Iowa Outdoors (#303)

Iowa Outdoors | Episode
Jun 22, 2013 | 00:28:45

Hi I’m Scott Siepker. 

 And I’m Kellie Kramer.  Welcome to this picturesque corner of southeast Iowa. 

 And our latest summertime edition of Iowa Outdoors. 

 We paddle in for an exclusive camp site on Lake Red Rock.  We’ll take you to eastern Iowa’s Nahant marsh where an environmental cleanup has been decades in the making. 

 And we follow along on a yearlong photographic journey – one shot at a time. 

 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  By Musco Lighting, the sports lighting specialist, providing lighting systems 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

 Welcome to Van Buren County and Lacey Keosauqua State Park, a southeastern Iowa destination located along the meandering Des Moines River near the Iowa-Missouri border.

 Visitors often call this corner of Iowa big bend country where the Des Moines River contorts itself in a peculiar “U” shape around the nearby town of Keosauqua.

 In just a few minutes we’ll tell you more about the 1600 acre park.

 But, first, we’ll travel upstream to Lake Red Rock.

 From Memorial Day to Labor Day, state parks across Iowa are filled with campers.  Some set up tents.  Others bring massive camper trailers. 

 But have you ever wanted to venture out with just the bare essentials?  Conservation groups in central Iowa have teamed up together for a unique kayak adventure with a catch. 

 You not only paddle in yourself but also all of your gear.  Known as Iowa’s largest lake, Red Rock is navigated on this day by some of the smallest and most nimble water vessels -- kayaks.  With more than 15,000 acres of surface water, you just may be able to isolate yourself from other lake visitors and feel as if you’re in the wilderness and not in a manmade reservoir.  But these kayakers from Waverly are not in search of the wonders of modern flood control technology.  They’re here to observe the natural beauty of south central Iowa. 

 This is actually considered a globally important bird area.  We have a lot of migratory birds that spend time here.  A large number of gulls, a different species as you can probably see from behind me and even the white pelicans that migrate through are a strong interest to people.  I think there were 200 of them below the dam yesterday if not more.  And the bald eagles are a strong attraction to people, usually in the winter months.

Last year was our first year coming to Lake Red Rock near Pella, Iowa.  While we’re down here we get to see the cliffs along Highway 14, which are very beautiful.

 Today rocks here seem to be used as a chalkboard for graffiti.  But down at the water’s edge you can see where sand stone was cut for commerce in the late 1800s. 

 There is a house in Des Moines on Grand Avenue that has this red sand stone on it.  Red Rock felt they were going to be famous for this.  Turned out to be too soft and didn’t pan out.

 Will Prather is with a group who wants visitors to know the area’s history before Red Rock Dam was completed in 1969.  They even published a map with GPS coordinates of all the towns now buried under the lake in case curious boaters want to search for them.

 We probably paddled over several of them today but we didn’t realize it probably. 

 With such a windy day, Darren and his fellow paddlers focus more on staying on top of the water than pondering what’s underneath.

 The wind today was challenging.  The waves were different than what I’ve experienced before since they were crossing each other and it was pretty choppy, but it was fun.

 With the potential for adverse conditions on the lake, Darren recommends paddling a kayak at least 13 feet long with a double bulk head for buoyancy.

I would not suggest Lake Red Rock as a beginning paddler lake.  When the wind comes up, and it doesn’t take much wind to get white caps here, it can really be rather challenging for experienced paddlers even.

 Ranger Spry recommends less experienced paddlers first try out a body of water adjacent to the lake called Robert’s Creek.  If you stay on the main lake and the water is low enough, you can get a view of what many paddlers head for.  The remains of the historic and much photographed Peace Tree.

 According to what is written, the treaty of 1842 in which the U.S. purchased twelve million acres from the Indians, I might add for a penny an acre, was signed under that tree because there were no buildings.

 You can only get to it by boat.  So you can paddle right up to it and touch it and you can feel like you have a connection with history.  And, at least in this case, that’s not something you can do while sitting in your car.  So that’s why we like it.

 Kayaker Diane Lawry has taken photographs of the paddlers having fun in every season at Lake Red Rock.  She’s an active volunteer and advocate for the lake’s first paddle-in campsite, one of a just handful of paddle only sites along Iowa waterways.  Paddle-in means no cars allowed so campers must load up their kayaks with sleeping bags, tents, food, water and whatever else they may need and paddle to the campgrounds. 

This is really a group effort from a lot of people who really wanted, who thought it was an important project. 

 The $400,000 project came from the efforts of the Red Rock Lake Association, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the Iowa DNR and the Army Corp of Engineers.  And thanks to a slew of volunteers who helped clean up this piece of shoreline, there are now eight tent sites.

 Primitive camping in our sense of Hickory Ridge means they have a fire ring, they have a small wood chipped pad in order to put a tent. I think there’s one that can maybe put two tents. 

 I was excited about having a paddle-in campsite.  There’s other places in Iowa that you can camp on sand bars.  You can camp in county parks.  But it’s a little quieter here, a little bit more rustic.  It’s a very beautiful campsite.  It’s hilly.  It has great scenery.  Wild flowers here in the spring.  There’s a red tail hawk nest just about 50 yards from here so that’s nice to have here as well. 

 Iowa finally has a paddle-in campsite.  It’s a good practice for groups before you go to the boundary waters to check out, see what it’s like to paddle in with all your gear and how to pack your gear and everything.

 As the sun slowly sets in the west, these paddlers seem content with the one campsite the lake provides.  They have their own private campfire and the sites and sounds of Lake Red Rock.

The Mormon trail across America passes through this corner of southeast of Iowa and this particular notch of the river known as Ely Ford.  Visitors today to the park spend more time fishing than they do attempting to cross the Des Moines River as it winds its way to the town of Keosauqua.

 Lacey Keosauqua State Park wasn’t always known by its current moniker.  Up until 1921 it was known as Big Bend, for the massive U-shaped turn in the river nearby.  But state officials wanted a more colorful name. 

 For the next five years the park was dubbed Keosauqua, a Native American term meaning the stream bearing a massive floating sheet of ice, snow or sleet.  In 1926 the name changed again, this time in honor of one of Iowa’s foremost champion of conservation, Major John Fletcher Lacey. 

 Lacey fought in the Civil War and was elected to the U.S. Congress from Iowa in 1888.  Congressional colleagues criticized Major Lacey for his early concerns about wildlife protection.  He later championed landmark bills pertaining to parks dubbed Yosemite and Yellowstone.

 Prior to the Lacey Bird Act of 1900, state and federal officials were powerless to stop poachers who carried their kills across state lines.  Along with his federal legislative acumen, John Lacey was instrumental in the creation of the Iowa State Park System.

 The Civilian Conservation Corp who worked here in the 1930s and 1940s, they built many of the, almost all of the stone structures in the park.  I think there’s upwards to like 47 different structures they started.  They did wonderful work and it’s there for generations to come.

 At one time eastern Iowa’s Nahant marsh was home to Quad Cities Trap and Skeet Gun Club.  After 25 years of use, mud in the marsh contains heavy doses of lead.

 If ingested, just a single pellet of lead can sicken or kill many of the native birds.  The lead contamination led the Environmental Protection Agency to list the Nahant marsh as a super fund site in need of cleanup.

 But in the ensuring years in toxic wetland became something greater, an environmental rallying point for an eastern Iowa community and a safe haven for wildlife.

 Since 2003 the Friends of Nahant have gotten together each spring to clean up the marsh in eastern Iowa just south of Davenport.

 When you pick up bags of trash, don’t try to overstuff it.  If you see anything hazardous or looks hazardous, let us know and we’ll take care of it.  But just leave your bags of trash in piles along the road and we’ll be circulating and pick them up. 

 For some, the cleanup at Nahant Marsh is an annual family event.

 The kids and I have been doing this for three years and they enjoy doing it, not so much her, but he, this morning he said, Mom, where are we going?  He was so excited this morning when he found out what we were doing. 

 This year’s cleanup included picking up trash and items dumped in and around Nahant Marsh.  The removal of invasive plant species and the planting of a variety of trees donated by the city of Davenport.

 In this forested area there are a lot of undesirables, such as mulberry, which is hanging over us.  There are silver maples, which can become invasive in wetland areas like this, and we’re going to replant with native species these that are hearty, flood tolerant and will create a good diversity.

 The annual cleanup at Nahant Marsh is a local effort.  But in 1999 the cleanup was a $2 million national project that occurred after the Environmental Protection Agency declared the 265 acre marsh a threat to human life. 

 There’s so many things we did in the early parts of the 20th century as far as waste disposal and our practices and our wetlands and we didn’t have any idea.  We just didn’t understand.  And we come to learn this in the 60s and the 70s and that’s when a lot of the environmental laws came into play. 

 Between 1969 and 1995, the Quad Cities Trap and Skeet Gun Club owned the marsh and used it as a shooting range.  In 1994 reports of sick and dying water fowl found at Nahant Marsh triggered a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation.

 I don’t know if this was gun club or the other one but when we stepped in the meeting they actually had taken a bowl of water and put a goldfish in it and they filled the bottom with a lead shot.  And they were in my face saying what’s wrong with a lead shot in the water?  This goldfish is doing just fine.  And so it was, it was not a smooth or easy transition for anybody.  The emotions were high.

 The investigation revealed that after 25 years of use of the shooting range, an estimated 240 tons of lead shot had accumulated in and around the marsh.  The volume of lead shot was so high that it was impacting not only water fowl but a variety of animals that called the marsh home.  Even the vegetation at the marsh was being adversely affected.  Some of the deformities found in cat tails left them looking more like a hand than a single finger.

When they were looking at geese, the water fowl, they were seeing they were ingesting the lead pellets and they were passing away due to lead toxicosis.

 Just a single pellet of shot can lead to lead poisoning and is enough to even kill a bird.  At Nahant Marsh there were places where a handful of mud contained over 100 pellets of lead shot.

 And one thing led to another after that.  We were able to get the United States Environmental Protection Agency involved and actually qualify the site for a cleanup.

 In 1996 Nahant Marsh was listed as an EPA super fund site.  The agency estimated the cost of cleaning 13 acres of the marsh, which would involve the removal of a layer of marsh bottom sediments and shoreline at $2 million. 

 Some dispute the need.  One columnist pointed out that only four poisoned geese have been identified.  That’s $500,000 a goose.

 I don’t feel the numbers of geese that are found, is that an issue you have an area that has the possibility of continually killing animals, and you have an area that also has human health risk. 

 In 1999, the EPA removed nearly 50,000 cubic yards of sediments taken from the bottom of the marsh and over 10,000 cubic yards of lead contaminated soil.  In total, 143 tons of lead were removed from the marsh.

 Is it a wasteland or is it a wetland?  And you always have those differences of opinions of how valuable these places are, and what kind of value you placed on them.  But I think the local folks here have done a really good job of highlighting the value of this.  And based on the folks that come out here and enjoy it, I think it’s been a positive thing.

 There was a stipulation that came with the cleanup.  EPA insisted that the Nahant Marsh be maintained by the city of Davenport as a natural habitat and that it would be used for educational purposes.  It was the first time in history that a super fund site would become a nature preserve and education center. 

 Today we do educational programs for almost 10,000 people a year.  We have tremendous outreach.  We have college classes here that need on site and do research.  And we reach people of all ages from toddlers on up to senior citizens.  And it’s amazing.  You get these city kids that are first terrified of everything when they come here and they think everything is going to eat them or attack them or kill them.  And after a week or so of being here or even a few hours, they’re right at home here.  This is tour natural home.  It’s great to have kids out here. 

 Nahant marsh is no longer toxic.  It’s become a safe haven for wildlife, a place where people can go to observe and learn about nature and an example of what can be accomplished when a community comes together to make the world a better place.

 Considering we’re right in Davenport city limits, it’s remarkable that we have this, that this place has survived this long because if you consider all the marshes, the wetlands that once existed the majority of them are gone now in Iowa.  And the fact that this is in Davenport close by to people makes it a real treasure.

 Here in Lacey Keosauqua State Park many of the hillsides are tree covered.  It’s rare that a visitor will stop and absorb the details of any one object, let alone a single tree. 

 But a lone tree may have forever changed the professional and personal life of one Midwesterner from northeastern Iowa.  In 2012 Mark Hirsch started a 365 day photographic journey that began with a single picture on his iPhone. 

 If in my days as a photo editor, if I went to one of my staff photographers and said, hey, I want you to spend an entire year making a picture every day of a burr oak tree, he would think I’d lost my mind.

 It began as a simple challenge for a career photographer.  An ancient tree in this Midwestern farm field.

 After being into it two or three weeks, there’s no turning back when you commit to shoot a picture a day of something for a year.  And that’s a lot of skin in the game.

 Each day for 365 days the same scene.  But with a new image each time.  Photographer Mark Hirsch spent 19 years driving past this field before he found inspiration in a solitary burr oak.  A tree with roots dating back nearly two centuries. Following a challenge from a photography colleague, Mark descended upon the field with a simple goal -- capture something unique, something different about a tree that had grown tall long before his own arrival.  Day after day, sunrises and sunsets, Mark kept coming back.  Some days he spent hours circling the burr oak in search of something different.  Other days he was inspired by a dwindling sunset seen from his house a mile down the gravel road. 

 And I turned around to the west to walk and sit down the table and look out the window at the sunset.  Just like that, within five minutes, the light changed and it was an incredible sunset.  My wife had just put a salad on the table.  Supper is in the oven.  I remember I said, I’ll be right back and I dashed out the door.

 The results were beyond any artist’s wildest dreams.  Posting a new photo to his Facebook page each day, a network of followers began to grow.  Reporters took notice, and a simple project snowballed into an Internet phenomenon.  Thousands of online admirers have flocked to the project dubbed by Mark as That Tree.  The photography alone has captured the outdoor imagination of fans but what has defined the project is in part is the camera itself.

 During the opening night of the exhibit, a couple of people came over and the artists are there and you’re engaging people in a conversation.   And this person says to me, so what kind of camera do you use?  They’re expecting me to say a Nikon or a Canon and whatever model it is and whatever fancy wide angle or telephoto lens I used.  And I said, actually these are all shot with my iPhone.  I remember he adamantly said, no they’re not!  I said, no really, these are shot with my iPhone.  No they’re not!!  And to me, that was wonderful because it helped qualify what I had been trying to tell people all along.  It’s not the camera.  It’s the eyes and the ability to transform your vision into a meaningful photo.  It’s the tool behind the camera that is the most important.

 In a way, using a camera phone stripped away many of the high-tech gadgets that can infuse modern landscape images.  A man who spent 25 years photographing for spot news for the Dubuque newspaper was forced to focus on a subject and hone his own skills.

 I am loving this, man.  It’s like stalking something in the jungle.  I’m not fond of the bugs.  Last year was a wonderful year for bugs, there were none.

 Using a variety of applications, like Camera Plus, Mark was able to maximize the iPhone’s capabilities and surprise even himself throughout the 365 day journey.  He occasionally dabbled with iPhone lens attachments but largely avoided them.  Sometimes he used a flashlight to trick the iPhone into the correct exposure. 

 Typically the iPhone, like any other point and shoot camera, trying to give you perfect exposure for everything.  I want to be a photographer and control the look of the scene.  I want it to look more like dusk or dawn.  So by using this and locking exposure I can reduce the amount of light going to the chip and emulate the conditions that I want.  It’s forcing the iPhone to see the world the way I want to see it, not the way the iPhone wants to see it.

 An application designed for timed exposure called slow shutter helped capture these fireflies at dusk.  And Mark wasn’t shy about trying new foreground elements including his wirehaired pointer and occasional holiday themes.  But the raw beauty after nature was his canvas.

 I turned around in that ten minute span the light dropped below the horizon, but with the fresh pristine blanket of snow, the shadow from the tree was this incredibly hard shadow and it was just a big wedge coming out to me.  It was brilliant red.  I laid down in the snow.  I’m like, oh my God, oh my God.  Can I get this?  Can the iPhone catch this?  And it’s just an incredible picture.

 In 2013 Mark’s photo book, That Tree, will be shipped to thousands of online followers who saw something simple become a journey larger than the sum of its parts.  For the last picture on day 365, Mark recruited his friends, family and followers to join him for a final photo.

 It’s a snowy, muddy, kind of a mucky day and it’s this exodus of people making their way to the tree.  It was absolutely incredible.  Almost 300 people and a dozen dogs.  Dude, it was insane.  My one friend came who out here and wanted to make a picture of me making pictures.  He said to me, that is the greatest outpouring of support I have ever seen for somebody who wasn’t dead or dying.

 For Mark it was ironic that a burr oak estimated at 163 years old was nearly pushed over by a bulldozer operator a few months ago.  The operator incorrectly assumed the farm’s owner would want to add a few more rows of corn at the cost of that tree.  Now free from his one photo a day promise, Mark still returns to that same field.  It’s a form of outdoor photo therapy.  Always finding a new angle and another excuse to appreciate nature’s beauty.

 Those simple discoveries, things we would make, things we would see, things we would witness and appreciate as a kid.  We grow up and become adults and we’re so worried about other people’s perception of us.  We’re afraid to climb a tree.  We’re afraid to lay in the grass.  We’re afraid to look closely at something.  That stuff has all gone out the window because I’m doing all of the above.  I’m climbing that tree.  I’m laying in the grass.  I’m looking close at the katydid on the bark and enjoying every bit of it.

 That wraps up this summertime edition of Iowa Outdoors. Our Iowa PBS crew will continue to criss-cross the state in the coming months to bring you the best of the Iowa’s outdoor environments and recreational opportunities. 

 And you can help by submitting your ideas and suggestions to 

 And be sure to check out our growing video online archive of more than 60 features all about Iowa’s outdoor conservation and recreation.

 We’ll leave you with some images from Lacey Keosauqua State Park. 

 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 systems 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