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Merry Christmas to all

December 22, 2012
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

MERRY CHRISTMAS to all of the loyal readers of Outdoors Today. I get many favorable comments from you by our casual meetings in stores, on the street, or via telephone calls and letters. Thank you. And I appreciate the tips you provide that may ultimately lead to a paragraph or two in a future column. Your input allows me to share your outdoor adventures with the readers. Keep up the good work.

JOHN GARWOOD's annual Christmas story of wildlife on the Iowa River is also shared with you again. This Christmas-time tradition is always welcome. Now that we have snow on the ground to make it look like winter outside, his story will seem fitting. Garwood recalled for me, a young whipper snapper as he called me during our first meeting in 1972, some of his adventures on and along the Iowa River during his decades of observations. He also told me about the little lake on the grounds of the Iowa Soldiers Home where he and his buddies would go ice skating each winter. The dam that created this farm pond type impoundment is long gone now, but it used to occupy the drainage area northeast of Summit Street.

Garwood also told of the time when the May Ann Dredge, a floating barge with a big steam shovel turret on deck, was docked near the north side of the Soldiers Home. It had been about three years since the dredge had been brought by rail and hauled to the Hardin/Marshall County line to begin a river straightening project. This was a very sore subject for Garwood, as he and many other outdoors men of the time knew the kind of destruction the dredge would create to the river and its bordering wetlands and forests. As Garwood related the history of the dredge, l listened intently. I could easily sense that this was a man that loved wildlife, knew how it could bring so much joy to a person in addition to great food to the family table. With lots of detail, Garwood spoke. Here is what he told me.

Article Photos

A Eurasian Collared-Dove, Streptopelia decaocto, waits patiently for its turn at a bird feeding station. One of this scribe’s winter Christmas time gifts to wildlife is keeping the feeding station filled with black oil sunflower seed and whole peanuts, plus a warm water drinking station kept open by a special heating element. The birds love it.   My other gifts to wildlife include annual memberships in several long standing conservation organizations. If they have a proven track record of putting money into action on the land to support wildlife habitat, they are likely to get my financial help. Sportsmen and women have shown through the decades how to do this by the purchase of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses, habitat fees and other contributions to support the traditions of outdoor activities.

In 1912, many farmers along the Iowa River in the northern reaches of Marshall County were subjecting the Board of Supervisors to a barrage of complaints about wet land on their farms. Too wet to farm and not liquid enough to raise fish. Caught in a bind, someone or more people dreamed up the notion that the solution to their wet lands was to dig out the Iowa River, straighten its channel and move the water away quickly. According to the theory, this would allow the adjacent lands to drain and thus become farmable. They were looking for a simple solution to a complex problem. The decision had unintended consequences. More on that later.

It took awhile, but the contract for digging Drainage Ditch number One was let. The dredge was brought in and assembled on the river in 1918. Picture a big floating barge with a two story wood frame equipment house, that housed steam power boilers for winches and bucket operations, worker quarters and cooking/eating facilities for the crew.

To operate the dredge, its steam power was fueled by burning wood. A crew of timber cutters worked ahead of the dredge. As the big scoop shovel dug into the land, water would fill in behind the voids. The soggy earth was piled to the right and left sides. Slowly the dredge would float ahead with each bite of the shovel. It was a slow operation. And of course the pathway of the dredge was straight ahead, no tight curves to negotiate. If one can reflect on the Iowa River's pathway prior to 1918, it was a twisting meandering snake-like route within the floodplain. The dredge was going to and did cut through the curves, leaving behind unnatural oxbows of the former river channel.

It took three years for the dredge to reach Marshalltown. In 1921, it was docked on the river just north of the Soldier's Home. Garwood then noted, with a smirky smile, what happened next. It seems that the guard on duty at the dredge was a bit bored with his job. Some of the local good old boys decided to have a visit with the guard ... including a bottle or two or three of home brewed alcoholic beverages. The party got going really good and before too long, the guard was guarding nothing, passed out. Somehow the barge mysteriously caught on fire. It was destroyed. The channelization of the Iowa River had come to an end. Nothing could be done to undo the damage over the previous fifteen miles. But for sure the dredge was not going to travel any further east. Garwood was smiling when he said the word gone.

The Iowa River would stay a meandering stream east of town. Northwest of town was a very different story. Over eight miles of the river course had disappeared! I know this to be fact because I used USDA aerial photos from 1939 to map out the former river channel in comparison to the channelized route. I carefully compared the pre-channelized river route to what took its place. I still have those photos to prove my point.

The River now had no natural flood abating obstacles. Its former curving and water slowing course was gone. Nothing was in its way when big rains or ice out springtime events occurred. Water rushed down the channelized ditch with unrelenting strength. It cut and scoured out more soil because its grade was now steeper and the water flowed faster. Part of the unintended consequences of dealing with a channelized river is how it behaves during flood times. When big rains did fall, which happened numerous times between the 1920s and each decade thereafter, the city of Marshalltown was at the receiving end of vast amounts of water. The City paid a big price in some parts of town with sandbag operations to try and 'save' areas from flooding. Finally, in the late 70s or early 80s, a big dike was built from Riverside Cemetery eastward through Riverview Park and all the way toward the mouth of Linn Creek. Linn Creek also had to be captured between large earth works just to prevent its own flooding, or backfilling floods from the Iowa River. An additional unintended consequence of the dredging of 1918-1921 was its cost. A ditch tax was levied against the properties that supposedly benefited from straightening the Iowa River. Many farmers could not afford the additional tax. They lost the farms anyway. So much for simple solutions to complex problems.

Mother Nature has some unrelenting and an unlimited number of Aces up her sleeve to play anytime she wants. She can make us feel the pain of past misdeeds against her. Part of the job of people is or should be how to adapt to the things that we cannot change. Rivers will have droughts, and they will have normal flow times. And then there will be new flood times periodically long into our future for which we will be helpless to do anything about except watch the high water.

Good conservation practices on the land, all 12,499 square miles of the Iowa River watershed between Hancock County and the Mississippi River, can help hold water on the land first, to slowly soak in where it is needed. Time will tell if mankind has learned anything from Mother Nature. Stay tuned. She will not disappoint you.


I noted in the cutline for today's collared-dove photo, of my support for conservation organizations. Just one that I'm proud to be a member of is PHEASANTS FOREVER. They put the money they fund raise to work on the land. In fact, PF has received a 4-star rating the highest possible from Charity Navigator, the nation's largest charity evaluator. A 4-star rating is excellent, obtained by demonstrating sound fiscal management, commitment to accountability and operational transparency. PF is one of several conservation groups that outperforms most other charities in America. Donors to PH can take great pride it is 30 year track record of doing things right. Now, if only the US Congress would read the PF report, they may actually learn something about money management. I can only hope.

Pheasants Forever has more than 135,000- members, making it North America's largest devotee to upland wildlife conservation. They have completed more than 440,000 projects and have helped create or restore 8.5 million acres of wildlife habitat. PF is a 501(c)3 charitable organization. Now you know why this scribe puts some of my money into a PF membership each year.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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