Story and photos by Brian Gibbs
From the January/February 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
It’s 8 a.m., New Year’s Day and I’m already thirsty for adventure; some type of colorful excursion to overcome the gray doldrums a long Iowa winter brings. I drag my weary body out of bed, put on the winter gear and head to the quaint little river town of Bluffton to get a taste of Iowa’s version of the Northwoods.
My destination is perched on 450 million-year-old rocks and nearly 150 feet above the Upper Iowa River. Bluffton Fir Stand State Preserve protects the largest stand of native balsam fir trees in Iowa. Shaped like an oversize boomerang, the preserve hugs the Upper Iowa River where a variety of forest communities thrive. Several other species of evergreens live in the preserve, including eastern white pine and Canada yew, but it’s those sleek, conical balsam firs that steal the show in this landscape.
In its native range, balsam fir is common in Canada and the forests of the northeastern United States. In Iowa, the trees live only in the far northeast corner of the state, restricted to rugged, steep sheltered slopes found in Howard, Winneshiek, Allamakee and Clayton counties. Balsam fir trees are ice age relics enduring from a time thousands of years ago when much of Iowa was covered in a boreal forest. The trees are best characterized by their slender trunk, conical crown and incredibly aromatic needles. Most people liken the smell of balsam fir trees to a forest full of oranges. On this crisp winter day, I couldn’t think of a more wondrous scent to mark the New Year.
Hiking throughout the preserve’s hilly terrain I notice several clusters of paper birch trees. One has a tinder fungus growing on the side of its trunk. This fungus is notable for its ability to hold a flame and is closely related to the same fungus found in the pockets of the legendary, mummified, 4,000-year-old Otzi the Iceman from the mountains of Europe.
My walk down a steep snowy slope quickly turns into an adventurous glissade. I stop at the bottom of the hill to catch my breath and rest against the base of a balsam fir. Dozens of symmetrical whorled branches rise to the top of the tree, eventually tapering into a perfect spire. The canopy of fir trees is extremely dense, creating a mysterious dark forest. Next to me one of the evergreen trees has lost its needles and appears to have succumbed to an insect or drought-related stressor. Eventually, this dead tree will be colonized by beetles and other insects, before becoming excavating holes for a variety of insect-eating birds.
With my ears cupped, I can hear the distinctive call of the red-breasted nuthatch—nasally horns and a “yank, yank.” In the myriad of jade needles, the bird uses its long bill to search for insects in burrows under the bark of balsam firs. A high pitched “seeee” resonates after the nuthatch call. A brown creeper spirals upward on the trunk, using its curved and pointed bill to dig insects from under bark. Several kinglets are hopping around on the fir branches. Kinglets, little birds known to act a bit like preschoolers, are always chatting and never sitting still. I try my best to get a photo of the skittish tree hoppers but am quickly distracted by the “zipp” coming from a pine siskin. Purple finches join the avian concert and just when I think the show is over, a thrilling encore from a pileated woodpecker echoes through the valley.
From my perch up in the fir stand, I can hear the sound of horses’ hooves clanging on pavement floating up from the hamlet of Bluffton. People’s voices are mingling next to the wisps of smoke rising from their wood burning stoves, wind chimes are clamoring for spring storms. Another peek through the trees reveals an adult bald eagle flying overhead. Looking further down the preserve, an active eagle nest sits atop an old pine tree.
As I rise to continue my winter wanderings, tiny particles of snow start to fall, drifting aimlessly from the flat fir needles. A small snail is frozen from the roots of a lichen-covered fir. Where snow hasn’t accumulated depth, three liver-shaped leaves of hepatica emerge through the needles; other flowers, like snow trilliums, will be on the way soon.
The topmost whorls of pine are illuminated in late afternoon sun; spires of balsam firs grow slender until they peak into ribbons of beauty. In between a swirl of branches there is a window to my soul, and in this space, sunlight reflects into all fibers of my earthly being. Needles of pine, like an ethereal paintbrush, decorate a mosaic of motion in the wind. There is a magic in this forest—a comfort and aliveness brought into the human spirit just by being surrounded by the color green.
A slight breeze continues to tickle the white pines; the balsam’s flat needles remain quiet as snowflakes fall from their branches. Amongst the dieback of lower fir branches, a tiny green twig protrudes new life into this dark forest. There is a constant waltz of light and darkness happening over this valley.
The sun is now fully exposed, lighting half the town of Bluffton while cloaking the north facing preserve in shadows. Miles across the valley, south facing limestone palisades of the Upper Iowa are illuminated in golden sunrays. With hopes to bask in this warm winter light, I head to the top most section of the preserve where, inside a small glade, a prairie grows.
Resting on a postage stamp-sized goat prairie, I experience the ultimate naturalist’s paradox: an assortment of sun-loving tallgrass prairie plants growing in the shadows of a patch of cold, shade-loving Canada yews and balsam fir trees.
Looking closely, there are clues left behind as to what this remnant must have looked like last summer. Smooth asters have long lost their purple, yet portray an intricate beauty through their starry seed heads rising above the snow. Wild bergamot and little bluestem grow profusely here, and spent gray goldenrod seeds are scattered on the ground. A stalk of side-oats grama bends toward the sun and I am reminded of the pasque flowers that will be blooming on this hillside in the spring. These prairie plants are just a few of the park’s 407 vascular species recorded on just 94 acres of land.
In one of the forest’s many nooks, little crystals of snow stick to intricate particles of rocks and moss.
The avocado-colored moss is growing on a tree next to where small pieces of sap have crystalized. Hundreds of years ago, the Ojibwe nation used balsam fir needles for ceremonial sweat baths and balsam gum for cold and antiseptic remedies. I pick one fragment of sap and roll it between my fingers. At first, friction is little, but as the sap warms it begins to stick to my fingers and produces its characteristic orange aroma.
Walking along the edges of a steep hillside, a large mound of rocks—eroded away in the center— looks like a natural arch. Dozens of walking ferns, maiden hair ferns, liverworts and innumerable mosses add color to the cold chalky rocks. These tiny areas are diverse microhabitats that help contribute to the preserve’s seven species of liverworts, 37 distinct moss species and 40 lichens.
Within the boundaries of Bluffton Fir Stand, it is difficult to experience such a dramatic contrast of landscapes in Iowa. One moment you’re sitting on a clump of moss under an aromatic stand of glacial relic balsam fir trees, the next minute you’re resting on a warm goat prairie, gilded in sunshine with charismatic prairie plants growing at your feet. As I continue to ponder the mysteries of this wonderland, the palisades of the Upper Iowa River are ignited orange by a New Year’s sunset. My curious mind is a kaleidoscope of green, joyful for the adventurous day spent drifting in Iowa’s own Northwoods. For the willing voyager, Balsam Fir Stand State Preserve is a hidden gem that offers a humbling journey into a timeless landscape.
No matter where home is this New Year, spend a few moments under a whispering pine tree. Never more will your body feel cold or frail, but instead you will be graced by the murmurs of your own jolly, evergreen heart.