Sunday, July 20, 2014

Little hike on the prairie ...

There are a few things to keep in mind while on a hike with people who love the prairie --- like the one Mary Ellen and I joined  Saturday over around Medora. That's the youngest member of our party above and below.

First, the pace will be very slow. We spent more than two hours exploring a 20-acre prairie remnant in the morning, then moved on after lunch to spend more time than that meandering around a small part of the nearby --- and much larger --- Medora Prairie.

But no one wants to miss anything, so every time anyone finds something of note everyone gathers around to ooh and aah. Or just to talk.

And when someone finds something he or she doesn't recognize, everyone gathers round to try to figure out what it is.

In addition, the terrain will be rough and trails are unlikely. There will be brambles, bugs, tree stumps, branches to trip over, occasional mud and a variety of other hazards (wear sturdy shoes, long pants and when passing through brambles lift your arms to avoid scratches).

But I don't think any of us rambling around southern Warren County on Saturday could have thought of a better way to spend part (or all) of the day. In all, about 20 people were involved, some arriving late, others leaving early. Eight of us finished up at about 4 p.m.


Most of us met about 10 a.m. at Hickory Hills Park, a lovely Warren County Conservation Board area along U.S. 69 just south of Medora (a ghost town consisting of the Medora United Methodist Church, a store --- closed, and a house). We returned to Hickory Hills later for a picnic-style lunch in the pioneer barn.

The hike was hosted by Region 6 of the Iowa Prairie Network and Martha Skillman, at 83 or so grande dame of  the southern Iowa prairies and owner of the first prairie tract we visited, was among us.

Principal organizers were the Network's Andy Asell, also our primary guide; and Pam White. Andy, son of Chariton's Charlotte and Lyle Asell, lives at Indianola with his family and works for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He seems to live, breathe and sleep prairie.

Our area of interest was located about three miles northwest of Hickory Hills, rich in prairie remnants. The Warren County Conservation Board's Rolling Thunder Prairie (signed and locatable on maps) is here. The Medora Prairie, 360 acres owned by the Nature Conservancy, is a mile and a half northeast of Rolling Thunder. Martha's 20 acres is sandwiched alongside a "b" road between the two. Medora Prairie is open to the public but neither it nor Martha's property is marked.


From Hickory Hills we drove over to Martha's property, which she purchased in 2005 to protect and improve not long after it had been identified as a prairie remnant, meaning that although it had been grazed the sod had never been broken and the plant base was largely intact. There are four open prairie areas here, dissected by wooded ravines.

In the years since, Martha, Andy  and others have cleared overgrowth that prairie fires would have controlled before EuroAmerican settlement and Andy has constructed a rough trails system that allows visitors to move (in some cases with considerable effort) from one prairie patch to another.

Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens), a prairie native, was putting on a considerable show here, in the area nearest the road.

I was hoping this little butterfly would open its wings for me, but there were just too many people moving around and we managed to spook it.

Elsewhere on Martha's prairie we found dozens of prairie varieties, including butterfly weed (now moving beyond its blooming prime in most areas we visited)...

... yellow coneflowers (confusingly called officially gray-headed coneflowers)...

and a few examples of pale coneflower, also moving beyond the prime blooming season.

We finished up at Martha's without getting to the final prairie segment of her property, but it was 12:30 and time to regroup and head back to the Hickory Hills barn for lunch. Some with afternoon obligations headed home.


The Nature Conservancy began acquiring the Medora Prairie tract during 1996 and has worked since to deal with overgrowth --- including extensive burns in its western territory last year. So Andy was interested when we headed back to the land after lunch to see what native plants had emerged there.

One gratifying find was Starry Campion (Silene stellata). Earlier in the year, Andy said, this section of burned-over prairie and woodland had been a great place to find morel mushrooms.

We moved on to the highest point of the prairie, in roughly the middle of the tract, taking the usual time-outs to stop and confer about this or that.

Although this colorful little lily, known as Blackberry Lilly (Iris domestica), is not a native plant but rather an escapee from some long-ago domestic garden, we were surprised and pleased to find a colony coexisting happily with prairie milkweed along a ravine.

Except for the long hike back to our vehicles, Saturday's tour concluded on this gorgeous ridge with views north toward Indianola. I'd like to go back someday and just sit here and take it all in for an hour or so.

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