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The best of Outdoors: 2017 in review

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A lot has happened since January 2016 when I walked out onto the frozen waters at the Rock Island Conservation Club in Milan. I wrote my first story about ice fishing in the area to debut the then-new Outdoors section of the Quad-City Times.

Earlier this month, we published the two-page section, which runs every Saturday, for the 100th time, prompting me to look back on my outdoorsy reporting from the past year.

Our coverage has taken us — on snowmobiles, a 29-foot voyageur-style canoe and inside giant inflatable plastic spheres — to every corner of the Quad-Cities. We learned how to build a fishing rod at a workshop in Camanche, Iowa, and about 70 miles southwest of there we documented prairie restoration in New Boston, Illinois.

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Voyaguer canoes

Clinton County Conservation park ranger Ryan Waltz paddles with a crew on one of the new Kevlar voyageur-style canoes in March 2017 at Rock Creek Marina and Campground near Camanche.

We launched the section to highlight the variety of outdoor recreational opportunities and conservation projects in the Quad-City area. However, it has evolved to feature Quad-Citians on adventures around the globe.

Our 2016-17 Big Buck Contest engaged readers who hunt, and in October, the Times partnered with R&R Sports in Bettendorf to launch the Best Deer Photo Contest. As of Friday afternoon, 33 people had submitted photos in hopes of winning a $500 gift certificate to R&R at the end of deer hunting season. 

A few of my most memorable stories from 2017 include:

Walking on thin ice: During an ice rescue training session for Bettendorf volunteer firefighters in January, I donned the department's safety gear and stepped out onto an ice shelf near where Duck Creek feeds into the Mississippi River. Accompanied by Bettendorf firefighter Shane Peitscher, I quickly broke through the inch of ice beneath us. I knew the suit would keep me afloat and warm in the sub-freezing water, but I still felt the jitters that fill your stomach before you try something for the first time.

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Ice rescue training

Volunteer members of the Bettendorf Fire Department stomped and broke through a patch of thin ice in January 2017 at Crow Creek Park during a rescue training session led by firefighter Shane Peitscher.

Man, dog keep boaters cool: On a sunny Sunday afternoon in June, Photographer Kevin Schmidt and I shadowed Tom Schoville and his golden retriever, Harvey, as they pedaled around the LeClaire Canal on a water bike, selling ice cream treats to boaters. As they approached potential customers, Harvey opted to join floaters in the water. One customer called the duo a "staple of the river."

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Hydrobike

An eager pup readies to greet Tom Schoville and his dog, Harvey, in June 2017 as they approach on a water bike stocked with ice cream. 

Anglers net yellow catfish: Four fishing pals in July caught a yellow flathead catfish with blue eyes near Princeton Beach. The 55-pound bottom-feeding fish measured 47 inches long. Puzzled by its pigment, they sent an inquiry to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque. Andy Allison, director of living collections there, thought the fish could be leucistic, which means it has less pigment than normal, but more than a true albino would possess. Because the anglers could not find anyone to take the fish off their hands, they decided to skin, clean and cook it themselves. 

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Yellow catfish

Vietnam War veteran John "Doc" Henyan of Cordova holds a 55-pound yellow flathead catfish he caught in July 2017 on the Mississippi River near Princeton, Iowa. 

Although news of my move in May to the shore of the Rock River in Moline did not make it into the Outdoors section, the change in scenery deepened my connection to our natural resources as well as my respect for Mother Nature.

I spent many summer evenings traveling upriver — and floating back down — on my stand-up paddleboard alongside jet-skiers and speedboats. On land, I biked and hiked several times to and through the nearby Green Valley Nature Preserve, a little known wetland south of John Deere Road.

In late July, I experienced my first flood. For more than a week, the roads that lead to my place were completely under water. The Rock was expected to reach close to 15.3 feet, which should register somewhere in the National Weather Service's top 10 historic crests.

Before we evacuated our neighborhood, a team of us managed to move a pontoon boat and dock to shore. Days later, photographer John Schultz and I hitched a ride on a 16-foot jon boat back to my place to inspect the damage. Thankfully, the floodwaters stopped just a couple of inches shy of the ground floor of my rental home.

Another summer assignment allowed me to venture beyond the Quad-Cities. Photographers Schmidt and Andy Abeyta and I explored a 400-mile stretch of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, spanning the entire eastern border of Iowa and neighboring towns in southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois. We produced "The Great River: 400 miles of the Mississippi," a 152-page coffee-table book that documents our respective journeys.

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Scott County Sno-Seekers

Conor Flaherty, president of Scott County Sno-Seekers, jumps his 600cc Arctic Cat snowmobile in March 2017 while riding on private farm land in Dixon, Iowa.

This month also marked four years for me at the Times. As we dive into winter, I hope to find fresh content for this section. Weather permitting, I plan to pursue stories about ice climbing, cross-country skiing and motorcycling on frozen waterways, among other activities.

In turn, I hope these pages motivate readers to explore outside their front door and connect with new people and places, as well.

Want to help? Send me ideas at jcullen@qctimes.com.

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Jack Cullen uncovers different slices of life for the Quad-City Times. He previously covered the city of Bettendorf. When he's not reporting, Jack enjoys coaching tennis and exploring the outdoors.