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Golden Ridge Road winds through the valley in scenery-rich Allamakee County, leading to Clear Creek Wildlife Area; a 950-acre public area that is a mix of timbered hills, a fen and a cold-water trout stream that are linked by three connected parcels.
Clear Creek is within the Driftless Area, a region encompassing a portion of southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin and northeast Iowa that was missed by the glacier from the most recent ice age giving it a unique topography.
It’s northeast Iowa in a nutshell.
“This is a spot where you can run in to species that you just don’t see anywhere else,” said Troy Anderson, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Upper Iowa Wildlife Unit, while cautiously navigating the spongy, humpy, soggy, trip-hazard-thick vegetation in the fen.
A fen is a rare wetland community, supporting unique plant species, like bog birch, a shrub found growing in its spongy, humpy, soggy soils.
The thickness of the vegetation prevents more common woody shrubs and trees that like wet soils from taking hold. On this hot, humid early September morning, the fen is dotted by small, delicate white-flowered grass-of-parnassus, the yellows of the sneezeweed, oranges of the jewelweed, purple-flowered great blue lobelia and white turtlehead flowers. The spring fed stream is clear and flowing at high velocity.
“I’m surprised we don’t see trout flashing out from the watercress,” Anderson said while scanning the edge of the submerged vegetation. The stream bank is lined thick with head-high grasses and forbs making stream access challenging, but not impossible.
Clear Creek’s mix of unique and fragile landforms supports unique and fragile wildlife.
The Iowa DNR’s Multiple Species Inventory and Monitoring team within the Wildlife Diversity Program surveyed Clear Creek in 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2021. During these surveys, the team confirmed the presence of the state threatened Baltimore checkerspot and mulberry wing butterflies; and striped hairstreak and wild indigo duskywing butterflies, and bullsnakes, considered state species of special concern.
They also confirmed dozens of species of greatest conservation need, like black-billed cuckoo, cerulean warbler, common yellowthroat, Aphrodite fritillary, black dash and spotted spreadwings. Other species of concern include the roadside skipper, southern flying squirrel, timber rattlesnake, buckbean, yellow-lipped lady’s tresses, swamp thistle, sage willow, bog willow, fringed gentian, tall cotton grass, swamp horsetail and American speedwell.
The bluffs on the north end of Clear Creek are home of another unique landform – the goat prairie.
Many of these goat prairies have been overrun by cedar trees or other invaders. Anderson said the Upper Iowa Unit has been slowly reclaiming the prairie by methodically removing the cedars a little at a time, expanding the opening and allowing native species to return. This approach helps avoid exposing the fragile soils to other invasive species. Once the prairie gets a foothold, staff use prescribed fire to keep the cedars and other invasives in check
These newly opened spots are visible from the road and just a short, winded hike up the steep bluff. If exploring the goat prairie, be aware that bluffs in Allamakee County are home to timber rattlesnakes and the exposed rock outcroppings are favorite basking and resting sites.
Walking/controlled sliding down the bluff, a skink – possibly a five-lined skink – with a light blue tipped tail flashed, gone before than the hand could reach for the camera.
Returning to the valley, Anderson drives south, stopping near a stand of young aspens set back from the gravel road.
Ruffed grouse require young forests to survive, so managing the aspens to maintain a young forest is important for this species that has been declining in Iowa.
“These aspens were cut ten years ago and will be cut again in another five to ten years,” Anderson said. “Aspens also provide important habitat not only for ruffed grouse, but for woodcock, black billed and yellow billed cuckoos, and other wildlife.”
“Clear Creek is a beautiful three-and-a-half-mile long trout stream,” said Michael Siepker, fisheries biologist with the Iowa DNR’s Chuck Gipp Decorah Fish Hatchery. “It’s a wild experience. Some anglers like the mowed experience and others prefer it more off the beaten path. Clear Creek is a great place to go to get away from the crowds.”
Clear Creek is one of Iowa’s cold-water streams where brown trout population is supported by natural reproduction. The stream was stocked with fingerling sized brown trout until 2008, then surveyed in 2012 looking for evidence of natural reproduction, which was confirmed.
Siepker said the stream headwaters were stocked with South Pine Creek strain of brook trout for the past three years and if the stocking takes hold, there is the potential to catch wild brook trout here, too.
As a fishery, he said Clear Creek is often overlooked by its high-profile neighbors - Waterloo Creek and French Creek.
“This is a nice small stream that is overshadowed by the more popular streams, but would be a good place to go over the Fourth of July to avoid the crowds,” he said. “It would also be a good stream to fish in the winter or spring before the vegetation returns.”
As a direct tributary to the Upper Iowa River, the lower stretch of Clear Creek can also attract northern pike looking for cooler water during the heat of late summer.