Driftless Stories -

Larry Reis: an Outdoor way of life

Ever since Larry Reis was old enough to realize that “people had jobs,” he wanted a career connected to wildlife and nature. Raised in a family that hunted, fished, and foraged on a frequent basis, Larry knew he was meant to be outdoors.

Larry Reis, out seeking the next great photo. “I’ve learned how to do my nature photography by trial and error, 
making lots of errors, and am currently starting to 
experiment with the new mirrorless camera equipment,” he writes. / Photo courtesy Larry Reis

“You just learn that, you know, there’s a lot of neat stuff out there, a lot of cool stuff to see,” Larry says, his eyes lighting up in excitement during an interview that was, fittingly, at the Decorah Community Prairie. “So, yeah, I had that interest. I’ve always wanted to be outdoors and I’m still outdoors.”

This eternal love-affair with nature and the outdoors has been the driving force behind Larry’s 40-year career as a naturalist for Iowa’s Winneshiek County Conservation Board (WCCB). When he started with WCCB in the early 1980s, the organization was just two men; Reis did naturalist work and gave nature programs in schools and local garden clubs, while his director managed maintenance work in the WCCB’s parks. As WCCB hired more and more people, Larry’s job and responsibilities began to shift, moving him away from an education setting. He became a natural resources manager tasked with managing timber in local woodlands and overseeing the completion and maintenance of the Prairie Farmer Recreational Trail, a 20-mile asphalt trail that runs between the Iowa towns of Calmar, Ridgeway, and Cresco. 

But in the last 10 years, Larry has returned to schools, assisted living facilities, and senior centers to do programming and public outreach. He believes he has more than 100 PowerPoints in his collection, some of which focus on Winneshiek County-specific birds, flowers, or trees. Others talk about places Larry has visited, like Yellowstone National Park or Alaska, as he tends to spend much of his “vacations” documenting the natural world. WCCB estimates that Larry has presented more than 8000 programs and reached more than 200,000 people – 10 times the population of Winneshiek County. It’s an impressive number, and one Larry says he honestly wasn’t aware of until WCCB Executive Director Barbara Schroeder told him in September 2023. The numbers are not what Larry prioritizes – it’s the people.

“The most important part is hopefully connecting with people and getting them to appreciate nature in the general sense, and then motivating them to do what they can to make sure that nature continues,” Larry says. “Whether or not it is older folks or younger people, you know, that’s kind of our goal. Just to get them enjoying the outdoors instead of being afraid of it and learning that it’s a fun place to be.”

“This female cardinal is about fed up with winter and wishing for spring,” writes Larry on his Flickr page. / Photo courtesy Larry Reis

But don’t think for a second that Larry spends all his days standing in a classroom. He swears by the fact that he’s “rarely in the office while it’s light out.” Larry’s naturalist work takes him all around Winneshiek County, as WCCB manages more than 20 parks and natural areas. You might find him visiting places like Lake Meyer, Walden Pond, or Cardinal Marsh, or checking up on Chipera Prairie, Casey Springs, Sindelar Wildlife Access, or Ludwig Park. 

“We’ve added quite a few areas since I’ve been on board,” he says. “The Prairie Farmer Trail, the Trout Run trail. They weren’t here when I started, and they’re just huge.”

This long list of natural areas has provided more opportunities for Winneshiek County inhabitants to experience local and meaningful natural areas. It has also increased WCCB’s outreach and brought more attention to conservation efforts.

“I think just having people in the county realize that natural resources are important… it’s been big,” Larry says. 

The lead wave of 250 greater white-fronted geese that were spiraling down to land on the ice at Cardinal Marsh. / Photos courtesy Larry Reis

As he travels from place to place, Larry’s always sure to have a camera with him. Just as his role with WCCB has evolved, his camera has too. He started taking nature pictures in college with an old-school film camera. He couldn’t afford the larger telephoto lenses that were used at the time to photograph birds and animals, so he took photos of trees, leaves, and plants to start.

“You can get better photos with a cellphone now than I could probably with a good camera, back years ago,” Larry says. “But now, I’ve got really top-notch cameras.”

In 2014, Larry started a Flickr page to share the daily nature photos he shoots with those “top-notch cameras,” and his profile has since received 16.1 million views. He initially hoped the Flickr account would act as a “phenology calendar,” so locals could check in and see what’s happening daily in Winneshiek County, but Larry says that he’s received the most attention from out-of-state users. He created the page for two reasons: first, so other conservation organizations that aren’t “loaded with cash” could download his photos and use them free of charge, and second, simply because Larry finds the photos to be “neat.”

“I took this photo with the sole purpose of using it in a program about the joy we can get feeding and watching birds in our back yard,” writes Larry on his Flickr page. “However, when I blew it up on the computer screen, I thought it might be fun to share. You can make up your own mind about what these two northern cardinals might be saying.” / All photos courtesy Larry Reis

His favorite thing to take a photo of in Winneshiek County? Too hard to answer, because it changes on the day. One day, it’s a Red-Breasted Nuthatch, and the next day, a Purple Finch. Larry takes photos of anything he finds to be interesting; he does say, however, that he prefers birds because of their “personality.”

“Anybody can take a picture of a pretty flower because it doesn’t move and it can be there for like a week – but a bird, they’re here for like two seconds and then they’re gone,” he says. “That chance is never gonna come again. It’s kind of fun to try and capture them, and usually if I’m out there photographing birds, I’m looking to try and get them doing a really pretty pose.”

While Larry appreciates his job and recognizes the growth in awareness of conservation efforts in Winneshiek County, he still believes that there’s more to be done. He believes there are many areas in the county that could and should be protected, especially along watersheds like the Upper Iowa and Turkey Rivers. It’s hard, he says, to lose some “wonderful” areas in the county that should have been protected.

“One of the best prairies in Iowa was on private property, and it’s now a cornfield,” Larry says. “WCCB tried to purchase it; we were outbid. It’s gone. I’ve seen woodlands, you know, disappear – nice woodlands that are totally gone now.”

“I was trying to get the perfect photo of a twelve-spotted skimmer in flight when this great egret ran in and ruined the shot,” Larry jokingly writes on his Flickr page. Follow him at flic.kr/ps/2ShLqY

But Larry is not discouraged and believes there’s still time for natural areas to be preserved – by voting, by fundraising, and by good old-fashioned word of mouth.

“We’re lucky to live in an area where people appreciate what they’ve got,” Larry says. “In some parts of Iowa, that’s not the case.”

Larry also knows the next generation of naturalists, biologists, and wildlife explorers is needed soon, and encourages anyone interested in anything remotely connected to the outdoors to pursue a career in conservation. He has no regrets doing so himself.

“I got my Iowa pension plan for public employees, and I could get Medicare or whatever and live a comfortable life,” Larry says. “But I like what I do, and it’s very, very rewarding. I wake up every morning looking forward to the next day. I don’t know how many people can say that in their jobs.”

Peter Heryla

Peter Heryla is a senior Communication Studies major and Journalism minor at Luther College. He had a variety of fun adventures with Larry Reis during an Environmental Science course at Luther in Spring 2023. In the winter, he likes to spend time with family and friends — and of course, his corgi.