Rollin’ on the River

DSC_0020Let’s talk about The Big Muddy, The Mother of Waters, The mighty Miss…in other words, the Mississippi River. Steeped in history, vital to our Nation’s commerce and defense, and the eastern border of the State of Iowa. We’ve visited the river before on our 99wetlands journey, such as when we thought about how the river threatens the remarkable burial mounds of Native American/First Peoples. We pondered the river’s role in The War of 1812 which indirectly led to Federal protection of wetlands. In this blog entry, we visit the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish refuge. It is nothing short of remarkable: a migratory bird flyway of global significance, a Ramsar site, a vast watery complex spread across four States (Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin…and of course, Iowa) and absolutely huge, encompassing nearly a quarter-million acres (100000 hectares).

Obviously, that’s way too much area to properly explore in this short post. I will provide a brief glimpse by way of my visit to a couple sites in Jackson County. However, if you ever have the time…a nice drive along the Great River Road, or even a cruise on the water itself, would be an amazing adventure!




My first stop was the town of Sabula, Iowa’s only island-city; it was completely surrounded by the river when navigation and flood control improvements (lock-and-dam system) was installed in the first half of the 20th century. This short video by canoeists on a Mississippi River voyage is fun, and shows a bit of the town. It is small, and bordered by water and wetlands, including Refuge property. I chatted up a local resident who made the whole “island life” thing seem rather ordinary; perhaps because highway bridges connect to both Illinois and Iowa, it’s not really so isolated. She did confirm that many tourists come through, and that some are interested in the wildlife in the wetlands. Plenty of opportunities to fish, photograph, hunt, and just enjoy the water, including as docks, jetties, and picnic sites.

If you look at aerial imagery, or a map, you quickly understand that the wide floodplain is a mix of small islands representing sand or gravel bars forming the braided channel on the floodplain. Some islands are treed, others covered in marsh vegetation, others may be bare mud. The water levels and ecology of the system are dynamic, representing the combined action of the river flow (coming down from Minnesota, and the many tributaries feeding the river) as influenced…more or less regulated…by the series of Locks & Dams, each dam forming a pool. So, in fact, this is now less a river, and more a series of reservoirs.

It’s definitely a working system. The locks allow commercial traffic, most notably the barges joined together en masse and pushed along by tugs, mile after mile. House boats, speedboats, patrol craft, even replicas of old-time riverboats (see photo above). Along the river is a really busy rail line and numerous sidings and yards, and modes of rail/shipping combined facilities.

DSC_0011Among it all, fish swim, birds fly, and life goes on. The backwaters and island swamps and marshes in particular teem with wildlife. A great place to watch is just north of Sabula, at Green Island Wildlife Management Area. The drive up from Sabula offers twisting roads with elevation changes; at times you get a glimpse out over the floodplain. Driving down into Green Island WMA is like entering a major river delta, or vast glades. I saw birds like Common Gallinule among beautiful lush vegetation. Egrets and swans hid out in the Hibiscus, Lotus, Smartweeds, and Buttonbush. It’s a spectacular wetland wonderland.

These wetlands, and the organisms living there, are intimately connected to the river. This is true every day of course, but dramatically so during significant floods, most recently in 1993 or 2008 when this area would have been inundated: the peak flood stage was 22.5 feet and 21.5 feet, in those respective years. But these marshes are well-adapted to floods. Our cities? Not so much. Unfortunately, evidence suggests the floods are worse, and more frequent, with about 75% of the increase due to human alterations of the river. It’s worth remembering that wetlands help absorb floodwaters, and even help lessen downstream flooding, a fact I’ve discussed numerous times already in this blog.DSC_0007

But today, I drive along the roads in the floodplain, among the marshes, yet dry and passable. I climb the rise above the floodplain, looking back at striking views. It’s a treat to see the river and its wetlands from bridges and bluffs and twisting roads. It’s truly a journey through a unique landscape: a working industrial waterway with barges passing by and trains and docks and industry; wildlife flying and swimming all around; verdant islands and marshes; and of course, a wide, rolling river…one of the world’s greatest. Come visit some time.


Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

2 thoughts on “Rollin’ on the River”

  1. This is just a side note. I certainly agree that the Upper Mississippi Refuge is absolutely huge by Iowa standards, at a quarter million acres. In Iowa, when I hear about a piece of public land of a thousand acres or more, I’m impressed.

    But that’s because after forty years in Iowa, I’ve adjusted to Iowa’s tiny public-land expectations. Yellowstone National Park has more than two million acres. Death Valley National Park has more than three million acres, and one national park in Alaska has seven million acres.

    Closer to Iowa, my home state of Michigan has several national forests (that include lots of wetland acres), and one of those forests has more than half a million acres. Illinois has a national forest with almost 300,000 acres.

    Iowa will never have large amounts of public conservation land. But we could and should acquire more than we have now, even if certain interest groups keep fighting tooth and nail against it.


    1. Glad you bring up this point. I agree 100% of course. I’d further suggest that a State with more than 90% of its wetlands removed, REALLY should take good care of what’s left. We have lots of work to do…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: