Iowa Outdoors (#205)

Iowa Outdoors | Episode
Sep 20, 2012 | 29 min

Hi, I’m Scott Siepker. 

And I’m Kellie Kramer.

Welcome to this edition of Iowa Outdoors.

On this episode of Iowa Outdoors, find out what the Okoboji Yacht Club is doing to get young people excited about the sport of sailing. 

We’ll spend some time with the last river rat, Kenny Salwey, a hermit who spent most of his life on Mississippi River bottoms, who now, through his writings, shares his love and knowledge of the unique ecosystem.

We’ll explore Big Creek State Park, a 3,500 acre family friendly destination that has something fro everyone, regardless of age or physical ability.

We’ll find out what effect this year’s high temperatures and lack of rain might have had on water quality.  We’ll have all that and more.

So sit tight –

Iowa Outdoors is about to begin.

Winner – yes!

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 premier resource for conservation, education and recreation activities.  Subscription information can be found online at

The lake at Big Creek State Park is 866 acres and was created in 1972 as part of a flood control program.  Over 3.25 million people utilize Big Creek every year to boat, fish and swim.  In northwest Iowa, the Okoboji Yacht Club has a long history of sailing.  Originally founded in 1877, the club has a strong commitment to racing and to promoting sailing as a sport.  To make sure the club has a future, they offer a youth sailing program. 

You know that’s not in the water, right?

The Okoboji Yacht Club in northwest Iowa has a long history.  First established in 1877, the club has been in continuous existence since 1933.  Over the years Jerry Huse and Bob Schneider have been a big part in shaping the history of the yacht club.

When you sail, you can learn about anything.  It’s a very challenging sport and it’s a beautiful sport.  I love to sail and I love my sailboat.  The game that you play out there is very intriguing.  It’s just a great game. 

Without a doubt, my closest friends to this day came from my sailing expertise, from my experiences with the other sailors.  They’re my closest friends.  We’re a very close bunch.  They all became dear, dear friends.

Today the Okoboji Yacht Club has around 500 members and every Saturday and Sunday between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the club hosts races.

I like the competition.  It’s not what people think.  It’s not just sailing around and having a cocktail.  It’s fiercely competitive and can be a little scary at times, but it gets your adrenaline going, so it’s a lot of fun.

Kristy Thoreson is the director for the OYC yacht school.  This year nearly 400 young people took advantage of the program, where they learn more than just the mechanics of sailing.

For some of them, it’s just learning to sail and be in a boat and have fun and enjoy being able to steer a boat by themselves and kind of get an idea of how you sail a boat.  You have the responsibility of taking care of your equipment, making sure your sails are in good shape, cleaning your boat.  There’s sand in all these boats.  It’s not fun to sail in there when there’s sand all over it, so they’re learning a lot about keeping things ship shape.

According to information that Nicholas Hayes gathered for his book, Saving Sailing, over the last several decades the popularity of sailing has decreased.  Since 1997 participation declined by 40 percent, and down 70 percent since 1979.  Hayes believes that the key to the future of sailing is to make it a family activity.  At Okoboji, family participation is a key ingredient when it comes to making the next generation of sailors. 

It’s a big family building thing.  We’re trying to get some more parent involvement so that the parents know what’s going on, because the parents don’t’ come to class and don’t see what their kids are doing during the day.  That’s what I’ve always enjoyed about sailing is that I can’t really say it’s really cross-generational but, for example, the MC fleet here might have kids in it that are 17 along with the 50 year olds and they all have a bond with each other. 

The sailing school’s no tears, no fears regatta is a series of races that allows the sailing students to experience what it’s like to compete against other sailors.  All of the boats are of the same design, making the race more about who is the best sailor and not about who has the fastest boat.

It’s kind of like the competitive feeling you have.  You have all your friends and you want to show them who’s boss.  And like kind of – you make a lot of friends doing this.  You sail around and you want to get known as a pretty good person and a sailor because what basic sailing is about is you kind of want – overall what I really want to become after this is a good person from learning how to do this and having all these good friends.

According to David, he’s been sailing a long time, every since he was three.  Like others his age, he has a number of summer activities he takes part in – music lessons, golf lessons, baseball, soccer.  That’s a short list of the many activities that compete with sailing.

I do wrestling sometimes.  I do tennis sometimes, soccer, violin.  I just like sailing and I think it’s really fun.  I like going fast in the sailboat.

I did pretty good.  I got second in every single race.  I got second out of all three races, so I’m pretty excited about that.  Since I got three seconds and nobody else got three firsts or anything, that means that I probably got first in the regatta.  You just kind of have got to keep believing in yourself and believe that if you try your hardest that you’ll get a good placing and you’ll do good.  Yeah.

Sheryl Jones is the 2012 commodore, or presiding officer, of the yacht club. 

Our motto this year has been eighty years of friends, family and sailing.  Sailing is just the part that brought us all together.  It’s just a wonderful sport and it’s a lifelong sport.  That’s the beauty of it.

Members of the Okoboji Yacht Club hope that they’ll be celebrating another eighty-year anniversary in the future.  They hope to spark an interest in sailing through the youth sailing program, an interest that will grow to where sailing becomes more than just another outdoor activity, but a way of life. 

The lake at Big Creek State Park covers over 850 acres, but the park is actually over 3,500 acres in size.  So even if you’re not a fan of the water, there’s plenty to do here.

Big Creek is a really big, really busy place.  IT meets the needs of a lot of people.  There’s really no reason to be bored out here.  You can do anything from being on the water to bike riding to bringing the kids out to the playground and play. 

While there are no campgrounds on the lake, there are plenty of picnic areas and shelters.  The picnic areas are available on a first-come basis, but shelters can be reserved in advance.

There’s excellent fishing year-round in Big Creek, where the lake is stocked with everything from bluegill to muskie. 

There are five boat ramps around the lake, so you can bring your own or rent a fishing boat like one of these at the marina.

The marina is really one of the key points and one of the focal points of the park.  There’s a great availability of everything from paddleboats to kayaks and even pontoon boats.  It’s a great way for people to come out and experience things they have to offer without having to own the equipment.  There’s been many cases where they’ve actually come out and rented a kayak and decided whether they liked it or not, and went and bought one after that.

Big Creek is part of the central Iowa bike route, which connects this park with Ledges and Springbrook State Park.

A 26 mile paved multiuse trail allows pedestrians and cyclists to get from the beach at Big Creek to downtown Des Moines.

The Neal Smith bike trail starts at Big Creek State Park at the beach here and continues down to the Botanical Center.  It’s a 26 mile paved trail, and about 5 miles of that trail goes through Big Creek here.  We have places you can stop for restrooms and shelters.  It is a very pretty ride.

The park has many features that were designed to accommodate those who are physically challenged.  Besides picnic shelters and restrooms, there’s a wheelchair accessible fishing pier that makes it easy for everyone to enjoy fishing from shore.

Big Creek State Park has around three-quarter million visitors every year, so water quality is taken very seriously.  To combat impairments within the Big Creek Lake watershed, the Boon and Polk soil and water conservation districts received a grant in 2010 for the purpose of educating and promoting water quality and to implement conservation practices that would reduce sediment, phosphorus and bacteria.

We’re standing in an area here in the Big Creek watershed.  It’s on the tributary of Little Creek.  Basically what we had here was a concentrated flow area on some high-slope soils.  We came in and we put four sets of terraces within the concentrated flow area to help slow the water down and reduce erosion and reduce nutrient sediment loading too.

Under the program, 75-90 percent of costs associated with adopting conservation projects were reimbursed to farmers within the watershed. 

There was an overfall cutting back into the field where water is running over it and it’s slowly eating back into the fields, so what we did was put an aluminum toe wall structure of this point where the water outlets.  It’s a very, very good practice to stabilize these outlets.

Terracing and grade stabilization projects are two practices being implemented in the watershed to curb erosion.  Faulty septic systems, livestock, manure applications to crop fields, and wildlife are other identified problems.  Bacteria counts in the water samples are higher at the beach, where 70 geese reside, than water samples taken in other parts of the lake.

A full grown goose can sometimes produce up to a pound or two of feces in a day.  When that’s going in right where we’re doing our water sampling, it can cause a definite problem. 

To encourage the waterfowl to move to other parts of the lake, the Big Creek Lake watershed project has been employing ARS, or animal removing solutions.  That includes using dog decoys, as well as having live dogs to patrol the beach daily, flashing lights to annoy the geese at night, and time-lapse cameras monitor changes in activity.

You can’t pinpoint this problem on any one thing.  Throughout the whole watershed assessment, you find all these different contributing factors.  Everyone is trying to do their own part.

One study has found that over $19 million has been contributed to the local economies just from visitors to Big Creek State Park, so water quality is a big issue.

With weather conditions the way they’ve been in Iowa this summer, the very high heat coupled with very little rain, it creates an environment where bacterial populations can explode.

The drought of 2012 has plagued a number of farm fields throughout the Midwest.  Compared to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and its severity, this summer’s heat wave and lack of precipitation sounded the death knell for many a cash crop.  Water is central to this predicament, as plants cannot survive this slow burn without basic sustenance.  For certain life forms that live in Iowa’s lakes and ponds, higher temperatures can have monstrous consequences. 

We’ve seen a moderate increase in the number of blue green algae blooms this year.  That’s primarily due to the drought.

Every summer the Iowa Department of Natural Resources monitors recreational water quality.  Beach monitoring coordinator Jason McCurdy travels the state collecting beach water samples.

Our primary goal is to protect public health.  We want to make sure everybody that’s coming here to swim has the information they need to make an informed decision about whether or not they should go into the water.

Exposure to high levels of Microsystems present in blue green algae can cause itching, skin rash, sinus and lung irritation, as well as vomiting and diarrhea.  Experts say the best thing to do if you or a loved one display these symptoms is shower immediately and seek medical attention.  There are a handful of algae native to Iowa, and their complexity are best expressed to human eyes under the lens of a microscope.

Iowa Lakeside Laboratory on West Okoboji Lake in northwest Iowa has become a virtual mecca for algae research.

So the algae is the phytoplankton, or plants, that live in the water.  They’re basically the foundation of a lot of the aquatic ecosystems and are part of the dynamics of the lake and play an important role.  It’s really been a tremendous experience to be able to look at all the aquatic organisms and the life that’s in the lakes of Iowa and the Midwest and see how those things – interactions can relate to the water quality and how that interplays.

Local residents have embraced their roles as stewards of the area’s lakes. 

We have a volunteer monitoring program that samples twice a month at 27 different sites on the nine lakes within Dickinson County.  Those samples get analyzed for the types of nutrients found and the algae abundance and also the water clarity.

Nutrients and algae have a special relationship.  Fertilizers and animal waste can be swept away during downpours and deposited in bodies of water.  These conditions are ideal for the growth of algae and cyanobacteria, or what has been known as blue green algae.  In truth, blue greens are not algae at all, but photosynthetic bacteria. 

Although it is present all the time, whenever it gets warmer, and especially in the later parts of the summer, it is absolutely the dominant form of photosynthetic activity out in your pond.  Iowa State University keeps an eye on Iowa’s beaches as well.  Fisheries and aquaculture extension specialist Allen Pattillo says cyanobacteria have an advantage over forms of algae when it comes to utilizing elements in the water.

Because they can do that, they have this chemical inside them that just so happens to be toxic to some other organisms.

Fish kills this year in Des Moines area ponds may have been inadvertently attributed to cyanobacteria.  While the blooms could be a contributing factor, fisheries’ biologists are hesitant to lay blame.

In my time here, I don’t remember seeing any fish kills specifically caused by blue green algae.

Warm water holds less oxygen.  During a drought, this can place undue stress on fish in confined spaces.  The preeminence of cyanobacteria may kill other underwater plants triggering a standoff for life-giving molecules. 

That plant material that’s decaying actually requires oxygen to decompose that material, so that also comes into play.  There are several things that are going on at the same time.

The study of these aquatic interactions continues, and the drought adds a new wrinkle of research into blue green algae.  You could’ve had an influx of nutrients in the lake, and then with the drought setting up, no water coming into push or to keep the water moving through, so it stagnated, warmed up, there were nutrients present and so therefore you end up with a bloom.

Currently scientific testing is the only way to discern toxicity.  Levels can rise and fall inexplicably. 

The more we monitor, the more we know about it, the better we’ll be able to handle future situations in which we’ll need to take public health into consideration.

Kenny Salwey spent most of his life living on the Mississippi River bottom and is known as the last river rat.  The cabin he lived in he built with his own two hands, and he lived off the land by fishing, hunting and trapping his food.  He’ll tell you he’s not an educated man, but he’s authored several books about his life and the environment he loves. 

Look past the river towns dotting its banks behind the main commercial channel filled with chugging barges and you’ll see the often flooded backwaters of the mighty Mississippi, the wilderness of the Midwest, the lifelong home of Kenny Salwey. 

My appreciation for the river is this – it’s quite simple – it’s given me my life.

When the breath of the river is rising to meet the sun, a quietness envelopes.  You may hear some ducks or geese talking, gabbling back and forth.  But most things seem to be quiet when the mists are heavy.  The trees come and go like ghosts.  It is the breath of the river. 

I built this shack with my own two hands and a whole lot of sweat back about thirty years ago.  A snapping turtle that I found floating out here in the big lake in the spring.  Then I hung it up in a tree by this twine string and thought the critters would hollow that all out for me over summer and I’d have a nice turtle shell.  I came in the fall and it was still hanging in that tree, and it had petrified itself.

Kenny has spent much of his life here as a hermit turned outdoorsman, a hunter, trapper, fisherman, all in one, living off the land in a shack only a stone’s throw away from the water’s banks.

A god has one glaring defect – they don’t live long enough. 

A life summed up in one legendary nickname, the last river rat.  A river rat is somebody who’s too crazy to freeze to death, too full of hot air to drown, and too ornery and independent to call anybody boss.  Amen, brother,

When the tundra swans arrive, it is assigned of winter approaching.  When the tundra swans leave, winter is here.

In a world of constant motion, Kenny is a speed bump of wisdom, softly slowing the pace of life, but filling its vacuum with knowledge gleaned from decades along the brackish backwaters of the upper Mississippi.  Kenny’s life as an expert trapper, fisherman, and all-around outdoorsman took a sudden turn two decades ago, when a local game warden stopped the last river rat dead in his tracks.  The warden asked Kenny to share his unparalleled outdoor knowledge with local schoolteachers.  It was an unwelcome request for a woodland hermit. 

I said, I should go?  I never liked school.  I never liked schoolteachers.  There’s going to be 55 of them.  I’m going to be surrounded by them.  Right now I ain’t so sure I like game wardens.  Jim Eaverson looked me right square in the eye and he said, you are one of the most selfish, greedy people I ever met in my life.  All you do is sit back here and take, take, take from nature.  You don’t give nothing back.

The stern lecture brought the last river rat out of hiding and into classrooms and local gatherings around his community.  A man who often spoke vividly about the changing seasons of the Mississippi was transforming himself.

I found out a most peculiar paradox – if I am to see the natural world and the great circle of life remain healthy and happy, I need to give it away in order to keep it.

The last river rat’s gifts are his tales and a reputation as a master storyteller built by penning multiple books, each chronicling a life most Americans can barely fathom.  Kenny’s readers have discovered a man seemingly trapped in a bygone era – no electricity, no running water, and where trips for dinner could take days of strenuous work.  Kenny’s tales culminated in 2007 with the premier of a BBC documentary which profiled the last river rat.

My name is Kenny Salwey and I’m known as the last river rat.  Folks say I’m a dying breed.  My home has always been the Mississippi River.  And here I survived all my life as a hunter, trapper, fisherman and writer.  The river is my lifeblood.  And indeed it is the lifeblood of our nation.  It splits America in half, so to speak, and yet it joins it together.

Filmed by renowned Midwestern cinematographer Neil Rettig, the BBC special endeared viewers to an impassioned defender of wildlife and his majestic Mississippi home.  The images and stories would later win a national Emmy and catapult a one-time hermit into cult like status throughout the Midwest.

A mysterious, magical place.

Okay, Diane.  Thank you very much.  Very nice to meet you.  Thank you for coming.

Today Kenny visits bookstores across the country, like a recent stop in Des Moines to spread a message of conservation.

We have two resources, great resources – our natural resources and our human resources.  Right here are the second most – these children are the second most important resource in the world.

His latest book, Muskrat for Supper, is aimed at spreading his real-life tales to our nation’s youth.  And he’s not done yet.  The last river rat says there are plenty of tales left to tell about his affectionate bond with swamp dogs and his vision for the natural world.

It’s one of those drizzly, foggy, autumn mornings, and the water drips from the leaves into the slough below.  Drip, drip, drip.  Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo, a barred owl calls.  The old dog don’t even pick up his head.  He says, Ah, I’ve heard that a thousand times.  I’m tired today.

The man who once lived as a river bottom hermit has come full circle.  While he’s now married and spending his full-time days away from the shack he called home for decades, he’s never forgotten his roots deep in the boot suckin’ Mississippi mud.

When I need to recharge my batteries, this is where I come, which is more often than it used to be. 

The term river rat is not given to a person.  It is earned.  A river rat makes a living with the Mississippi River.  I say with rather than off the river because to live with something is to live in harmony.  To live off of something is like a parasite, a bloodsucker, a louse, a wood tick.  This is my second life now.  It has been a wonderful second life.  The first one I spent doing all the things that a river rat does, and now I talk about all the things that a river rat does.  The natural world is still giving me my life.  I’m very grateful for that.

That wraps up this edition of Iowa Outdoors.  If you’re looking for ideas of things to do across the state – or you want to get caught up on our past episodes, check out our website at  There you’ll find some of the adventures that can be found 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 premier resource for conservation, education and recreation activities.  Subscription information can be found online at