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CLARION, Iowa - Big Wall Lake has character.
Once home to a small resort and an occasional source of ice used for consumption, the area has 30 or so duck hunting cabins on the southeast side and acres of wild rice growing in the marsh.
This natural wetland in north central Iowa is unlike anywhere else.
Big Wall Lake Wildlife Area is nearly two miles long covering just less than 1,000 acres. It is an important stopover for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds before they make the jump to the central Iowa reservoirs.
The area went through an extensive renovation from 2006 to 2008 that improved the water quality and overall health of the marsh.
“If someone is looking for a true, naturally functioning natural shallow system, this is it,” said TJ Herrick, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Big Wall Lake has an extensive network of channels going off in different directions through the vegetation used by duck hunters to hide in. Paddlers could easily spend a full day exploring those channels.
“This area captures a pretty good portion of the state that doesn’t have access to large natural marshes,” Herrick said.
While Big Wall’s history goes back more than 100 years, the system is experiencing a growth spurt of sorts today.
In 2016, the Iowa DNR, along with partners from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF), the James and Patricia Dinsmore family and others secured and transferred a multi generation family farm on the west shore.
The Maxons worked with NRCS, INHF and the DNR to conserve their property, Herrick said. A part of the property had been farmed since the 1920s after a dike was installed to contain the lake. Two ag drainage wells were drilled down more than 180 feet with a direct connection to the local aquifer, and the land was tiled to remove water and make it farmable.
Since the acquisition, the wells have been closed, tile broken and the land used to build the dike has gone back to the hill from which it came. Over the years, a thick mat of dead cattails had settled along the old dike forming a temporary dam, but at some point this 30-acre area will be reconnected to the lake. Water is already percolating through the ground, reclaiming this section of old lake bed.
“This will be the deepest spot on the lake,” Herrick said.
The remaining 225 acres will be seeded to prairie and managed as an upland area without trees. It will protect the lake water quality and water level by filtering the runoff and keeping the rain in the watershed rather than draining to the well.
While that acquisition has closed, a 345-acre acquisition adjacent to the northwest corner of the lake is being held by INHF and is being restored through the NRCS.
This property was divided among several members of the Frye family who had a goal of keeping the land in habitat, including a 25-acre wetland basin waiting to be restored.
In north central Iowa, Big Wall Lake is a habitat oasis in a sea of highly productive farmland.
In addition to ducks and geese, the marsh has a huge population of bullfrogs and leopard frogs, has attracted sandhill cranes, American bitterns, black terns, Blandings turtles and yellowlegs.
The area already has good pheasant and deer hunting, but as the prairie grasses expand and mature, it will get even better.
Summer storm hammers Big Wall
Last summer, a storm with winds reaching 100+ mph moved through the area, knocking down trees and limbs, and blocking the road to the cabins.
“The peak winds hit around 3 a.m., and it looked like a war zone. Absolutely insane,” Herrick said.
However, not all news was bad. The cleanup benefited one of the permanent cabin residents with many years’ worth of free firewood.
Rice grows wild
Big Wall Lake has acres of wild rice growing off of the main boat ramp.
Wild rice requires clean water to grow and Big Wall Lake is among systems in five Iowa counties where it’s growing.
“Some people don’t want it here, but its incredible duck food,” Herrick said. “It’s not something we’re managing for or against; it’s just here.”
And it’s available to anyone who wants to harvest it.
The Big Wall wild rice is similar to that grown in Minnesota and Canada that sells from $6-$10 per pound.