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Discover Mid-America — April 2004

Experiencing the breadth and solitude of history

History can be something one can touch and live, not just think or imagine. So this month, we’ll travel to a site rich in natural and human history, Wilson Island State Recreation Area and the nearby DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. Both are must-sees for anyone with an affinity for history.

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, photo courtesy of The Iowa Tourism Office.

The 54-acre Wilson Island Rec Area stands on what used to be a sandbar island on the Iowa side of the Missouri River about 25 miles north of Council Bluffs near Missouri Valley, Iowa. When I first visited the park in August 1995, I was canoeing the river from Helena, Mont., to Kansas City. It was a flood year, and the river sloshed around picnic tables and on the road. Grass swayed in the waves like green, stringy hair. Minnows splashed in quicksilver streaks under a sky that wanted to dump more rain into the swollen river.

The place was so striking that I’ve been back many times since to experience the incredible quiet, the friendliness of park visitors and the opportunity to hike in the widely varied environments of the park.

The place is stunning in all seasons. The Missouri muscles by, a quiet but powerful presence just outside the cathedral of towering cottonwoods, under which trim meadows spread like blankets. Along the fringes of the park, tangles of grapevines climb into the canopy like snakes from thorny tangles of raspberry, rose and bramble.

For more information

Wilson Island State Park Web site

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge Info

Wildlife is prolific. Year round, deer often wander out of dense stands of cottonwoods to graze. Mink, beaver and a few rare river otters live in the marshy wetlands maintained along the bank. Being on the great migratory bird flyway and adjoining DeSoto National Wildlife Area, the weekend visitor in November can see thousands of snow and Canadian geese, mallard and canvasback ducks and thousands of teal. March and April see the birds’ return.

A tent, camper or RV is all one needs to be in contact with such a serene place. But one not need be an outdoor type to experience relief from Interstate driving or the vagaries of the city. The park has 140 campsites, 20 of which have RV hookups. A small but comfortable weekend cabin with air conditioning and bunk beds stands in the middle of the park. Just up from the boat ramp and parking area, a row of pop machines hums at a concession stand, which is open on busy weekends. Shower and bath facilities are well maintained. Missouri Valley and Omaha-Council Bluffs are close enough to provide overnight accommodations for day visitors.

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

Located just north of Wilson Island, the 7,328-acre DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge is a wonder in itself. It is a resting place for waterfowl that travel as far south as Tierra del Fuego and as far north as the Arctic Circle. Bald eagles flock to the refuge in November and December, and again in March and April. Pieces of the refuge are farmed in row crops, some of which are left for wildlife. Deer, opossum, fox squirrel and fox roam the area, easily observed from the refuge’s many viewing areas.

A 12-mile road on the bank of an oxbow lake takes the visitor through the many habitats of the Refuge. Among wildlife regulars are hosts of songbirds that live in transitional areas between floodplain prairie and row crops. Wood ducks swim in shallows near the river. Bank swallows skim the water, skipping in and out of waves, and make nests in steep riverbanks. The hotel-like nests of mud swallows hang in trees and manmade structures close to the river. Turtles make their homes in the floodplain, and along the banks and in the river, including the soft-shelled turtle, alligator snapping turtle and several species of box and painted turtle.

A visitor’s center is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. all year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. It boasts displays of wildlife, fabulous interpretative exhibits, an enclosed viewing area directly on the river and helpful, if officious, rangers and volunteers. Wildlife films screen in a comfortable auditorium at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2:45 p.m.

The DeSoto visitor center also has fine displays of wares hauled up from the wreck of the Steamboat Bertrand, which was excavated in 1968 a few hundred yards away. The collections rival those of the Steamboat Arabia and are interesting not only for their historical value, but also for the real touch of human life on a river that was once the lifeblood of the region.

Boating and fishing are welcome in the refuge and on the Missouri River, affording anglers walleye, largemouth bass, catfish, bluegill, northern pike and catfish. Hunters can take deer and small game with bow and muzzleloader, but must check with the Refuge for limits and hunting seasons.

Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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