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Unplug at Pictured Rocks Park

From the March/April 2017 Iowa Outdoors
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By Brian Gibbs

It’s April, and I’m about to paddle a new stretch of river with a group of old friends. The air smells like a cross between fresh-tilled soil and woodland wildflowers. A warm-to-the-touch south wind amplifies the cacophony of red-winged blackbirds. The charming melody of eastern bluebirds drifts into the trees. The bird’s tiny feet cling to green sprouts which have passed the long test of a dormant winter. Last year’s buds seem to have burst open overnight, turning the forest into a living maze of green lattice. This natural beauty unthaws my cabin fever and makes my head fizzy with happiness. 

Exploring Pictured Rocks Park and eastern Iowa with Iowa Outdoors magazine | Iowa DNRThe first oar through the cool clear water sends ripples of excitement down my spine. I’ve never canoed the Maquoketa River from Monticello to Pictured Rocks Park/Indian Bluffs, but trust the stream will get me there safely. The first few miles of the river below Monticello slowly meander through a pastoral landscape. The meager pace of the river and soft scenery of farmhouses, fields and bottomlands allow me to ease into the year’s first float. I choose to focus on fishing. I pull out a fishing pole my father made me for Christmas and rig it with a black and white swimbait. The water feels too cool for smallmouth, but the walleyes might be biting. 

I position my boat out of the current and tie off on a downed tree. Several whitetailed deer run through the woods, and just downstream a beaver slips into the water. I dip my paddle into the hole. The 6 foot oar can’t touch bottom. Good water quality, great depth and solid structure; there has to be fish here. 
I spend several minutes vertical jigging in the pool and wind up catching nothing but a few silver maple limbs. In similar holes, I repeat the routine and get the same fishless results. I tuck the pole away and let the river carry me downstream.

After three miles of paddling, the Maquoketa feels more like a wild and scenic river than a farmland stream. The entire composition of the river changes. The bottom shifts from sand to rock, riffles become more numerous, farms give way to trees, concrete rip-rap banks cede to 400,000-year-old limestone bluffs. It’s easy to see why this stretch of river has been designated an Iowa Water Trail. 
Relaxing in my kayak, I spy several raptors soaring on thermals. The birds circle higher and higher. The raspy chatter of an eagle echoes through the canyon. The eagle lands downstream in a tree and for the first time on this trip, I sense the river has transported me into a verdant paradise. 

There are more trees than my wandering eye can count. It’s an invigorating feeling to be flanked by thousands of the finest oxygen-producing organisms in the world. I take a deep breath in and notice an eerie white and blue glow coming from downstream. My heartbeat races with curiosity. I paddle faster, my excitement for the sparkle of spring is cooled by the splashes of river water.

Exploring Pictured Rocks Park and eastern Iowa with Iowa Outdoors magazine | Iowa DNRAlong the river bank, the eerie white bark of massive sycamores blends in with chalky limestone bluffs. Growing at the base of trees, as far as the eye can see, are carpets of bluebells. I land my kayak and take a few moments to relish in the sweet smelling sight. I snap a photograph and paddle quickly down river, hopeful to catch up with my friends before they take out at Pictured Rocks. 

When I catch up to the group, they are fishing behind several boulders the size of Volkswagen vans. White blooms of anemones and bishop’s cap cover the top of the mossy stones, making the rocks look more like snowcapped peaks than limestone boulders. Further up the bluffs, the forest floor is gilded in patches of bellwort flowers. Candy cane-looking blooms of spring beauties sweeten the delicious scene. I’m busy photographing all the flowers and lose track of my group for a second time. It isn’t until I hear my friend yell “walleye” from downstream that I lift my head out of the flowers, grin and hit the water paddling again. 

The beauty of the Maquoketa in the Pictured Rocks area makes it difficult to focus on any one aspect of the dynamic stream. I rest my paddle across my kayak and let the river take me on a journey. The flow of the river makes me feel like I’m lost in an aquatic alphabet. The stream produces short stretches of I runs, then sharp L turns with long S curves. Deeply dissected valleys produce small streams that flow like veins into the artery of the pulsing Maquoketa. 

Over the sound of bubbling riffles, pileated woodpeckers are drumming, and a green-crowned night heron is patiently stalking the pool behind the riffle. There may be no more relaxing way to experience the excitement of springtime in Iowa then by floating a river. I paddle into a fantastic looking fishing hole, cast a minnow into the water and, WHAM! Something drills the lure on the fall into the water. 
From the strong tug and quick run, I know it’s a nice smallmouth. The heron and the fish take off downstream. In a rush, I forgot to anchor my boat, and the light drag on my pole means the fish has lots of room to run. Before I can re-position my kayak, the fight of the fish takes me into the swift water. The current takes me downriver. I tighten my drag and slowly begin reeling in the fish, but the animal is feeling spry from a languid winter. The line goes light, then the bass rises a foot out of the water. 

I’m rusty at fishing from the long winter lay off, and this peppy bass requires all my patience. In excitement, I bump my kayak paddle off the boat and into the river. Resting the fishing pole between my legs I grab the oar and resume the pursuit. After several minutes of give and take, I land the old brown bass, take a photograph and set it free. Several rounds of cheers come from my friends, then we carry on downstream. 

We are almost to our takeout point when I spot two colorful circles on the bluff. Paddling closer, I notice the red and yellow shapes are inching up the cliff. Using my camera lens, I see the colors are helmets from rock climbers. A few hundred yards beyond the climbers, a large limestone rock with the words Painted Rock indicate the river takeout. 

The takeout is well-signed and neatly maintained. After loading the boat, I walk down the trail and nearly a dozen cars from varying states are in the parking lot. A few families are having picnics in the new shelter house, while the other visitors are out hiking or rock climbing. 

The trail to the rock walls is in great shape and several informative kiosks provide information about both the climbing routes and natural history of the area. Down the trail, I watch in amazement at several people scaling a precipitous rock cliff. The climbers inform me this ascent is called the Iowa Gallery and features a handful of exciting routes to climb. The group directs me to look up the Iowa Climbers group on Facebook. From here, I am put in contact with Iowa climber Joe Stark.

Joe has spent nearly a decade climbing in the Pictured Rocks Park/Indian Bluff areas and wrote the Pictured Rocks Climbing Guide. In the guide, Stark uses photos of the 11 bolted rock features to show the correct routes to nearly 60 separate climbs in the park. Stark has invested a lot of time climbing and teaching others about Pictured Rocks.

“Pictured Rocks holds a special place in my heart,” he exclaims. Stark says his favorite memories in the park are the fall trail day events hosted by the Iowa Climbers Coalition (ICC). “It’s always a great feeling leaving the park in better condition than we found it.” 

Exploring Pictured Rocks Park and eastern Iowa with Iowa Outdoors magazine | Iowa DNR

Partnerships in Motion
ICC is a non-profit group dedicated to the grass-root effort of preserving Iowa climbing. The group networks with land managers to promote good relationships with the climbing community and maintains climbing access in Iowa. ICC board president, Allan Grau, says the group typically has 20 to 30 people who show up to help at the Pictured Rocks field days. “It’s been great both for users of the park and as a way to help build the climbing community,” says Grau.

ICC works closely with the DNR and Jones County Conservation Board to ensure the safety of climbers, while also helping to minimize damage to park resources. Jones County park ranger John Klein says climbing at Pictured Rocks Park is nothing new. “Rock climbing has been taking place for over 30 years at Pictured Rocks Park. In its early stages it was an unknown, unregulated sport occurring in a wildlife management area. Historically, there was very little maintenance of the bolting and anchors in the park.” 

Today, however, the three organizations have worked together to develop a management agreement that outlines maintenance of current climbing routes.

Through this innovative agreement, ICC annually maintains the bolts and fixed hardware at Pictured Rocks Park. The agreement is also used to outline future development of new climbing walls and routes. Klein says in order for any of these walls or routes to be approved, they must pass through an advisory committee. Allowing and promoting rock climbing within a wildlife management area that was originally acquired through sportsman dollars is a slightly contentious, if not progressive, concept.

However, Klein says that ICC “has done a great job at making the area safer and has been respective towards public property. They have been a fantastic group to work with.”

For example, in 2009, a trail day was hosted with the Maquoketa River Water Trail Project. The workday featured an incredible amount of collaboration that included staff from the Jones County Conservation Board, local DNR staff and the DNR trails crew, the Iowa Grotto, ICC, Camp Courageous staff and the public. 

The day involved construction and readjustment of an improved pedestrian trail leading to the Indian Bluffs Cave at Pictured Rocks. During this event, the DNR trails crew moved more than 200 tons of material—by hand—to establish a new access trail. In 2015, the ICC did volunteer trail work leading up to individual routes along the bluff face at Pictured Rocks and erected an informational climbing route sign.  

Within the next few years, the groups will work together to update and improve trail access at the highly popular “Comic Gallery.” Part of the project will be funded through a $25,000 trail development grant ICC secured from Recreation Education Industries (REI). REI has one store in Iowa, added by the national retailer in West Des Moines in 2015.

Exploring Indian Bluffs
In the weeks that followed the float trip, I couldn’t stop thinking about hiking the Indian Bluffs area adjacent to Pictured Rocks. To get into the 830-acre state-run wildlife management area, I spend the better part of a June morning driving miles of twisty, hilly gravel roads. I try to use the Google maps app on my phone, but resort to the reliable Iowa Gazetteer. The gravel road into Indian Bluffs provides three entry points into the park, but ultimately the main road dead ends at the Maquoketa River. 

Explorations near the river lead me to several primitive riverside campsites which users can occupy for up to 14 consecutive days. The Leave No Trace ethos strongly applies at these scenic sites. I take a non-maintained path along the rock bluffs and observe several rock climbing bolts on the limestone wall; unlike Pictured Rocks, this area receives less climbing traffic. The faint trail meanders through a mature bottomland forest and eventually follows a small sandy stream known as Jordan Creek. 
Up from the trail, giant boulders are covered in walking and maiden hair ferns. Clumps of mosses cling to crevasses in the cliffs, and sentinel gnarly red cedars spiral from the topmost bluffs. A “keyyah” from the forest-loving red-shouldered hawk echoes overhead. After an hour of hiking, the early summer heat and humidly prompts me to pause against a shady north facing rock wall. 

My hand goes numb when I set it on a tuft of soft moss. Inspecting the scene closer, I place my body up against a small opening in a rock and discover an algific, or cold air, slope. These fragile micro-habitats are typically found further north in Iowa, however the karst topography and northeast aspect of the rock faces allow them to exist at Indian Bluffs. The slopes are home to delicate species and are closed to rock climbing.

By mid-afternoon, I’ve lost the hiking trail and wander through the warm summer woods with an enthusiasm for the unknown. No map, no compass, just the thrill of discovery. I let my eyes do the walking and find it difficult to leave the inspiration of the bluffs. Trekking in their giant shadows makes me feel as if I’m the only one to have ever set foot in this valley. The buzzy trill of a cerulean warbler and the “peetsah” song from an acadian flycatcher awake me from my sylvan dream. Without any binoculars it is difficult to spot the birds. By song, I locate the acadian perched on an ironwood tree above the small stream. The cerulean is hiding in the massive canopy of a nearby oak. The birds propel me to climb higher. 

I find an opening between the bluffs and begin the slow laborious ascent. It’s not an easy climb—there are lots of uneven rocks and the shaded earth is thick with leaf litter. I slip once and grab onto the closest thing available: a fist full of stinging nettles. My fingers turn into burning needles of fire. I break off a small piece of jewelweed and rub the juice over my sting. I carry on paying more attention to where my feet and hands settle. 

Uninterrupted views of the surrounding valley greet me at the summit of a large rock precipice known as Chimney Rock. The ruggedness of this place makes it hard to believe I am still in Iowa. I pause for a moment to catch my breath. A flock of turkeys takes flight into the depths of the woods; I follow suit. On the journey through the upland woods, countless breath-catching moments occur: sunlight through forest canopy, deer bedded down, mushrooms on rotten logs, everything old seemed new again.

Back at the car, I’m amazed to learn I was only gone for 3.5 hours. Even though I hadn’t eaten on the trail, my body felt rich in adventure and alive in the discovery of a new place to recreate. I take to the gravel road with a newfound appreciation for the wilds of Iowa. When I reach cell service on the highway, my phone rings with news from the “real world.” I shut the device off and carry home a heart full of smiles.

Exploring Pictured Rocks Park and eastern Iowa with Iowa Outdoors magazine | Iowa DNR

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