Iowa 2010 – Day 16

Clarinda to Waubonsie State Park: Into the loess hills

Friday May 21, 2010, 41 miles (65 km) – Total so far: 699 miles (1,125 km)

Dead. Absolutely dead. The legs did not want to come out and play today. The normal first 20 minutes of hurt lasted all day today, even though it was a short day. The wind wasn’t really a factor but climbing the hills still took a while. Traffic was pretty light to Shenandoah. It lies a couple miles off of Hwy 2, so I didn’t go into town. There were periods of light and heavier traffic between Shenandoah and Sidney, and I continued to experience Murphy’s Law of Hills. You can ride a flat section for 10 minutes and not have a single car pass you, but as soon as you start up a hill with no shoulder and a ‘No Passing Zone’, you’ll get several cars that will pass you. In addition, cars will come in bunches, usually in multiples of three. I have no scientific way to prove these things, but the anecdotal evidence is strong. I’ve noticed this on other days, but it occurred quite a few times today.

I had the option of taking some more county roads over to Waubonsie State Park, since I had picked up food for two days in Clarinda yesterday. However, I’m feeling done with the Iowa hills at this point, so I just stick to Highway 2. Just before Sidney, there’s a long, flat floodplain with three branches of a river to cross. I time each of the bridges okay and don’t have any squeezes with the traffic. The hill up out of the valley and into the loess hills nearly does me in — c’mon legs, where are you?

Looking toward the loess hills from the flat floodplains east of Sidney, IA.

I decide to head into Sidney to see if I can find an ATM and a library. There is another short, steep hill that nearly kills me. I think I make it up, barely, on sheer will power. The library is five years young and the trio of older ladies is more than happy to let me use a computer. I comment on how nice the library is for a town so small and they tell me how tiny and under-resourced the old one was and how wonderful the new one is. I get off a few quick emails then head out to find an ATM. After resupplying my cash, I head through the town square, back to crappy pavement and rejoin Hwy 2.

This after-thought of a shoulder was a wee bit bouncy – but it was the first shoulder I’d seen in days.

At the Hwy 2 and 275 turn-off, an add-on shoulder appears that is so bouncy, all the fat in my body jiggles as I ride. I stay off this unless a car is coming! But it’s beautiful in the loess hills, my mood lifts, and I will my legs the rest of the way to the state park. Upon arrival, I set up the tent and then it’s off to hike the Sunset Ridge Trail.

View of the edge of the loess hills rising from the Missouri River floodplain along the Sunset Ridge trail at Waubonsie State Park, IA.
On the edge of the loess hills in Iowa. Nebraska is on the horizon on the other side of the floodplain.

Waubonsie State Park helps preserve a section of the loess hills. These hills were formed through wind deposition of sediments during the last Ice Age. As the glaciers retreated, the meltwaters washed the ground-up soil down the Missouri River Valley. As the floodwaters ceased, the sediment dried and was blown and redeposited. The heaviest grains were deposited as dunes that were then vegetated. These hills run all the way from northern Iowa into northern Missouri. The soils are highly erodible, so over time they’ve been dissected by weathering, forming the ridges seen today.

Close-up of the loess hill soils at Waubonsie State Park, IA

The only loess deposits of a comparable size are in China. This area is a bit of a biological island, containing species unique to the area, as well as species whose closest range is hundreds of miles away. Lewis and Clark would have seen these hills covered in prairie grass, the most-recent deciduous invasion has only been since white settlement and the cessation of fire. Noticing that there had been a recent burn along the trail, I ask the ranger about the prescribed burn program in the park. They are attempting to restore the native prairie and keep the deciduous trees from further invading in certain areas. We chat about the burns and the park’s relationship with its neighbours (part of my PhD thesis topic!).

Another view of the loess hills at Waubonsie State Park, IA

The electric sites in the campground fill up tonight, and that end of the campground looks like a parking lot of RVs. There’s kids and dogs and noise everywhere. One woman, as she’s taking her kids for a walk in the evening, says, ‘this is such a nice place, it’s so peaceful isn’t it?’ – even though she’s so loud there’s no peace anywhere near her. There’s only about 4 other tent campers down in the non-electric sites, and I hear a woman bitching to the ranger that they really need to turn the tent sites into powered sites so that people can spread out. He’s obviously heard it before, because he smiles as he says he doesn’t think the park has plans to do that. (Thank goodness!).

Ave. speed: 9.8mph

Max speed: 23.7mph

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