October 26, 2020
I have a confession to make. I am not from Iowa. Even after 21 years in this state, it is hard to give up my identity as a Minnesotan. And despite all of the Iowa Nice, I don’t always feel like I belong here. People here have deep roots. I live in the “big city,” but it seems to me like everyone here has connections to family in small towns that branch out and twist around each other generation after generation, like a tangle of vines. Communities here feel tight, and sometimes impenetrable, but also safe.
Iowa definitely grows on you though. New memories sprout with each new person, place and experience, until all of the sudden, you realize you have become firmly planted in the prairie! My best memories and strongest connections to this state — its small towns, its quiet landscapes and its beautiful people — have been built by following Iowa’s waterways. The stories and lessons that I am hoping to share in this blog are mostly about Beaver Creek, but I hope that my stories inspire others to tell tales of their unique place of wonder.
If you look at a map of Iowa, you don’t see a bunch of lakes, like you do in much of Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes (technically 11,842). Instead, what stands out are the branching paths of the rivers running southwest to the Missouri River or east to the mighty Mississippi. Each of these streams is shaped by a different combination of geology, plants, animals, people and time, as they meander downhill.
Streams in Iowa (3rd order and above) with Beaver Creek in pink.
I wonder if anyone has ever tried to count the streams in Iowa. I make a lot of maps, so you would think that this would be an easy task for me . . . but it really isn’t. If you only look at the main stems of each river system, like the trunk of a tree with many branches, you see less than 100. But if you start with the smallest tributaries (the first order streams), there are over 300,000 in Iowa!
Another way to quantify the abundance of waterways in this state is to count by watershed. There are 56 HUC 8 watersheds that contain our big river systems. These big watersheds can be broken into 1,717 smaller watersheds, called HUC 12 watersheds. The average size of these small watersheds is 35 square miles. If you drain water off of 35 square miles and add some groundwater flow, you should have plenty of water to support a perennial (always flowing) stream. This means that most Iowans have a stream big enough to splash in only a short distance away. When Iowa isn’t in the middle of a drought (ahem, 2020!), we all have a fishable and floatable river not too far away, too!
It is easy to take these streams for granted. There are so many, and maybe they don’t seem as dramatic as the rushing rivers of the Grand Canyon, as spectacular as Niagara Falls or as clean as we would like them to be. But our everyday experiences are touched by these streams, and there are many wonders to be found in them if you are willing to look. My family lives in the Beaver Creek watershed in the northwest corner of Polk County. This hidden gem flows through farm fields, small towns, past a military training facility, behind the greenhouses of seed companies and though suburban neighborhoods before it joins the Des Moines River, 77 miles and three counties from where it begins. It is a great place to explore at all times of the year!
My family likes to wander down to Beaver Creek in the spring to check out the woodland wildflowers and watch for migrating birds. In the summer, we go to cool off in the water, skip rocks and play in the mud and sand. When I need alone time (as all parents do!), I head to my favorite trail through the greenbelt for an hour or two. Thanks to the new access at NW 70th in Johnston, I can even fit a couple of hours of floating in after work provided there is enough flow. My favorite time of year is winter, when the little mountain bike trails are not overgrown and you can follow the banks of the stream for miles. Having access to nature close to home is what has kept me sane (mostly!) through the COVID-19 pandemic. 2020 has reminded us how important it is to have beauty and fresh air and places to get away from the noise and the news!
I still haven’t come up with a good way to count the streams in Iowa, so I am going to make up a number. I wouldn’t want to be seen as trying to outdo my friends up north! We are all humble Midwesterners after all. And regardless of the number, these streams are one of the things that makes Iowa really special. All of us have a little slice of heaven close to home in this Land of 1,000 Streams.
Now it’s time to get away from the screen and go explore — see you on the trails!
About the Author: Claire Hruby credits her love of water to childhood adventures in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. She is a geologist, a PhD in environmental science and has been a DNR employee for 17 years. If you see someone getting pulled down the trail by two sled dogs, it is probably her.