Wednesday, July 26, 2017
On Algific Talus Slopes
The forbidden exerts a powerful lure. Who has not encountered a no-trespassing sign when hiking alone on a remote trail? What impulse do you feel? When I see signs of this sort, almost always I climb over the fence and walk another two or three-hundred feet to see what the no trespassing posting protects. Nothing incites trespass more than a no-trespassing sign.
Some years ago, I saw an internet note that the Nature Conservancy had acquired a tract of land in Fillmore County – that is, about forty to fifty miles from where I live. This site was notable because it contained an algific talus slope, one of the rarest landforms on earth. Of course, I wanted to see this place, but the Nature Conservancy’s website advised that the property was off-limits and, indeed, such a valuable resource that its location would not be identified. Human access to algific talus slopes inevitably, it seems, results in their destruction. None of this deterred me from driving around rural Fillmore County for eight hours, exploring the back lanes in hope of finding the place. I was unsuccessful, of course – the site was hidden and stayed hidden in the lush hardwood forests tangled together in the green and nameless ravines.
Recently, I read another posting, noting that the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit consortium that acquires fragile habitats to protect them, had purchased another algific talus field, again concealed somewhere in the driftless region of Fillmore County. This site was called "Bluebell Hollow." (The other location was named, I think, "Saxifrage Hollow".
This internet information inspired me to set forth again to search for algific talus slopes in northern Iowa and western Wisconsin. I made this expedition on Thursday and Friday, June 1 - 2, 2017. This was at the time that President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords claiming those voluntary agreements to be disadvantageous to American business and, therefore, workers. In announcing the United States withdrawl from the climate accords, President Trump said that he had been elected to serve "the people of Pittsburgh not Paris". Radio commentators were quick to point out that the City of Pittsburgh had voted for Hilary Clinton by a margin of 80 percent.
What is an algific talus slope?
"Algific" means "cold-producing." "Talus" is small, fractured rock that has broken from exposed bedrock and rests at the foot of the cliff from which it has fallen. When talus has slumped into its angle of repose, it is called "scree." In rare circumstances, cold air vents through the talus slope. This can occur on north-facing slopes in an area characterized by karst geology.
A karst landscape is one comprised of limestone bedrock. Rain penetrates cavities in the limestone producing a mild acid that dissolves subsurface rock into caves. Where these caves have partially collapsed, the landscape may be cratered with sinkholes. Algific talus slopes arise when rainwater enters cave systems through sinkholes piercing the bedrock. Water flowing in underground passages is cooled to a temperature that equates to the average annual temperature both day and night in the climactic zone. In Minnesota and Northern Iowa, this means that cave temperature, and the water flowing through those caves, is cooled to about 37 degrees – this is the temperature of subterranean water in all seasons. When water in cavern streams seeps through cliff walls, it cools the fractured stone through which it is seeping. This results in moist vents leaking refrigerated air through the cliff face and its talus slope – the result is an "algific" or cold-producing field of scree-talus. Winter snow and ice are retained much longer in the crevasses in these slopes and, accordingly, the cliff-side continues to be cool throughout the year – these talus slopes exude cool air at temperatures about 37 degrees to 50 degrees even when the ravines and densely wooded valleys are steamy with summer heat.
An algific talus slope is a micro-climate – the cold, steep cliff face with its bed of talus is an island of arctic or sub-arctic climate. As a result, these places harbor plants and animals that can not survive in the adjacent, much warmer woods. The most notable cold-climate animal found on these slopes is the inconspicuous Iowa pleistocene snail. Thought to be extinct before 1955, colonies of these snails were found thriving in the loose rubble of algific talus slopes. The slopes also blossom with plants otherwise unknown to this area – flowers and ferns that characterize the tundras of northern Canada and Siberia. Examples of this plants are the Golden Saxifrage, Walking ferns, the Limestone Oak fern, the Rose Twisted Stalk, and the delicate Northern Monk’s Hood flower.
Algific talus fields have been identified as unique for only 30 years. Prior to that time, the landform did not enjoy any distinction and had not really been named. (In popular culture, algific talus fields are sometimes termed "ice caves" – but this describes only a limited subclass of these landscapes.) In 1985, it was thought that there were approximately 600 algific talus slopes in southeastern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa, and western Wisconsin – the majority of identified locations where in the driftless region of Iowa, that is Clayton, Winneshiek, and Allamakee counties. These sites are highly sensitive to human interference – anything disrupting the ventilation of cold air through fissures in the hillside will destroy the site. Simply climbing on an algific talus slope may rearrange the rock, dislodging scree to block crevasses through which the cold cave air is exhaled. To a significant extent, the talus slopes can’t really be studied without destroying them – a researcher collecting snails, for instance, or rare ferns on the scree slope may well cause collapse of ancient structures that have resulted in the existence of the algific landform in the first place. Since the phenomena was named, the number of slopes is said to have decreased from 600 to as few as 200.
When I set forth on my expedition, I had one serious disadvantage: I didn’t really know how an algific talus slope looked. I knew that they were at the base of north-facing limestone bedrock cliffs. But I couldn’t exactly picture what these places would be like. Similarly, I have no idea what golden Saxifrage or Northern Monk’s Hood or any of the exotic plants growing on these rock slopes look like and, so, would be unable to identify them.
I had some notes as to places where it was admitted that these slopes existed. And, so, I set off to inspect them.
A weekend before my principal expedition, I commenced my search at Beaver Creek Valley State Park. This is a Minnesota State Park located in a remote hidden valley in Houston County, the State’s most southeastern county bordering with Iowa to the south and the Mississippi and Wisconsin to the east.
I have downloaded from the State Park’s website a transcript of a MP3 program that you can access with your cell-phone. The program’s audio track is commentary on a nature trail that hikers can walk at the park. The very first station on the loop trail is marked with the numeral 1, inscribed supposedly on a wooden bench. The notation for this location, stop #1 says: Because it is relatively well-camouflaged you might not be able to see the algific talus slope in this area, but there is one around here.
The day is clear at the meridian, fleecy shreds of cloud dispersed to the horizons on all sides so that you feel that you are driving under a great celestial amphitheater. Not only is the talus field at Beaver Valley well-camouflaged, so also is the park. No signs mark its entry – the ubiquitous "dead end" signs on gravel lanes in these hollows don’t necessarily mean that a park is hiding behind that marker, although this is the case with Beaver Valley. In most instances, narrow winding roads just dead-end on someone’s property between a collapsing chicken house and an old barn. According to my cell-phone map, the park commences just on the other side of a landmark called Schech’s Mill. The road runs in a swampy wetland between two ridges and I can see the high, ungainly mill beyond several lagoons next to a small creek running between dirt banks. The mill looks like the Frankenstein monster, clumsy and rectangular, painted a scarlet red and about to fall face-forward, it seems, into the tiny unassuming creek. Beyond the driveway to the mill, the grave road runs through a gate and into the farmyard of a man who has gone just ahead of me in his pickup truck – a fellow with the neck-beard and scrawny aspect of an Amish crackhead. I turn around as his dogs assault my car. Surely, the park is around here some place.
After a few more false starts, I locate the park entrance – indeed, it is marked only by a yellow "Dead End" sign. The State Park is a narrow valley with bluffs with stony cliffs rearing up over a creek-bed. The creek sings between the hillsides and ends, ultimately, in a arena made by hills with a swamp at its center. The algific talus slope is supposed to be near the rustic bench marked #1. But the first bench, I encounter, a little brown settee overlooking the creek is unnumbered. I follow the trail and reach several intersections marked on the park map, but can’t find bench #1. Indeed, the first bench that I encounter is #7, the numeral painted in yellow on the side of the bench. The next bench is #11 and not located anywhere near where landmark #11 is shown on the trail map. With Jack, I spend the next two hours hiking through the woods cupped between the hills, but I never find Bench #1 – indeed, for some reason, the first five benches are entirely missing. Perhaps, they were swept away in one of the periodic floods that ravage these entangled and green valleys. Or, perhaps, a cabal of naturalists who want to hide these talus slopes from casual onlookers such as myself has, in fact, suppressed these landmarks, concealed them within a shed at the park headquarters.
After our hike, we go to the other end of the park, where the rims of the valley are tied more tightly together. This is where the so-called Big Springs supplies its water as the source of the creek running between the bluffs. The Springs are downhill from a grassy lawn on which there is an (unnumbered park bench) – below there is a pond the size of a small room, half of it floored with white sand and the other decorated with a green filmy bed of sea-weed. At the edge of the pond, water is bubbling up from the base of a gloomy-looking cliff. The cliff is shrouded in growing ferns and, a few yards, upstream, there are little green grooves in the moss where water is sliding down from the porous rock.
A sign near the Big Springs remarks that the valley contains "seven algific talus slopes (ice caves)". Is "algific talus slope" a synonym for "ice cave"? This seems incorrect to me. But I don’t know.
A week later, I drove to Iowa to search for algific talus slopes. My first stop was an exhibit on this unique facet of northeastern Iowa geology said to be located at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
Cedar Falls is about a two-hour drive in the country from Austin. The sky was absolutely cloudless and it was warm, low 80's with high humidity. On the radio, President Trump was making a speech. He said that he was withdrawing the United States from participation in the Paris climate accords. "I have been elected to serve the interests of Pittsburgh, not Paris," Trump said, citing the agreement as disastrous for the American economy.
The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) is all new – it looks like the university has been manufactured in one fell swoop on prairie once at the outskirts of Cedar Rapids within the last several decades. If there was previously a shady quadrangle and old ivy-covered buildings, they are not in evidence today. In fact, the entire campus, as far as I can see, is treeless, a flat preserve of concrete Brutalist buildings with big grey pillars marked with imprint of the forms used in their construction. No signs show the lay-out of the buildings and the place is eerily quiet – the sidewalks between the big shoals of concrete are entirely empty. At the center of the place, a sinister carillon tower rises over a huddle of three or four story classroom buildings. The tower seems an artifact of UNI’s earlier aspect, perhaps, before Dutch Elm disease stripped the trees from the place.
It takes me some aimless wandering to find the Rod library where the algific talus slope exhibit is located. A breathless internet account of the exhibit, written by some eighth grade girls, says that the exhibit is "very cool" and that, when you press a button, the diorama exhales into your face cold that simulates one of the sedimentary stone vents on the north-facing talus slope. The Rod Library is another pile of raw concrete, air-conditioned and, apparently, empty – I don’t see anyone moving among the steel stacks where the books are displayed. The UNI museum is down the steps on the basement level. It consists of two elongated rooms displaying yellowing posters of rock ‘n roll shows – faded images of neatly groomed boys wearing identical blazers. Some old guitars are on display in cases. Outside the music exhibit, there are African drums and a sort of carved wooden lyre from Nigeria. A corridor leads past a glass wall. Behind the glass wall, I can see artifacts resting on shelves, mostly preserved birds and pelts or curious crystals, a few weapons as well, and items of Victorian clothing – it seems to be a panorama, as it were, of the museum’s holdings, none of which are on display.
A fat woman with her arm in a sling sits in an office to the side of the corridor. Above her, on a broad shelf, two stuffed lionesses glare down at me. I ask the woman about the algific talus slope exhibit and she shrugs. "I don’t know about that, but, maybe, Darrin does," she tells me. She gets up and leads me to a door opening into the warehouse space with the industrial steel shelving. Darrin is a heavy-set young man wearing blue nylon gloves over his surprisingly small and dainty hands. He has granny glasses and sports a white lab coat and he, also, has an Amish-style neck beard.
Darrin shakes my hand, still wearing his blue latex gloves. I wonder what he has been handling with those gloves. He takes me back into the office where the woman with the injured arm is sitting idly behind her desk. "We gave the slope to a conservation official," he says adding: "In Winneshiek County." "Winneshiek County?" I ask. "Yes," Darrin says. "That’s closer to where they are located." I nod my head. The county seat of Winneshiek is Decorah and, indeed, that is a place where a number of algific talus slopes are located. "Where did it end up?’‘ I ask. "I’ll give you the address," he says. The young man types a few words into his computer, still working with the blue latex on his hands. Then, he calls to the woman with the injured arm – "Can you get me the file please?" A few moments later, she glides into the room with a single sheet of paper in a numbered manila fiber. "It went here," Darrin says.
The address is: "Barbara Schroeder, Winneshiek County, Conservation Board, 2546 Lake Meyer Rd., Fort Atkinson, Iowa 52114." Darrin writes this address on a yellow post-it note and hands it to me. I thank him. "She was very, very happy to receive the exhibit," Darrin says. In a little glass case, there is a stuffed baboon infant. Next to the baby baboon, on a slightly higher shelf, there is a mount of a baby bear, stuffed so that the creature seems to be smiling.
Outside, on the deserted campus, I look for a toilet. I got into the Maucker Student Union. It’s a concrete bunker splayed out between slabs of vertical cement, all pocked like osteoporotic bone. The Union was designed before the Americans with Disability Act – it contains innumerable levels and steps, so many that I can’t tell where one floor ends and another level begins: the structure is a sort of vertical Piranesi-style maze, empty except for a studious-looking woman conducting what seems to be a job interview with another younger woman in one of the wells beneath the various slanting ramps and concrete balconies. A couple of students on work-study are pushing vacuums through a cafeteria carpeted with a brown fabric. It’s a bewildering place with flights of steps leading to places midway between levels, small pedestal, ledges the size of a grand piano, elevated walkways, the whole interior now rationalized with long wooden ramps suturing the different levels and sub-levels and half-levels and quarter-levels together.
Outside, a pretty co-ed is spraying water on some plants growing alongside the arboretum. The sun is bright. The girl is working next to Wright Hall, an older building – on the lintel above a side-door, deeply incised letters read: DO NOT DO WHAT HAS ALREADY BEEN DONE, a curious motto that, I must confess that I don’t understand.
The Bixby State Preserve, the site of the most readily accessible algific talus slope, is a couple of counties to the east, north of the main freeway to Dubuque. This is the territory where the Zeilingers, the maiden name of my father’s mother, resided. The Zeilingers were all German-speaking theologians, educated in Oelwein and Dubuque, Iowa, pastors who topped-off their Lutheran theological studies, as it were, with a semester abroad at a Evangelisches Kirche seminary in Dresden or Wittenberg. As far as I know, these were very learned, rigidly conventional, and abstemious clergy – although they ceased their European studies at the time the United States entered World War I, the Zeilinger’s spoke German at home, at least through the era of the Great Depression. I suppose that the Zeilingers wooed their women in the watery, green parks of northeastern Iowa, at picnic tables perpetually cooled by nearby algific talus slopes where they quaffed lemonade and, on rare festive occasions, Falstaff beer. I thought of old postcards showing creeks with shaggy bluffs above them and little gazebos in cleared meadows near the water – the old postcards had been hand-colored with mellow tints that seemed like the sun setting so as to suffuse the landscape with a golden radiance.
The Bixby State Preserve is three miles north of the tiny village of Edgewater. The lane that leads to the park is called Franklin Avenue in Edgewater. The lane leads past a particularly cheerless trailer court. Trailers are supposed to be temporary housing, yet, these old, grey mobile homes seem to have been on the edge of this little village since log cabin days – dilapidated and antique, the trailers are scattered haphazardly among mournful trees. A few yards away, there is a spooky-looking house made of yellowish fieldstone with round barrel-shaped towers.
The lane is marked "minimum maintenance" although I didn’t think it was difficult to drive, just scary because narrow and winding through a dense woods and, then, alongside a stony creek bed with forty-foot sandstone walls comprised of cyclopean blocks furry with moss. It’s one-lane and I don’t know what would happen in you met an oncoming car on that path down the steep slope and through the canyon. Where the gorge levels out, there is a big two-story stack of field stone, a sort of massive chimney that once, I suppose, named the State Preserve but that now gestures inarticulately, a mute giant, at the traveler. Beyond the road dips to cross the creek and there is a parking place on the edge of an odd oval-shaped clearing. A single fire-pit dimples the clearing and, at its upslope side, the CCC erected long ago a big shelter, heavy rustic timbers with field stone walls. The clearing is hemmed in by steep wooded slopes on all sides and the air is heavy and congested. A stone trough with shallow steps, maybe a hundred of them leads through uphill behind the shelter. It’s a strange path, only a foot wide and clogged like a drainage channel with dead leaves and twigs and, at the top, there are some dark boulders with trees growing through them and another ruinous CCC shelter, this one without roof, crumbling walls supporting lightning-slashed fallen trees. I went up the little trough-like set of steps, explored the CCC ruins on the slope and, then, descended again to the curious little meadow. Another trail ran through the high-grass to a sod bank, cut down to the mud where water splashed over some rocks. The stream looked to be about a foot deep and people had heaped some stepping stones in the current, but the water was sluicing over their top and some of the rocks were covered with moss. The creek nudging against some of the flat stones, haphazardly stacked atop one another, caused them to wobble palpably. Beyond the crossing, I could see a trail, muddy-looking, winding away into the trees. On the Internet, I had seen pictures of rough columns of black slabs of rock with a gabled threshold built into the hillside – this was the ice-cave and, apparently, the algific talus slope. But I didn’t see that structure anywhere nearby.
I picked up a half-dozen loaf-sized pieces of sandstone and dropped them in the water to enhance the crossing, but when I tested my new stepping stones with the tip of my tennis shoes, they wobbled unsteadily. I was alone and didn’t want to fall in the creek and, so, after several attempts to cross the eight-foot stretch of running water, I gave up. Biting gnats were swarming up from the mud around the creek and there were stagnant puddles swarming with sperm-shaped black tadpoles. If there were algific talus fields around, I didn’t see them.
I drove back up the narrow track to the rolling cornfields and, then, the town of Bixby. Then, I went across the high lands, huge valleys opening on both sides of the road, watersheds were streams or rivers were flowing toward the Mississippi about 15 miles distant. I stopped briefly in Elkader where the Turkey River is forced over a dam and hangs like a silvery veil in the middle of the town, an old arch bridge humped up to cross the water. Ancient brick buildings lined Main Street including one of them with an eccentric steeple that looked like the spear-shaped sting of a manta ray. (Elkader is named after Abd al-Qadr al Jazar’iri, an Algerian sheik who resisted the French occupation of his country – the men who founded the village in 1848 admired al-Qadr and named the place after him. When the Turkey River flooded a few years ago and devastated part of the city, the Algerian government offered relief.)
A few miles later, I passed through the tiny river-town of McGregor and, then, followed a narrow blacktop at the base of high bluffs overhanging the west channel of the Mississippi. There’s a big bridge by the river-boat casino at Marquette arching up and across to Prairie du Chien. All the public buildings in Prairie du Chien are made from butter-colored local sandstone, a very soft and yielding kind of masonry that makes the structures glow faintly in the dusk. An old fort sits on a terrace over the river and the courthouse is also built of soft, glowing sandstone as well as the old Villa Louis, situated on a mucky island that seems always flooded or at risk of flooding.
I checked-into a Motel SIX on the south side of town. The room was humid with bad air blowing from the swampy airconditioner.
The Night Clerk recommended that I take the old river road through town and eat at a place called "The Barn" on the northside. "It is beyond the little nine-hole golf course and the marina," the girl told me.
The road ran through the flood plain where the City of Prairie du Chien has bought out and relocated the old housing, demolished the ancient river-front warehouses and taverns and brothels. The highway twists along the river, so close that the Big Muddy has flooded fields up to the shoulder of the road, even extending fingers of murky water across the oncoming lane. As I approach one of the areas where half the road is flooded, a Bald-headed Eagle swoops down, a great moving vector of talons and beak and wings, slashing like a saber the surface of the pool of flood water covering half the highway. Whatever the bird was seeking for its supper, it was unsuccessful, sailing over over the line of trees half-drowned on the edge of the channel.
"The Barn" is the kind of place that you find only in rural Wisconsin and it is highly recommended for that reason. The dining rooms are immense, acres of darkness within rustic-walls, timbers supporting the bare roof overhead and pilasters of logs cut in half and polished along the walls, tiny candles in apple-shaped glass goblets flickering on the tables. I came into the restaurant through the bar, climbing a flight of eight or nine heavy-set log steps and, inside, there were two bar-maids wearing bikini tops and cut-off jeans sluicing cold beer into big frosty mugs for the customers sitting around the pine-wood bar. In the tavern, a big window opened out to the road running parallel to the river and some lagoons where boats were stranded, one huge barge landlocked in an elbow-shaped pond that had now dried-up – the big prow and high shelf of the cargo-holds sitting incongruously in the middle of field where goats and sheep were grazing.
My prime-rib came with salad bar and a thick barley-soup and there was also asparagus, perfectly seasoned and cooked. Everything about the restaurant was praise-worthy. People know how to eat in Wisconsin – the food is simple, portions are massive, and everything is nourishing and fresh. And you get to eat in a broad room with retired farmers and their children, big men in feed caps and crowds of blonde children and equally blonde wives, even the old ladies sporting platinum blonde hair, two or three generations gathered at the big tables, the salad bar glowing under daisy-colored lights and, through some chinks in the log walls, you can look out into the long, blue twilight, some horses in a pasture, the high shaggy bluffs covered with green trees as if the restaurant were in the jungles of the Yucatan.
The next morning, I drove south through intersecting river valleys and, then, up onto the farm land occupying broad ridges, farms set at about the interval that you can see across in green shelter belts, small villages with their church steeples dwarfed by the big fat grain elevators on their outskirts. After some missteps and a few false leads, I dropped down into a channel between the bluffs and rode it down to Glen Haven, a hamlet built where the steep, slender valley opens out onto the river-bottom.
By all evidence, Glen Haven shouldn’t exist. The steep-walled valley has no level ground and the houses, mostly crumbling bungalows are tilted. The main street runs between a half-dozen ancient brick commercial buildings, stacks of red or brown stone with limestone cornices perilously perched atop them, and there are no sidewalks, just deep concrete-walled drainage channels running parallel to the road on both of its sides – this means that the bungalows and the commercial buildings are accessed by stepping across little wooden and metal drawbridges. The houses next to the wall-like slopes of the valley seem to be dug into the cliffs – people park their cars in dripping grottos. At the base of the town, where the hillside levels out there is a big berm, probably 25 feet high, an earthwork to which the asphalt road leads. The road, in fact, goes right up the side of the berm and, from the crest, the traveler is alarmed to see that there is nothing on the other side of the dike but a broad, turbulent-looking channel of the Mississippi River – the road expands into the asphalt apron of a boat-launch and it drops precipitously into the brown flood that here is about the width of two football fields. The lay-out reminds me of certain villages that I have seen in north Japan where the driveways descending down from the homes where the fishermen live drop directly into the cold and stormy ocean.
According to internet sources, there is an algific talus slope under the protection of the State of Wisconsin 1.2 miles north of Glen Haven on Dugway Road. Dugway Road is not hard to find – it is the only road running north, parallel to the river from the hamlet. This is also a "low maintenance" road but, certainly, easy enough to drive unless you encounter an oncoming vehicle. The road slides along the very base of high river bluffs, occupying a terrace that is about 35 feet above the grade where the railroad tracks run. The road winds, has no guard rails, and a mistake could be catastrophic here, but the way is reasonably graded and the lane has been patched in places where floods pouring down ravines have ripped it apart. About three-quarters of a mile from Glen Haven, the dirt road passes under some overhangs, rock actually extending out over the lane so that, for a hundred feet, you feel as if you are driving in a tunnel. Local kids have covered the sandstone with graffiti.
Nothing marks the nature reserve. I drove for three miles, found no sign of the reserve, reversed my direction, and stopped, at last, in a swale among swampy lagoons festering with mud and rotting vegetation, a place where a watercourse, dry on this day, snaked down between two overgrown bluffs. This was, perhaps, the nature conservancy, but I found nothing there – another elliptical or oval clearing had been opened in the impenetrable woods and, even, a little lawn planted there, a mowed green grass patch with a fire-pit at its center. To the south were low, shaggy cliffs abutting a hip-high thicket of fiddlehead ferns. A path ran up the valley to a gate on which there were posted very alarming No Trespassing signs – the gate wasn’t much of an impediment: it wasn’t attached to a fence, just some iron bars hanging on a rusty hinge with a few strands of errant barb-wire wrapped around a metal post. The No Trespassing sign declared that anyone entering through the gate, or around it, would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Next to the gate, there was a bucket upturned with a piece of lathe piercing its bottom, a makeshift sign declaring: ALL HUNTERS ENTER HERE! These seemed to be contradictory messages. I slipped between the bucket and the gate and walked down a muddy trail for a hundred feet. The trail was clear, but I couldn’t see that it led anywhere, and, so, I went back to my car parked in the grass on the edge of the oval clearing. If there were algific talus slopes here, I didn’t see them or couldn’t reliably recognize them.
I felt oppressed by the claustrophobic meadow ringed by the blackwater of the swamp and the low, overgrown cliffs. The air felt unclean and I didn’t like the faint animal cries coming from the thickets. We all want to interact with Nature, doesn’t want to interact with us. Heraclitus wrote: "Nature likes to hide." And, in any event, what would it be like to really interact with Nature. How would that encounter end? I retreated to my car and, then, drove north, another five winding one-lane miles to a place where another, broader valley descended down into the river bottoms. There was an asphalt road in that place and it led me back to Prairie du Chien and, then, across the river to Effigy Mounds National Monument.
On the Iowa side of the Mississippi, the landscape north of McGregor is intricate with high bluffs hanging like green clouds over the great river’s channels. The bluffs are transected by narrow valleys where tributary rivers, most particularly the Yellow, plunge down to join their waters with brown flood of the Mississippi. On the west side of the bluffs, the river and creek beds spread out like capillaries or the branches on a tree, a complex network of narrow and steep valleys, some of them with palisade cliffs, and knobs of land up to tillable acreages where there are scattered farms. It’s an area that feels very wild and remote, with unmarked roads snaking up gloomy, jungle-like ravines. Because this part of northeastern Iowa is so poor and rocky, so much up and down without level ground, large expanses of the area have never been cultivated – this means that hundreds of Indian mounds dot the hilltops and the terraces above the Mississippi and other rivers flowing into its two great channels. In most parts of the Midwest, these mounds were eradicated, plowed under when the sod was broken, but the woods are so dense in northwest Iowa that tracts of archaeologically significant earthworks, some of them dating back to a thousand years BC can still be seen.
These monuments were not the object of my expedition and so I will scant my description of them in this essay. It suffices for me to say that I spent three hours hiking the high bluffs in Effigy Mounds National Monument, a steep climb up switchbacks to the rolling, densely wooded hilltops where the mounds were built. There are three scenic overlooks above the river along the trail that I hiked. In this area, the riverside bluffs are so vertical that, from atop them, the hiker has the sense that he ran fast enough and flung himself wide of the stony cliffs underfoot, he might be able to dive straight down into the river, the great looping channel marked with enigmatic buoys at its center.
Internet information advised that there was a newly discovered Algific Talus Slope in Yellow River State Forest, a tangled octopus-shaped woods located about 12 miles north of the National Monument. I asked the park ranger at the desk about this place. "Talus slope?" he asked. "Those are all over. If you hiked up to the bluff-top mounds you passed over some talus slopes."
"But are they algific?" I asked.
The younger park ranger said: "He means cold-producing."
"Oh, I don’t know about that," the older man replied.
I said that I had been looking for them. "I was down on Dugway Road," I said.
The older man looked at me and squinted. "You drove Dugway Road?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "Is there an algific talus slope there?"
"Don’t know that," the older man said.
"I was at Bixby," I said. "Yesterday."
The younger park ranger was relieved. "Well, if you were at Bixby, then, you’ve seen an algific talus slope," he said. "That’s where you go to look at them."
"But I didn’t see any," I said.
"Did you see the ice cave?" He asked.
"No," I said.
"It’s just on the other side of the creek. Just a few hundred feet from where you cross the creek," he told me.
"It was flooded," I said, "I didn’t cross the creek."
"Oh, that’s too bad."
"Well, what about Yellow River?" I asked.
"Don’t know anything about that," the older man said. The younger park ranger chewed on his lip a little.
Some elderly people hobbled into the museum. They were too old to hike up the steep trail to the effigy mounds, mostly bears and a bird, above us on the bluff top. The younger park ranger told them that the movie about the mounds shown on rotation in the small auditorium next to the wildlife displays was about to begin.
I went into the museum and looked at the exhibits. The star of the museum is the so-called New Albin tablet, a pentagonal shard of polished red pipestone about five inches tall and two inches wide. On the smooth surface of the tablet, a stylized human figure has been incised into the shiny red stone. The artist cut the human figure as an etching or intaglio into the catlinite, a fine, mirror-smooth specimen mined at the ancient quarries 300 miles to the west. The figure either has the head of a bird or wears a raptor as his headdress – his esophagus or windpipe has been drawn as a column around which his broad-shouldered, geometrically stylized body has been incised. The figure wears a loin cloth and it appears that a zig-zagging discharge of lightning emanates from his groin.
The thunder god is displayed in a round or convex case at the head of some columns of ceramic shards. The tablet was found in New Albin, a tiny village on the small, muddy terrace overlooking the swampy North Iowa River, a couple miles from its confluence with the Mississippi. It was 1915 and someone was shoring up the foundation of a house – the basement had collapsed due to the sandy soil and the tablet was found buried in that sand.
Returning to the rangers at the front desk, I asked them if the famous glaciere or ice cave in Decorah, Iowa, fifty miles to the west was part of an algific talus slope. "Could be," the younger man said. It was obvious that he and his sidekick had exhausted that topic of conversation. "Will be 88 degrees tomorrow," the older man said. "Yahoo," the younger pare ranger replied.
My notes told me that an algific talus slope existed along the Oneonta or Trout Run Trail, a hiking path in Decorah, Iowa. In fact, one internet reference suggested that there was some kind of display, a marker or plaque directing attention to the talus slope and advising as to its unique characteristics. I reached Decorah around 2:50 pm, but found that it was difficult to orient myself in the city and that the places where my notes told me to search weren’t clearly marked on the map. The algific talus slope was said to be marked on the Trout Run or Oneonta Trail in Phelps Park just off "Dug Road." The road name bothered me – another algific slope in Wisconsin was supposed to be accessed by Dugway Road. Was it possible that there were two roads relevant to my search with such similar names? Or had I written one of these notes down wrong?
Decorah’s city limits extend far beyond the town itself and the town’s residential and commercial buildings are scattered between several intersecting valleys. As far as I can determine, the town’s streets make a shape a little like a hollow Iron Cross with a tangled wood-overgrown hilltop in the middle of the municipality. Big steep bluffs rise up precipitously from the river bottoms where several spring-fed streams collide and join with one another – the green mass of the bluff where Phelps Park is located rises up over the valley and town like the fin of a shark.
Immediately upon entering the city limits, far from the town itself in an idyllic valley adorned with a trout stream, I encountered signs directing me to Trout Run Road. The valley was wide enough for there to be a few acreages planted in corn between the stony heights and there were pretty and graceful pedestrian bridges over the stream. (Decorah is a college town and kids were zooming around on bicycles on the paved trails.) Trout Run Road ends where silvery water plunges down a sort of stepladder above the old Teutonic-looking buildings of a trout hatchery – from a distance, the place with its castellated tower and Gothic windows looked like a brewery, a bit like the Schell’s buildings in a similarly green and shady ravine at New Ulm, Minnesota. There were a lot of people scrutinizing the trout in the hatchery and just downstream of the aerated ponds, kids were gathered the grassy banks of the river casting their fishing lines into the rippling creek. This wasn’t the place that I was seeking and so I used the map on my phone to navigate through the valleys to Phelp’s park.
One-way streets protect Phelp’s Park and its hard to find the way up to the heights. The place occupies the summit of the high bluff dividing the downtown from the bucolic pastures and meadows of the college to the north. Houses line the streets up to the old park where there are some gazebos on the rocky slopes and a grassy mound with tennis courts ascending to a wooded conical mound. Next to the park, an old mansion occupies public land – this was once the home of the brick manufacturer whose construction materials built the town: there are some beehive-shaped kilns where the bricks were fired. The steep slope overlooking the flood plain to the north is sheer and densely entangled with trees and vines. A trail, the so-called "Trout Run Trail, initiates in a curious stone walkway between two 19th century observation towers. This trail is marked at one mile and it runs just below the top of the hillside, along a cliff plunging down precipitously 120 feet to the valley floor. The trail is narrow and, in places, treacherous and the consequences of a misstep at many locations during the hike could be deadly. After about a half-mile skirting the tree-covered escarpment, the trail dips into a dell, a little wild and rockgirt canyon where there is a fairy tale arched bridge made of field stone and some old steps leading down to the span over the gorge and, then, ascending again up the side of the steep hill to the head of another stony and wooded ravine deeply cut into the bluff and about a quarter mile away. The trail climbs over the ravine, reaches a meadow on the top of the bluff and, then, peters out in fields overlooking a tract of suburban housing. In the dell, I saw a few clefts in the rock that might have been venting cold air, and, when I held my hand near those fissues, I imagined that I could feel a temperature gradient, but it certainly wasn’t obvious to me that these steep, black cliffsides, always shadowy and damp with their depths filled with ferns had anything to with an algific talus slope.
On my way back to the parking lot at Phelp’s park, a garter snake poised to cross the trail hesitated, politely waited for me to pass and, then, slithered away downhill. I looked down the sheer slope and could see a river below, rippling with white lacy rapids, and what appeared to be a broad asphalt trail between the base of the cliff and the stream. I looked at the clock on my phone – it was still about 3:30 and so I thought I would drive around the base of the bluff, following the roads closest to the bottom of the hillside. That would be my last hike and I would, then, visit the ice cave and depart for Austin, about two hours away.
At the base of the bluff, on its north side, water spilled down a concrete channel, dropping brightly over a weir at the top of the slope. The water slid downhill and, then, fell foaming into the river that was undercutting the dolomite bluff. A bridge spanned the watercourse and the lane ended at a parking lot. A flat trail, surfaced with asphalt led from the parking lot to the base of the cliff and, then, ran parallel between bluff and the river, banks about 12 feet above the water.
A box riveted to a post offered a guide to the Nature Trail and its numbered features – this was the Oneonta Trail. Feature number 16 was an algific talus slope. A couple bicyclists were spinning down the trail and there were two college boys debating politics as they walked side-by-side through the shadow and shade.
About an eighth of a mile from the parking lot, the asphalt path spanned a gash in the steep hillside, where torrents had torn open the bluff, cutting the slope to its quick of fractured dolomite slabs. A big sign announced that this was an algific talus slope, north facing and vented so that cold air maintained temperatures of 30 to 57 degrees on the broken rock faces. Vines dangled down into the steep dell and fallen boulders clogged the bottom of the canyon, pinning deadfall from trees dropped from above. On the sign, a diagram showed how an algific talus slope is made, water percolating down through sinkholes atop the bluff and, then, freezing in innumerable fractures in the porous hillside. The deeply cut ravine was impressive but I understood that the sign was intentionally inaccurate – this was just a steep and wild gorge. The sign’s author did not want to casual onlookers to know that the slope itself was another two-hundred yards down the trail, marked with a little post dug into the ground beside the path.
The post, numbered with a yellow 16, was at the foot of a 45 degree angled slope, densely overgrown with ferns and broad-leafed deciduous plants. The slope extended from the trailside uphill about twenty or thirty feet to where the grade increased sharply into a limestone cliff. Some small cracks cleft the cliff but I could see that the angled slope, was comprised of rubble shaped roughly like broken bricks, a heap of loose rock concealed under the tapestry of dense ferns and broad-leaf plants. There were no flowers, nothing really extraordinary to direct the eye to the algific slope, itself not at all dramatic, just a slumped steep hillside rising to the base of the shaggy cliffs. The densely green ramp rising up to the sheer cliff was at the angle of repose that you would expect if a load of bricks were spilled off the top of the palisade and left in the natural position into which they had fallen. The algific slope exuded a faint breath of winter or early spring and smelled like a wet basement. It was obvious that the vegetation cloaking the slope was different from the grasses and wildflowers on the other side of the asphalt path – clearly there was a temperature differential resulting in one type of flora on the north-facing slope and another, different sort of plant-life, more like what you might see on a prairie hillside above the swift-flowing brown river. The vents exhaling cold onto the slope were not dramatic. Up on the cliffside, there were some overhangs and deep dents in the rock, winter chiseling into the slope, but, below, there were no grottos or deep crevasses – rather, the whole slope was porous, a loose heap of rubble.
I had been at this exact site many years ago, before the path was paved, and, in fact, then it was merely a mucky game trail, winding along the foot of the cliff. I recall the grass in the Fall when I hiked along that way as being higher than my head and laden, I suppose, with deer ticks and, therefore, Lyme disease. The path ran close to the talus and I recall skidding and slipping in the loose rubble under its net of green fern and broadleaf roots. But there was no sign, no marker of any kind, and I had walked past the slope without knowing what it was. Even, now, the slope was inconspicuously marked – the big diorama-sized sign down the trail was, at least, 200 yards from this place.
I took some photographs with my cell-phone. Later, I examined them and they showed nothing - some green shadow, a fern curling as if to invite me to look more closely, a shard of rock protruding from a mat of green...
The rocky bluffs around Decorah are sieves and water trickles through them. There are springs everywhere, places were water bubbles out of mysterious hollow in the rock. Seeps and oozes abound, moist moss glistening in the leafy shadows. The town’s ice cave is so famous that it has a road named after it – this is the largest glaciere east of the Rocky Mountains. A river meanders through the valley and the afternoon is very humid. There’s a small parking lot beneath the stone cliffs where the cave is located. Some old stone steps lead up to an alcove in the cliff-face. Tilted slabs of sandstone for a high shadowy recess, a majestic gate twenty feet high opening into the rock. The actual cave entrance is at the base of that stone gate, a narrow cold crevasse that you would have to stoop to enter and that seems to divide into two descending fissures a half-dozen feet under the rock lintel. A sharp wedge of stone cuts the crevasse in two. I take two steps into the darkness and, then, sense the black mud underfoot, and recognize that I am unable to see anything, even, here at the very entrance to the chamber. So I retreat.
I’ve stood at the threshold of this cave, perhaps, five times in my life and have never been properly equipped to enter. The essential equipment that I have lacked is courage and the resolution to go into the darkness.
Some children are hooting on the sheer hillside overhead. Below the cliff, in the parking lot, three girls wearing bikinis get out of their old car. On their feet, there are flip-flop sandals. They are carrying towels as if for a trip to the beach. The girls go up the old fieldstone steps, whisper to one another, and, then, the vanish into the crack in the rock.
The ice cave is not an algific talus slope. First, there is no tilted slope and no mat of tangled vegetation. I don’t see any talus gathered at the foot of the cliff. And the hillside is south-facing. Algific talus slopes are found beneath north-facing cliffs.