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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine - subscribe now
Winter in Iowa…polar opposite of the state’s luscious season of flourishing flower beds, burgeoning crops and cavorting butterflies. Winter in Iowa…lifeless, desolate, frozen in suspended animation. Whoa! To be sure, the wildflowers lie sleeping, the cropland is dormant, and the butterflies are AWOL, but that second portrayal? A lot of hocus-pocus fostered by those who insist on cocooning indoors all winter or bracing for the season by packing shorts and skedaddling south.
What a pity. If they stick around, they’ll find winter as full of life as July. All they need do is crawl off the couch, venture boldly beyond the front doorstep and round out their derring-do with a trip to Pine Lake State Park and Hardin County.
In a world doused in white, Don Primus, manager of Pine Lake State Park, greets visitors with a hearty handshake, an accolade for his park and a cliché. “We’re an Iowa treasure,” he boasts with a frosty breath that dusts his black mustache with silver glitter, “and the best-kept secret in the state.” Nevertheless, he acknowledges the latter is a tad understandable. “It’s kind of hard to know we’re here until you get here,” he admits. True.
Approach Pine Lake—one mile east of the Hardin County seat of Eldora—from any direction and you’ll likely meander many miles through rich, flat farmland, wondering, “Really? A state park on this landscape?” Yes, and what a discovery.
That the park is a plum on Iowa’s wintry landscape is quickly evident, and when Primus promises, with a broad sweep of his arm, “Experience this just once and you’ll be back,” the possibility already seems certain. However, the comments of Sheila Allbee, an employee at Casey’s General Store in Eldora, seal the deal. “You’ll love it,” she confirms, but warns, “Better stay a while, though. There are a few things to do here.” No, there’s a lot to do here.
Pine Lake State Park provides the winter adventurer 650 acres of woods garnished with a labyrinth of powdery trails to hike, ski and snowshoe; and spacious, remodeled cabins sporting super-sized stone fireplaces that breathe hickory-tinged heat into every nook and cranny. There’s also the pristine Iowa River, caressing the park’s west edge; and two lakes, 50-acre Lower Pine and 69-acre Upper Pine, jam-packed with bluegills and crappies daring to be caught through layers of ice. On land and water, the calligraphy of the season, written in the snow via the tracks of an army of rambunctious wildlife, comes across as a personal invitation to their domain.
“The nicest cabins in the parks system,” remarks Primus of Pine Creek, Bittersweet, Goldfinch and Sandstone, the stone and timber cottages situated in an idyllic wooded setting where Pine Creek joins the Iowa River. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, as was the park lodge, each houses four to six guests. A peek around confirms the accommodations are exceptionally well-maintained. “They’re clean when guests arrive, and I expect them to be that way when they leave,” Primus declares. Such fastidiousness may account for the impressive occupancy rate; “72 percent, year round.”
Having a cozy home base makes outdoor exploration a pleasing prospect. One of more than 10 miles of park trails, the Hogsback Ridge zigzags along a lofty ridge directly behind the cabins and is a paradise for those who believe there’s no such thing as too much snow.
Named for the 250-year-old, most-southern stand of eastern white pine in Iowa, Pine Lake is also blessed with an abundance of deciduous trees. Lifting one’s eyes up the trunks of these leafless giants to peer through the upper, nerve-like limbs that slice a cloudless sky into a thousand blue slivers is well worth a pause in the hike.
Encased in snow and ice at the top of the ridge are two of five Native American burial mounds in the park, evidence of the county’s wealth of archaeological sites spanning at least 11,000 years. On both the hike and snowshoe trek that follows, the world is winter-still, except for the rhythmic “squeak-crunch” of the snowshoes. Apparently the two pileated woodpeckers that usually hang around have taken the day off.
The park survives
On Aug. 9, 2009, Pine Lake suffered unfathomable devastation when winds and hail snapped stout tree trunks in half, stripped needles off hundreds of pines, and made crew cuts of treetops. “When it was over, 85 percent of the trees were defoliated,” Primus laments. “Windows were knocked out in all four cabins, the lodge ceiling was punctured and vehicles parked at our 124 campsites were shattered.” Eldora city manager Patrick Rigg describes nature’s onslaught as “winds that literally turned chunks of ice into speeding bullets.”
“Baseball-sized bullets,” corrects Primus, indicating reforestation projects are in the works.
Alive as ever
Although the park was heavily damaged and now firmly in winter’s grasp—playground seats resemble molds of meringue, icy zephyrs flit through picnic shelters and the swan pond waits expectantly—the park remains interesting and alive. “We have the big five for habitat,” states Primus, “food, water, cover, space and arrangement.” Prints in the snow indicate a hubbub of activity by all the usual suspects, with mink and bobcat tracks occasionally adding a little excitement to the mix. Overhead, the always magnificent bald eagles soar.
The diversity of topography in the park—rolling land here, rugged ridges there, the river, lakes and ponds—lends itself to seasonal recreation. In addition to hiking, skiing and snowshoeing, popular activities include snowmobiling, hunting, sightseeing, bird watching and ice fishing.
Ice angling: All the comforts of home…or not
Three degrees above zero plus 8 mph winds plus dazzling sunshine on the 14-inch ice cover of Lower Pine Lake equals what else? Ice fishing.
The accoutrements of this sport can range from the ridiculously down-home to the supremely ostentatious. “I’ve seen it all,” laughs Scott Grummer, DNR fish hatcheries biologist, “from the guy equipped with only a hatchet and rusty bucket to those who haul out heated shelters with television and a wet bar.”
Grummer and his wife, Lisa, go about preparing for an ice fishing demonstration like the experts they are. They yank on the Carhartts, boots, hats and mittens; load ice augers, skimmers, rods, bucket, depth finder, underwater viewing system, tackle box and bait onto a sled. They pull the sled to the destination, about a quarter mile from shore in this case.
“Either a manual or motorized auger will work,” Scott advises, wielding each with expertise, creating a 6-inch hole with the hand auger about as fast as he bores an 8-inch hole with the gas-powered machine.
While Lisa skims ice shavings out of the holes, Scott prepares the bait. “We’ll use a #6 or #8 hook with a teardrop. And these wax worms are good for catching bluegill,” he claims. “For crappie, I use minnows.”
With lines and bait at the ready, an hour or two of fun begins in earnest. Down the hole goes the line until it becomes slack, at which point Scott raises it about 6 inches. “Sometimes we use the depth finder,” comments Lisa, from her perch on the bucket, “but this is fine, too. The fish will come along eventually.” It’s the perfect attitude for an ice angler on a nippy afternoon.
For anyone who surmises the abundance of agricultural land in Hardin County surely means Pine Lake State Park can be its only nugget of wilderness, Wes Wiese, director of the Hardin County Conservation Board, has a shocking revelation. “The Iowa River Greenbelt through the county is so rich in history, archaeological sites, geological surfaces and scenery that we have 62 individual natural areas and 3,600 acres of timber, prairie, wetlands, parks and campgrounds.”
Three state preserves are part of this gold mine. In winter, these rugged parcels can be impenetrable due to snow. Still, the hardy hiker or birdwatcher can venture in far enough, as the DNR’s John Pearson describes, “to connect with something more significant than our ordinary, go-to-work days.”
“Mann Wilderness Area Preserve is a good place to take those who think Iowa has no rough or forested land,” says Wiese, with good reason. The main feature of its 103 acres is a long, narrow ridge with 350-million-year-old limestone outcrops.
Mainly, hardwood forests dominate the slopes. The 170 species of plants, beds of ferns and symphonies of frogs may be non-existent for the time being, but clearly, coyotes and deer, reveling in their hardiness, are roaming about. Daily conventions of crows and hawks fill not only Mann but all the preserves with the cacophony of life.
Hugging the Iowa River is 122-acre Fallen Rock Preserve. “This is a whole different world in winter,” reflects Wiese, almost in wonder, his eyes scanning the steep sandstone cliffs. “It’s mostly hardwood forest with a few pines, so summer to winter it changes dramatically.”
At 25 acres, Hardin City Woodland is the smallest of the three preserves, its name bestowed in recognition of a now-extinct village. It, too, contains steep slopes and an upland forest. Considering the thick wintry blanket, it’s hard to believe that in little more than a month, snow trillium will be fighting its way onto the scene.
“I love coming to these areas,” says Wiese. “They’re not far from nearby towns and yet seem so removed from civilization.”
As far as the eye can see
It would be a breach of good sense for a wildlife enthusiast to forego a visit to the Sac and Fox Overlook near Steamboat Rock, even if reaching it requires barreling through snowdrifts. Located on a majestic bluff, the overlook affords a 270-degree view of the Iowa River Valley and a glimpse of the U.S. 20 Bridge which carries traffic 137 feet above the river.
Another “must-see” is Calkins Nature Area and Interpretive Center near Iowa Falls. The area comprises 76 acres of woodland, wetland, native prairie and trails, and according to Emily Herring, staff naturalist, “The center’s focus is on promoting environmental and conservation education. Through public programs.”
One of these is fly-tying, and on a night of unthinkable wind chills, 30 eager anglers, including Ellsworth Community College professor Nancy Slife and her Conservation Technology students, pack into Calkins to learn the skill. “I’ve been teaching fly-tying throughout Iowa for years,” says instructor Jeff Sundholm, busily surveying the colorful paraphernalia in front of him—bobbins, vises, feathers. “You can fly fish anywhere there’s water and for any fish. It doesn’t have to be trout.”
One does not live by activity alone
The funky, art-deco Princess Café and Sweet Shoppe in Iowa Falls goes all out to handle the need for nourishment after vigorous outdoor activity. Not only is its food to die for, but its décor features an expansive marble soda fountain, hand-poured terrazzo floors, neon lights and African mahogany booths.
It’s tough leaving Pine Lake State Park and Hardin County. Cramming stuff into the duffle bag and schlepping over Pine Creek Bridge to load the Jeep makes one melancholy—and then, miraculously, birdwatcher Jim Swanson appears on the bridge. A Minnesotan headed for Arkansas to see family, Swanson, intent on the view through his binoculars, is startled by a human interloper but graciously submits to a bit of chit-chat. “I always stop here on my way south,” he explains. “I’ve been looking for the kingfisher. Guess he went south, too.”
At that moment the raucous sound of an old-fashioned, ratchet-style noisemaker comes from down the creek. “There he is!” Swanson shouts with glee.
The visit ends on a high note after all.
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