Exploring Rare Sites of the Driftless
~The Nonprofit Provocateur~
When Tracy Hames, executive director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, asked me for a tour of the Driftless Area, my mind raced around all the possibilities.
I love the Driftless landscape—the region around the Upper Mississippi River Valley surrounded but left untouched by the massive continental glaciers of the last Ice Age. It’s a beautiful, rugged, and mysterious place where I spent my adolescent years exploring and my adult life working. It’s a landscape I’ve spent years conserving and a special place that I helped produce a documentary film about.
The breadth of species and natural communities one can see in a single day in the Driftless truly is stunning, especially if you know where to look. Fortunately, my experience as a land trust executive director provided a catalog of places to take Tracy.
We met at my organizational consulting office in Boscobel—a small city along the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. It’s an area that Tracy’s organization, along with the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, is working to have recognized as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.
I started the tour by taking Tracy to state-owned land along the Wisconsin River Bottoms just east of the Village of Blue River. The quality of the wetlands impressed Tracy. He pointed out various types of bulrushes, the healthy stands of arrowhead plants, and the absence of invasive cattails as we drove along a narrow, sometimes gravel-covered path. We got out of his SUV, jumped over some mud bearing the tracks of deer and raccoons, scooted over fallen trees, and looked out over a massive expanse of wetlands. The sounds of redwing blackbirds and buzzing insects followed us.
Back in the vehicle as we were headed out of the bottoms, a prothonotary warbler flitted across the road. The neotropical migrant paused nearby long enough for me to grab binoculars and confirm my sighting.
The path led us away from the water to an oak savanna on the sandy river terrace. I was on the lookout for prickly pear cactus, which I knew from previous trips grew there in abundance.
It wasn’t long before I spotted something with about the same yellow coloration as a prothonotary warbler, but this time on the ground. After exiting the vehicle, we heard the call of a sandhill crane not far off. I paused for a moment to listen and then bent down to look at the amazingly beautiful cactus blossom.
I don’t think it’s very wildly known in the Upper Midwest that cactus grow on the sand prairies and bluff prairies of the Driftless Region. People unaccustomed to seeing cactus also don’t realize how gorgeous their showy flowers can be.
A bee, a species I couldn’t recognize, occupied one of the blossoms. It seemed to be in no hurry to leave the nectar-filled restaurant.
Tracy and I ventured on, away from the River to the Snowbottom State Natural Area—a DNR designation for an area with many ecologically-significant properties, some protected and some not. I knew of several conservation easements held by Mississippi Valley Conservancy.
First, we drove by the 350-acre MacGregor property, permanently protected with the help of a Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund grant. From the road, we were able to see the oak savanna that overlooks the valley. We continued on to Snowbottom Road, driving past the first of multiple protected properties owned by Jim and Rose Sime, a couple of knowledgeable members of MVC and The Prairie Enthusiasts.
On Bluff Road, a short distance north of the community of Montfort, we stopped next to a bridge spanning the Blue River. There, the land on one side of the river is owned by Simes while the other side is owned by Steve and Susan Carpenter. Parish Bluff, owned by the Carpenters, rises steeply above the river with its sandstone cliff smattered with lichens. Both properties are protected with Mississippi Valley Conservancy conservation easements, and a DNR fishing easement allows trout anglers easy access.
As we walked across the bridge and looked down into the water, immediately I spotted a large trout dart across the channel and hide under vegetation hanging over the bank.
After strolling along the river a ways, we were fortunate to encounter Steve Carpenter himself, an internationally recognized limnologist from Madison, as he worked to remove invasive wild parsnip.
After lunch at a local bar & grill in Montfort, we drove through Fennimore. Turning on Cemetery Road, we headed south a short distance to Borah Creek Prairie. Several years earlier, I had handled tricky negotiations to purchase this native prairie from a landowner who had leased the acreage to a local farmer with the plan to plow it up and plant row crops. If that had happened, we would have lost a site with incredible biodiversity and rare flora.
Fortunately, MVC was able to partner with The Prairie Enthusiasts and Driftless Area Land Conservancy to acquire the property. We secured a grant from the State Stewardship Program along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Section 6 funds to protect the federally endangered prairie bush clover growing there. TPE now owns and manages the property.
When we walked onto the property, we were greeted by nearly a dozen bobolinks perched on the low hill above the driveway.
Grasses at the site include big and little bluestem, Indian grass, side-oats grama, and prairie dropseed interspersed with wildflowers such as pasque-flower, cream wild indigo, rattlesnake master, rough blazing star, yellow coneflower, butterfly weed, bird’s-foot violet, downy gentian, and the great plains ladies-tresses orchid. The site has at least eight rare and protected plant species.
When one steps from the surrounding acreage onto the part of the property never broken with a plow, it’s immediately evident that the vegetation is very different. It’s like stepping back in time 200 years before our landscape became covered with nonnative grasses and monoculture fields.
A spotted whitetail fawn popped out from a cluster of low sumac bushes as we walked through the prairie and marveled at the wildflowers.
Despite the rarity of the flora at Borah Creek Prairie, we had not yet arrived at the most unusual and rare feature of the Driftless landscape.
We drove to the edge of the Mississippi River and down a narrow gravel road. Nothing but this path and railroad tracks stood between the bluffs and the great river. We parked at a nondescript widening of the road where a logging road emerged from the woods.
We wore leather hiking boots as we trekked along the path, but rubber boots might have been more appropriate. Water spilling over from the nearby trout stream flooded half of our route. Abundant bullfrogs leaped from under our feet into the shallow pools filling old tire tracks through the mud.
Eventually, we reached the stream and had to jump across it. We were only partially successful in keeping our boots dry. From there, we hiked through tall vegetation, including wild parsnip we were wary of. A thick stand of tall, spindly willows lined one stretch of the small road.
After slogging through what I assume was three-quarters of a mile of barely-used trail, I recognized the bluff we had come for. Another stream crossing was required, and here the stream had split into three branches.
No path greeted us at the base of the bluff. We had to climb straight up the steep side, grabbing roots and small trees to help pull ourselves up.
We were out of the hot sun, but the air remained still and thick with humidity. With the rigorous climb, Tracy and I quickly sweated through our shirts.
The dark hillside was covered with wild ginger, miterwort plants that had already bloomed for the year, and ferns.
As we got a good part of the way up the bluff, we turned and walked along it, following the contour of the land. Out from under my feet, a whip-poor-will sprang up and landed on a nearby fallen tree. A mere two feet or so in front of me, I spotted two eggs nestled by dead leaves and a couple pieces of gravel.
We moved away from the nest. Eventually, the character of the forest floor dramatically changed. A thick mat of diminutive ferns blanketed a large swath of ground. This is the only place I have ever encountered woods with this type of ground cover. We had found the algific zone of an algific talus slope.
An algific talus slope is like an ecosystem frozen in time. It’s a system of subterranean ice caves connected to openings at the top of the bluff with vents along the side of the bluff, and it acts like a natural refrigerator. In the summer, warm air is drawn into the openings at the top. The air passes over ice left over from the previous winter and vents out the side of the hill chilled by perhaps as much as forty to sixty degrees from the ambient air temperature. It can be a 95-degree day, but the air coming out of the vents may be about 40 degrees. This geological feature has allowed plants and animals from the Ice Age to survive here long after the glaciers retreated from surrounding areas.
But still we had not found the prime algific (cold-producing) locations. Those areas are evident by thick, spongy mats of moss. And the real treat: the rare and beautiful northern monkshood wildflower with its purple blossoms.
It did not take us long from that point to find monkshood. At first, we found just a couple plants. Then we found a second spot with more of the amethyst-colored flowers.
But it was not until we reached a small draw running down the bluff did we find the mother lode. The draw functioned as a river of cold air pouring out from vents along the hill. Among the thick pillows of moss and rotting logs, monkshood grew across a wide swath of the hill.
Ominously, a bulldozed logging road ended right at the edge of this patch of rare monkshood. The rugged terrain obviously had saved this portion of the algific slope from mechanized destruction. Other parts of the hillside were not so lucky. The algific talus lined the two- to three-foot high bank of the logging road, continuing to vent cold air but with no monkshood to benefit from it.
Borah Creek Prairie, the algific talus slope, and the other Driftless Region properties Tracy and I toured harbored rare species and unique habitats. These areas are now permanently protected thanks to the hard work and dedication of nonprofit land trusts and the Department of Natural Resources. But this protection came none too soon. “Progress” nearly wiped them off the map. Fortunately, they should remain relatively intact for scientists to study and hikers to enjoy for generations to come.
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Tim Jacobson, CEO of Visjonær Consulting & Communications, has served as a board member and executive of a variety of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's author of the book Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success, to be released in 2014, the executive producer of a documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, and author of Amazon best-selling thriller The Kurchatov Penetration. He has been featured dozens-upon-dozens of times by TV and radio stations, magazines and newspapers for his organizational consulting, filmmaking, writing, conservation and legal work and for his exploration of international justice and peace issues.
All photos copyright Timothy S. Jacobson (except the prothonotary warbler—photo courtesy of Wikipedia). Algific talus slope diagram courtesy of Untamed Science.