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SPIRIT LAKE - Dickinson County is home to a unique Iowa glacial area that has been attracting thousands of visitors a year, some from as far away as California, just to enjoy the scenery.
The 2,040-acre Kettleson Hogsback Wildlife Management Area is home to Grover Lake, West Hottes Lake, Welch Lake, East Hottes Lake, Sunken Lake and Little Spirit Lake, plus a series of marshes, native prairie, oak forest and grasslands that reaches from the west shores of Big Spirit Lake northwest to the Minnesota state line.
Native prairie in Iowa is extremely rare, with less than one tenth of one percent remaining, and parts of Kettleson Hogsback have this never-been-plowed treasure. White lady slippers, prairie fringed orchid, prairie bush clover, wooly milkweed and porcupine grass call this land home. The wide diversity of prairie plants here has provided seed used to establish other Iowa prairies.
Kettleson Hogsback isn’t just a public wildlife area; it’s also working to protect another popular area attracting thousands of visitors each year – Big Spirit Lake and the rest of the Iowa Great Lakes. Its marsh and shallow lake system slows water from 4,225 acres, removing nutrients and sediment before it enters the chain of lakes.
“It’s a glacial hidden gem that people can forget about,” said Chris LaRue, wildlife management biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “West Hottes Lake is one of the most important lakes we have in Dickinson County.”
The lakes at Kettleson Hogsback benefited from a significant water quality project that brought together the Big Spirit Lake Protective Association, the Iowa DNR, Ducks Unlimited, Dickinson County, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Natural Resources Conservation Service and private citizens. The project was designed using a practical, science-based approach that allowed LaRue to manipulate the water levels to encourage aquatic vegetation growth and to restrict carp reproduction, which makes for a healthy system.
“This project provides critical watershed protection that was designed to last for generations,” LaRue said.
Construction began in the fall of 2014.
Heavy equipment moved gingerly through this sensitive area to install two large pump station water control structures. Talented semi-truck drivers had to thread their 45 foot trailer back through the narrow pathway as much as three-fourths of a mile to deliver their equipment and materials. More than a mile of electrical cable was trenched in to get power to the pumps. Screens with 1-1/2-inch openings were placed as barriers to restrict adult fish from moving into these shallow lakes and marshes to spawn.
The construction phase was completed in the winter of 2015. LaRue drew the water down, vegetation appeared, and then brought it back to pool in 2016. The established vegetation has been actively using nutrients from the water just as planned.
The improved water quality is preferred by muskrats that are closely followed by muskrat trappers. A large family of active beavers has made its home near where West Hottes Lake flows into East Hottes Lake. There is evidence that a raccoon had a nice meal of turtle eggs on the berm separating the two lakes. This area also attracts thousands of migrating birds and waterfowl each spring and fall.
“This project has allowed us to significantly improve the water quality in these once degraded, shallow lakes and provide valuable fish and wildlife habitat,” LaRue said. “Gone are the days of blue green algae.”
And that improvement hasn’t gone unnoticed.
More than 270 different species of birds has been identified at Kettleson Hogsback with more likely to be seen.
“The thing that makes it such a great area, I think, is, it is one of the most bird-rich of any area of the state,” said Doug Harr, president of Iowa Audubon. “It has absolutely every kind of habitat in northwest Iowa.”
Harr said it has been the historic home to black terns, Forster’s terns, black-crowned night-herons and oak timber has been an important stop for warblers in the spring.
“It’s just hard to find a place like that anywhere else,” Harr said.
Fortunately, for visitors, Kettleson Hogsback is easy to find.
During the peak times of the busy summer season, kayakers and hikers can use the area to get away from the noise, traffic and crowds that fill beaches and boat ramps.
For kayakers, about 900 acres of the 2,040 acre area is lakes, shallow lakes or marshes. Most of the lakes have boat gravel boat ramps perfect for small watercrafts. Hikers can take a quick detour off the paved roads and in the winter the area is used by cross country skiers.