast Iowa.

Over the past decade, this has become the premier Midwestern destination for in-depth information on the ecosystems, history, and future of North America’s largest river system.

In just a few moments, we’ll take you behind the scenes and show you how curators recreated different Mississippi River ecosystems all within this world-class museum.

But first, we’ll climb above the river valley here in Dubuque for a one-of-a-kind view –

-- where a group of Iowans have utilized the region’s hilly topography to create our state’s first full-scale zipline course.

The hum of Iowans flying through the treetops is now commonplace on the ridgeline of Dubuque.  With lengths varying from 300 to 800 feet, Sky Tours Iowa has created a premier zip course for young and old.

Toby Wisecup:  Our only limitations are because this is a gravity zip line is that you can't weigh more than 270 pounds and you can't weigh less than 70 pounds but any age can come out here and enjoy it.  It is designed to be an experience to have an opportunity to be outside, to be outside with your friends, your family and to just enjoy the experience.

The Sky Tours course contains 7 separate zip lines -- each one providing a different treetop view of Union Park.

The gravity course begins with a pair of simple zips…aptly named “bunny & rabbit run”.  Each was designed to ease first-timers into walking off an Iowa slope.   Those first steps above the timbered valley build confidence for the most novice visitors…even if their faces don’t show it yet.

Trails weave the course together…giving guests an outdoor hike to compliment the high-speed zips.  Next up on the Sky Tours course is “Skyline”.  A hillside platform seems introductory enough until you begin a 400-foot land-to-tower flight.   The destination?  Sky Tours’ Lookout Tower and its panoramic view of Horseshoe Hollow.  The tour’s sole tower also begins a trek back in time. The valley below includes relics from the early 1900’s and a tale of triumph and tragedy.

From farmland to parkland to The Mammoth Theater, this location in the hills above Dubuque serves as an Iowa touchstone.  Its story begins more than 120 years ago.

In 1891, a Dubuque farmer sold a parcel of his land to a local electric company that would later be known as General Electric…then Union Electric.  The company would spend $30,000 to construct the Mammoth Theater in this picturesque valley AND claim the venue as the largest west of the Mississippi.

The Mammoth Theater allowed people to see and hear musical programs free of charge.   For 10-cents per person, a local trolley system shuttled visitors back and forth from downtown Dubuque to northeast Iowa’s premiere entertainment destination.

Sue Boelk, Local Historian:  There were approximately 1500 viewers of whatever shows they had going on.  They had Vaudeville, different plays, acts, Guy Lombardo, a lot of big time bands and that were down here.  And it’s interesting because the way you see the theater now you’re only seeing half of it.  The way it stood when the park was open it had spanned the valley and the backside of it, which would have been over on this side, was open so you could sit on bleachers up on the hillside and view whatever entertainment was inside for free.

Swimming and wading pools lured families to spend fair-weather days at what was known as Union Park.   The valley was an embodiment of early-1900’s idealism…and tragically the location of shocking heartbreak.

On July 9, 1919, potential rain showers turned into a rapid downpour on the ridgeline above the Mississippi.  The Mammoth Theater inadvertently served as a dam, blocking the liquid’s dispersion and creating a 20-foot high wall-of-water destined for destruction.  The valley flooded…some were unable to escape…five park visitors perished.  In less than two hours, nearly four inches of rain fell that afternoon in 1919.   It was the beginning of the end for Union Park.

Sue Boelk :  People were a little leery about coming back out here then but a lot of it was attributed to Eagle Point Park opened up.  So there was another attraction to go to.  The car was more affordable so people wanted to go to other locations and that.  

The tale of Union Park is perhaps the greatest surprise in the Sky Tours course.   More than a zipline and hiking tour…visitors literally fly over history and a time long forgotten but still visible to the naked eye.

Toby Wisecup:  And that is part of the design of the layout of our zip line is to be able to identify the artifacts in the park so we can tell the history of this.  A fascinating history that has been - that was a big part of Dubuque for over forty years.

Without massive theaters, rain water can flow naturally through this valley and visitors safely travel with trained zip guides.  On Lookout Tower, you’ll see the original foundation of Mammoth Theater…45 feet above the river valley. And with no other option but zipping back to the ridgeline, the course continues.  

The next zips, known as “Air Strike” and “Ground Speed” take visitors deep into the valley timber for lines that hug between the treetops.  One last hike to high ground brings the tour to its conclusion and the longest line of them all.  The duel zip line is 800 feet - nearly three football fields long – allowing friends to zip side-by-side across the valley.   

Toby Wisecup:  It’s been great for our community.  It has been great for the kids.  We have had many opportunities.  We are even collaborating with the public school system to bring the kids in here and do some teamwork and just have a good time out here in the park.

It seems there is something for everyone in the treetops above Dubuque…action, outdoor exploration, and history for the entire family.

Here at the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, the legendary waterway’s ecosystems come to life inside these massive aquariums.  Whether it’s the enormous catfish in the freshwater tank –

-- or the sharks and rays inside the two-story saltwater aquarium, this operation is a lesson in environmental science that anyone can appreciate.

It seems discovery is waiting around every corner.  Stretched across two structures, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium tells the tale of America’s most treasured resource for river commerce and aquatic life.

The Mississippi River Center houses six aquarium tanks…filled with sturgeon, turtles and giant catfish…some weighing-in larger than the human guests.  You’ll also find dozens of interactive displays connecting visitors to an often-overlooked resource.

John Sutter:  I grew up on the Mississippi River here in Dubuque, Iowa and you take the river for granted after awhile.  You just drive over the bridge and there it is.  When you come here and really learn what the river means and what it means to so many people it really gives you a new appreciation for the river.  We think that’s important so that people learn and understand how to take care of the river.

That appreciation may come in the form of aquatic life but it can also be found in the resources that demonstrate the grand scale of the Mississippi.  

The fourth longest river in the world begins at Itasca State Park in Minnesota…where it briefly flows north.  Passing along the eastern border of Iowa, the waterway eventually merges into the Gulf of Mexico….a total journey of 2,530 miles.

It’s estimated that a raindrop that falls near Itasca State Park travels for 90 days down the Mississippi River before reaching the Gulf.

Those headwaters of the Mississippi trickle through a series of stones at Minnesota’s Itasca State Park.  It’s a far cry from the vast expanse that flows past Iowa or the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico…but each ecosystem is on full display in Dubuque.

John Sutter:  The Mississippi River Center focuses mainly on the Mississippi River and its tributaries.  The National River Center, which opened in 2010, explores all of the nation’s great rivers and their affect on the ocean.

The centerpiece is a 40,000 gallon aquarium with an awe-inspiring view usually reserved for oceanic scuba divers.  A variety of fish, rays, eels, and a nurse shark can be seen within a salt-water ecosystem transported to northeast Iowa.   The aquarium staff took us behind the scenes.

Kellie:  So, Jackie, there’s probably a lot of science that goes into keeping a tank this large running.

Jackie:  Right.  We have to do water quality tests weekly.  We test for different things such as pH, which we have to keep our pH at about an 8.  We also test for salinity since it is saltwater and usually we run that between 30 and 33, right around in there.  The temperature of this tank is about 76 to 78 degrees.  And then we also run ammonia and nitrates as well.

Kellie:  So do all of the fish seem to get along together in the tank?

Jackie:  Yeah, they get along for the most part.  I think right now the eels are the dominant species and so they kind of rule the tank.  But otherwise they all get along for the most part.

The aquarium is home to a giant Pacific octopus named Walter.  This is Walter.  You can see his tentacles, his eye and his mantle.  He pushes water through there.  That is why it billows up.  Walter is very intelligent.  He can solve mazes.  He can unscrew jar lids to retrieve food.  But my favorite part is that within his tissues he can contract and expand his pigments so that he can change his color to fit whatever environment is behind him.  Very cool.  

It is hard to ignore our nation's history without the people that for generations praised the Mississippi as an important resource.

The museum's National Rivers Hall of Fame features the men and women who through science or culture have raised awareness and understanding of this majestic waterway.

A list that includes America's early adventurers that were the first to discover the vast expanse of its tributaries, and the musicians and writers that created a lively and often mystical image of the mighty Mississippi.  One of its members, legendary author Mark Twain, once wrote: The Mississippi River will always have its own way.  No engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.

The engineering skill that for generations sought to tame the river is on full display in Dubuque.  The museum pays homage to the lock and dam system that served as the backbone of river commerce up and down the Mississippi.  But if test driving a barge of full of raw commodities isn't your idea of fun there is always time to sit back and enjoy the creatures of the Mississippi.  

Our hope is that when our visitors leave that they leave here with a greater appreciate of our rivers and take home a can do attitude of I can do things to affect and have a positive impact on our waterways.

Every spring, Iowans from of all walks of life are drawn to the state’s woodlands to participate in what might be nature’s biggest treasure hunt.  The reward?  A tasty little fungi known as the morel mushroom.

As warmer weather approaches, morel mushroom lovers all over Iowa tie on their hiking boots and head for wooded terrain in search of their favorite fungi.

Hunting morel mushrooms is an Iowa pastime full of rituals. It seems everyone you talk to knows “the spot” or has “all the tricks” to find the mother load of morels.  Every hunter has his or her own system or “style” of morel hunting.  

What I usually do is look for the trees that have bark peeling off of them, like that one over there.

Many start by looking for dead or dying elm trees.

By this tree all the way from over to here, this is where we found them last time.

Some are very particular about the “spots” they hunt for morels, known by its scientific name as Morchella, and hunters can be hush-hush about those annual locations.  But there are exceptions…

A lot of people are real secretive about their spots, but I’m not. I bring people out here all the time.

From Iowa’s temperamental spring weather conditions to the fungi itself, there are many factors that weigh-in on hunting morel mushrooms.  Our search for tips led to Iowa State University and Dr. Mark Gleason.

Kellie:  Some people say that they find morels around dead or dying trees.  Is that important?  Or is that just kind of a myth?

Dr. Mark Gleason:  No, it’s really true.  Particularly dying elms.  A lot of dedicated morel hunters really look for decaying elm trees.  It seems like the morels will really prosper in those areas of those decaying elm woods.  They’ll also occur elsewhere but those are kind of a focus point for morel hunters sometimes is the dead elm.  

One thing all morel aficionados have in common is the belief that hunting season is far too short and the next year can’t come soon enough.  

Others believe that the limited time the season runs is what makes the hunt for morel mushrooms such a treasure.

First, they are good to eat. Really, really good. They might not be that good if a person had a chance to eat them 52 weeks out the year, but most of the time they are pretty limited.  And it’s just fun to find them.  They’re out here to be picked if you can find them.

Kellie:  So if I am out in the woods how can I tell a real morel from a false morel?

Dr. Mark Gleason:  This takes a little study.  People who haven't hunted mushrooms before really need to do a little homework because morels have a distinctive physical characteristics that make them a little bit different than other mushrooms.  The reason you want to know them apart because some other mushrooms can give you digestive problems or neurological problems or even kill you.  So you want to make sure that... the morels by the way are all good to eat, but once you get outside that genus Morchella it is anybody's guess as to what the effects will be.  

So, I just wanted to point out a couple of things.  Here we have a yellow morel and you can see the basic shape of the cap.  It is pretty distinctive for a morel, and it has almost a sponge-like structure and there is a stalk at the bottom. Mushrooms typically have a cap and a stalk and in the case of morels the stalk if you were to cut it in half it is completely hollow.  Other mushrooms that are false morels will have fuzz in there.  It is like a fungal fuzz but in the case of a morel it is totally hollow.  So if the stalk isn't hollow don't swallow.

Albert Einstein once said that by looking into nature, you’ll have a better understanding of everything.  That is the hope here at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

It’s also the goal of photographer Ty Smedes, who spends his time capturing the natural environment in a state bordered, in part, by the Mississippi River.

Smedes hopes his images will inspire Iowans to take a greater look at their natural world, so they too will have a better understanding of everything.

Readers of the magazine Iowa Outdoors are familiar with the photography of Ty Smedes.  Ty is a regular contributor to the Department of Natural Resources publication and his pictures along with articles he has written have introduced many Iowans to the fragile natural wonders found within the state.  

Ty Smedes, Nature photographer:  I am really worried about our natural environment, our natural world and certain plants and animals are endangered.  And so if I can write and express my concern about those endangered species then I feel like I am doing doubly good.   I am not only bringing the pictures to people that they enjoy but I am also portraying a message.  A message of concern.  A message that we need to conserve.  That we need to take steps.  That we need to make choices in our own lives that hopefully can positively impact some of these species that are threatened.

Besides writing and shooting photographs for a number of magazines, Smedes has published two books.  His first book Capturing Iowa’s Seasons is a collection of photographs that documented the beauty and harshness that is part of the circle of life.   

Ty Smedes:  I am not prejudice in any way for any particular nature subject.  If you look at my first book Capturing Iowa’s Seasons you will see macro photos of some of the tiniest things like butterflies, frogs, tiny frogs, things like that, to macro subjects like a red fox or a bald eagle catching fish.  They all have their place and they are all great and they all add to the beauty of nature.

While Ty enjoys taking pictures of all aspects of Iowa natural world and sharing what he’s learned with others, his second book focused on a single subject.  The Return of Iowa’s Bald Eagles, his newest book, is a compilation of photographs, observations and scientific facts.

Ty Smedes:  I had a lot of Bald Eagle photos.  I had been photographing them since 1994.  But I didn't have nest photos.  So in 2010 I discovered a nest that looked like it would be photogenic and I spent 21 mornings and 84 hours photographing a pair of Bald Eagles raising their two youngsters.   I photographed them bringing leopard frogs, bullfrogs to the nest, turtles of two to three different species, and they were bringing in pan fish like bluegills.   So they are very resourceful and I continue to learn more and more about how hearty they are.  One of the photos in my book is a photo that is a close up of a bald eagle that actually has icicles on his toes.

Being able to take pictures outdoors when temperatures are so low ice forms on eagle talons is part of what it takes to be a nature photographer.  According to Ty his toughest shoot, however, came at the end of one June when the heat index was over 100 degrees and he had to wade through flood waters to reach a warbler’s nest.

Ty Smedes:  I knew when they would hatch and then I checked my reference books and I knew just about when they would fledge or leave the nest.  Well nature doesn't wait.  I walked in from calf deep water to waist deep water, put a blind up on a little high spot of ground right across from the nest.  And so I photographed those parents bringing in the insects, perched on branches around the nest, just before they flew in.  But the real dynamite image was when the youngster hopped up to the hole and the male came in and would hover like a humming bird and hand off an insect and that was really an oh wow shoot.  It was just magic.  It was especially rewarding because of what I had to go through to get the images.

Capturing those “Oh Wow” moments requires a lot of research of the subject, prior to shooting even a single frame.  Before Ty steps out into Iowa’s wild side, he has already developed a plan because he knows the behavior of his subject.  And when the subject is wildlife, the plan usually involves shooting from a blind.

Ty Smedes:  The blind does get you close to the action particularly with nesting birds like the hawks and the eagles.  They are defensive.  They are worried about their young and if you slip into a blind they may circle and chirp at you a couple of times but once you disappear into that blind everything goes back to normal and they go back to feeding and rearing their young, and you get to see all of the natural behavior just as if you weren't there.  

Even with a well laid out plan, nature photographers need to be prepared for unexpected opportunities. Just off a busy roadway one cold winter day, Smedes spotted 80 eagles picking small fish out of the ice on a frozen marsh and all he needed was his camera.

Ty Smedes:  The traffic isn't really bothering them.  Most animals have a - what they call a fight or flight zone.  And they know that we are going to stay on this highway.  They are out there about 200 yards out.  No one ventures out there.  They have come to learn that.  They know that and they feel safe.  Eagles are always judging the distance between them and any threat.

Once an endangered species, because of the wide spread use of the insecticide DDT, the American Bald Eagle in Iowa has made a dramatic comeback.  Proof of how nature responds, if people are willing to make a change.

Ty Smedes:  Back in the 1970s we had our first nest in Allamakee County and now we not only have nests in 88 counties but we have several hundred eagles that nest in the state each year. An amazing conservation story both here in Iowa and in America.

That wraps up this edition of Iowa Outdoors.