Maquoketa Caves and Wild Cat Den state parks are, to me, two of the most interesting in the state. We're lucky to be within easy driving distance to explore real caves, hike cliffs and visit historic structures.

So I was happy to read that both were selected for a '20 Artists, 20 Parks' program that will be one of the activities celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Iowa park system in 2020.

The program sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Arts Council and Iowa State University pairs artists with parks to create works reflecting the unique attributes of their specific park. All artists, chosen through a selection process, are faculty members or graduate students at Iowa State.

When finished, the works will be organized into an exhibit that will travel to at least three venues across the state in 2020. Also, the artists will return to their respective parks for at least one program about their artist-in-residence experience, also in 2020.

Kristen Greteman, of Ames, visited Wild Cat Den the weekend of May 11-12.

Brent Holland, of Des Moines, plans to visit Maquoketa Caves the first week in June, so if any of you readers are up there, look around, or ask for him, and you can watch him sketch on-site. "I'm sociable and like to talk to people who are interested," Holland said in an email.

Neither artist had ever been to either park, so they had a "clean slate" experience.

Greteman is what she calls a 'deep mapper.' That means, she explained in an email, that she takes "the many different types of information about a place ... and combine(s) the information into one piece of art.  I was inspired by the different layers of history and natural areas.

"My media are analog photography and printmaking. My final piece will include the mill history, natural history, wildlife, ecosystems, memories, and stories about the park. The entire piece will be like a mobile with the different types of information organized into layers."

Iowa's park system began 100 years ago when Backbone State Park was dedicated on May 28, 1920, and has grown to encompass more than 70 parks and forests across the state, according to a news release.

Parks selected for the project represent diverse ecological, geological and cultural experiences that make Iowa unique.

In addition to our two, they include Lake McBride State Park, Solon; Mines of Spain, Dubuque; Pikes Peak, McGregor; and Yellow River State Forest, Harpers Ferry.

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McCLELLAN HEIGHTS: As a P.S., I'd like to note that Davenport might have been the site of the state's first park around the turn of the 19th century, but the area suggested became the McClellan Heights housing subdivision instead, with just a little carved out for Lindsay Park.

Championing the state park proposal was John H. MacBride, a conservationist and chairman of the botany department at the University of Iowa, but he lost out.

The area had been the site of Camp McClellan, a Union Army training camp named after Gen. George B. McClellan, the onetime Union Army commander. It was there that 45 of 48 regiments raised in Iowa during the Civil War trained for battle. 

The area also was the site of an Indian prison called Camp Kearney where about 265 Dakota Sioux prisoners, along with 16 Dakota women and two children, were brought after a bloody, six-week uprising in Minnesota in 1862.

During their time here, the Dakota endured bitter cold, a lack of food and chronic illness and, by one estimate, 120 of them died. Some of their remains have been repatriated, but others are still believed buried in the area.

BACKBONE: So instead of Davenport's McClellan, Backbone State Park in northeast Delaware County became the first state park, dedicated in 1920. It is named for the steep and narrow ridge of bedrock cut by a loop of the Maquoketa River and forming the highest point in northeast Iowa: the Devil's Backbone.

Visitors can bike, boat, camp, climb, fish, hike, picnic and visit a Civilian Conservation Corps Museum.

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