I had the wrong idea about the Midwest.
Growing up in the Rockies, we had an outsized belief that we’ve cornered the market on outdoor recreation. We believed – I believed – our Midwestern neighbors to the east, spent their days on the porch, Grant Wood-stoic, staring out on a flat horizon of corn fields and prairie grass.
Since moving here, I learned that there is no prairie grass on the horizon. It was plowed under a long time ago and the only places to see it are in academic test plots, restoration projects and really old cemeteries, between the wrought iron fences and the gravestones of early settlers.
And I learned that there are stands of trees large enough to disappear in and sandstone cliffs that shoot out of nowhere at the edge of winding rivers, like the hull of a sunken ship.
This is Iowa? This is Iowa. I settled into the idea as I kayaked up the North Fork of the Maquoketa River.
The three people with me reminisced about water levels from previous years. And hours spent hauling tires and garbage off the floor of the shallow river.
“This is my river,” one of them said, “my home river. I grew up here. I love this water.”
We turned a corner and I saw something I’d never seen before -- wild turkeys roosting high up in a tree. It was the beginning of youth hunting season and maybe they were hedging their bets. But our boats surprised them and they dove off the branches and spread their wide wings and floated away, following the curve of the water.
It inspired one of the men to tell us a hunting story about being 5, “a little shaver,” in a duck blind with his dad, learning not to complain, learning the thing that all bird hunters know -- the best weather for hunting is when it’s miserable. Snowy, cold, cloudy.
It wasn’t snowing, but we had the rest. It was a cold Saturday, barely passing 30 degrees. Icicles hung off of rocks on the banks of the river. It was one last blow of winter, a rap on the knuckles that stung.
As we paddled, swaddled in layers of wool and fleece and waterproofing, it was the cold as much as the beauty of the place that bonded us together. Winter in the outdoors is for people who crave solitude. The cold kept us quiet and focused most of the day, and for a social loner like me there’s nothing more wonderful than the quiet of friends.
Winter beauty isn’t the stuff of photographs and calendars. That Saturday, it was a brown mass of leafless hickory and elm, and that one skeleton white sycamore. A few tiny wildflowers were starting to bloom on the forest floor. They were Spring Beauties (claytonia virginica). Seeing them made me exhale all the weight of winter. They are tiny, with grey waxy stems and white, four-petalled faces. They are the first real sign of spring in the forest and a sign of all the other things soon to come -- morel mushrooms next, leaves, humidity, insects.
We turned a corner, the forest parted and we saw the muddy bank and the stubbled farm field where we left my truck.
We washed some of the mud off our clothes in an attempt to look presentable and walked into a bar called Dagwoods in downtown Cascade. We lifted our beers as warmth returned to our fingers and faces. The door opened for a new customer and we strained to hear, in the distance, the sound of the Maquoketa River as it cuts through the center of town.