Algific Slopes: Secret Ecosystems!

By Aryn Henning Nichols

There’s an undeniable appeal to secret gardens and hidden worlds – just think about all the cool stuff we don’t know about deep down in the ocean! But there is one secret world at least some of us DO know about – algific talus slopes.

Say what?

Algific talus slopes are these amazing mini-ecosystems that exist in only a few spots in the world, and we’re lucky enough to be right in the hub of those locations! So what are they? “Algific” means cold producing and “talus” means broken rock. Also known as a cold air slope (which is much less of a mouthful), these nearly-unknown ecosystems – first noted in the early 1980s – are found in just a few hundred spots within the karst topography of the Driftless Region of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and especially Iowa. (1)

The surface of the limestone, with its sinkholes and crevices veining through an impermeable layer of rock, provides the first of three factors needed to create an algific talus slope. The second necessity is dense vegetation – to provide cool, moist shade, and the third is a north-facing slope – to minimize radiant warming by the sun. This unusual geology keeps the slopes cool on the sticky, dog days of summer, and warmer on the most frigid of winter days. It also allows many species found nowhere else in the Midwest – and, in some cases, the world – to thrive. But you’ll hear more about that later. (2)

First let’s break this ecosystem down: In the winter, cold air drops through the cracks and holes in the limestone, supercooling the bedrock to 40 feet or more. In the spring, melting snow and rain is on a slow drip through the surface and down into the bedrock. There that water freezes in the supercooled rock and stays. In the summer, the bedrock warms up and that ice begins to melt, which in turn makes cold water vapor and of course melted water. Normally this would all flow further down, but because of the shale and slates in the topography, a change in direction is forced. The vapor and water has to flow through these veins and out in different angles – where there’s an opening to the surface, there’s also a blast of cold air! This is especially noticeable on those hot summer days. (2)

It’s the feet of snow usually so prevalent in our winters that keeps the terrific algific talus slopes in motion, but if the Driftless Region had, in fact, been hit by glaciers and scraped clean of all its bluffs and valleys, the cold air slopes would simply not exist. Thus, certain species would no longer exist either. For possibly hundreds of thousands of years, our region kept cold-adapted plants and animals safe while the glaciers took out habitats all around the area. And then, when things warmed up 10,000 to 15,000 years ago and the glaciers receded, these slopes maintained enough ice for ancient species to survive. Cool, huh? (2)

For example, the Iowa Pleistocene Snail was thought to be extinct until it was discovered on algific talus slopes in Northeast Iowa in 1955. It was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1977, and Congress created the Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge in 1989 to protect this and other threatened species, including the Northern Monkshood wildflower. Much of this refuge was established in pre-existing protected areas such as the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. (1)

Although the refuge was established to protect the snail and flower, there’s an entire rare community of plants and animals that can be found elsewhere locally. The slopes can typically contain ferns, mosses, liverworts, evergreen species such as Canada yew and balsam fir, birch, basswood, and sugar maple. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the refuge as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Unfortunately, in addition to species within the algific talus slopes being endangered, so are the mini-ecosystems themselves. Most refuges are closed to the public because of the fragile nature of the habitat. (1)

Studies of topographic maps and aerial photos in the 1980s and early 90s sited 600 locations in the four-states that could be classified as algific talus slopes – there are no more in the whole world! Sadly, one-third of these had been destroyed or damaged by logging, grazing, and livestock confinement, quarrying, home building, etc. The biggest current threats are grazing, sinkhole filling, and invasive garlic mustard. Of what’s left, more than half are in Northeast Iowa in Winneshiek, Allamakee, Clayton, Dubuque, and Fayette counties. (2)

So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along with helpful landowners, the Iowa DNR, county conservation boards, and organizations like INHF and The Nature Conservancy established the Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge. It has almost 800 acres scattered in remote valleys throughout Northeastern Iowa, and is purposefully the least-visited wildlife refuge in the Lower 48. (2)

But there are a few algific talus slopes are open to the public, like “ice cave” at Bixby State Preserve, near Edgewood in Clayton County. Another small slope, with good signage, is next to Dug Road (sometimes known at Oneota Riverview Trail on maps) below the bluffs of Phelps Park in Decorah. The UNI Museum in Cedar Falls has a big, cutaway diorama of a slope and its vegetation, complete with a cold air vent that blows with a push of a button! Cool! (2)

Aryn Henning Nichols first heard about these tiny ecosystems from Benji, and she was all like, “What are you talking about?” But they’re real! And they’re cool!

1. Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge – US Fish and Wildlife Service
http://library.fws.gov/refuges/Driftless08.pdf
2. Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
http://www.inhf.org/ec13-algific-slopes.cfm
3. Bixby State Preserve
www.delawarecountyia.com/backbone001.html
4. Decorah Trail Map
www.exploredecorah.com

Thrifty is Nifty: Driftless Thrifting!

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Sleuthing, antiquing, thrifting – it has many names. It’s been trendy, it’s been frugal, and it’s been just good sense. Why wouldn’t you reuse a perfectly good piece of clothing, furniture, household item, accessory, lawn tool…? You get the idea.

Second hand shopping has been a favorite activity of mine for years. I love the thrill of the hunt. Sure, it takes a little longer and you might have to sift through mountains of bad lime green sweaters and dented bunt pans, but when you find IT, that one thing you really NEEDED (of course), AND you got it for a great deal, it’s so worth it.

But wait! (Cue infomercial voice.) It gets better!

Second hand shopping is – gasp – a form of recycling. So it’s good for the environment (happy birthday, Earth Day), and it’s also often good for your community. When you donate or consign items, you’re not only saving things from the landfill, but it allows someone to get something they might not normally be able to afford. Plus – many second hand stores, like Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity ReStore, or locally The Depot Outlet, donate proceeds from their sales to good causes and programs within your communities and states.

So for this Inspire(d), we hunted down a few favorite and a few new (or new to us) second hand stores in the Driftless Region. Next time you’re in town, check ‘em out. And if you know of any great ones we missed, let us know. For future stories. Of course…

Decorah, Iowa

Rien de Nouveau (that’s French for ‘Nothing is New’ – fancy, huh?)
411 West Water Street
www.fancypantsonwater.com (or find Rien de Nouveau on Facebook)

“We thought – if you can’t beat the economy, join it!” say owners Deb Paulson and Sharon Huber. They’ve taken on an expansion of Fancy Pants, their boutique-style clothing and “awesome crap” shop in Downtown Decorah. Fancy Pant’s little sister, Rien de Nouveau, still focuses on top-quality fashion, but of the consignment kind – shoes, clothing, accessories and more for both women and men. They’ve only been open a short while, but they’ve already had items that were worn by Meredith Vieria from the Today Show and Katie Couric, labels like Marc Jacobs and Yves Saint Laurent, and things ranging from wedding and prom dresses to a parking meter lamp. These ladies are fun and so is their store.

The Depot Outlet
510 Montgomery St.
depotoutlet.org

The Depot Outlet began in 1973 by a bunch of church ladies in the old train depot (hence the name). After two different locations, change and growth, and 37 years, the Depot is still going strong. The large store is filled with clothing and shoes (women, men, kids ranging from just $.75 to $2), household decorations and items, occasional furniture, books and more. And they put out new items twice a day! Director Stacy Merrill says they’ve received everything from motorcycles to stereos to diamond rings. “We have the most generous community,” Merrill says. In response to that generosity, the Depot grants funding to community organizations that might need a little help. Last year (2009) they donated $66,000 to a huge variety of great groups in Winneshiek County (funding applications can be found online). “The Depot is such a great place with such a great cause,” Merrill says. We agree!

Some others in Decorah:
Goodwill, 915 Short Street, Centrum Plaza
Yesterday and Todays, 109 West Water Street
Spectrum Thrift Store, the corner of Broadway and Washington St.

Rochester, Minnesota

Kismet
600 Block, North Broadway, Rochester, Minnesota
kismetconsignment.blogspot.com

Spanning an entire city block in Rochester, the brightly colored Kismet Shops are hard to miss. Part fashion, part furniture, part antiques – the consignment stores are full of great pieces styled in fun vignettes throughout the sprawling stores. Inventory changes weekly and new items arrive daily for both furniture and clothing. Owner Penny Braken is friendly and helpful and shoppers happily flow amongst the fun finds. We loved the variety of furniture there – from Mission-style tables to old-fashioned vanities – and the tin ceilings above the great selection of women’s clothing.

Refashion
321 South Broadway
www.refashion.org

Refashion has been on the second hand store scene for nearly 15 years. Sisters Kristie Moore and Cindy Hughes opened the store originally as a clothing consignment shop, then segued into including a furniture side of the business, and have expanded to occupy one large 5300 square foot – as they say – “superstore.” The store is cute – exposed brick wall, great window displays and lots of clothing consigned by more than 50 area women (sorry guys). And owners Kristie and Cindy have been featured twice on HGTV’s Decorating Cents!

Some others in Rochester:
The Salvation Army, 201 9th St. SE
Savers, 1201 South Broadway
All in Vogue, 32 17th Avenue NW

La Crosse, Wisconsin

Vintage Vogue
115 Fifth Avenue South

This place is aptly named. If you love to dress in period clothing, Vintage Vogue is the store for you. Everything is organized by decade. It’s the perfect place to find a costume for Halloween or that truly “vintage” item to add to your wardrobe. The store is full of hats, shoes, dresses, coats, accessories – even wigs (!) – for both men and women, and is located just off the main drag in downtown La Crosse.

Habitat for Humanity ReStore
434 Third Street South ?(between King & Cass Streets)
www.habitatlacrosse.org/restore

A store after my own heart, Habitat ReStore in La Crosse is full of all things house!
According to their website, the mission of the ReStore is: to raise money for the building of Habitat houses, to sell usable merchandise at reasonable prices, to recycle building materials, keeping them out of our landfills and in circulation where they can benefit the La Crosse area, and to promote awareness of Habitat for Humanity-La Crosse Area and it’s goal of eliminating poverty housing in the La Crosse area. The have rows and rows of doors, trim, fans, vanities, light fixtures, flooring, countertops and more! Bring a vehicle with cargo space, ‘cause you very well might need it.

Some others in La Crosse:
The Second Showing, 1400 W. Ave S.
Elite Repeat, 1601 Jackson Street
Treasures on Main, 722 Main

Aryn Henning Nichols likes to look around her house and see how many things are second hand. She prides herself on her “frugal high life”.

Bike-Minded: Driftless Region Biking

By Sam Wiles

When people commonly think “Iowa,” they think corn, farms and uninterrupted flat land. Maybe even the well-known statewide road ride, Ragbrai. But mountain biking? Come on.

We’ll tell you a secret though. There’s a unique spot in the Midwest called the Driftless Region, and for mountain biking, it’s ideal. Fast rising bluffs and thick wooded areas provide a place for trails that challenge even the most expert of mountain bikers, and the flowing rivers and streams provide the perfect backdrop for a great ride.

Mountain biking began in a more conventional location: California. During the 1970s mountain biking founding fathers such as Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, Charlie Cunningham, Keith Bontrager, and Tom Ritchey converted cruisers and balloon-tire bicycles into human-powered machines that could traverse all sorts of terrain. Mount Tamalpais, better known as Mt. Tam, is where they conducted their experimental downhill riding. They would have the bike delivered to top of the mountain, then would race to the bottom.

Things have evolved a fair amount since then, and the trend has spread. It took awhile for it to trickle in from the coasts though, let alone to the Midwest. Yet somehow, tiny Decorah in Northeast Iowa was at the head of the pack, even though not everyone around “got it.”

“I had literally one of the first mountain bikes in the state of Iowa,” says Richard ‘Deke’ Gosen, owner of Oneota River Cycles bike shop in Decorah. “There was a misconception among not only city officials but people who owned them at first. Remember those mountain dew commercials where those guys were ‘doing the dew’ and tearing everything up? People in the community thought that’s what we were doing.”

So mountain biking was banned from the Decorah parks system. Many people thought it meant motorized dirt bikes producing air and noise pollution. When the ban was lifted in 1990, it was for the first Decorah Time Trials, and riders could only ride within a three-day span, one day on either side of the Time Trials race day. Gradually local mountain biking enthusiasts began to earn the trust of the community, and in 1993 the ban was lifted and preliminary construction on the singletrack trails began.

“[That year] it became okay to bike on the Decorah trails. It taught us something: that we had to become valuable enough to the community. We have done that through a lot of activities, starting with building the trails and promoting mountain biking,” says Gosen.

The pioneering race was the first and is now the longest-running in the state of Iowa. This year marks the 20th anniversary, and fittingly, 2010’s time trials will be featured in the Iowa Mountain Bike Racing Series for the first time, helping to put Decorah on the map for more mountain bikers and leading to wider publicity in general for the race.

The annual race is grueling one, winding through Decorah’s challenging singletrack. Racers do the route in laps, and how many laps depends on the biker’s skill level. It’s different from other mountain biking races because rather than starting in a pack (which would be impossible on the narrow trails) racers are released in intervals, the timer being the only gauge on the competition. Finally, the route is kept a secret until the day of the race.

“There’s a lot of speculation, and that’s part of the fun,” says Gosen, who picks the course each year.

And to make things even more unpredictable, Time Trials happen rain or shine. Historically, it’s been the former.

“The weather has always been bad. I’d be hard pressed to remember when the weather wasn’t terrible,” says Gosen. “But we ride no matter what.”

The trails are muddy this time of year, making the ride more difficult yet. Tires can get stuck in thick, black mud bogs or slide off of what’s already often tricky terrain.

Decorah mountain biking has truly come a long way in the past two decades. In the spring of 2003 – with the help of Gosen and fellow mountain bikers Jesse Reyerson, Jeff O’Gara, Ben Shockey, and a handful of others, Decorah Human Powered Trails (DHPT) was formed. Now a division of the Decorah Parks’ system, DHPT has built and continues to maintain over 17 miles of trails in the Van Peenen, Palisades, Ice Cave and Dunning’s Spring park systems.

“It came out of the need to consolidate a variety of user groups that were all involved with (off-road) trail development, and that included runners, walkers, and hikers. We were all kind of working together but not organized, and by all moving together and working on the same projects, it also gave us a little credibility with the community and the city,” says Gosen.

And no one in Decorah confuses dirt bikes with mountain bikes any more.

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how special Decorah is, but I think there are a lot of special people who live in Decorah,” says Jesse Reyerson, DHPT president. “It is probably pretty rare to have a town of 8,000 people support two bike shops anywhere else in the state.”

But even so, Decorah isn’t plastered all over MountainBike.com or Cycling Magazine. In spite of 500 acres of park and more than 17 miles of off-road trails, it isn’t rated as one of the 100 best cities for mountain biking by cycling site Singletrack.com.

That might be the best part.

“You can do any kind of cycling you want. It’s not just a road cycling community; it’s not just a mountain biking community. And it’s fantastic mountain biking that no one seems to know about so there’s virtually no traffic,” says Travis Greentree, owner of Decorah Bicycles – the second of the two bike shops in Decorah. “Five minutes away from town you can completely get away. Plus there’s enough mileage out there to keep finding new things to do, new places to ride, new obstacles.”

But don’t think any obstacle on the trail was a lack in maintenance. It is most likely there for a reason.

“If a log falls in the path, we just leave it. It makes for a new challenge,” said Decorah biker Ben Shockey. The challenge is all part of the enjoyment for mountain bikers. They revel in constant tests of unexplored terrain and natural surprises.

“There’s also not a one way direction on any trail so you can ride them any way you want. They’re so intertwined out there; you could never ride the same one twice and never run into the same person,” says Greentree.

This labyrinth of twists requires a means of navigation for the newcomer (and sometimes even the frequent rider). Gosen is at the helm of the DHPT team that helps map Decorah’s mountain bike trails. He had used aerial photography in the past and gradually segued to more sophisticated GPS systems to make particularly detailed sets of maps. He has also been behind a move to give up paper maps, as new trails are created often. The e-maps are available online at www.ExploreDecorah.com.

“Our maps are useful for trail users but we’ve also helped the city define their borders, with planning bike routes and community centers. Plus our races and non-competitive events bring in thousands of people every year. We’ve given away 5500 trail maps. Someone is clearly using them,” Gosen says.

And some of those people are also clearly not from around here. The fact that biking draws tourists is no secret. Decorah plays host to not only Time Trials annually, but also The Summer Sizzler, The Night Shift Night Race, and summer mountain bike festivals such as Big Wheel Ballyhoo and The Dirt Burger.

Locally it has garnered some great traditions too. Several area mountain bikers partake in Tuesday’s ‘Night Rides.’ Each ride lasts for an hour and a half, and allows for mountain bikers to get some time on the trails in the midst of busy schedules.

“Night riding is a lot of fun and a different kind of ride than hitting the trails during the day time,” Ryerson says. “It is easier to focus on exactly where you are placing your front wheel, because it is about the only thing you can see.”

The members of DHPT always emphasize that the mountain biking community is a social one. Each Tuesday night ride ends in a celebratory beer. The Spring Time Trials end in an award ceremony at T-Bock’s Bar and Grill on Water St.

“The social aspect of each race is awesome,” says Decorah biker Ben Shockey. “We’re pretty tightly knit. You get to know a lot of the same people.”

Shockey has organized the most physically demanding of cycling experiences, ‘Spring Training in Decorah.’ The event consists of a two-day ride throughout gravel and off-road trails of Northeast Iowa. This year from March 11 to March 13, Shockey and four others rode 203 miles in 48 hours, with 18 hours of actual ride time – a grueling stretch by any measure, especially over rough terrain. The group suffered through cramping, back spasms, and dehydration, all common with this type of endurance riding.

Shockey documents the event on his blog, SpringTraininginDecorah.blogspot.com with photos and daily updates during the ride. He is one of many in the biking community to utilize the online medium to talk about biking. Reyerson operates BikeDecorah.com, a sight with links to other biking sites, biking blogs, and maps of area trails. The BikeDecorah blog, operated by a number of local mountain bike enthusiasts, including Reyerson and Shockey, documents the activities of DHPT. The viral aspect of DHPT also helps connect the group to other parts of the Driftless Region – Northeast Iowa, Southwest Wisconsin and Southeast Minnesota – that is primed for biking.

Marty Larson operates The Prairie Peddler blog that highlights trails in Southwest Wisconsin.

“From a purely physical perspective, the terrain in the Driftless Region is fantastic for riding. Frequent scenic vistas, tough rock sections, smooth flowy tracks. We’ve got it all here,” says long-time biker Larson. “I’ve long maintained that the riding – both road and mountain – we have here in [our region] is some of the best in the country.”

Whether they consider it a sport, an activity or a pastime, for many, biking is more than pedals and handlebars and helmets. It’s about personal challenges, physical wellbeing and communal existence. It’s much more to people like Marty Larson.

“For me, cycling makes LIFE enjoyable. It gives me purpose; it drives me to be better at everything I do, from fatherhood, to being a better husband,” he says. “I want to improve cycling opportunities for everyone around so they can maybe get that feeling that I do. That euphoric joy of being in the moment on the bike.”

Sam Wiles had a great time talking to the bikers of Decorah and the region, and even did some firsthand research on his own bike. He’s thinking his next article will be titled, ‘The Joys of Gold-Bond Medicated Powder.’

Get on the Trail!

In Decorah:  Over 17 miles of single track trails! Beginner/Intermediate: River Trail & Twin Springs. Intermediate/Advanced: Van Peenan,  Ice Cave, Palisades. There are also endless miles of gravel roads to ride in the region, and some nice mid-distance rides to scenic destinations & watering holes including Bluffton, Ridgeway, Sattre, etc. Organized rides most Tuesday evenings for those with some experience, call Oneota River Cycles for more information. Beginners & beyond ride meets every Sunday afternoon at Decorah Bicycles (next to the Whippy Dip!).
www.bikedecorah.com, http://decorahbicycles.com/, http://www.exploredecorah.com/

In Prairie du Chien: La Riviere Park has roughly 8 miles of trail. Difficulty varies from wide, grassy trails that flow around the south edge of the park to horse and hiking singletrack. Some good climbs, sandy sections, and rocky areas. http://theprairiepeddler.blogspot.com/
Pikes Peak State Park above Mc Gregor has a single trail there from the lower upper parking lot down to Point Anne and down to the lower parking lot. Not terribly lengthy, but a scenic ride, especially in the spring.

Harpers Ferry: 8000 acres of the Yellow River State Forest. 20+ miles of trails with lots of ‘double track’. Lots of climbs and beautiful views.

Wyalusing State Park just to the south of Prairie du Chien has beginner trails. New intermediate trails being built this summer on Maple Ridge.

La Crosse: Lots of great single track and well built trails. Check out www.humanpoweredtrails.com!

Iowa City: Sugar Bottom, more info at www.icorrmtb.org