Dan Kaercher learns that nothing puts our busy 21st century life into perspective more than floating a river, observing nature and learning a little about those who inhabited Iowa before us.
This wetland complex used to be part of the Mississippi River and its floodplain. It was also cropland at one time. Today it is managed for wildlife habitat and humans are welcome to visit too.
I'm at one of the canoe access points on the southern most part of this 6,400 acre Odessa Wildlife Complex. The Louisa County Conservation Board invited a few friends to go paddling and lined up a canoe partner for me. She is Katie Hammond, a naturalist with the conservation board.
Katie Hammond: We are on the Odessa Wildlife Management area and although a lot of the locals call it Lake Odessa it is actually more of a wetland area. It is connected to the Mississippi River on both the north and south ends by some drainage tubes. The biggest thing about coming out here when it is being managed for the wildlife and the migrating birds is that it does get shallow. So we can navigate it easily with canoe all year long.
Hammond: There's actually a turtle on the log to your right if you look to the right, right now.
Kaercher: I'm missing it.
Hammond: Can you see it? It blends in, it's wonderfully camouflaged with the mud on its back.
Kaercher: Oh yeah, I do see it. Yeah.
Hammond: Right up to your left there is a beaver lodge right on the point.
Hammond: And then further in you can see the lily pads from the lotus plants.
Kaercher: They're gigantic.
Hammond: The kids that I bring out here on the lake like to make hats out of these.
It's a relaxing flatwater paddle. With virtually no current it is easy to stop, turn around and get a closer look at some of our surroundings.
Hammond: Oh, there's some fresh beaver chews to the left. You see where the wood is real light?
Kaercher: We're getting a few sprinkles but it still seems like a lot of fun.
We had a little rain off and on during our paddle, but it certainly didn't dampen anyone's spirits.
Sherry Humphreys: This was my first time out here and it was absolutely wonderful. Even in the rain it was a wonderful experience.
Steve Blodgett: You can get back in real tight areas here and there's trails through the woods that you can just barely get a kayak through that's pretty interesting to see sometimes.
Bob Brissey: When the water is high in the rivers you've got some place you can go, you've got a lot of different trails. It's 6,400 acres and you can get lost anywhere you want to in this lake.
All these wonderful comments should be music to the ears of Julie Ohde, executive director of the conservation board. She worked for years with many other organizations and volunteers to establish a water trail system here.
Julie Ohde: A water trail is about giving people information on how to find the accesses, how to find their way around and what they might see when they are out there. We saw that paddling was starting to get popular in Iowa. Hey, we should have a water trail out here. So, we decided to apply for some grant money through the DNR's water trail grant program and we got some money to do the brochures and the mapping and the signs.
All the information provided did help make this voyage on the water a very simple pleasure indeed. And if you're up for it after the paddling trip, nearby is another attraction. In tiny Toolesboro there are burial mounds and other remnants of a culture that existed here thousands of years ago.
Kathy Dice: We believe the mounds were built about 2,000 years ago, about the time when Christ was walking around the shores of Galilee. And they were built probably over maybe even 100 year span. People who were living in village site we believe down below in the river valley would carry up the baskets of dirt up the bluff to make these mounds. And we know that because when they looked at the dirt in the mounds it was river dirt.
Kaercher: Tell me a little bit about the Indians that built the mounds and how they got here.
Dice: Well, we don't know a whole lot about them because most of what we know about them are from the artifacts we took out of the burial mounds. But it's a part from what we saw in there we called them the Hopewellians and it was part of a culture that seemed to be widespread across the Midwest.
Much more can be seen and learned about the Hopewell culture at the museum adjacent to the mounds. Even if the museum isn't open, there are plenty of interpretive signs outside.
They were also finding beautiful pottery --
In fact, it was shear luck on the part of two travelers from Germany who stopped by when they did since our tour guide Kathy would not normally have been here today.
Alois Mumhofer: We have never heard about this place, we just happened to pass by and saw the sign which said historical marker, some mounds and we thought that would be interesting.
These mounds, which are a designated national historic landmark, lure many passersby like the Mumhofers because they are located along the ten state, 3,000 mile long Great Mississippi River Road. So here's hoping you get to experience southeast Iowa's unique historic treasures and sample the wonders of nature in the area's fantastic wildlife complex.