Little Sioux, Big Beauty

Ice floes on the Little Sioux

In recent weeks, I’ve been considering engineering and thermodynamics of wetland plants, nest structure design and success, ice safety, and the global carbon cycle. Seems  time to pause and simply enjoy the beauty of wetlands! This past weekend I strolled along the banks of the Little Sioux River at Washta Access in Ida County. I’ve described the dynamics of rivers and floodplains in previous posts, such as the snarled drift at Snarl Street or a Tale of the Swale here in western Iowa. So today, I’m mostly enjoying a nice walk in the woods!

It was a lovely day: sunny and unseasonably warm. There was no wind to speak of, so the woods were quiet. I found myself in a contemplative mood, and lingering here and there, enjoying the colors and textures of the ice and snow and vegetation.

Just upslope from a natural levee, I noted a tree growing straight and true, despite a long, twisting wound along its trunk. Scar tissue bordered the rotting wood, the tree adjusting to this injury and carrying on. Trees contend with such challenges, as they must, but why is this such a perfect, gradual spiral?


Spiral scar on a tree trunk

Trees have such beautiful forms and endless variety! Deciduous (hardwood) trees in winter are especially striking, with the leafless crown revealing the graceful spreading branches, the crevices and coverings on the skin, and the life incorporated on the tree’s body.

It’s easy to think of plants as “dead” in winter, but winter dormancy is more like “hitting the pause button.” A dramatic example is a twining vine caught reaching out into space, frozen (literally) from its journey growing up a little Ash (Fraxinus)  tree sapling. I’d love to come back in 2019 to see what it finally touches. It can stretch out only so far, and then its slender stem will fail to support its own weight…where will it go?

The river nearby has ice encrusted on the banks, and forms a surface on those portions of the channel separated from the current. Crystals grow on top of the ice in elaborate patterns. The black ice and dark water below show them off in high contrast. Floating pieces of ice slid past silently, gracefully. I watched for a few minutes, thinking about those pieces of frozen water heading south. When and where will they melt? I imagine this is all liquid water leaving Iowa, yet the water itself flows inexorably to the sea.

I hope you enjoy the wetlands in winter—the experience is quite different in this season, and a delight…at least when properly dressed, and walking on solid surfaces with good traction  (please be careful!!). Do you have a favorite winter walk? Why not share it in the comments!

Author: Paul Weihe

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

3 thoughts on “Little Sioux, Big Beauty”

  1. Someone told me that spiral scars on tree trunks are the results of lightning strikes. I just checked online and found photos of that phenomenon. But maybe not all spiral scars are caused by lightning. There is a tall cottonwood on my land with a long scar that I think is the result of a lightning strike, and the tree seems to be doing pretty well since we first noticed the scar several years ago. Apparently some lightning trunk scars are spiral and others are fairly straight.


    1. This was my guess, too. And I’ve seen others of similar appearance. And yet I’ve also seen other effects: a tree with the bark peeled all the way around, looking exactly like a peeled banana; and a big Cottonwood that looked exactly like a bomb detonated in the crown—splinters showered everywhere! I would NOT like to be near a tree when it was struck!!


      1. I’m almost certain I remember reading that Aldo Leopold WAS near a tree when it was struck, and that a sizeable long piece of wood hit the ground nearby (he was in mountain country). I guess you saw the results of what he saw!

        Liked by 1 person

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