Wandering the Driftless Area

By John Nickum
The Driftless Area? I suggest you attend the OWAA conference in Rochester, Minn., June 10-13, 2010, and find out. You and your readers, viewers, and listeners will be glad you learned that there is a lot more to Minnesota than all those lakes and forests “up North.”
When I grew up in southern Minnesota, the outdoor action was found “up North.”. Sure, we had a little pheasant hunting, some put-and-take trout fishing, some squirrel hunting, and even a little smallmouth bass fishing in the Root River. But nothing like what was available in northern Minnesotra. Once in awhile, we took a big trip (50 miles) over to the Mississippi River, to see if we could catch a few walleyes. But the good stuff, deer, bear, wolves, muskies, big walleyes, and wilderness, was all “up North.”
Northern Minnesota still has a lot to offer to outdoors enthusiasts. However, southern Minnesota, especially the Driftless Area, is a classic example of what resource managers can do to restore environments abused and exploited almost to the point of no return. Forests have been restored, improved land use practices implemented, deer are abundant, turkey populations are increasing, trout populations are self-sustaining, and perhaps most importantly, silt and nutrient-laden runoff has been greatly reduced. The restoration task is not complete, but today much of the Driftless Area is closer to the conditions that prevailed prior to modern settlement than it has been in more than 100 years.
To understand what has happened in southeastern Minnesota and the adjacent areas of northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin, we need to look back in time. First, we must look way back, 15,000 to 20,000 years ago much of North America was covered with continental ice sheets. These ice sheets flattened mountains and gouged out deep basins, such as the basins now filled with the Great Lakes. However, there was one northern area that was not touched by the massive ice sheets: the Driftless Area. Although completely surrounded by ice, the area we now call southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa, and southwest Wisconsin was not touched by the Pleistocene ice sheets. No glacial drift of sand and rock was deposited, and the area was carved into beautiful hills and valleys as runoff from the melting ice sheets eroded the loose soils and underlying limestone and sandstone.
When settlers from the eastern United States first arrived in the Driftless Area they found rolling hills covered with mixed hardwood forests and many clear streams filled with large numbers of native fishes. The forests were cleared to provide building materials and the cleared lands were tilled with the same methods the farmers brought with them from the east. Then the land began to erode. But, there was always new area to develop and settlement spilled out onto the nearby prairies where wetlands could be drained and the deep soils of the grassland could be broken and planted into crops. Small villages developed in the sheltered valleys. And the land continued to erode. Spring runoff from melting snow and flooding following heavy rains accelerated the erosion. In some cases, such as the community of Beaver, Minn., the entire village was buried in silt. (The Star Tribune ran a photographic feature on the demise of Beaver in the late 1950s).
Finally, starting in the 1960s, soil conservation practices, such as contour farming, pasture renovation, and forest restoration became common, and the streams fed by revitalized springs flowed again with clean water. Innovative fish managers, including Bill Thorn, realized that these productive waters could support self-sustaining trout and smallmouth bass populations. Restoration of the hardwood forests became a state project when the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest was established. Deer came back, turkeys were introduced and nature flourished. Similar efforts were developed in adjacent areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
While the Driftless Area will never be pristine as it was 175 years ago, the area proves the effects of development and exploitation can be reversed and natural ecosystems can be restored to fully functional, self-sustaining condition.
Come to Rochester, but schedule time to visit Whitewater State Park, the quaint village of Lanesboro, and fish Trout Run, the Root River and the Zumbro River. Go over to Lake City and learn about the origins of water skiing and the unique processes that formed Lake Pepin. Tour the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge (the only fish refuge in the entire National Refuge System). Photograph the beautiful bluffs that border the streams and check out those eagles along the Mississippi. Contact the publisher of Big River magazine, Reggie McLeod, and get some back issues to learn more about the area. Tour the Mayo Clinic and learn about the natural disaster that led to the founding of this world famous medical institution. Become acquainted with the giant Canada geese around Silver Lake and learn about the key role that Rochester played in their restoration.
I have only scratched the surface of potential story lines. Many more opportunities and a lot of fun and relaxation will be yours as you drift/float/hike/bike through the Driftless Area. ◊

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