Monday, April 22, 2019

A walk in the woods

Not to be confused with the book of the same title by Bill Bryson, although if you’re looking for a funny read, I recommend it.

Over the weekend, Banner and I took a hike. Five generations of dogs have walked with me on this particular trail, singly and in pairs, and back in my sheltie/tervuren days, in triplicate. We always took the longest of three paths, a nearly 4-mile hike that winds through native timber to a bluff overlooking the Iowa River.

Trail guides on the bluff overlooking the Iowa River between Amana and Homestead, a few years ago.

Fish weir on the Iowa River
(Photo courtesy of the
Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist)
In the trail’s early days, if the river was low enough, you could see a fish weir from the bluff. Locally, it was referred to as the Indian dam. It was a rock structure built across the river channel. No one really knows who built it. It may date back several hundred years or several thousand. The structure funneled fish into the watery equivalent of a corral where they could be speared or netted. Over the years, the river channel has shifted and the dam is now buried under about six feet of silt and no longer visible. You can see the silt already starting to accumulate as a large sandbar on the right edge of the photo.

I’ve spent 30 odd years traipsing around this timber with my dogs and it’s truly my happy place. Right now the wildflowers are blooming. They’re tiny and delicate and it’s like a fairyland to see a carpet of them stretching between the trees.

Three decades of Iowa weather has taken its toll on the trail markers. At some point in the early 2000's, while walking Jamie, then Jamie and Phoenix, I stopped paying attention to them and just followed my dogs. They knew exactly where they were going.

Every time the trail split, Jamie took the correct direction with no guidance from me. He followed the long, looping path to the river bluff like it was imprinted in his DNA. After he passed, Phoenix took the reins and guided me unerringly along the chosen route. Having a four-legged guide allowed me to wander along at the other end of the leash, daydreaming and losing myself in the scenery without paying any particular attention to where I was going. Good thing for dogs with a sense of responsibility.

Sometimes you can see the trail
Others, not so much.
 The trail itself has degraded over the years due to use and erosion and it’s a bit rough in places. It’s steep, hilly, curvy, twisty and flat with a couple of dicey bridges, which all makes for a wonderful hike. In the autumn, a thick blanket of leaves makes the path indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor. I love walking there in the fall and watching generation after generation of my dogs unerringly trot past the signposts with their faded arrows and chose the right direction without pausing.

 I have to admit, a couple of times I’ve wondered, WTH are we? Did we take a wrong turn? Then Phoenix would look back over his shoulder and give me a “Don’t be a back seat driver” look and we’d keep going.

My walk with Banner on Saturday was the first time I’d been back to this particular trail since losing Phoenix four months ago. I wondered if Banner was ready to shoulder the monumental task of keeping me on the not necessarily straight but definitely narrow.

South end of a northbound Aussie.
Walking with Banner alone is a much different experience than was walking Banner and Phoenix together. Phoenix was a bit of a drill sergeant. We were there to walk, not monkey around. There was ground to cover and there would be no extraneous flower sniffing, no pausing to stand and look handsome in the sunshine. With him gone, I realized Banner is a much more laid back soul. We meandered. We sniffed flowers. And logs. And mud. And leaves. And we still made it to the bluff overlooking the river and back safely to the parking area without putting a paw wrong. The torch has been passed.

Sitting in the sunshine, looking handsome is
a complete waste of time if you
subscribed to the Malinois world theory.
Banner begs to differ.
 One thing that’s always intrigued me about this timber are a trio of Indian burial mounds, which people who know a lot more than I do have dated to the Early Woodland period, about 1,000 years ago. There’s nothing particularly unusual about their presence since there are more than 1,500 documented ancient sites throughout the state of Iowa (mounds being just one example.) Many of the mound-building cultures chose sites overlooking rivers to build structures to inter their dead or to serve as territorial markers or ceremonial centers.

When the trail opened, the presence of the mounds was publicized, along with the fish weir, as a connection with Iowa’s archaeological past. There used to be a marker regarding them on the trail but over the years, it has succumbed to the elements. The exact location was never specified and the mounds themselves were – wisely – left unmarked.

Their approximate location is indicated on the map board at the trailhead and while I’ve always been aware of them, I couldn’t say I’d ever made it a point to locate them. Not to mention, it’s hard for the eye to isolate a specific mound in a timber of rolling hills and glacier-carved gullies.

When we reached that part of our recent hike, I paid particular attention to the landscape. In the spring, while last year’s dead undergrowth is laying flat and this year’s hasn’t taken off yet, the shape of the land is much clearer. I was able to pick out two distinct mound structures that were simply too perfectly round to be a product of nature. They sat on otherwise flat ground just off the trail. (I couldn’t find the third one. Hmm. Must go back.)

Indian mounds at Toolesboro Mounds National Monument
in southeast Iowa. The mound on the right was excavated
by early archaeologists and partially destroyed in the process.

I’ve visited Toolesboro Mounds in southeast Iowa and last fall, I took the dogs to hike at Effigy Mounds National Monument near Harper’s Ferry in northeast Iowa. Those sites are both large and showy. The mounds are groomed, with brush and trees removed so the shapes can be plainly seen.

The ones in the Amana timber are neither showy nor groomed. They are much more subtle. The photo below does not do them justice. The sun was almost directly overhead and there’s little depth of field but if you look closely, you can see the slight domed shape. What made them stand out (okay, you had to be there) was the fact the forest floor around them is perfectly level. There’s no particular reason for a large mound of earth to exist, except by human hands.

One of three Indian mounds at the Amana Nature Trail near Homestead.
I should have put Banner near it for perspective.

The second mound. Once the undergrowth takes off, the site will be indistinguishable.

I’m not an archaeologist and I could be completely off the mark but I’d like to think on that warm spring afternoon I discovered something I’d never seen before in all the times I’ve walked that path.

Thanks for sticking with me through this long ramble through the timber and memories. I’m pretty sure Banner and I weren’t hiking it alone. Phoenix was right there with us, joined by Jamie, Connor and Jesse. Oh, the miles we logged together.

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