Iowa Remote Spot

Road Coverage of Iowa. Click to Enlarge.

Distance to Nearest Road: 1.5 miles
Cell Phone Coverage: Yes
Conservation Land: Yes, Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge
Travel Method: motorized aluminum jon boat
Travel Time One-Way: 
2 hour
Something We Learned: You can hear the drone of boat motors across lakes and rivers from at least a mile away.

Remote Footprints is working to precisely calculate and travel to the remotest locations in each of the 50 United States.  We call this unique endeavor–Project Remote.  Below is a written account of our 1-day boating expedition to document the Iowa Remote Spot. This is our 20th state Remote Spot documented as part of Project Remote.

In Ryan’s Words:

August 28, 2013.  Project Remote North kicks off with a long, multi-day drive from our home in Florida to northern Iowa.  It looks like this for much of the way, especially to the north of southern MO and IL.  The landscape was converted long ago to farms and roads. Can a person or child experience truly wild, remote country around here?

Is it possible to find anywhere that could be universally accepted as being remote within a U.S. Farm Belt state?   We hope so, and we’re gonna find out.

Our plan is to document the remotest locations of IA, possibly WI and MI, MN, both Dakotas, MT and ID–over the next 2 months.  We will be living more simply on–and off–the road while experiencing some of the most iconic wilderness areas remaining in our country.  Our excitement is into the stratosphere…

We’ve sat in a car for four days, and can’t wait to get remote somewhere.  Anywhere.  The irony of having to use the road system in order to get remote is always with us.  

We arrive in Lansing, Iowa.  This is a delightful small town along the upper Mississippi River.  Tomorrow’s Iowa Remote Spot expedition must include  the use of a small motorized jon boat.  We would have greatly preferred paddling a canoe, but couldn’t find any outfitters nearby within our tight time schedule.  We find a boat rental outfitter and set up our trip to begin in the morning.  There is spare time this afternoon to explore the area and find a place to camp.

 

A great city park outside Lansing sits atop a bluff overlooking the river.  We hike along the bluff top and gain a great view of the Mississippi River corridor.  The Iowa Remote Spot is embedded in the center of this view (below).   It’s about half way to the far horizon.  That’s where we’re going remote tomorrow…A big natural view like this in the heavily agriculturalized state of Iowa is a nice surprise.

 

 

The mighty river, although not nearly as mighty as she is farther south, is incised deeply into the local sediments.  Prominent limerock bluffs bracket the river valley on both sides.  The local lithology includes ancient fossiliferous limestones, shales, and mudstones that are light to dark gray.   They belong to the Lansing Group of the upper Pennsylvanian and upper Missourian (Iowa Geological & Water Survey, http://www.igsb.uiowa.edu/).

Much forest cover remains intact along the river corridor, thanks to conservation efforts of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

August 29, 2013.  We get rolling out of camp as early as possible past first light.  But that doesn’t mean right away.  There are a colossal number of  things to attend to before we can go remote, and camping beforehand only increases what must be done.  There’s breakfast for 3 prepared in camp, getting a 4-year-old ready for the big day, breaking camp, packing all gear for our documentary work, etc.   So, we are really talking about embarking at around 10 a.m.  But that’s good enough for getting the job done…

 

There is currently a heatwave in the heartland with temps. hitting the century mark all week.  And it’s hot out already this morning.  A breeze on the big river makes the heat tolerable.  Plus, ehem, we’re from Florida.  Feels like home.  I quickly get acquainted with the boat and motor operation, then we set out upstream into the heart of the largest roadless area in Iowa.

The girls take in the grand sight and help navigate.  There’s nothing like being on a big river.

Here’s a critter we don’t encounter back in Florida, at least not extant, but we have seen it many times on our northern travels.  It’s a muskrat.  It swims along us in no particular hurry, apparently unfazed by our proximity.  The muskrat (Ondatra zibithecus) ranges across most of North America, and even gets to the Louisiana and Texas coaslines, but is absent in all of Florida. Interestingly, I have recovered and curated many fossil bones of muskrats from Florida rivers.  Its geographic range shifted northward at some time between the end of the Pleistocene (last ice age) and now, during the past 10 to 12 thousand yrs. or so.

We enter a narrower, braided channel that meanders its way toward the center of this roadless area, more towards the Remote Spot.  A fisherman waves at us.  We, of course, return the gesture.

We wind through narrow channels and traverse backwater lakes for thirty more minutes. There it is.  First view of the tree island that contains the remotest location in all of Iowa. But how should we approach?  If we approached if from this vantage, we would be slogging through lily pads and muck for a couple hundred meters.  We’ve done it before. Wait.  I see another small river channel on the map that nears the Remote Spot on the opposite side.  I pencil us a labyrinthine route that meanders way out but eventually loops back toward the other side of the island where we need to go…This is Remote Spotting 101.  Sometimes we get so close–but so far away…

After boating through the maze, we score the perfect place to boat ashore.  Right next to the Iowa Remote Spot.

The Remote Spotters gear up for a brief island walk to the remote spot.  We may already be within the margin of calculation error for the remote spot.  The margin of error is 100 feet.  This means that, when we are on a remote spot, we can actually “wiggle” around within a circle that has a radius of 100 feet (or diameter of 200 feet).  A remote spot, then, really isn’t a single mathematical point on top of a set of coordinates, but rather a zone of area within a circle that is centered around the remote spot coordinates.

 

This may be the remotest mussel shell in all of Iowa.  It lays deserted on the beach.  Its molluscan architect has long since departed.  Not sure which species this is.  Almost 300 species of mussels inhabit freshwater rivers and lakes in North America.  According to one outstanding, authoritative website (http://www.fws.gov/midwest/mussel/), North America has the highest diversity of mussels found anywhere in the world.  Freshwater mussels are sedentary bivalve molluscs that bury themselves in aquatic sediments while filtering tiny organic particles and organisms out of the water to eat. Some species are long lived–reportedly living up to 100 years old.  Mussels are a vital link in the food web. They are a major food item for predatory animals such as raccoon, muskrat, otter, and some turtles. They also are excellent indicators of the health of freshwater ecosystems. Humans have long valued their lustrous shell material for the pearl, jewelry, and button industries.  We don’t often think about these things that are buried and living in the sediments underneath the fresh waters of our country.  It’s nice to do so every now and again.  Pondering the lives of as many different living things as we can encounter provides a lifetime full of endless fascination.

Unfortunately, time for pondering mussels is over.  It’s work time on the Iowa Remote Spot.  Turns out that we are just outside of the remote spot error margin.  So, first, we must correctly navigate to the exact spot.  We do this with a handheld GPS unit.  We set the unit to navigation mode and begin moving (walking, boating, canoeing, whatever) in the direction of the remote spot which is marked clearly on the unit’s map. The Iowa Remote Spot is about 200 feet away now, off into the willow thicket (below).

When the unit goes “beep, beep, beep” and reads: “Arriving at the Iowa Remote Spot,” the Remote Spotters celebrate with hugs and high fives.  Doing this never gets old.  In fact, the satisfaction of getting to and documenting a state remote spot just keeps getting better…

We split into 2 groups.  I go with cameras and tripod within the remote spot error margin and pick a place to set up and get suitable photo/video imagery.  Rebecca and Skyla remain within the more open maple tree forest out of sight and earshot so as to not interfere with imagery.  There, they conduct the Iowa Remote Spot Assessment (RSA) while I conduct the photo and video work.

The RSA consists of spending 15 minutes recording quantitative data on human presence/absence. Specifically, one of us stands calm and observes all surroundings in the time allotted.  We observe sights, sounds, and smells of anything of human origin, then we identify it, estimate distance, and record the compass bearing of the datum.  This is an attempt to measure the current effects of humanity on remoteness in each state.  Additional to the RSA, we also make large scale ecological observations.  Last, and not least, we make high resolution, panoramic photo and video of the Remote Spot.  Through Project Remote, we are measuring remoteness as it currently exists in the United States.  This work provides a baseline of information on remote (i.e. roadless) areas  that is useful to current and future roadless area conservation efforts.

When done, Rebecca and Skyla relay to me that they heard the low drone of distant boat motors and/or aircraft during the entire Iowa RSA period.  Bummer.  I guess we have our answer to whether one could find a universally accepted remote area within Iowa.   Although this national wildlife refuge is fantastic and preserves a lengthy river floodplain ecosystem corridor–261 miles long within the states of MN, WI, IA, and IL–nowhere within it has a chance of being more than a mile or two from a road.

Today we conclude that motorboats are a remoteness conservation conundrum.  We did not incorporate motorboat travel on the landscape within the remote spot calculation procedure.  This is because we believe that when a boat travels over water, it can take whatever route it wants, without leaving a permanent ecological scar, such as a road, on the landscape.  Also, defining motorboat travel routes is more qualitative than quantitative, so we omitted them from calculation.  But now, standing on the Iowa Remote Spot, hearing boat motors the whole time, we certainly cannot deny that one’s sense of remoteness will be impacted by boat motor noise.  Where do we draw the line beyond which we allow no more impacts to remoteness–either qualitative or quantitative?   We wrestle with this a lot.  But we still believe that terrestrial automobiles and the permanent auto roads network makes a much larger ecological impact.  This is why we continue to define remoteness in terms of distance from roads (and towns) only. Conservation implications of reducing road building are greater than for reducing motorboat traffic, although we are definitely on board with reducing both.

I am standing next to a tripod and camera within a willow thicket.  It’s hot, I’m pouring sweat, Skyla is restless, lighting is too harsh for good photography, and the clock is ticking.  We have to get the boat back to its outfitter before 5 p.m. or else…More remote spotting 101.  There’s never much time to just stand there and soak in remoteness.  But it’s still so satisfying to be here.

Below is the view eastward from the Iowa Remote Spot.  Sometimes, I get frustrated that we can’t produce more National Geographic grade images, but it’s OK because this ain’t Nat. Geo. and I’m not Ansel Adams.

 

We are Remote Footprints–an American family who woke up one morning and spent a day realizing that we could do something worthwhile and unique for both ourselves and for the country.  We continually draw from our passion for wild places and endless desire to save something natural, wild, and remote for our daughter.  And for all daughters and sons across America.

–The Remote Spotters

Project Remote Fundraiser:  After reading this website, you might be surprised at just how hard it is to get away from a road or a town nowadays–and instantly understand that we must now as a nation speak out to protect remaining public roadless areas from further roads development.  Project Remote is now over half-way done! Our goal is to raise enough funding simply to offset the cost of traveling frugally state by state, completing the documentary field work, and maintaining this website.   This work depends on donations from people like you.  If you like what we do, please Click here to make a tax deductible donation to support Project Remote today.  Thank you so very much for helping us to document and preserve Remote America…