Driftless Stories -

Wonder As You Wander

By Kelli Boylen | Summer 2023 Inspire(d)

Wonder is often seen as the stuff of childhood. But setting a goal to live life with intentional wonder can be magic – for kids and adults alike. Wonders abound at Allamakee County’s 8,990-acre Yellow River State Forest! 

Wonder is often seen as the stuff of childhood. But setting a goal to live life with intentional wonder can be magic – for kids and adults alike. Wonders abound at Allamakee County’s 8,990-acre Yellow River State Forest

By the numbers, Yellow River State Forest (YRSF) is about 30 miles from Decorah, 50 from La Crosse and 20 from Prairie du Chien. There are 48 miles of trails, including trails for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, horse riding, and snowmobiling. There are 101 regular campsites, 32 equestrian campsites and five backpack areas with 21 secluded sites as well as a rustic cabin available by reservation. YRSF has more than eight miles of trout stream access, public hunting, one-of-a-kind ecosystems, and is a Globally Significant Bird Conservation Area.  

And it’s a place full of magic and mystery.

Yellow River State Forest Trail / Photo by Scott Boylen

Next time (or the first time) you take a hike there, challenge yourself to look at the forest with fresh eyes. Look at things up close and far away (heck, bring a magnifying glass and binoculars!). 

Study the pattern the lichens make on the rocks. Did you notice the many shades of green? How many species of trees can you see? How many colors of wildflowers? How many shades of blue is the sky from the horizon to the zenith overhead? 

Find a good rock or log to sit on for a few minutes. After considering what lives in and near that rock or log, close your eyes for a couple of minutes. Take a few deep, slow breaths… and listen. How many different birds do you hear? Does the wind sound different as it passes through deciduous trees, evergreens, or prairies?   

The number of things to wonder about is endless! 

If you are feeling really adventurous and curious, think about the whys to all of your questions! 

Now that you are all tuned into the natural world around you, let’s investigate some mysteries at Yellow River State Forest! 

Why is there a fire tower in Iowa?

Iowa’s only fire tower was erected in 1963. The tower – 99 feet and 9 inches tall – is located on top of a woodland knoll in YRSF, at an elevation of 1,047 feet. Although fire towers were once common across the United States, this tower was never actually used for fire detection. It was given to the state forest by the National Forest Service. The tower is now a symbol of fire protection in a bygone era. It is unsafe to climb and is locked to even DNR staff, but you can drive up to the base and see this unique treasure reaching to the sky. 

The fire tower in Yellow River State Forest / Photo by Scott Boylen

Friends of Yellow River State Forest worked earnestly on getting the fire tower designated on the National Register of Historic Places – a goal accomplished in 2021– and hope to someday restore the fire tower, though no plans are currently in motion.

Bigfoot, bobcats and bears? Oh my!  

There are stories that Bigfoot lives in these forested hills. In 2017, the Animal Planet series “Finding Bigfoot” filmed an episode at YRSF. Although no photographs, remains, or other evidence of such a creature has been found, you never know what you will find at YRSF…

Like bobcats! These three-foot-long wild cats have a short “bobbed” tail, and weigh 20 to 30 pounds, according to the Iowa DNR. They typically live three to five years, and mostly eat rabbits, mice, voles, and squirrels. They live secretive lives at YRSF, as they are very shy animals and it’s rare to catch a glimpse of one.

There are occasionally black bears that pass through the area as well – one was struck on Highway 76 near State Forest Road several years ago, but the Iowa DNR says there is not a breeding population of black bears.

If you see a bobcat, count yourself lucky! If you see a black bear (or Bigfoot!) note your location and the time, and let the DNR know! 

Someone told me that there are cacti in YRSF… that can’t be real!

The Paint Rock Unit of YRSF contains one of Iowa’s most unique ecosystems – goat prairies – and small cacti certainly can live there. Also known as dry prairies or hill prairies, this special place sometimes occurs on southwest-facing bluff sides with minimal topsoil. Many uncommon plants can grow there, including pasque and blazing star flowers and even very small prickly pear cacti. Look carefully and watch where you step – not only to protect the plants but because rattlesnakes also live in goat prairies! 

I came upon an area where the trees were recently all cut down! I thought clear-cutting was something that should be avoided at all costs. Is my mystery tour turning into a nightmare?

Clear cutting – done correctly – can be a useful forestry management tool. According to Cody Barloon, a Forestry Technician at Yellow River, the reason trees in a carefully selected area in YRSF were recently cut is to regenerate Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata). Cody says the population of aspen trees in Iowa has been declining, and they are hoping to use the old adage of “cut down one aspen and a thousand will grow.” Aspens face a lot of competition from other trees, so when they’re trying to re-establish themselves, it’s useful to remove all the other species in a small area. Aspens reproduce rapidly from root suckers, forming dense stands when cut or harvested. Often what appears to be a large group of individual trees are root sprouts from a single seedling or tree.

Aspens live for about 50 years and can be used by more than 500 species of animals and plants for habitat, and the seed, buds, and catkins (the flowering spike) are utilized by many birds, including quail and grouse, according to Iowa State University Extension.

Experience the wonder of Yellow River State Forest / Photo by Scott Boylen

I found a tree that looks like someone grated off the bark, what in the world is going on?

According to YRSF Forester staff, that is called “flecking.”  It is a common sign that the tree is fully infested with a very nasty bug called the emerald ash borer. When an ash tree gets enough emerald ash borer larvae in it, woodpeckers figure this out and then fleck off the bark to get at the yummy larvae underneath. This is a very bad omen for the ash tree as it is pretty much doomed by the time it gets to this point.  

Emerald ash borers cannot travel far on their own, but they have spread throughout the United States by hitchhiking when humans move wood. They are one of the main reasons you should never transport firewood – buy it and burn it where you are camping. 

Magic, wonder and enchantment are all around us, we just need to take the time to look, listen and feel!

Kelli & Scott Boylen

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer and a licensed massage therapist who is lucky to live next to Yellow River State Forest. She dislikes writing about herself in third person.

Scott Boylen is a freelance nature photographer and a sixth grade science teacher in Decorah. He enjoys fat tire biking and hanging out with his beagle. 

 Be a BFF for YRSF!

Friends of Yellow River State Forest was established in 2018 to be a voice for Yellow River State Forest. The mission is to enhance Yellow River State Forest for public use while protecting the integrity of the flora, fauna, soil, and water.
Friends of Yellow River State Forest, a 501(c)3 non-profit, is made up of dedicated volunteers and board members. They have invested hundreds of hours protecting and preserving treasured natural resources, raising funds, and making improvements to YRSF. They assist and support the DNR’s mission, operations, and programs at YRSF. They have raised and reinvested more than $100,000 into Yellow River State Forest. New members, volunteers, and donations are always welcome. www.friendsofyellowriverstateforest.org

Their accomplishments include:  
• Streambank improvement projects  
• Contributed toward the seeding of 120 acres of native prairie in Yellow River State Forest 
• Built observation/ photo blind in the wetland area on Donahue Road
• Purchased more than $4,500 worth of trees for campgrounds, helped to plant 100+ additional trees 
• Ice and firewood sales to campers
• Purchased 20 picnic tables and helped assemble another 30 tables
• Purchased and replaced all horse-hitching posts 
• Fire rings for backpack camping areas
• 20,000+ new YRSF maps 
• Gravel and excavator work for trail repair, improvement, and maintenance
• Programming for visitors and community members including outdoor cooking, youth scavenger hunts, shooting star watch party, fly fishing, bird ID, fly tying, snowshoe hikes, annual Mother’s Day 5k, 10k, and half marathon trail run, and lots more. Events are posted on Facebook and on www.friendsofyellowriverstateforest.org. Have an idea for programming? Let them know!