Iowa Outdoors (#302)

Iowa Outdoors | Episode
Apr 19, 2013 |

 Kramer: Welcome to Palisades-Kepler State Park, an eastern Iowa destination located between our state's second largest city of Cedar Rapids and the town of Mount Vernon. 

 Visitors can follow dramatic bluffs down to the banks of the Cedar River where spring rains can fill this valley.

In just a few minutes we'll tell you more about this sprawling 840 acre park.

 But first, we'll explore an Iowa bike race you've likely never heard of, a challenge of mind and body and Iowa's springtime elements.

 It's a peddling trial on our state's back roads with a die hard crew with each biker hoping to conquer 300 miles of gravel.

 The forecast for Cedar Rapids and surrounding areas the rest of today, blustery, rain.

 This is ridiculous.  It's 3:30 in the morning, I'm about to hop on my bike and I'm in Iowa.

 We've got kind of a fine mist blowing around and the wind is really strong out of the east.

 I've never really done this before.

 Alright, where I'm at right now it looks kind of foggy.

 We're not really traditional bike racers.  You know, we like to go out and do something that's different.

 It's 300 and some miles.  It's not so much a race as a war of attrition.

 Don't get hurt.  Hopefully you don't get hypothermia.

 Try to finish.

 You get out there and people start lining up at the start line, you know, and you've got your people who are really excited.

 So at 4:00 we're going to leave.  We're going to have two cars block Highway 6 up here as we cross. 

So that inspired you, um, and then, you know, you start waking up and you realize, like, this is neat.

 Be safe, ride right, you know, and hopefully you all have a good time.  Thanks for coming to TransIowa.

TransIowa, a homegrown bike race you've likely never heard of.  It's out state's only cycling feat of strength and endurance.  Bikers descend before dawn for a 24 hour, or longer, race across gravel and level B dirt roads.

 We call them B maintenance roads, some people call them minimum maintenance roads.  Basically they're roads that were etched out into the dirt years and years ago and never had gravel laid on them.

 Everybody's been walking in the grass.

 Iowa soil is very sticky and it clogs up everything that it touches.

 That was harder than riding.

 And so when the cyclist tries to cycle a B road that's wet it just, within a few feet your bike weighs a third again as much as it did when you entered the B road because of all the mud stuck to it all of a sudden.

 I'm expecting to be soft in the beginning and then I'm expecting to be running in the ditch where it gets muddy.

 I'm from North Carolina and I notice a little bit less grass.

 In a way, this is the anti-RAGBRAI, not for the faint of heart or for those who need a pork chop every 20 minutes.  The race begins and ends in Grinnell after bikers complete a 300 to 340 mile loop.

 I think there's six guys up ahead.  We've got a long ways to go still.

 For nearly ten years, TransIowa has captivated a hardcore group of cyclists.

 Did everyone go the wrong way or something?

 Computer's not working.

 We're at mile 13.39.

 Crap, I only have 13.34.

 Each venturing out on a self-supported and self-navigated event.

 We got lost for about four miles.

So we are going the right way?

 Right there.  I don't think we were supposed to go south and they went --

 They took a B road we didn't have to take, hiked about a mile, two miles on a B road.

 The whole time I'm thinking, man if we don't have to do this, oh, that's going to be a pain to hear but it is what it is.

 Jeff Frings: If you stop for any particular length of time other than just to grab some food and, you know, if you have a mechanical problem, if you stop any longer than that you're not going to finish in the timeframe that they've kind of allotted for a "official" finish.

 Unique road race inspired Wisconsin filmmaker Jeff Frings to follow along on TransIowa for his award-winning documentary, 300 Miles of Gravel.

Frings: This is kind of a fly by the seat of your pants kind of a thing.  My wife drove the car and I shot all the video and didn't know what I was going to get and how it was going to go.  But in the end the storyline that I liked personally is Corey Godfrey, nicknamed Cornbread, and he, I think it was about the 50 mile mark, just before the 50 mile mark because his drive train on his bike just blew up, the chain exploded.

 Corey Godfrey: 50 miles in probably.  So there's not much you can do, tried to make it in single speed several times but the chain was so torqued and bent it just jumped gears, it jumped into a harder year and then there's so much tension on the chain that eventually the chain just exploded into like 10 different parts.

 Frings: And he made his way to the first checkpoint and obviously since he got a ride there he was disqualified from officially finishing the race.  But he got a ride back to Grinnell, Iowa where the race started and finished and fixed his bike, turned it into a single speed and then literally rode from Grinnell out to where his friends were on the course, caught up with his friends even though he wasn't officially in the race and caught up with his friends, rode the rest of the race and ended up finishing, unofficially, with his friends.  He rode 300 and some miles even though he didn't officially finish just to do it because that's kind of the spirit of TransIowa is, what can I do?  Can I finish this?  Can I push myself beyond what I thought I could do?

 Frings says his documentary aims to not only introduce Iowans to the hardest bike race they've never heard of but answer a question viewers are likely to ask early and often. 

 Frings: From people all the time when I tell them about the documentary, why would they do that?  And I hear that from people, I heard that from people when I did the 24 hour race is, why?  You ride your bike for 24 hours straight?  Why?


 Frings: Here's where you think your limits are and here's where they might really be and even if you go a little bit past where you think they are you've learned something about what you can do and, you know, the limits aren't what you think they are so it kind of teaches you to always push beyond what you think you can do.

 Guitar Ted: People would look at you today and say, gee, I don't know why we do this, this is crazy, you know.  In the bike shop I worked at, I still do this, Europa Cycle and Ski, I was first paired up as a mechanic with a fellow by the name of Jeff Kirkoff and he was talking about how some of the earlier Europa cyclists had taken road bikes and gone across Iowa in a day on road bikes and he thought, well, what if we did that on mountain bikes, what would that look like?  And I said, yeah, we could do it all on gravel roads and forget that pavement stuff.  And he goes, let's do it.  So, I was like, what?  And the next thing I know we were doing TransIowa so that's how it started just like that.


In the late 1890s, James Sherman Minott acquired 160 acres of timberland along the beautiful Cedar River and later built an inn for guests.  Well known American poet Carl Sandburg was once a yearly visitor to the Palisades, looking for inspiration in the early 1920s.

 By 1922, much of Minott's original land had been acquired by the state of Iowa and a public park was established.  Six years later, with the addition of 700 more acres from the Louis Kepler estate, Palisades-Kepler State Park doubled in size.

 When the Iowa Conservation Board accepted the donation, the members proclaimed, these Palisades lining the Cedar River are quite special.  A sentiment shared by generations of Iowans.

 Pancakes wouldn't be the same without maple syrup.  And while other parts of the country mass produced the sappy substance, key spots in Iowa produce their own delicious product.  We dispatched Iowa PBS's Dan Wardell to discover how Iowa's children are learning about a homegrown outdoor treat, one drop at a time.

 As winter comes to a close, steam rises from a small shack in an Iowa forest.  And if you listen closely you'll hear the sweet sound of sap.  Here in the scenic valley of Smith Wildlife Area near Algona, a tradition stretching back across six decades is brought to life as busloads of today's children descend on the 140 acre forest.  The first days of spring are perfect for homemade Iowa maple syrup, a mix of warming spring days and cold nights create an essential environment for sap.

 When the temperature gets to be above freezing all the time, it doesn't cool off and get cold at night then the trees start sending all the sap up and it goes into the buds and then makes leaves.

 Youngsters learn how thawing temps overnight start sap flow and warm days speed the process.  Next step, a hands on approach.

 What does it feel like when you get to come out here for a school trip and walk around in the woods?  What does that feel like?

 Really exciting.

 Buckets are hung on trees throughout Smith Woods where hundreds of gallons of sap are collected day by day, drip by drip.  It actually takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.  Wave after wave of students venture throughout the valley to retrieve full buckets.  Many are surprised to learn sap looks like water but tastes much sweeter.

 It does taste like ice cream.

 We're going to pour it into here now, very carefully.  Want a bite, huh?

 Tell us what you did today.

 Um, we went for little hikes and we learned how to make maple syrup in the shack.

 Gallons of sap are carried to the Cozy Grove Sugar Shack where the mixture's water is boiled off.  Once the sap reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit you have Iowa maple syrup.

 If we boil it hotter than that, what happens is it turned into rock candy.  Yeah, which tastes really, really good, but it makes a really big mess.  I did that once and I've never done it since.  I got in lots of trouble.

 After learning how trees release seasonal sap, how taps are properly performed and watching the slow boiling process, visitors get the final payoff, a sweet sample.

 Tell us what did that syrup taste like?

 It was really amazing and it tasted like a bunch of sugar and some pancakes a little.

 It is really sweet and doesn't taste like the stuff you buy at the store.

 Other locations in Iowa, or across the country, may use modern sap collection methods.  But Kossuth County naturalists stay true to form.  It's a recipe for success, not only for one's sweet tooth, but for students discovering outdoor opportunities for the first time.

 Why is it so fun to have kids come out into nature and do hands-on learning?

 Just to see all the fun things they can do outside and all the different things that you don't need electricity for.  And that stuff just baffles them. 

 As winter melts away, the outdoors are filled with sounds from our avian friends.  In Iowa's northeast corner there is an effort underway to expand the population of a unique game bird, one that beats its wings to a different drum.

 On a crisp April morning, not far from the small northeast Iowa town of Highlandville, a rare sight is emerging from its winter slumber, a small game bird known as the ruffed grouse, begins his springtime ritual.

 Terry Haindfield: Watching a ruffed grouse go onto a log in a type of a structure that he's protected from predators and to display his ruffs from his neck and also to fain tail but also then to pop his wings back and forth into the drumming fashion is incredible to witness or to hear from a distance.

Using a log as his soapbox, the ruffed grouse inflates his feathery coat to impress a potential mate.  His high altitude perch also provides an ideal lookout for potential predators.  But this ideal mating habitat is dwindling and Iowa DNR researchers are taking note.

 Haindfield: The 1980s and 1990s the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Bureau started recognizing that our forests were actually changing quite drastically.  So in 2005 we developed what is called Forest Wildlife Stewardship Plans, long-term plans with looking at inventory of what we have for forest resources, trees and shrubs, developing objectives for that particular area and then writing prescriptions for forest management for the needed habitats for wildlife. 

 Wildlife management area inventories revealed that in the 1970s and 1980s, young forest habitats for ruffed grouse and other birds measured 25-45%.  In 2010, only 1-3% of this young forest habitat was available after maturing forest caused decline of not only the ruffed grouse but the American woodcock, eastern towhee, yellow billed cuckoo and blue and yellow winged warblers.  To increase bird habitat, an effort is underway to expand and create new young forest.  For ruffed grouse, a critical step is cutting down mature Aspen trees.

 Haindfield: To create early successional habitat you can cut adult or mature Aspen trees and actually sprout lots of other new stems and new seedlings from the root systems.  Hundreds of Aspen seedlings will grow up and create the necessary habitat for wildlife species that need to have a young forest.

 Other trees needed for ideal habitats include Red Cedars, young Oak, Hazelnut, Dogwood and Plum.  Shrubs provide not only shelter from predators, but also a food source in the berries they produce.  The Wildlife Bureau's plan would not be possible without the help of private landowners.  A cost share program was developed to help encourage private owners to build habitat for ruffed grouse on their property and in turn help bring the population back.

 Jerry Johnson: Haindfield: It's a matter of getting some of those mature woodlands cleared out of logging and getting some second growth trees on those properties if we're going to bring grouse habitat back.

 These plans for young forest and the subsequent newly created wildlife habitat are a plan that stretches far into the future ensuring that forest with a diversity of tree and shrub species will lead to wildlife being better served.

 It's great that the DNR is educating the public to know about this and to keep this bird as a primary part of our wildlife in this part of the state and adapting habitat so they can continue to be part of Iowa's heritage.


When Linda and Bob Scarth go on a date, it's likely they have a lot of camera gear in tow.  They have been taking pictures together as long as they have been married.

 For both photographers sharing nature's beauty is not just a hobby, it's a way of life, a life they've shared for more than 50 years.


Bob and Linda Scarth can tell you a lot about the flora and fauna found between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.  That's because they spend a lot of time outdoors photographing the state's natural wonders.

 Bob Scarth: We've been out here a couple of times I think on New Year's Day and some of the skunk cabbage has come up through some snow.  And we may come out here half a dozen times a year, come out for the skunk cabbage, then later on for the marsh marigolds and then also for the red trilliums.

 Linda Scarth: And spring beauty and hepatica and all of the spring flowers.  But we photograph year round.  There's usually something interesting.

 Linda's father was a photographer and she developed an interest in photography at an early age.  Bo began taking photographs for classes he taught in animal science.  Together they have been making beautiful pictures for over 50 years, or as long as they've been married.

 Bob: A lot of my early photography when we traveled was landscape.  I tended to do more landscapes than anything else and I was a flower spotter for Linda.  And then it turns out now that I do as much close-up work and algae and fungus and flowers as Linda does.

 Linda: He does more birds than I do.  I'm getting back to doing more landscapes again so I'm seeing the world.  I used to say I saw the world through a 100 millimeter macro lens because that's how I framed the world but I try to expand myself from that.

 In 2009, 80 photographs that Linda and Bob had taken over the years, were published in a book titled, "Deep Nature: Photographs from Iowa."  The pictures that they selected to include in the book are a close-up look at some of the small wonders found in Iowa's woodlands, wetlands and prairies.

 Linda: My favorite image is the hover fly on the fringed gentian.

 Bob: And the nice thing about that is the hover fly wings picked up some of the colors of the fringed gentian.

 Linda: I think my second favorite is probably the little zebra spider.  Most spiders don't have very good vision but jumping spiders do have very good vision.  And he saw my lens and he saw that and that was the biggest eye he had ever seen and he sat there and he looked at me like this.  And that was fun to do.  I enjoyed that.

 Linda: We were hoping to get people to look more closely, that there are so many lovely little things so we included some fungi, some beautiful colored fungi, insects, we even have a batch of some lichens because lichens are the corals of the woodlands because they repeat the shapes and colors that are often seen in corals and people just don't notice these things and we live in such a beautiful world if you just take time to look.

 Linda and Bob together have four cameras.  All of them are the same except they have mounted different types of lenses on each camera.  It allows them to simply trade cameras instead of having to change lenses in the field.  On a shoot they'll take an assortment of reflectors and umbrellas to direct and diffuse light.  And Bob often wears something he refers to as garden knees.

 Bob: Those garden knees are one of my most useful pieces of equipment because most things look better if you can photograph them at their level so getting as low as you can, also that helps you when you get down low in terms it may be easier to get a diffused background.  If you're looking straight down or pretty well angled down on things they normally don't look as nice.

 Photography is something Linda and Bob do together.  They can cover a lot of ground as a team but the process still takes time.

 Linda: When you see something you just don't take a picture, you make some time, you think about it, you walk around it, you set up.  Pictures are made, they're not taken and we have friends here in town who said, you don't go for a walk with them, you start out, they stop to photograph something and you come back two hours later and they haven't moved five feet.

 Bob: Well, more than five feet normally but we go at our own pace.

 It's a wonderful thing to be able to share what you love to do with someone you love.  And it's rewarding to be able to make a difference in the lives of people and the world you live in by sharing that love with others.

 Linda: We're each other's best friend and this is something we can do together and nature is so special and we need to show the world how special it is.

 That wraps up this springtime edition of Iowa Outdoors.  Our Iowa PBS crew will continue to criss-cross the state in the coming months to bring you the very best of Iowa's outdoor environments.

 And you can help by submitting your ideas and suggestions to

 Be sure to check out our growing online video archive of more than 50 features all about Iowa's conservation and recreation.

 We'll leave you with some scenes from Red House State Park where the eastern red bud symbolizes the beauty of spring 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  By Musco Lighting, the sports lighting specialist, providing lighting system for you, your project and your community. 

 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