Iowa Outdoors (#401)

Iowa Outdoors | Episode
May 1, 2014 | 00:27:43

Welcome to Iowa's capital city and its signature botanical garden, a climate-controlled oasis for some native plants and others not found in our state parks.

This geodesic dome stands 80 feet tall at its highest point, has more than 600 Plexiglas panels, maintain control of moisture and temperature. It's something that's important during our state's frigid winters and unpredictable springs.

We'll explore how this 40 year old structure is reinventing itself for the 21st century with technology and gardening.

But first, we'll take you on a journey of digital hide-and-seek. In just a decade, a new outdoor, high-tech activity has taken off throughout Iowa. It's called geocaching and anyone can do it.

All you need is a handheld GPS device or smartphone and off you go, hunting for hidden treasure in the heart of the city or the rural countryside. Either way, you're adventure is a great way to get out and explore Iowa's outdoors.

So, are we going to go find oak leaf or no? Because the oak leaf one is this way.

Which way?

Oak leaf, yeah, it's this way.


It's that way.

It's that way?


On an early spring weekend, hunters from all over Iowa and across the Midwest wander through Honey Creek State Park on Rathbun Lake in southern Iowa. They target hidden treasures, not animals, and instead of weapons they come armed with GPS, or global positioning system, receivers. These hunters are called geocachers.

Heidi Bradford: For me, we like to be outside and that is one of my main loves of it and then just be able to go find stuff because it's a fun scavenger hunt and it's not, you know, it's not an expensive hobby to go do, you can put as much into it and then we can just stop and find stuff.

Brad Olk: For me, not as addictive as some, but pretty darn addictive. You can go every weekend, you can go three or four times a week during the week if you want to, if the caches are there.

Geocaching is a recreational activity, a high tech game of hide-and-seek in which participants use a GPS device or smartphone to place and find hidden containers called caches. Each cache is marked by a set of coordinates and logged on a website.

Heidi Bradford: So it gives us a map and then we're going to go back to our compass and then our compass will actually lead us and tell us how many descents the feet and the navigation to how far we go.

Caches come in a variety of shapes, sizes and containers. The website listing will tell you what size you're looking for. The smallest caches, called nanos, can be as tiny as the tip of your finger. An ammo can is an example of a regular sized cache. Most caches, even the tiny nanos, contain a log for you to sign to prove that you found it. Some of them also contain trinkets or swag.

Heidi Bradford: So, it can be just something as simple as like a McDonald's toy, a whistle, we could drop a quarter in, a piece of gum. Just something that you take something and leave something.

It's a fairly new hobby. Geocaching started in 2000 and has grown in popularity since then. There are now more than 18,000 caches hidden all over Iowa and more than 2.3 million in the world. Just about anywhere you might travel, you can geocache. There are caches in every state in the country and on every continent on Earth. There's even a cache on the International Space Station.

Scott Mills: We can do kayaking, running, walking, fishing. You're only limited by what you can think because no matter where you go, with a few exceptions, there's always going to be a geocache or two in the neck of the woods.

Heidi Bradford: Road stops, rest stops, softball tournaments, lakes, campgrounds, any place, downtown areas. So they're hidden everywhere.

Geocaches are rated 1 through 5 for level of difficulty and the type of terrain. 1 is the easiest and 5 is the most difficult.

Scott Mills: If you had to climb a tree, that might be a 3. But if you just had to walk on a sidewalk it would be a 1 or a 1.5. The 1 rating for terrain means a wheelchair bound person could retrieve the cache.

Scott Mills: There's a cache at the bottom of Lake Okoboji that nobody has found and you need to have scuba gear to go get it and that's a 5. A 5 star terrain means you have special equipment, scuba, ladder, metal detector. There's one up at Iowa State that is at the very, very tippy top of a tall pine tree. I have one up here that you have to crawl about 200 feet down a tunnel. So if you're claustrophobic that's probably not one for you. You just need to find a teammate that's not and they can go get it.

Anyone can geocache, from young to old, from disabled to the most athletic adventurers. Families and friends can geocache together. It's a good way to get outside and enjoy nature, explore new surroundings or even experience parts of your own community.

Inadvertently you're going to get some exercise whether it's walking, running, biking. It's a really good hobby to get your out of the living room, out from in front of that TV set and outdoors.

The other thing that is really kind of fun about this is this hobby, sport, activity, whatever you want to call it, will take you to places that you never knew existed and find things that you never knew were out there.

Here's how you get started. First, go to a listing site. is the most popular and it's free to use. Search for a specific location you want to geocache. The site will provide a listing of all the caches registered in that area. You can then plug in your GPS receiver and download the information about the caches you want to find. If you don't have a GPS receiver, you can also download a geocaching app for your smartphone.

There are a couple of basic rules of geocaching. Never take a cache. Always put it back the same way you found it. And if the cache has swag and you take something, you need to leave something in exchange.

Scott Mills: A geocacher is a geocacher. A non-geocacher is a muggle, based off the Harry Potter movie series, and then if a cache comes up missing after it was originally hidden then it is called, we would say it got muggled. And whether or not actually a human took it or a raccoon came into the woods and took it, that happens.

You don't have to hike through the woods to go geocaching. There are caches hidden in urban areas too. Downtown Des Moines has several, as do others cities small and large throughout Iowa.

Heidi Bradford: Actually they're Jaden's favorite, the urban caches are usually nanos and they're usually on something metal and they’re usually so tiny you have to do everything you can to find it and they're magnetized to it.

Jaden Bradford: I like the small ones. Like some people think they're really hard but for me they're just like, sometimes they just stock out and it's kind of easy.

For many cachers, it doesn't really matter what they find. The real fun is the adventure of the hunt.

I found it!

The a-ha moment when you find it and then if it is cleverly hidden or it's a neat container and that just brings a smile to your face.

Do you want an orange one?

Brad Olk: You can make it whatever you want it to be. You can make it the social aspect, you can make it quick easy finds in an urban area, you can make it looking for difficult ones. Caching for me is about being outside. I like the thrill of finding something.

Jaden Bradford: I always get one foot right here.

So you start hunting around. Sometimes the coordinates aren't really close so sometimes you have to just go.

As fun as geocaching can be, you don't always need global positioning satellites to know your whereabouts. You could use an old fashioned compass. Or if you want to go really organic, you could find a hiking path filled with traveler's palms. While not a true palm, the plant grows in a north to south line, giving adept travelers a sense of direction.

You'll be hard pressed to find a banana tree at any of Iowa's many state parks, but it's one of the everyday plants you'll stroll past right here at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Everything from palms to desert plant varieties to Asian gardens can be found tucked into the corners of this urban dome.

Kelly Norris: The Botanical Garden is an absolutely essential part of the cultural fabric of this community. We like to say around here that great cities have great gardens and if you look across the country and you look across the world at metropolitan areas large and small, they tend to have some association with public green space. And that association is born out in not only economic development but in talent recruitment and having that cultural amenity in the community as an asset for people to enjoy.

The Botanical Garden is in the midst of phase 1 of a capital campaign, a $12 million investment that will expand the scope of the facility beyond the recognizable domed conservatory. There will be 7 acres of outdoor gardens and those can expand as time goes on.

Kelly Norris: This is 14 acre property. Most people don't realize that we actually have that much real estate here. So those first 7 acres including a water garden, a celebration garden, a hillside garden are really the first steps in seeing out that vision and developing this as a true botanical garden.

Welcome to the living wall, a biodiverse lineup of 1,716 plants representing 7 different species suspended in troughs along the wall. It welcomes visitors through the front door and is the only living wall of its kind in our entire state.

Kelly Norris: Here in the conservatory, the display area is changed on average about every six weeks throughout the year. There are two large exhibitions that take place. One, during the summer, which our first summer exhibition is opening here at the end of May and is celebrating the aesthetics of food we eat, it is called Food is Pretty. But the other times of the year, we get the chance to do these sort of dynamic exhibits that might celebrate a particular concept about creating gardens or, in this case, celebrates an art form called Kokedama, which is essentially a Japanese word that means string garden covered in moss. Kokedama's are a neat way to sort of think about displaying house plants. They are similar in concept to what a Bonsai might be. Bonsai literally means tree in a pot and these aren't necessarily trees and they're absolutely not in pots. It is an interesting sort of aesthetic form to appreciate plants in a sort of suspended environment. There are ways that people can do this very easily in their own home, we'll have those things featured on our blog. So this is something that people can very easily be inspired with to go suspend these things from maybe their sunroom or the window over their kitchen sink.

There's several misting stations that ring the rear of the dome that aren't only impacting humidity levels inside the dome but also keep the temperature from getting too high on sunny, summer days. On spring days like today where the temperature is 72 degrees outside, the temperature inside the dome hovers around 90.

That climate control is essential for most of the permanent plantings, many of which hail from the tropics, a band encircling the Earth north and south of the Equator with mean temperatures above 64 degrees year round.

Kelly Norris: A garden is always growing and is never the same from one day to the next. And so we really want to create and craft that relationship with people to keep coming back to the garden whether it's once a month or a couple of times during the growing season and then come again in the winter to see what we're doing during the holiday season. It's a great institution that has a lot of offerings for the community and we just want people to be a part of that.

Just beyond the Plexiglas of the Botanical Gardens flows the Des Moines River, a popular spot for urban fishermen.

River angling is heating up all across Iowa's waterways this time of year, but the data on fish migration for spawning and overall behavior is essential for keeping a healthy population for future generations.

In some eastern Iowa riverways, the DNR is monitoring the movements of a unique fish not often found in central Iowa, Shovelnose Sturgeon.

(water sounds)

Nearly 150 different fish species inhabit the rivers and streams that ripple like veins throughout Iowa's countryside. In eastern Iowa, one so-called bottom feeder is drawing attention from the Iowa DNR's Fishery staff. And its movements are under investigation.

Scott Gritters: The tail is bused off and that's pretty common with sturgeon that we lose that tail. Very rugged fish. You can see we had one with the tail chopped off, you know, a fish that can live in strong current. You'd have to be rugged to live out where we're at. You see how the current is grabbing the boat and throwing us around. They live in it no problem. You can see their design with those scutes and their pectoral fins, they can sit right on the bottom, their mouth is straight down and basically vacuum cleaning out there in very rugged current that you and I couldn't hold in at all.

Shovelnose Sturgeon often drift along the main channel of large waterways, hovering at the bottom amongst sand and a swift current. These prehistoric looking fish don't often stay in the same spot for too long.

This is how they feed on the bottom. They use these to locate food and they extend their mouth down, I always called it like a Hoover Vac.

They're active during their inconsistent spawning cycles and when they do begin a journey it can span hundreds of inland water miles over a few generations. Those travels, including how far and how quickly, are important data sets for fishery biologists.

Denny Weiss: I grew up in Burlington back in the '70s when I was in high school, I used to commercial fish out in the Mississippi. We would drift trammel nets for sturgeon for the small fish market. This net goes down at the bottom, it's about six to eight foot tall or deep but once that current pushes it, it's probably three or four foot off the bottom just rolling right along the bottom. The fish are going to get all caught up in that web.


Equipped with a vacuum sucking mouth, Shovelnose Sturgeon mainly devour aquatic insect larvae. They venture from feeding grounds downstream to spawning grounds upstream. Female eggs laid in an Iowa waterway often hatch within five days and the surviving larvae float downstream into suitable rearing zones protected from aquatic predators.

Scott Gritters: On the female we can see how many times she was potentially pregnant coming up here. As I was explaining earlier, they don't spawn every year. They maybe spawn every other year or every third year. And so hopefully through this data set we can see how often they're coming up here and spawning.

Gene Jones: This is a girl. Look at the belly, you can see how dark that stripe is, full length. If you hold it, it protrudes below mid-line. See that, see how the belly really droops down?

541. 600.

Shovelnose is the smallest and most abundant species of freshwater sturgeon found in the U.S. and the only kind commercially fished in the entire country. And they grow slowly. They aren't known for becoming massive species inside Iowa's rivers and streams. According to the Iowa DNR, the state record for a captured Shovelnose Sturgeon is only 12 pounds.

Scott Gritters: Well, you know, we're trying to learn a lot about this unique species. This isn't a fish that is fished heavily but it is fished some. And there's certainly a demand on this species. 23 or 24 species of sturgeon in the world and every other species except for this one is overfished.

Known for moving up and down the Missouri and Mississippi water systems, Shovelnose are increasingly creeping into Iowa's inland tributaries. And their presence could have an unwanted, and perhaps unexpected, impact on the ecosystem.

Scott Gritters: I study here, we can really compare that to the Mississippi. And, again, some of these fish might actually end up in the Mississippi anyway and be caught commercially by anglers.

Give me that --

500 and it's an unknown.

500 and an unknown.

Scott Gritters: When people come across our fish, you see where we're putting the tag in the pec fin and if they come across one of those tags there's several things we'd like the anglers to do. First, get the number of that tag, try to write it down. You see our numbers are five digits, it can be hard to remember, so if you can write it down right away that'd be awesome. If they come across any of our tagged fish, sometimes we have tagged northerns, tagged walleyes, we always want to know what that number is and where did they get that fish. And then, if they can, we'd like to get a length on it.

It's just another reason the Iowa DNR is tracking their movements and keeping tabs on fish some would consider a simple bottom feeder.

The organism kingdom fungi has an incredible scope of biodiversity, with estimates ranging from 1.5 to 5 million species, including microorganisms such as yeasts and molds. Not exactly the most photogenic subjects. But we found one man who dives lens first into these organisms. Photographer Jim Frink specializes in the more photogenic fungi and this realm has no shortage of variety.

Jim Frink spends much of his free time here in the wooded hills of Wild Cat Den State Park nestled along the eastern rim of Iowa. With his trusty assortment of cameras, Jim is looking for something tucked near the miles of trails, something many park visitors or hikers would never even pause to explore and might even walk past without knowing it was even there.

Jim Frink: There are some species that grow by a certain tree and some like dry ground, some are on the hillside, it just depends.

It could be attached to the side of a dead and decaying tree or sprouting along the rocky hillsides, a fungi that Jim has documented for years.

Jim Frink: Well, I like to think I do but most likely it's just what I happen to stumble into. There's quite a variety of shapes and colors. They're red, blue, orange, green, yellow, black, a little bit of everything. Some are tall and thin, some are short and squat and everything in between.

Mushrooms of every size, shape, structure, color, texture, all of them captivating Jim through his camera lens.

Jim Frink: I like the, you know, you always like to find the bright colorful ones but a lot of the real common ones that are brown look great depending upon the light. Sometimes the light really is what makes the picture.

Using a combination of natural light and some occasional LED assistance, Jim has documented hundreds of different fungi just inside Iowa's borders.

Jim Frink: Mostly it depends on the person I think. If you show them pictures and they like it, I've had a couple people ask if I'd take them out, which I do. And you just point things out and I've seen pictures that people take and a lot of times they're really bad. So if they're with me I try to show them about the fill in light, you have to lay on the ground sometimes, or kneel down at least to get a little on ground view of them. I like to photograph on a bright, overcast day, it's really good light. If you're in the bright sun I try to use a shadow of myself or have my wife stand in the way to cast the shadow.

A rich array of varieties all under the umbrella of fungi, a term many would associate with the household need for a bottle of Clorox. But the mushrooms Jim captures, both in pictures and for the kitchen table, are an essential part of not only his photography but also outdoor discovery throughout his life.

Jim Frink: There's a blood root there. This is called a false turkey tell, a little round one here that's kind of small. They call them artist conk. There's a few of the stinkhorns that are really fancy looking. And so they're all from other countries but they're starting to pop up here and there.

If you join Jim for a morning hike, you'll soon discover he is filled with knowledge, not only about mushrooms, but the entire outdoor ecosystem's impact on fungi.

Jim Frink: There's a beetle living in these ones that have the holes in it, called a horned fungus, weevil will live inside that. Sometimes they sit on top of the mushroom. If you pick them up that real strong chemical smell, not real pleasant. This one is really old so it doesn't show it but when they're fresh they're pure white and you can take a scribing tool, you can draw on it and it turns real dark and it is permanent.

Jim's interest in mushrooms began nearly 50 years ago with a childlike fascination and another outdoorsman's photographic inspiration.

Jim Frink: I met a man once back in the early '60s and he has some mushroom pictures and I thought they were pretty neat and I had always liked mushrooms so I just started taking pictures. That was with a film camera.

As a man that has long explored much more than the common morel, Jim warns the casual mushroom hunter against eating too much of anything out in the wild.

Jim Frink: Some of the end caps are pretty good, I like them, but you'll have a problem if you eat them if you drink anything with alcohol either a week before or after you eat the mushroom. You don't die from it, your body kind of turns red and your extremities stay white and your heart races 170, 180 times a minute. A lot of people think they're having a heart attack and after a couple of hours it goes away.

Jim's images of small, intricate detail often resemble something else in the natural world, like coral on a sea bed, or translucent and almost alien-like life forms, or a massive sponge on a stick, or macaroni and cheese, except it's shooting out of a decaying stump. Nature's beauty is on display in every image, every shot of fungi. But even through the thousands upon thousands of photographs spanning decades of outdoor adventures, Jim knows there are plenty left to discover.

Jim Frink: I don't think you'll ever see it all. With mushrooms, even if you find a common one, they're really nice groups sometimes and it's nice to find something like that. A lot of times you see insects you've never seen before. You just look around and take it as it comes.

That wraps up this springtime edition of Iowa Outdoors. You can find any of our more than 60 features covering Iowa's outdoor environments and recreational opportunities online at

Iowa PBS's talented producers and videographers will be crisscrossing the state in the coming months gathering images and stories for our fourth season of Iowa Outdoors. We're going to bring you a new episode the first Thursday evening and Saturday mornings of each month throughout 2014.

We'll leave you with some of nature's smallest details here at the Des Moines Botanical Garden.