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Walking Across Iowa To Preserve Its Environmental History

Kevin Mason walking in rural north Webster county near Fort Dodge.
Courtesy of Kevin Mason
Kevin Mason walking in rural north Webster county near Fort Dodge.

Kevin Mason, a professor of history at Waldorf University in Forest City, recently completed a 371-mile hike across Iowa. Mason's route retraced the journey the Iowa Dragoons took in 1835 to survey the land. The goal of Mason's hike was to gather information to write a comparative history of Iowa's environmental past, based on the records left by the Dragoons. Below is a map of Mason's route and where he stopped along the way.

Iowa is considered the most biologically altered state in the union, due to agricultural production. In addition to archival research, Mason felt compelled to get outdoors and see the land for himself, a non-traditional route for writing academic history. Mason shared his journey through his website notesoniowa.com and social media.

Mason spoke withTalk of Iowa's Charity Nebbe about his journey, what he saw along the way and how we can preserve Iowa's environmental history.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Courtesy of Kevin Mason
Kevin Mason at the west fork of the Des Moines river south of Emmetsburg.

On how the trip came together

"As I kind of put things together over the course of the winter and when we talked last spring, right before I left in May, I had it really charted out. But it ended up needing to be more adaptable as I made my way. And part of that was as I started to put things together, and people started to take more interest in the project than I anticipated, I had a lot of help from my fellow Iowans, kind of telling me where might be good sites to try to visit or pieces on my route that might make sense in terms of road conditions or just things to pass by and some of those other things. So as I kind of went on a day-to-day basis, it ended up maybe being a little frustrating for the people doing support. But I kind of make a new plan for the next day after I finished the day prior to kind of put together what might make the most sense in terms of mileage, with weather conditions, with all of these other things that went into the physical aspect of kind of a weird historical project."

Kevin Mason's route along the 1835 dragoon trail.

On the Iowa Dragoons

Courtesy of Kevin Mason
An Iowa dragoon mosaic located at the second Fort Des Moines near Principal Park.

"In 1835, the United States military sent out this group of soldiers that largely traveled on [a] horse, but would then be trained to fight on foot. But they were kind of stewards of the edge of the moving frontier line during that time period. And so as the Dragoons arrived in Iowa in the 1930s, one of their first tasks, aside from kind of trying to keep settlers out of Indigenous lands, kind of keep the peace along the frontier, they were also here to explore and take a look at what this land, that would become Iowa, was in terms of flora and fauna and all of those other types of things, including soil conditions and plant and animal life. — All those different kinds of things came to the focus that are different. So in 1835, they left on an expedition from Montrose to what's commonly called first Fort Des Moines and headed up the Des Moines River, kind of on the ridge between the Des Moines River and the Skunk River. And they went all the way up to around Boone, where they then angled over to [the] Winona, Minnesota area, and then came back, and eventually descended the Des Moines River.

Courtesy of Kevin Mason
Stone bridge at Ledges State Park.

"And as an environmental historian, this is really interesting to me because it's a clear kind of point where we can see what maybe Iowa looked like before the widespread conversion to agriculture. I think a lot of us are familiar with the idea that it was largely prairie and some small kind of oak savanna and some of those kind of things prior to, kind of, American entry into the space. And so one of the things I want to look at was our state's changed a lot. How could I compare the notes from the late 1930s with what I might see today as I headed out to kind of see Iowa slowly on my way up the Des Moines River over the course of this summer?"

On the environmental records of Iowa

Courtesy of Kevin Mason
Bison at Neal Smith Wildlife Refugee in Prairie City.

"Yeah, that's one of the things that really drew me to this, is I was looking at different record sources, and so I've actually been back now and then getting back and going into the archives of places like the State Historical Society down in Des Moines. Or I'm headed to Iowa City here in a few weeks to take a look at their collection there. This does really stand out as a moment in time where we can almost get a snapshot of what this land looked like before it goes through this process of wide-scale change, which is something that I've studied in my previous work, particularly looking at north and northwestern Iowa and where the Dakota lived in Iowa.

"And so I was kind of thinking this would be a good way to take some of those things and some of the sources that we could see read against the grain a little bit, and understand Iowa for what it was, and maybe gain some clarity into kind of where we are now and maybe where we're going in an environmental kind of perspective."

Courtesy of Kevin Mason
The final stop of Kevin Mason's journey was at Mini-Wakan State Park.

On walking through natural, preserved lands

"One of the beautiful things about the Des Moines River is it's incredibly powerful. That's one of the things I walked away from the summer truly believing. And as you hear the different stories people tell in places all the way from like, Farmington and Issaquah, all the way up to like the good folks at Lakeside Laboratory in Okoboji, where I finished the journey, this idea that we can see some of these natural spaces still there. I went through a lot of different state parks on my way up the river, but part of that's because one of the uses for floodplains is to turn it into parklands. I was able to see kind of maybe some of the different things people are doing in different places throughout the state to mitigate the risk from the river. And I really thought that was interesting.

"I saw some remnant prairies at places like Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge outside Prairie City or some of these really old stand hardwood forests and the river bottom in just parks throughout places, like maybe Ledges or Dolliver Memorial State Park. Some of these other places, as I made my way north up the river, really could maybe show me what the long term of that looks like and where some of those changes have taken place. How those places might look a little bit different. But it was kind of an interesting change from a lot of the walking I did through either towns. Like I think about southeastern Des Moines along the river is heavily industrialized, kind of agrochemical kind of area, where there's a lot of change that's taking place there. Or as I kind of continued on looking at, just like even in Des Moines from walked downtown all the way out to Big Creek State Park one day. And that was really an interesting exercise in how we have this well-maintained trail space in the floodplain that allows you to kind of pass through the city without really interacting with certain parts of it. That was another kind of interesting thing that stuck in my mind as I made my way up the river."

Courtesy of Kevin Mason
Windmill and wind turbine south of Osgood.

What Kevin wants people to take away from the experience

"There's a lot of things here to go and look at and see. And I think really what's been driven home for me, and this was something that led me into the project too, is the idea that we can read all about these places or we can see these different things. And I'm glad people have checked in and looked at the different stuff. But one of my favorite things has been people that have followed up with me to then be like, well, 'I'm out at this place that you went to and I'm looking at this thing and I'm trying to understand a specific historical thread,' or, 'oh, this was a great place to go.'"

Courtesy of Kevin Mason
Lacey Keosauqua State Park near the Ely Ford Mormon crossing.

"Or even, one day I was walking between Ottumwa and Eddyville, down on the Des Moines River and — very common occurrence — a guy pulled up next to me. He was in his truck. He had his dog with him. And I think they were out driving fields or whatever they might have been doing that morning. We ended up kind of having a conversation, and he told me that it was really an interesting project. And then he kind of like got lost in thought and kind of looked out and went, 'And I've lived here my whole life and I haven't seen some of these things, these places, but I'm going to go out and do it.' And whether he has or hasn't, that was a really interesting part of this for me early on, is somebody that really cares about our shared past in the state and how that interacts with the environment. And so I just want to encourage people to get out. We have incredible parklands, both like I saw so many county conservation officers doing great work in the state. We have a great state park system and we just have a lot of people that really care about our past here. And that was one of the most interesting things about the entire project, to me, was that I didn't really expect people to take an interest in this in the way many people did. And that's been really kind of a fun part of this, and something I hope will continue as I continue to explore Iowa in different ways with this project."

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio