Iowa Outdoors (#203)

Iowa Outdoors | Episode
May 6, 2012 | 28 min

Hi, I’m Scott Siepker.

And I’m Kellie Kramer.

Welcome to warmer weather –

And a journey through Maquoketa Caves State Park on this edition of Iowa Outdoors.

On this episode of Iowa Outdoors – we explore Maquoketa Caves State Park.

We go airborne at Rathbun Lake alongside a trio of kiteboarding Iowans.

We paddle alongside an army of volunteers on the environmental river expedition known as Project Aware.  And we closely examine the sunny detail and beauty of one Iowan’s macrophotography.  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 Maquoketa Caves State Park, a true gem in Iowa’s collection of outdoor adventures.  A trip from the hiking trails above to the cave paths below is a geological journey.  But we’ll tell you how the health care of bats has become this park’s largest concern.   Before we explore these caves, let’s go airborne on our state’s largest lake, where a stiff breeze can be the biggest asset when you’re on the water. 

You look at the sport and you think, oh, that looks like fun and interesting.  But then when you actually are on the board with the kite and you’re part of the whole thing, it’s a thrill.  You feel it running through your body.

Combine water skiing with kite flying, and you have the sport of kiteboarding.  Since 2001 the IKO, or International Kiteboarding Organization, has certified over 410,000 kiteboarders worldwide with over 40,000 new kiteboarders certified each year.  With Iowa being ranked as the tenth windiest state, you would expect to see a lot of participation in the sport, but it turns out the best conditions for kiteboarding don’t usually occur during warm summer days.

A gusty, drizzly, cloudy day isn’t everybody’s idea of an opportunity to have fun, but it turns out to be a perfect day for these kiteboarders. 

Well, it’s kind of gusty conditions right now.  The meter is saying kind of 15 to 17, 15 to 20.  It’s supposed to be gusting between 30 and 45, so it’s a little difficult conditions because there’s such a range in the wind.

The best conditions for kiteboarding in Iowa are in the spring and fall, when air and water temperatures demand the use of wet or dry suits, but it’s also when winds are blowing their hardest. 

Big winds are great.  The more wind the better.  We would like it to be a little steadier than today.  This isn’t ideal because there’s such a range.  So you have to manage your kite well in those conditions because you can just get lofted up in the air and blown all the way to Centerville.

Historians believe that the Chinese were building kits over 3,000 years ago, with the first written account of kite flying documenting how during a war a Chinese general flew a kite over a city to measure how far he would need to tunnel in order to be past enemy defenses.  The most famous kite flyer would have to be Benjamin Franklin, who flew a kite in 1752 during a thunderstorm to prove lightening was electricity.  Since he managed to avoid electrocution, Franklin also proved he was very lucky.  In the 1800s in an effort to avoid the horse tax and move from horsepower to kite power, George Pocock used large kites to propel boats and carts.  It took, however, nearly a century and a half for kites to be paired with surfboards, thus creating a new extreme sport.

It’s very addictive.  It’s such a sensation.  It’s not exactly flying but it feels like you are almost.  Then when you do the jump and you’re floating up there and then float back down – it’s exhilarating. 

It’s amazing.

There’s the control of the kite.  There’s watching the wind.  There’s the board on your feet and how the water is and what the wave conditions are, so there’s a lot going on.  Your mind is involved in it and also you can get a huge adrenaline hit from the excitement of it all.

It’s the wind and the water and you and the birds flying by.  It’s an amazing experience.  There’s no noise in terms of a motor or anything like that.  So it’s a very great experience in terms of being out in nature.

Because kiteboarding is an extreme sport, injuries and even fatalities occur.

Just like you would never jump out of a plane with a parachute without knowing what you’re doing, kiteboarding you really need instructions.  It can be a very safe sport, if you know what you’re doing.  So get lessons from a qualified instructor.  Don’t try it on your own unless you’re with someone who really knows what they’re doing. 

Since the day we were shooting was quite gusty, my first lesson in kiteboarding mercifully came with both feet planted firmly on dry ground.

We emphasize the importance of lessons and safety but it isn’t actually that hard of a sport to learn.  Once you get the essential elements of it down, the progress is very quick.  It’s essential to get the safety elements and the basic parts of skill of flying the kite and riding the board down, but once you’ve got that, you can make very quick progress.

Because the best winds for kiteboarding occur in Iowa when air and water temperatures keep most people off the water, Frank, Carl and Peter often have the lake to themselves.  They aren’t selfish, however, and would like to see more people in Iowa take part in the sport they love.

We always have Rathbun pretty much to ourselves.  From Labor Day to Memorial Day, there’s nobody here.  So we get to see all the wildlife, the geese and the Iowa pelicans.  It’s really beautiful being out here.

This is 11,500 acres of water, give or take, and here we are.  There’s three of us.  That’s the extent of it.

So you’re saying there’s room for some more.

There’s a little room.  Two.  We’re not overcrowded yet.  We could take a few. 

Yeah, right.

After that, it’s too crowded.

Maquoketa Caves State Park has been an above and underground oasis for generations of Iowans.  These rock cliffs and partially hidden paths have been summer vacation destinations dating back to the existence of the park in the early 1920s.  But you’ll have to go back another 100 years for its earliest discovery.

Legend, or at least the well-worn Iowa story, says early settlers were in hot pursuit of a wounded deer around 1830, which led them here to Dancehall Cave.  It’s the single largest opening in what would become Maquoketa Caves State Park.

Dancehall Cave is the most popular because people don’t have to crawl through that cave.  We actually have a sidewalk in that cave and we have lights.

During the Great Depression, FDR’s CCC was commissioned with running electricity down into the caves so the paths could be safely lit.  Although alternating current does reach into these passages, a cell phone signal won’t, so if you’re looking to get away, this is a stroll worth exploring.  Temperatures in this subterranean cavern consistently hover near 48 degrees, making for a perfect midday getaway.  But it’s only a small segment of the entire park.

That’s what makes it unique here over the other state parks’ caves.  They might have one or two, but they don’t have 13 plus in their park.

Definitely one of my favorite parks to work in and to explore in my free time anyway.  There’s places in this park I haven’t been yet, and I’ve been coming here for about eight, nine years.

Despite developed walkways and outdoor staircases, the harsh reality of nature is still in play.  In 2007 flash flooding filled this passage with hundreds of tons of rocks, mud and logs.

A state park like the one here at Maquoketa, open to thousands of visitors every year, is a luxury for all Iowans.  But geologists will tell you it comes at a price.  These passages were once filled with stalactites and stalagmites, but over generations they unfortunately proved to be too enticing as souvenirs.  In 2009 DNR officials closed Maquoketa Caves, not due to a floor or structural issues.  It wasn’t even the safety of visitors that drew the most concern.  It’s a nasty disease in bats known as white-nose syndrome.  You may have heard that bat populations are at risk from white-nose.  But did you know the mortality rate was 90-95% among those afflicted?  It’s one of the reasons state officials have taken this threat seriously.

Since white-nose syndrome was first discovered in New York state in 2006, an estimated 6 million bats have died.

The reverberations are extensive. 

The U.S. Forest Service estimates white-nose syndrome will prevent bats from eating 2.4 million pounds of bugs and could wreak havoc among farmers in key locations.  White-nose fungus thrives in cold climates, decimating bats in hibernation as they hunker down for winter, hoping to burn as little energy as possible.  The distinctive fungal growth rouses hibernating bats into an unusual active cycle, causing them to burn scarce energy and eventually starve to death.  Iowa biologists have combed Maquoketa Caves in recent years, testing dozens of bats for the fungus.  So far no trace has been detected in Iowa.

We get a lot of questions – does this affect humans?  And it doesn’t.  To our knowledge, the only thing humans can do is inadvertently transport a spore or a fungus on their clothing or gear and introduce the fungus that causes the bats to get sick.

Wildlife biologists in Missouri confirmed white-nose syndrome in 2012.  To date, it’s the westernmost point of the fungus.  Visitors to Maquoketa Caves will be welcomed with information on how to reduce changes of inadvertently transmitting white-nose fungus. 

We want people to disinfect their boots, their clothes, their flashlights, helmets, whatever gear they have before they go to another place in case that cave does have it and they don’t know it.  They won’t introduce it to a cave that doesn’t have it.  That’s the main importance of what we’re trying to teach people this summer.

Since white-nose is not considered a health risk to humans, Iowans can feel free to enjoy dozens of caves here in Maquoketa and rediscover the treasures above and below ground.

We’ve got 6 miles of trails.  We’ve got 31 campsites.  We’ve got two youth group sites.  It’s a fun place, a very family oriented park.  The kids just love exploring our caves.

Every summer DNR officials and volunteers actively pick up trash and litter at state parks across Iowa.  But nearly a decade ago our state set out to launch an ambitious annual conservation right of passage, a paddling adventure known as Project Aware.

Seven days of paddling, dozens of river miles, tons of trash, it’s a one-of-a-kind environmental journey that launches every summer from a river inside Iowa’s borders.

The education, the more formal education that’s provided in the programming, the experience that’s provided by the river, all of that comes together in an education experience that you really can’t find anywhere else.

The DNR environmental river expedition, known as Project Aware, involves hundreds of volunteers who spend their summer vacations working as aquatic garbage collectors, cleaning up, learning about and exploring Iowa’s rivers.

Project coordinators choose a different river each year, hoping to spread a message of clean up across the entire state.

It’s an idea spawned by a desire to create an annual environmental rite of passage that could make a significant dent in Iowa’s often subpar water quality.

We wanted to organize an event for the citizens of Iowa to not only help further their understanding of Iowa’s landscapes and our watersheds, but to also give them an opportunity to get their feet wet.  So from that the idea of a river cleanup, and RAGBRAI is widely popular for going across the state and spending a week.  We thought we could spend a week out on Iowa’s rivers and not just a paddle a little scenic stretch here or there, but let’s paddle an entire stretch, as much as we can.

An idea hatched from an Iowa water meeting nearly a decade ago has grown exponentially into more than 400 paddlers removing tons of trash every year.  Most camp along the route as DNR officials plan educational or entertainment events throughout the week-long expedition.  The trash tossed into the river can date back mere weeks or even decades.  It varies from twisted metal to ever-present tires strewn up and down Iowa’s many rivers and streams.

This year in the first day, we had 100 tires.  The second day we had 100 tires.  Today we had 30.  This garbage that’s coming out, we don’t just throw it into a garbage can and throw it into a hole in the ground in a landfill.  It’s all sorted out into cans and plastics or glass and metal and tires.  So it takes a lot of effort on land too to sort this out and get it to where it needs to go. 

Project Aware 2011 lured 429 volunteers to pull more than 32 tons of trash from the Little Turkey, Turkey and Volga rivers.  Ninety-six percent of the trash consisted of scrap metal and tires, all of which were later recycled.  To find a final resting place of some recycled materials, take a trip to the Iowa State Fair.

This is Dave Williamson.  He spends his fair melting scraps of metal found in Iowa’s lakes and streams.

Iowa is a place where rivers are significant.  There’s only three places on the planet like this.  There’s the Tigris and the Euphrates.  There’s the Yellow and the Yangtze.  And there’s the Mississippi and the Missouri.  Iowans live in a powerfully creative place because of the rivers.  This gateway talks about that and honors the work of those people who honor those rivers.

Williamson begins molding artwork no one would have ever dreamed could have started as a rusty piece of river trash.  That art now adorns the gates of the Iowa DNR building. 

The gates have castings that look like water forms at the top, so you get the feeling that you’re standing at the bottom of the river.  And then the security components are wrought iron canoe paddles, because we think that the canoeists of Iowa are the gatekeepers for the rivers’ health.

Williamson hopes his work sends a message to not only those old enough to clean up their state but to the next generation.

It’s really legacy work for Iowans to come and tell their story and be a part of a story of water quality.

It’s a similar desire on the river.  Young families are encouraged to chip in and devote their summer vacation to a camping and paddling adventure that includes a hefty dose of environmental cleanup.  Organizers have already witnessed Project Aware becoming a tradition.

All of the volunteers of all ages cheer on and encourage participation from our youth, because that’s ultimately what it’s all about is sharing our love of the outdoors with our future leaders in the next generation. 

July 2012 will mark the 10th anniversary of Project Aware, as hundreds of paddlers descend on the Iowa River.  The event continues to send a strong message that Iowa’s rivers need more help, and it starts with an army of volunteers aboard a fleet of canoes picking up trash one piece at a time.

Outdoor environments like Maquoketa Caves have stone bluffs that tower above visitors or wide expanses.  Sometimes you might miss the small features like moss or just-budding plants.  These details draw the attention of Cindy Skeie, for whom the big picture starts very small.  There is a chance that when you’ve been out enjoying one of the state’s many natural wonders, you’ve passed by Cindy Skeie as she was taking pictures and never even saw her.  That’s because when Cindy is photographing Iowa’s wild side, she quite literally has to get down and dirty in order to capture the magnificence of what can best be described as a small world.

I’m telling you, it’s a whole other word in there.  I enjoy being outside.  I grew up with four older brothers.  Our house had woods and creek in the back, and we pretty much lived down there our whole childhood and you knew every inch of those woods.  I always say if I don’t have some dirt under my fingernails, then I’m not doing something right.

In a world that seems to embrace the concept that bigger is better, Cindy uses macrophotography to make a miniature universe larger than life.  Her images put you face to face with the things in nature that are usually stepped over, giving her pictures with that “Oh, wow!” appeal.

One of the best compliments I get is when somebody tells me, wow, you know, I never looked at it that way before.  Who knew fungus could be fun!  To me fungus, whatever, growing on a dead tree, there’s an entire world in there.  It amazes me.  If you’re walking by and you saw that snail on the leaf, it would be a slimy little snail sitting on a leaf.  You can get up close and wow, it blows my mind.

When Skeie grabs her camera and heads out on a shoot, she rarely has a specific subject in mind and she never knows what it is that she will actually find.

I’m working on a shot for my water drops, and then I eyeball all this fungus.  So, all right.  Focus.

Even in something as spectacular as a large patch of bluebells, there is always a distraction that catches here eye and pulls her in another direction. 

When I was doing the bluebells, I started with the flower itself.  Then I started with the buds, because to me, those are more interesting than the open flower.  Then I started backing up a little bit.  Then I noticed the water drops.  Then my eyes really went towards the lichen that was on the dead limb laying in the grass.  Then I found a wildflower.  It just goes on and on and on.

Cindy says she has been taking pictures for quite some time and started exploring macrophotography with her point-and-shoot camera before she got really serious about four years ago.  The first subjects she focused her attention on were things she found in her own backyard.  Her 2012 calendar, Beauty in the Backyard, is a collection of things she found there.

I started gardening avidly.  I originally started taking photos of all the different colors because I love color.  I just kept getting drawn to closer and closer shots.  I’ll look at something in my backyard still and just be amazed at what I see through the camera lens. 

One of the things Skeie is always looking for is drops of water or sap.  For her it’s not so much the drops themselves that she fins intriguing as what’s behind them.  She’s even managed to capture a self-portrait using a drop of sap.

So I’m standing out there for all the world to see with a tripod and a camera and me on the other side of this trying to take a shot.  So, yeah, sap and water drops.

Cindy edits the images she’s captured on her laptop and doesn’t do much more than crop and size them.  She tries to avoid any manipulation of the colors in her pictures.

I’ll compose a general shot, but it’s not until I’m on my computer, looking at it and seeing how sharp the image is and where the focal point is, that I decide where I want to do my cropping.  I try not to mess with color too much.  Typically I don’t have to.  Sometimes I actually have to desaturate some of my colors because they are too vivid.  You don’t have to muck with nature when it’s as beautiful as it is.

Skeie enjoys all aspects of photography, from the taking of the picture to preparing it for printing.  While she enjoys seeing how people react to her images, she finds exhibiting her work difficult.

It’s kind of like you’re exposing yourself, because I don’t think I realized until I started putting myself out there that you’re sharing a part of yourself with everybody else.  But the more I share it with people, the more fascinated they are.  I like when I hear people saying, oh, you know, I ought to get a macrolens, that looks like fun.

Cindy always seems surprised when she looks in the viewfinder of her camera to see what she’s just shot.  When she’s out with her camera, it’s as if she’s on an adventure where there’s plenty of treasure to be found.

There’s just so much to see, and people walk by this stuff every day.  A lot of people don’t realize you walk out your back door – you don’t have to be in a park.  You can walk down a greenbelt trail.  Stop on the side of the trail.  You get down there and look and it’s just amazing.

That wraps up this edition of Iowa Outdoors.  We hope you’ve enjoyed our journey from Maquoketa Caves to Rathbun Lake to the Turkey River and back again.  If you’re still planning your summertime adventures across Iowa, check out our website for some inspiration.  Check out our website for some inspiration.  It’s at  You’ll find streaming video of our past features too, everything from biking at Ten-story Bridge to whitewater kayaking all right here in Iowa.

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