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The Return of Lake Darling

A new fishing trail is one of many new features at a fully renovated Lake Darling State Park | Iowa DNRAfter a $12 million rehab of its lake, watershed and public facilities, Lake Darling State Park in southeast Iowa officially reopened Sept. 17, 2014. The 66-year-old park and lake are now among the state’s most picturesque recreation areas. Namesake “Ding” Darling must be smiling.

By Candace Manroe
From the May/June 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine

The storm hit abruptly. Rain pelted our skin, coming at us sideways, as we dashed for the cabin. The 300-acre lake, pitted by the downpour, turned the pale color of chewed gum. Wind gusts of 60 miles per hour picked off branches of pine, sycamore and white oak and hurled them to the ground. Casualties piled up in the meadow between our cabin and the lake. Kindling for our next campfire would be easy pickings among the Queen Anne’s lace, pea partridge, wild bergamot and prairie coneflowers, thanks to Mother Nature’s special delivery. The most intense moment was a take-no-prisoners lightning strike. We couldn’t see it hit the old-growth tree at the east end of the park, splitting and burning it, but its thunderous aftermath was deafening. We felt chastened.

Nicky, my husky bred to run, of course chose that moment to honor his DNA. He streaked past me out the cabin door and disappeared into the smear of wind-born water like an Iditarod contender. Thankfully, the adrenaline-fueled dog search that ensued ended only minutes later, back near the cabin, with Nicky splashing into my vehicle at the same time Park Ranger Zachary Haworth swung by to instruct us on where to seek shelter. By the time the weather sirens sounded, Nicky had been towel-dried, and my companion and I had warmed up in fresh clothes. The worst had passed, so we stayed put. Through the open windows of our one-room pine log cabin, we watched the storm run its course. Wet earth and ozone smelled delicious. Sans alcohol, we were intoxicated.

It was another perfect day at Lake Darling State Park. 

You'll love camping at a fully renovated Lake Darling State Park | Iowa DNRAs a weather-lover, only one thing thrills me more than a severe but life-and-property sparing storm, and that’s one that occurs at a pristine lake where I’m lucky enough to be camping. Our cabin was one of the five original rentals built at the park in the 1970s. It has electricity, a microwave and a mini-fridge, but its absence of plumbing designates it as a camping cabin. Shower and restroom facilities (the best storm shelter) are just up the hill. The park also has 80 campsites. Since our visit, it has built six new all-amenities-included cabins that are open year-round. “They have two bedrooms with queen-size beds, a bathroom and a kitchen. They are really mini-houses,” explains Haworth. They rent for $85 per night or $510 for a week.

But I loved our snug camping cabin—a deal at $35 a night. Nothing could beat the tiny, quasi-primitive place for weathering a storm. And it was revitalizing to finally unplug. No Wi-Fi access or TV gave that evening’s reading time a throwback quality. I was Laura Ingalls Wilder. Only instead of reading my novel by lantern, I was using the light from a solar-powered battery-pack/flashlight I’d borrowed from a friend. Propped on pillows I’d brought from home (it’s BYO-bedding in the original camping cabins), the palm-size flashlight meant I could turn off the overhead and read from my futon without disturbing my friend sleeping in the bottom bunk just three feet away. 

The day of the big storm, the sky had held clear till evening. We’d risen late, tired from our sunset paddle across the lake with Nicky in our park-rental canoe the day before. After cooking breakfast over a campfire, we hiked one of the nearby trails with Nicky on his lead (the park welcomes dogs on leashes.) Then I splintered off to tour the park with Haworth, who’s now into his second year as its ranger.

We started near the park entrance, where an information post with kiosks explains the history and wildlife of the park. I’m glad I took the time to read it. I learned about the park’s namesake, Jay N. “Ding” Darling (1876-1962), a nationally syndicated, two-time-Pulitzer-Prize-winning Des Moines Register political cartoonist, visionary conservationist and resident of Washington County, where the 1,400-acre park is located. 

While still working as a cartoonist and rubbing shoulders with heads of state and other elected officials in 1932, Darling was appointed to Iowa’s Fish and Game Commission. He immediately pushed for research in wildlife conservation and pledged his own money to grease the wheel for outside funding. The result was the nation’s first Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit. The most ambitious natural resource program ever undertaken in the country, it was held up as a model for other states by Darling when he became head of the U.S. Biological Survey. The 25-year Iowa conservation plan merged the Fish & Game Commission and the Park Board to create the Iowa Conservation Commission, now known as the Department of Natural Resources. Darling, in a real sense, is the father of the DNR. 

So when Honey Creek in Darling’s Washington County was dammed to form a new lake in the late 1940s, choosing an appropriate name was a no-brainer. Darling initially balked at the honor, but his Iowa pragmatism prevailed. By the time the new state park and lake were officially dedicated on Sept. 17, 1950, he had come to terms. “I begin to see some virtue in the name ‘Darling Lake on Honey Creek,’” he said. After the dedication by the Iowa Conservation Commission, the lake’s two-word name was transposed into Lake Darling to avoid any confusion with a generic “darling lake.” (What the media-savvy Darling failed to mention is that after Honey Creek becomes Lake Darling, the overflow spills into the less poetic Skunk River.)

Lake Darling State Park, Brighton, Iowa | Iowa DNRWith Ding Darling’s legacy fresh in my mind, I had a better appreciation of the eco-sensitive $12 million rehabilitation the park underwent beginning in 2008, with the draining of the lake. “We drained the lake and addressed changing the watershed to improve the quality of the water,” says Haworth. “What people often don’t understand is that to clean up the water, you must first address the land.” 

That involved cooperation from nearby landowners. “The biggest key to improving water quality was the buy-in that we got from the local landowners during the watershed project,” says DNR biologist Vance Polton. “Of the 71 landowners in the watershed, 59 of them were involved in at least one of the 162 projects that occurred on private ground. The local landowners worked with our watershed coordinator, Stan Simmons, to solve erosion and nutrient loss problems on their own ground, which is 89 percent of the watershed. This played a major role in improving Lake Darling’s water quality. Without the participation of the local landowners, we really could not have accomplished what we did to improve the water quality of the lake,” Polton explains. 

The clean water sparkled in the sunlight as Haworth and I drove along the shoreline, newly manicured with riprap to prevent erosion, preserve water clarity and provide habitat. A cement angling trail added during the rehab skirts the water for about 1.5 miles. It’s wheelchair and baby-stroller friendly and is a beautiful choice for an easy morning or evening stroll. And the swimming beach is sandy. 

As we explored the east loop (note the can’t-miss bald eagle’s nest), I saw the first of 25 fish-stocked retention ponds that are an important part of the park’s success. A total of 27 ponds within the park filter sediment and nitrates that would otherwise impact the lake.

The dam on Honey Creek is at Lake Darling’s west end, so an in-lake silt dam at the east end caught me off guard. It stretches out about three-quarters of the width of the lake, then makes a sharp turn to the left, creating an L-shape. “After a big rain, the water will be brown and murky on the right side of the silt dam and crystal clear on the lake side,” says Haworth. This partial dam is one more feature added during the revamp to keep the water quality high. 

What struck me most about the park’s improvements was the thoughtful effort given to make it easy for visitors to access and enjoy. Not everyone owns a boat or is comfortable renting one to fish. So to improve fishing from land, the shoreline is dotted with limestone-packed bump-outs and 100-foot-long jetties. “These allow you to get closer to deeper water for better fishing,” explains Chad Dolan, DNR fisheries biologist. 

Dolan had taken me out to a quiet cove the day before for one of the most successful fishing experiences of my life. We had no more than dropped our night crawler-baited lines into the water when, bam, a largemouth bass. Then bluegills and green sunfish. Again and again. Granted, the fish were small. Except for the sunfish, which had survived in the creek, the others were newbies, stocked after the lake refilled. “But they’re really fun for kids to fish, and they’ll be great for serious fishing later on,” says Dolan. The lake is also stocked with black crappie, channel catfish and redear sunfish.

For those who prefer to fish on the water, the lake has two boat ramps, one by the campgrounds and another at the main marina. A variety of rentals are available near the new Cottonwood Shelter: canoes, single and double kayaks, fishing kayaks, row boats, paddleboats and even stand-up paddleboards—something I’d been wanting to try. 

So when Haworth turned his back, I lumbered onto a paddleboard for the first time. Once comfortable in a kneeling position, I got Nicky on board with me, and he sat perfectly still (“Good boy!”) as I paddled us around the calm lake. Before I attempted standing—turns out, it’s surprisingly easy—I passed Nicky off to my friend. But don’t repeat that, please. As far as my other peeps know, I did stand-up paddleboarding with my dog—my story, I’m sticking to it.

Speaking of friends, the park has many. Chief among them is the Friends of Lake Darling, a non-profit group dedicated to improving the park, increasing visitors, raising money (it’s already raised more than $1 million). Those new luxury cabins? All paid for by FLD. “The group also helped this park improve the beach and build an ADA fishing bridge, playground and our year-round lodge for large gatherings,” says Tom Basten, Southeast Iowa parks district supervisor. The group also is hands-on. “It provides volunteer labor for smaller park projects,” Basten explains.

The Friends’ pride, and the pride of the park, is the vaulted-ceiling lodge. Not only is it a beauty, but its details expose it as a true labor of love. A fully-loaded kitchen features a backsplash of hand-painted tiles depicting the park’s flora and fauna, including wild gooseberry, morel mushrooms and sugar maple. The artist is Dr. Faye Vittetoe, the local veterinarian and president of FLD. Stained-glass windows showcasing goldfinch, buck, doe, hummingbird, red-bellied woodpecker and other park wildlife hang above the big glass doors overlooking the water and glint in the sunlight. The lodge seats 200 and is a popular wedding site. While I was there, one of its visitors was Yaro Chmelar, who’d attended the 50th anniversary party of friends and returned to show it off to his younger family members. “I can’t think of a more wonderful place to gather for a celebration,” he tells me. 

Ding Darling would appreciate the lodge for two reasons: its eco-friendly geothermal heating and cooling, and its limestone fireplace built from stones salvaged from the park’s original beach house.

Another BFF of the park is the local Izaak Walton League. “It’s been a great partner for providing kayaks and stand-up boards for the boat rentals, and helping raise money for the concrete ADA fishing trail that runs from the silt dam all the way to the campground,” Basten explains. “These groups received their support locally to help with funding, which was matched with grants such as ones provided by the Washington County Riverboat Foundation. All the work that went into the watershed and lake renovation generated excitement and enthusiasm with these groups and partners to focus on park amenities, which led to the improvements. I think Ding Darling would be proud of how it all turned out.”

I know he would. I also know I’ll be back, rain or shine—hopefully, a little of both.

For more, visit our Iowa State Parks, Iowa Outdoors Magazine and Natural Iowa Travel boards on Pinterest.

Explore Iowa's Lake Darling State Park, fully renovated | Iowa DNR

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