The Adventures Down Your Gravel Road

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

Taking adventures adds lots of new life experiences. Many people think that those adventures involve lots of money and traveling to different states or countries. However, people miss out on a lot of experiences in the natural world that could very well be right down the nearest gravel road.

I think we could all benefit from learning to love the places we live instead of always wanting to live somewhere else. The beauty of this world we live in is endless. I encourage you to go explore the areas around you because you may just find some of that beauty closer to you than expected. Each of the four seasons here in Iowa bring a different type of beauty along with them. Spring brings lots of blooming flowers, summer brings some bright sunsets, fall comes with the beautiful change of color within the leaves, and finally winter brings a snowy wonderland.

At the end of October I took an adventure of my own down some gravel roads in my area looking for cool photos to be taken, and I found some places that I didn’t even know existed before. Here are two of the photos I took while on this expedition. Myself and a friend of mine explored some of the very little remaining prairie land. This land was quite difficult to find as it is very hard to see from the road. So if you were looking to find this area of prairie, good luck!

I encourage you to explore the area around you, because there very well may be some amazing things around your area that you never knew about. Iowa is a truly amazing state, but the beauty thereof may just be a little more hidden than it used to be. By all means go out and explore the world we live in to find some of that hidden beauty. Get out in nature and take in the sights and sounds of our great state – adventure awaits!

Joshua Harms

Working with Nature!

I spent this summer traveling to field days around Iowa as well as driving back from our American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan. One of my purposes in attending the ASABE meeting was to accept for the team the Blue Ribbon Award in the Educational Aids Competition for our revised version of the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! online game (read more about it in our previous post Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon). Part of our revisions included adding more diversity to the land management choices that players can make and clearly showing the environmental benefits of diversifying our watersheds. Driving around the Midwest and Iowa really brought home to me how important this is and how far we need to go to still achieve the kind of diversity that will make a difference.

Prairie restoration and wetland west of West Lake Okoboji

But last week I traveled to the Iowa Great Lakes area for a field day and then stayed up there for some vacation time with my family. The field day near West Okoboji Lake focused on prairie and wetland restoration to clean the water before it enters the lake. The side benefit would be increases in wildlife including pollinators of all sorts. The next day we visited our prairie strips site that is directly east of Big Spirit that was installed a few years ago for the same purpose of protecting local water quality and increasing habitat. In both cases, local stakeholders came together to diversify the land to help protect a local asset. I could hear the pride in their voices when discussing the changes they had put into place.

I am an engineer and spend a lot of time writing and talking about new technology. However, this summer really highlighted to me that many of our fixes cannot be solved by technology alone. Instead, we need to strategically restore or implement more diverse natural systems where they can do the most good in terms of water quality, wildlife and overall land health. We are able to do these practices such as prairie strips and wetlands by combining technological advances with a solid understanding of the natural ecological system that was replaced with row crop agriculture and other development. Modern technology helps us know where to place the natural system for the greatest benefit. After that, the natural system will do all the work.

Both of the restored areas I visited near the Iowa Great Lakes are less than five years old. The local folks are doing a good job of ensuring diversity in the perennial plantings. I have seen other areas in Iowa under perennial vegetation that opted for monoculture grasses, mainly cool-season grasses. While the diverse native prairie restorations are more challenging to manage, the beauty alone makes it worth it to me. Factor in water quality, wildlife and land health benefits and it is a home run.

Prairie strip east of Big Spirit Lake

If this is something that interests you for the land you own or manage, there is assistance and information available to you. We are really fortunate in Iowa to have organizations such as the Tallgrass Prairie Center that have spent years figuring out how to support landowners in planting and managing prairie restoration on the land. For my part, I am going to continue to work to understand how to best manage these systems and what technology is needed to allow diversity to flourish. I would encourage you to go online to www.waterrocks.org and play the Rock Your Watershed! game to learn how we can work with better with the natural systems.

And also, take some time to find those natural areas around you and think about how we can use natural systems such as wetlands, prairie strips, oxbow restoration, riparian buffers, and others to help clean our water, diversify our landscapes, increase wildlife and enhance the beauty on the land. I know I felt a little “restored” after my time in these natural settings.

Matt Helmers

Weather Permitting: Outdoor Classrooms Return

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Spring has sprung in Iowa, finally. The state is warming up, and (weather permitting) will continue to do so. The transition from January 107th to spring has certainly been abrupt, but it’s finally time to enjoy the outdoors. I got my first chance to go out and deliver our Water Rocks! program outside with an outdoor classroom just recently, and the experience was a blast! But, what makes an outdoor classroom different than our normal indoor classroom visits?

For starters, the visit is outdoors (hence the name). The differences between being indoors and outdoors offer some unique pros and cons. One of the best pros is just being able to be outside and enjoy the weather, especially now that it’s cooperating. However, this can also be a big con if the wind tries to blow our supplies away! The pros of being outside, including having students in a location directly related to the environmental topics discussed in our lessons, greatly outweighs the cons.

Another key difference is how we present. Typically, an outdoor classroom will be in a rotating format with other activities for students to visit throughout the day. This all usually takes place at a local nature center or county park. The students tend to be with us for less time, but that allows us to rotate through and see more youth in a shorter amount of time than usual, and we are always able to compensate on time.

The last main difference is what we bring. We typically bring one of our Conservation Station trailers with us to outdoor classrooms. The trailers have chairs for us to set up for students to sit in, tables to set up our supplies, and other miscellaneous supplies we may need, depending on what lesson we teach that day.

All in all, outdoor classroom events are a great way for our team to get some new scenery for class visits, and is a great way for students to connect with nature in person while learning about the land in their home county, and it’s always a blast to be a part of it.

Jack Schilling

Outdoor Adventure + Exploration with Water Rocks! Camps

Today’s guest blog post comes from summer intern Elizabeth Schwab. Originally from Levittown, PA (just outside Philadelphia), Elizabeth is a senior at ISU, double majoring in Environmental Science and Agronomy. She is also a radio DJ at 88.5 FM KURE on the side!

Monday, June 26, we held our first of a series of three Water Rocks! Summer Day Camps, this one in the beautiful Winterset City Park in Madison County. I saw my first of the famed Madison County covered bridges (the Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge) on the drive to the shelter where we set up camp, but unfortunately the bridge didn’t appear to be designed to handle the fifteen-passenger van we were traveling in. I’ll have to return to Madison County to tour the covered bridges some other time.

After organizing our supplies and activities, we were ready to begin our day; shortly thereafter, the campers began to arrive. The 23 campers, ages nine to fourteen, were organized into two packs, each led by two Water Rocks! team members. My fellow intern Andrew and I spent our day with the blue pack, who soon named themselves the “Blue Ferrets,” while Jenn and Josh led the red pack.

We kicked off the morning with some music and dancing led by Todd. I’m not much of a dancer, as anyone who saw me “on stage” on Monday morning can confirm. However, I was excited that some of the more exuberant campers soon joined our staff up front to show off their moves (and prove that they have much more talent than I do). This was a great high-energy start to the day! After we were all welcomed to camp, we split up into our packs for some icebreakers and time to get to know each other, and then we were able to dive into the lessons!

One of my favorite aspects of the educational modules that the Water Rocks! team presents is that they make education a lot of fun, both for the presenters and the audience. For the first part of the morning, Jenn and I led each pack through sessions on wetlands, which involved playing such games as Habitat Hopscotch and Wetland Bingo.

Throughout the day, campers also learned about watersheds, contemplated biodiversity (while playing Biodiversity Jenga and Musical Oxbows), and participated in a “game show” with our Dig Into Soil module! In times like these, I sometimes wish to be an observer rather than a presenter at our outreach events. I have learned, however, that leading students or campers through these activities is just as fun, even if it means that I can’t win prizes in Wetland Bingo or develop my own piece of lakeside property during the Watershed module.

What better way is there to reflect on why we should conserve and appreciate our water resources than by playing a few water games? After lunch and a quick trip to the playground, the packs competed against each other to play a few games, with bucket relays and water balloons proving to be the stars of the show. It just wouldn’t be summer camp without water sports, and these activities were certainly a memorable part of the camp experience!

It was a busy day in Winterset, and by the end of the camp day everyone was ready to take things a little more slowly. We ended our day by making “edible soil” to complement the afternoon’s lesson about soil, and then spent some time reflecting and writing in the nature journals that we created during arts and crafts time earlier in the day. This was a great way to wrap up our day—I’m excited about nearly any opportunity that involves either chocolate pudding or crafts, and being able to tie both of these to other topics that I’m passionate about was an added bonus.

As the campers departed at the end of the day, many of them expressed interest in returning for future events or camps. I am proud to have been a part of making this day memorable for so many young people, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to return to our next two Water Rocks! camps in Des Moines on July 6 and 7. Every time I go to an event or camp I discover something new about communicating scientific information in a way that is engaging to the audience as well as to me as an educator. And I get to have fun doing it! There really is no better way to learn.

Elizabeth Schwab

NOTE: Limited spots are still available for 9-14 year olds in our upcoming Water Rocks! Summer Day Camps at Greenwood Park in Des Moines – choose from Thursday, July 6 or Friday, July 7!  Do you have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbor that might be interested?  Camps are FREE of charge; we just require registration in advance. Registrations are being accepted through NOON tomorrow – Friday, June 30.

Go Take a Hike!

This coming Sunday, January 1, is the perfect opportunity to get outside and go take a hike … literally! Start the new year outdoors taking in the scenery, the winter wildlife, and the crisp, cool fresh air with a guided hike in one of Iowa’s state parks. New Year’s Day 2017 marks the sixth annual celebration of America’s State Parks First Day Hikes initiative, encouraging all of us to get outside and explore the wonderful parks around us in a wintery setting.

Twenty-five different parks across the state of Iowa will be hosting free guided First Day Hikes this year on January 1, 2017. The DNR’s First Day Hikes webpage provides further details including times and meeting locations for each of the hikes. The guided hikes are typically 1-2 miles in length.

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Iowa’s many state parks, recreation areas, and forests are true gems – offering an abundance of outdoor activities ranging from camping to canoeing, fishing, swimming, wildlife, and hiking galore (my personal favorite!). I love how these natural areas showcase Iowa’s changing beauty with the changing seasons of the year.

So gather your family, your friends, and/or your dog for a New Year’s Day outdoor adventure … and go take a hike!

Ann Staudt

A Wetlands Walk with Charlie

This morning, the sun woke me early and so I jumped out of bed, got dressed and called out to my dog.

“It’s National Wetlands Month, Charlie! Let’s go to the lake!”

Charlie did his slow morning stretch, slanted his head to one side and looked at me.

“The lake!,” I repeated, and then grabbed my car keys and jingled them at him. While he doesn’t really know the word lake, he understands that car keys in the morning mean a trip to the lake. His tail began a wagging and he waited impatiently for me to grab his leash and get into the car.

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Ada Hayden Lake is the reserve water supply for the City of Ames. It is a smallish lake that has several adjacent wetlands and prairies. This year, I made a pledge to myself to try to walk out there once a week all year regardless of the weather. It is always beautiful there, whether it is covered with ice and snow or a beautiful spring day like today.

I took my camera with me because I knew I wanted to blog about wetlands. I also knew that photographs and sounds would tell the story better than I can with words.

The walk was amazing and the sights and sounds were balms to my soul. April had been one of those months where I always felt about three paces behind where I needed to be. This morning it was good to take a leisurely walk with Charlie to just enjoy the moment. Charlie loves it when I am not in a hurry because I allow him to stop, smell, touch and sometimes pursue.

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As we were walking around the lake, I was thinking about how amazing wetlands are and how important they are for so many reasons. The three most important functions of prairie wetlands are waterfowl habitat, nutrient removal and flood control. In Iowa, wetlands are particularly important for the Des Moines Lobe area where pre-settlement there were 3.5 million acres of wetlands. By the 1970s, we were down to 30,000 acres. Today, there are anywhere from 94,000 to 143,000 acres of wetlands in the Des Moines Lobe.

So, we are making progress, slowly, but still progress. A few of the impacts of the loss of wetlands in this part of Iowa has been the loss of wildlife, especially waterfowl, and the decline in lake and river water quality due to nonpoint source pollution (see Wetland Restoration in Iowa: Challenges and Opportunities for more details).

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Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy suggests that we would need 7,600 nutrient reduction wetlands in the Des Moines Lobe if we want to see water quality improvements. Currently, there are less than 100 of these wetlands in the region. How are we going to get there? It will take a change of mind, heart and reallocation of resources like we haven’t seen for a really long time in Iowa. Where do we start?

Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, suggests that the first step to this kind of change is contemplation. You don’t need to be Catholic or even religious to practice contemplation. In the simplest terms, contemplation means to listen. In listening, you come to see. In seeing you come to know. In knowing, you come to care.

Care suggests passion, love and commitment.

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How do we implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy? Maybe the process would be quickened if more people entered into dialogue with nature. It is a huge change that is being asked of the people in our state. Can we stop and listen, pay attention and be aware? Can we care?

Nothing will change if we don’t.

I am not saying that I have all the answers. Or that I am doing everything I can to be a part of the solution. I am saying that I felt hopeful after this morning’s walk. I also felt confident that if we can bring wetlands back, they would do their part to care for the Earth and all the creatures who call wetlands home.

It’s National Wetlands Month. Do you know where a wetland is?

Wetlands (and lake, rivers, etc), should come with a warning label:
Caution! Sitting here could change your life.

Jacqueline Comito

Barbara and Stanley Johnson feature

KMA radio, out of Shenandoah, Iowa, went to Barbara and Stanley Johnson’s farm and interviewed the couple about their land philosophy and what they have done with their acres for sustainability and conservation. The interview is a video (even though it came from a radio station). Thanks to the Johnsons for your commitment to building a culture of conservation!

Stan_Barbara_Johnson_video_screencaptureClick on the arrow button above to read their story and view the video.