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A Closer Look at the Wild Side of the Amana Colonies

  • 11/7/2016 1:51:00 PM
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While browsing this iconic Iowa spot, don't forget that the Amanas’ wild side is worth investigating as a fine example of well-managed private habitat.

From the September/October 2012 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
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A wedge of swans skims the sky above the Lily Lake, and Maria Koschmeder is ecstatic. 
For the long-time Iowa County naturalist who now leads Amana Colony nature tours, the presence of these 30-pound giants is nothing short of a miracle.

The lily pond is a must-see part of the iconic Amana Colonies' wild side | Iowa Outdoors magazineAmana Forestry and the DNR reintroduced two mated pairs of trumpeter swans in 1997, she says, raising binoculars to watch them land softly in a fallow autumn cornfield. Trumpeter swans were Iowa’s largest waterfowl before the turn of last century when wetland drainage and the market for their meat and plumage wiped out the species. Now they’re regular visitors every spring and fall.

“The fact that we’re seeing native flying swans is,” she pauses, lowering her binoculars. “It’s just amazing to me.”

Visiting swans join the hordes of tourists in the seven Amana Colonies, a group of settlements that lived a religion-based communal life 20 miles northwest of Iowa City beginning in 1856. People generally visit the Amanas to shop the main colony and eat family-style bowls of cottage cheese at popular restaurants. Then they leave.

But this is Grant Wood country. Upon closer inspection, the iconic Iowa River valley landscape gives the shopping scene a run for its money. It rolls with prairie, timber, low bluffs and country creeks.

Though the area contains working forest that provides a profit to the Amana Society, it’s also managed to maintain a diverse ecosystem to encourage and maintain habitats for a variety of wildlife. 

Two public trails lead visitors past the high points, from a landmark floodplain restoration project, to the largest privately held forest in the U.S., to Native American burial mounds, to the simple pleasure of viewing once-endangered wildlife that’s been nurtured back to safety.

Koschmeder turns her gaze toward the Lily Lake. Muskrat dens lump up the water—the smaller ones are feeding piles made of discarded lily stems where geese will rest during migration. The lake is fed by the Mill Race and the Iowa River, an original DNR release site for otters in 1987. Like the swans, their natural population has rebounded, joining beaver, raccoon and those muskrats.

Conservation advocates like Koschmeder favor the Amanas’ natural beauty above all. “This place,” she smiles. “It’s just amazing.”

Off Ye Olde Shopping Path
One of the longest running communal living societies in the United States is largely private property, held by stockholders since the Amana Colonies abandoned its religion-based communalism to create a joint-stock company for business enterprises in 1932. 

The forest is a must-see part of the iconic Amana Colonies' wild side | Iowa Outdoors magazineBut two good public trails provide access to how things are done around here. Koschmeder often takes travelers by bike on the Kolonieweg Trail, meaning “The Colony Way” in German, the original language of the colonists. The 3.1-mile trail starts at the depot in Amana, and travels along the Mill Race, a 7-mile canal stretching along the Iowa River. The Mill Race provided waterpower to area textile and flour mills. 

But today, Koschmeder is hiking the Amana Colonies Nature Trail, a three-loop system at the intersection of highways 6 and 151 in Homestead. It travels oak savanna, wet prairie, natural oak/hickory timber, and passes the ancient remains of a fish weir in the Iowa River and burial mounds, leading through a section of the 7,000 acres of Amana Forest. 

The team of men who manage that forest are joining her. 

First item of note: that team is two guys. That’s how the Amana work ethic rolls. Larry Gnewikow (pronounced “GENEVA-koe”) is the Amana forester, a big guy with an even bigger mustache. Assistant Tim Krauss is descended from an original 1850s colony family. 

“We’re very sensitive to timing, and to perpetuating any wildlife we can,” says Gnewikow, as he and Krauss join Koschmeder. Though there’s evidence of logging in the woods and pastures—including the original logging road this trail is built on—the selective removal of trees appears to have only improved the land. Wildlife inhabit snags and stumps. Woodland fauna thrives in open pockets of canopy.

Controlled burns remove invasive species and make room for fall grasses and spring flowers.

Krauss and Gnewikow baby along the walnut, red oak, white oak and cherry in the timber, which supplies some of the lumber for the Amana Furniture Shop, but they don’t solely focus on these species. The forest is diverse with hackberry elm, shagbark hickory, sugar maple and a few American chestnut. 

“When the colonists came over, they kept their craftsman skills. Everything was of value,” says Koschmeder. “Whether it was woodworking or ironwork, they needed all these resources as a whole.”

Amana Forestry can still see evidence of the Amana Church Society’s impact on the forest when, in the late 1800s, the church ordered residents to transplant evergreens from their yards to the surrounding woods and plant fruit trees at home instead. (In some areas, Norway Spruce still reproduce naturally—the only place outside of northeast Iowa where this is documented.) 

These woods remain largely unchanged today—an absolute rarity in Iowa—supplying the Amana Furniture Shop and Amana lumber sales.

“The land was bought for a communal society, so it remains in a large tract, rather than a bunch of small farms,” Gnewikow says.  

Earlier, Gnewikow stood before an Amana Forestry aerial map, and if you compare it to the forest map of 1846 Amana, they look nearly identical.

Second item of note: you will be hard-pressed to find a better example of a private commercial forest. The hike itself is a lesson in good management.

Gnewikow and Krauss plant 5,000 to 6,000 trees each year. They do 70 percent of their own harvesting to control the impact of the cutting. They have worked with Iowa State University on biomass research and cooperate with the National Wild Turkey Federation to improve habitat. They help along studies on birds, mushrooms, poplar trees and monitor emerald ash borer, gypsy moths and other invasives. 

“Keeps us busy,” says Gnewikow, rearranging his worn Iowa State baseball cap and zipping up his Carhartt. “This is about the company’s German heritage and the love for their timber resources.” 

Gnewikow and Krauss also tend this hiking trail, overhung with bent trees like witch’s fingers. It’s financially supported by the Amana Colony Corporation. 

“Minus the 10 dollars we get in the donation box at the trailhead,” Krauss notes. He thinks for a moment, a handsome blue-eyed kid breaking into a grin. “Maybe five dollars.”

A closer look at a healthy woods
Koschmeder, Gnewikow and Krauss stand around a patch in the timber, admiring several oak trees that the men have been watching over for the past few years. They are impressed with the progress, admiring their stature and general health.

The oaks stand about 6 inches off the ground. It’s little stuff like this—mellow victories, as oaks are hard to grow—that indicate the level of care this forest gets.

“We’ve had our forest operation since the 1940s. We will take steps that won’t show results for 10 or 20 years,” says Gnewikow. “Our charge is to perpetuate and improve our resources in the long run. Here, we look to the future.”

On a hike, you have to know what to look for to understand the robust habitat that lures neotropical birds in spring and fall. Koschmeder sees bobcat scat on the wood’s floor. She names fall mushrooms like a chef with an ingredient list: sulphur, chicken of the woods, cottage cheese, puffballs. Some of the bigger white oaks have sizes that indicate they’re about 150 years old. 

“Ooh! Ooh! Orchid!” Koschmeder calls, directing the hikers her direction, and pointing out a puttyroot (brownflower) leaf. “Orchid is a sign of a healthy forest. There’s a specific bacteria in the soil that they need to survive. Here, there are three kinds of orchids that I know of. It tells me this is healthy, undisturbed land for the most part.”

She scrambles down a ridge and into the creek bed, where the tracks of raccoon, skunk and mink pock the mud. The ridges here are windblown loess from 40,000 years ago; erosion of the Iowa River valley has left behind giant rocks that are actually glacier rubble from the last ice age. 

Three Native American mounds lie just off the trail. The group of three crest an overlook of the river, bald eagles watching from the tree line. A Native American fish weir occupies the river bend. A weir is an ancient fish trap—a rock enclosure shaped like a “V” to trap fish next to a holding pool for easy harvesting. The fish weir was damaged in the past decade of flooding, and though it’s on the National Historic Register, it’s now almost entirely covered with silt. Rocks on the shore remain the only clue among a riverbank otherwise barren of stone.

Whether trekking the Amana Colony trails, or just driving to see the forest or the Lily Lake, when you look closely, you’ll see the Colonies’ natural state. 

And when you do, it might just give that bowl of cottage cheese a run for its money.

“This type of forest provides opportunities for the birdwatcher, the hiker, the backpacker and the camper,” says Gnewikow. “Anyone who enjoys the solitude of the deep woods, but the proximity of urban life, will find a good place here.”

If You Go
Amana Colonies Visitors Center. In Main Amana, located in a renovated corn crib. Get trail maps, as well as paddling, birding and sportsman guides, developed by the Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development. The area history is fascinating; you can dive in through the historical museum movie or the free self-guided history tour using your cell phone at designated stops, with maps found here. There’s a $15 per person van tour that leaves here weekdays at 10 a.m. 800-579-2294;

Walking Stick Adventures. Maria Koschmeder leads hands-on nature explorations, including daily field trips in summer. Tickets at the Amana Colonies Visitor Center, $17 per person for two hours. You choose theme and activity level from several offerings. 319-329-9821;

Kolonieweg Recreational Trail. Mostly paved, with some crushed limestone. Access at the Lily Lake parking area on Highway 220 between Amana and Middle Amana or at the Amana Depot.

Amana Colonies Nature Trail. Unpaved woodland trail with prehistoric Native American mounds. Trailhead parking north of Homestead near the intersection of Highways 151 and 6. Do the guys a favor and throw a few bucks into the donation box. 319-622-7554.

Amana Furniture & Clock Shop. “The people who work here are perfectionists,” says assistant forester Tim Krauss. Amana Forestry supplies some of the wood for rocking chairs, mantle clocks, tables and more.; 800-247-5088.

To buy lumber. You can purchase directly from Amana Forestry—soft maple, red and white oak, ash lumber—and you’ll probably meet the guy who cut it down, too. 319-622-7554.

Canoe access. There are two public canoe access points on the Iowa River. One in South Amana by the River Bridge, the other in Homestead, also by the River Bridge.