Category Archives: Outdoors

Autumn Walks

by Jim and Melanie

One of our true pleasures is walking or hiking with each other. The pace allows for companionable silence or conversation, and for experiencing our current surroundings while letting the past and future fade. When we travel we look for opportunities to hike, and at home we walk the neighborhood or make small outings to local trails. Serendipity often blesses us while we’re out.

When visiting Washington state last month, we intended a hike in Point Defiance Park, a city park in Tacoma. It hugs the shoreline of the Tacoma Narrows and Commencement Bay, south of Seattle. Jim also wanted to visit the park’s rose garden, displaying the last of early fall’s blooms.

What we didn’t anticipate was the dahlia garden. The tall-stemmed blooms overwhelmed us with their joyful colors. We don’t see many dahlias where we live, so we lingered for a while, taking dozens of photos. Here are a few. Click to embiggen.

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This week we hiked closer to home. We drove to hiking and mountain biking trails a few miles away, next to the Coralville Reservoir. There are several miles of trails, rated from easy to difficult. Because they are for bike riders as well as walkers, the trails are designated for one-way traffic to improve safety. We hadn’t hiked in this area before and enjoyed the new adventure.

Most of the trail is within the trees with no view of the water, though you can see the reservoir in places. The fall colors are slow in coming this year, and the trees are still leaf-covered, perhaps due to our mild summer.

Our moment of serendipity came about halfway through our hike, when we chanced upon this Santa-on-a-tractor-in-a-creche. It seemed to be the perfect representation of Christmas in Iowa, though a little early.

Since we hadn’t been to these trails before, we stuck to one designated as “easy.” There is a lot more to explore for other times. We’ll go back.

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Snakes on a … Sidewalk!

by Melanie and Jim

Most snakes in Iowa are pretty harmless, not scary like snakes on a plane. The ones we see most often are non-venomous and pretty amusing. They are Brown Snakes, and they typically measure from 13-18″ long. Most we see in our neighborhood are smaller than that, with lengths from about 8-12″.

Yesterday’s first snake sighting was on the paved trail behind our house. We had just left the house for a short walk when we happened on the snake, stretched almost its full length across the trail. We estimated it was about a foot long, maybe slightly more. There was some dappled sunlight warming the little thing. They seem to appear in early fall. They like areas with water and some woodland border, making our neighborhood the perfect habitat.

Jim ran back to the house to get a camera while Melanie stood guard. Two women came along and admired it while we waited. They said there were other snakes that were much smaller farther along. And then one of the women hopped a little and pointed to two more snakes at the edge of the sidewalk. A bicyclist rode by, and we directed him to the side so he wouldn’t run over the small monster.

Finally Jim came back, camera in hand.

Slightly out of focus, its tongue is flicking at high speed.

Great picture of its markings, including the top of its head.

With no sense of scale, you might think this is large and ferocious!

A few seconds of video, with Melanie’s finger to show how tiny it is.

After that encounter, and noting the two other snakes at the edge of the sidewalk, we didn’t see any more for most of our walk. Shortly before getting home, Melanie saw another skedaddle into the grass. It was a larger, longer snake and moved very quickly. It moved too fast to get a good look at it, but because of its larger size, we guess it may have been a garter snake.

Snakes are always fun to see around here, partly because we know they are harmless if not bothered. Do you encounter snakes where you live?

Metal Detectorist

We recently watched a delightful series on Netflix called Detectorists. Two friends in England belong to a small local club. They dream of finding gold and treasure. Along the way, their lives are connected with funny, amusing, and sweet events. It is well worth your time. Good News! Season 3 is being made.

It inspired me to resume using my metal detector. I usually scan around playground equipment at parks and schools. Kids drop their coins. A few days ago I went to the city park where music events and fireworks are held in the summer. I found nearly $2 in coins. While sweeping around the sand in a play area I found a car. It was a nice Hot Wheels™ car. As I walked to another area, the detector was in front of me skimming the ground when it beeped loudly. This find will come in handy for some gardening work.

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Yellowstone | Two Highlights of Our Day

When this is the first thing you see while waiting in the car at the Yellowstone entrance, you know it’s going to be a good day. We also saw black bears, bison, antelope, coyote, pica, and much more.

The scenery is such a marvel. We walked about 2 miles throughout the Norris Geyser Basin. The brilliant sunshine brought out colors of the algae in the hot waters.

Our most challenging part of the day involved a hike to the rim of the lower falls of the Yellowstone River. It included a 600 ft descent via a trail that switched back and forth more than 10 times. Of course, that meant you had to ascend the same trail. We are in good shape and made it up easily. Others were not looking so good.

Once at the bottom of the trail, we got this view of the rapidly flowing river as it plunged 308 ft to the floor of the canyon. The rainbow was a special treat.

Pine Creek Falls | Montana

A few miles south of Livingston, Montana, is Paradise Valley. East of route 89 is a National Forest recreation area called Pine Creek. From the east-most parking lot is a trail that follows Pine Creek upstream. There is an elevation gain of about 460 ft up to about 6100 ft. The trail is often rocky with some tree roots. The trail is about 2.5 miles total out and back. The 100 ft falls tumbles down the rocks and under a simple foot bridge.

Mother’s Day Hike | Ryerson’s Woods

by Melanie and Jim

After our early morning breakfast, we drove across town to Ryerson’s Woods. It was acquired by Iowa City in 1985. The park has about 50 acres and includes less than a mile of trails. Last time we visited was in mosquito season. We got a short distance into the trees and ran back to the car with several bites each. This time there were no mosquitoes.

We met two men and their dogs who were on the way out. The men were chatty. One dog reminded us of the Good Dog, Carl. The children’s book series about Carl is wonderful. We saw only two other people from afar.

There is a bit of up and down in the park, but the trail is well maintained with mulch under foot. Clean-up of fallen trees needs to be done in a few places, but the path was only blocked in one spot, and we climbed over easily.

As the park name implies, it is a wooded site. The ground vegetation struggles in many places to capture sunlight. Even so, it is lush and dense with green, as well as with wildflowers.

We saw a lot of Jack-in-the-pulpit Arisaema triphyllum plants in many different sizes. Most were about a foot tall. There were a few two feet tall and shaded a red color.

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An Unusual Visitor

by Melanie and Jim

This morning as we readied for an errand, we heard a great commotion rise up behind the house. Crows, screaming bloody murder, shrieked in alarm. I thought there were several, maybe dozens of them, the cries were so loud. But when Jim looked, he saw only two. Two angry crows, screaming at something between and below them.

There are a number of cats that roam the neighborhood. Sometimes we hear squirrels or blue jays yelling at a wandering cat, but usually not crows. Even if there were a cat, the crows were high enough in the tree that a cat wouldn’t threaten them. It seemed unlikely that a cat was the cause. Still they continued cawing and screeching.

A tree blocked our view, so we moved to another window. Jim thought he saw another bird on a branch below them. Cooper’s Hawks occasionally visit our yard. They eat small birds and mammals. Once we watched as a Cooper’s dropped onto a squirrel, latched its talons tightly in, and flew away with it. With that risk, the little birds go silent and scarce when a hawk is around.

Binoculars showed the cause for alarm more clearly. It wasn’t just “another bird.” It was an owl. Since we moved to this house 15 years ago, we’ve been visited by barred owls. They aren’t as frequent as they used to be, but we still open the door to the screened porch in almost any weather to hear them calling to each other.

A shift to yet another window gave an even better view.

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This owl had ear tufts. It was no barred owl. It was a great horned owl! We’ve never heard nor seen one around here before! I’ve read that barred and great horned owls don’t share habitat, and that the horned owls get first dibs. I don’t know what this means for our barred owl friends, or if we’ll get to enjoy their occasional visits again.

Jim was able to get a few pictures of this beautiful bird. Though they are unfocused, you can clearly see the large ear tufts and hooked beak.

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He took this photo from below. It shows the feathering better.

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As I write this several hours later, the owl is still perched in the same place. The crows gave up pestering and screaming long ago, though they’ve made a few more half-hearted attempts to intimidate.

Dubuque | Mines of Spain | River Museum

by Melanie and Jim

October included our 35th wedding anniversary. To celebrate, we drove 90 minutes to the city of Dubuque, Iowa, on the Mississippi River. There we visited the Mines of Spain recreation area and National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. We enjoyed dinner that evening and an overnight stay at our favorite B&B in town.

The City of Dubuque

Dubuque, a city of about 58,000 residents and five colleges, sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, in the northeast part of Iowa. It’s one of the oldest permanent settlements of Europeans west of the great river, and the oldest one in Iowa itself. The original settlement dates from the 1780s, as a prime location with trapping and hunting, fishing, and logging. In addition, the area had long been a site for lead mining by the Mesquakie tribe, and later by white settlers. The city was chartered in 1837. You can see the evidence of its age in local architecture. Almost 5,000 properties are documented for historical and architectural significance. These include churches, former boarding houses, grand mansions, and shipyards.

One shop in particular, the Iowa Iron Works, started as an iron foundry and machine shop in 1852. The site was responsible for building about 500 boats on the shore of the river. One of them was the Sprague, the largest paddle wheel steamboat on the river at 318 feet in 1901. The company reorganized in 1904 into the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works. Many boats built by the company were for the government during World Wars I and II.

Mines of Spain

The history of this region goes back a long time. Early Native American cultures dating back 8,000 years left evidence of mounds, villages, rock shelters, and campsites on the landscape. The Mesquakie traded furs with French voyagers and worked the lead mines in the bluffs along the river before the Revolutionary War.

The first European to settle here was Julien Dubuque about 1785. He received a land grant from the Governor of Spain in 1796 giving him permission to work the land and mine for lead in an area named “Mines of Spain.” Dubuque married the daughter of the local Mesquakie Indian Chief. Dubuque died 24 March 1810. The Mesquakie buried him with honors at the site of the present monument on a bluff overlooking the region.

The Mines of Spain park is now a favorite recreation spot for locals and visitors, alike. It features bluff-side trails, as is common with river parks in the Midwest. With both of us recovering from knee problems, we weren’t incredibly ambitious with our hiking. However, we did enjoy two different trails with a total distance of about three miles. Views of the river, seen from different overlooks on the trails, still include barges and riverboats, much as they did 150 years ago.

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

The Mississippi River has a rich and colorful history. It touched the lives of many as it flowed from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Owned by the Dubuque County Historical Society, the museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.

The museum features the culture and history of America’s rivers. There are over a dozen aquariums featuring river wildlife and animals found at the Gulf of Mexico. You can see giant blue and channel catfish, sturgeon, ducks, frogs, turtles, rays, octopus, river otters. Other exhibits include steam boilers, boats building hardware, and a woodworking shop. Children seemed excited to look through the clear tank walls and even had opportunities to touch some of the animals. We found it all very interesting.

We headed back home the next day and stopped at a favorite nearby park. Palisades -Kepler State Park hugs the Cedar River. Bluff-side trails give opportunities for more challenging hiking, with lots of roots and rocks and ups and downs. We didn’t take photos this time. However, three years ago we did and shared them in this post.

Walk Before the Morning Rain

by Melanie and Jim

We left the house in a hurry this morning after checking radar. Showers were headed our way, and we wanted to stretch our legs without getting too wet. As I write this, the radar shows it is raining here now. However, the sidewalk is not even damp. I guess that is one more example of why you shouldn’t believe everything you see online.

When we walk, our attention is usually quite mixed. Sometimes we chew over world problems, sometimes personal ones. The “personal” ones often have to do with our children. Parenting adults is hard! They have a whole range of issues we’ve otherwise moved past. We also enjoy the noises outside. Humming crickets and locusts, peeping frogs, and various bird songs capture our notice. Today we heard catbirds, bluejays and cardinals, chickadees, and a flicker or two, among others. We watch for daddy longlegs, small snakes, and the occasional chipmunk crossing the pavement. And we enjoy the wildflowers.

A few weeks ago, there were dozens of wildflower species blooming along trails, railroad tracks, and streets. Now there are fewer, but those left are some of my favorites. Though the Queen Anne’s Lace has faded, goldenrod is coming on with bright yellow brushes. Jewelweeds still display their brilliant orange drops. Cattails stand proud and tall, and the few thistles allowed to grow wild are bursting with their lavender-colored blooms.

Before we left this morning I insisted we bring a camera, something we rarely do. Jim captured the shots below.

Ledges State Park | Ups and Downs

by Jim and Melanie

A sea covered the midwest region of North America about 300 million years ago, eventually forming a deep layer of sandstone in what is now central Iowa. Several past glacial eras carved out diverse landforms across the state. Between 12,000-14,000 years ago, a lobe of ice pushed south from the northern plains and stopped near present day Des Moines. Melting and runoff carved out steep canyons in the sandstone bedrock below, forming what is today Ledges State Park. It is one of Iowa’s favorite parks offering hikes with elevation changes of 150 feet in several places. This topographic map illustrates the rugged terrain. Many people think of Iowa as flat farmland. Most of Iowa isn’t flat.

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USGS | The National Map

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