Friday, October 28, 2011

A walk in the woods

For reasons that will become evident here one of these days, I drove out into Pleasant Township yesterday morning, when the sun was rising in the southeast at an appropriate angle, and took some pictures of Olmitz Hill from the Olmitz Monument.

Getting there involves driving several miles east of town on the Squirrel Road (so-called because when it was paved many years ago pessimists allowed that the only reason was to convenience squirrel hunters), then turning north just west of Bethel to meander through the Cedar Creek Unit of Stephens State Forest.

Coming back toward town on the twisting road --- a little like driving down the nave of cathedral with stained glass on all sides, seriously --- I pulled off into the forest and took a walk down an old road that once descended into the Cedar Creek bottom and crossed the creek but now is blockaded by the state and minimally maintained for "official" vehicles and pedestrians.

Blue skies, flaming oak leaves overhead, silence other than wind in the trees and the occasional bird call --- what a spectacular way to spend part of a day. Selfishly, I was glad I was the only one there and had the trail to myself. Practically, I got to thinking about how under-utilized Lucas County's state forests are and wondering about how to convince more people to take walks.

I'm not even sure how many of us remember on a regular basis that we're positioned squarely in the middle of Iowa's largest state forest system, more than 15,000 acres of it. The Cedar Creek Unit, where I was Thursday, contains 2,000 acres with the smaller Chariton Unit (1,500 acres) to the east and, beyond that, the Thousand Acres Unit (2,400 acres, actually), spilling over into northwest Monroe County.

Over in the southwest part of the county, beginning just southwest of Lucas, the Lucas Unit contains 1,300 acres; the Whitebreast Unit, 3,500 acres; and the Woodburn Unit, which spills over into Clarke County, 2,000 acres.

The Unionville Unit, some distance away in northeast Appanoose and northwest Davis counties, contains about 2,500 acres.

For Iowa, where most land is prized for agricultural purposes, that's a heck of a lot of woodland. All of the units are administered from headquarters in Chariton.

None of the units northeast of Chariton are "developed," but are wonderful for hiking, wildlife-watching and hunting.

The Lucas and Whitebreast units contain trails, ponds and some campgrounds; the Whitebreast Unit, perhaps the most popular, three equestrian campgrounds and a related trail system.

The Stephens State Forest system traces its beginnings to Civilian Conservation Corps days and was named in 1951 to honor Dr. T.C. Stephens, educator and conservationist. Although not a native of southern Iowa, Stephens' ashes were scattered over the Whitebreast Unit when he died, so in that sense he's still with us.

The fall colors have been spectacular here this week, but won't last much longer. If you don't have time to take a walk, at least take a drive --- and admire some of the trees we own collectively. To learn more about Stephens State, go to the Iowa DNR Web page concerning it, located here.


Ed said...

I wasn't aware that Shimek forest over in my neck of the woods had lost its status as the largest state forest in Iowa. But then perhaps it is the largest contiguous forest.

Frank D. Myers said...

I'm sure Shimek is the largest contiguous --- Stephens is scattered all over the place. Well, not quite that bad --- in two big blocks centered in Lucas County, then a third down in Appanoose/Davis.

Ken said...

I still remember my one and only visit to Stephens State Forest. It must have been over 40 years ago, because I know I was in the 6th grade. Our entire class (from down in Corydon) took school buses to the Forest. I was definitely impressed; as you point out, Iowa is not generally known for its forests. Once back at school, our assignment was to write a report about our visit, but from the standpoint of someone (or some thing) other than ourselves. I chose to write from the standpoint of a specific tree -- one of the largest ones we saw that day -- and my report included comments on such things as how loud and annoying the visiting school children were. I don't recall what sort of grade I received, but I certainly recall the visit!