Red Feather Prairie - Bridging the Gap - CycleBlaze

April 10, 2020

Red Feather Prairie

Spring in the Midwest can be volatile, with wild swings in temperature, fierce winds, thunderstorms and, not infrequently, tornadoes and floods. We’d enjoyed some relatively mild weather, but the forecast predicts a period of cold, high winds and snow over the next few days. One of my biking buddies commented yesterday that she was delaying her daily bike ride until the temperature was higher than the wind speed.

Today was sunny, with moderate winds and predicted highs in the low 50’s – less than optimal biking weather but certainly doable.  It was also a good chance to venture out on some of the local trails when they would not be so crowded. One of my favorite local rides is the Neal Smith Trail, 26 miles of paved trail along the Saylorville Reservoir and the Des Moines River. The northern terminus of the Neal Smith Trail lies just 2 miles west of the High Trestle trail, and you can cobble together a nice ~45 mile loop ride by including these two trails with some of the connecting trails in the Central Iowa Trails network. 

When I arrived at the High Trestle Trail in Slater, it was 41°F and the parking lot was empty. I headed south towards Sheldahl, in the opposite direction of the bridge. After passing through the cluster of houses that comprise Sheldahl, the trail opens and traverses through farmland for about ten miles to the suburban outskirts of Ankeny, a fast-growing city just north of Des Moines. It was a bit chilly, with a steady breeze from the south – but the sun was shining and I knew it would warm up a bit as the day wore on. Suddenly, there was a pheasant standing on the edge of the trail, just up ahead. I braked slowly so as not to disturb him, but my failed attempt at stealth sent him scurrying into the ditch brush that separated the trail from the adjacent field. I waited - scanning the brush for any movement or signs of a nest – but to no avail. Moving on, I made a note of the spot thinking I might have more success in capturing a photo on my return trip.

Passing through Sheldahl on the High Trestle Trail
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Heading south through farm country on the High Trestle Trail
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Dust from vehicle traveling along gravel road
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Early season field stripes in an old cornfield
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After 4 miles, I left the High Trestle Trail and headed west on a paved road to Big Creek Lake, which was created as part of the large Saylorville Dam project to provide flood control and recreation in central Iowa. Big Creek Lake is the smaller of two man-made lakes and restricts boating to non-motorized and small-engine watercraft. I wandered around the small marina, spotting an old International Harvester pick-up tucked into a line of pontoon boats alongside the lake. The truck initiated a nice conversation with the marina manager, rekindling memories of an old IH pick-up I had during graduate school.

Big Creek Lake
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The beach at Big Creek Lake. I've been known to stop here and jump into the water in full spandex, seeking relief during blistering hot rides
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Pedal powered catamarans and sailboats awaiting warmer weather and the easing of social distancing
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International Harvester tucked in between the pontoon boats led to a nice conversation and memories of the one I owned during graduate school.
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Leaving the marina, the trail wound south along the lake through the woodland and picnic areas of Big Creek State Park. I spotted a congregation of waterfowl on the lake, but only limited human activity – a few fishermen and the occasional walker, with or without a dog. A small channel connects Big Creek Lake with the larger Saylorville Lake and a series of wood-planked bridges span the small inlets of the channel. I always look forward to this stretch, and there was a big smile on my face as I swooped down one side of the bridge and pedaled furiously up the other. There is a variety of boating activity on Saylorville Lake, and I took a brief detour to check out the activity at the Saylorville marina. Most boats were up in dry dock area of the marina, where a few folks were readying their boat for the upcoming season. Several craft, primarily houseboats, were out on the water and one sailboat could be seen in the distance.

The Neal Smith Trail
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Waterfowl convention
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A brief stop at a picnic area, but no picnic
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The southern end of Big Creek Lake
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One of the wood-planked bridges along the channel connecting Big Creek and Saylorville lakes.
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Buoys hanging out at the marina
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Houseboats on Saylorville Lake
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Just south of the Saylorville Lake Marina, the trail entered into a large campground complex. The campgrounds were closed - even the normal springtime working crews were nowhere to be seen. However, there was ample evidence of tree and brush clearing just beyond the campground. Signage posted along the trail indicated an ongoing Army Corps of Engineering Oak Savanna Restoration project. The project  will provide a transition area between the prairie and the forest and progress to date hints at an amazing ecosystem of widely spaced oak trees with a mixed undergrowth of prairie and forest plants.  

The next section of the trail was quite fun, curving and undulating through the transition area and a more densely wooded stretch. I ventured off the trail down to the lake and a boat ramp that offered a view all the way to Des Moines. Finally, I reached the Red Feather Prairie, a large expanse of native grassland adjacent to Saylorville Lake. I’m not a birder, but the prairie is an eBird hot spot, with 187 species spotted over the last ten years. Another attraction is the prairie maze, where one can learn important prairie facts while wandering through the grassland. Today, I opted for my typical routine of enjoying a little snack while sitting in sun listening to wind whispering through the grass. However, the day was clouding over and there was still a chill to the day, despite the increased temperatures. I made quick work of my apple and Clif bar, deciding that Red Feather Prairie would be my turn-around point for the day.

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Section along trail that is part of the Oak Savanna Restoration project
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Oak Savanna Restoration Project
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Neal Smith Trail
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Neal Smith Tail
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Saylorville Lake - with Principal Tower in Des Moines barely visible
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Red Feather Prairie
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A quick lunch and time to head back
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I varied the route a bit on the return leg – leaving the Neal Smith Trail and passing through Polk City, another of the fast-growing towns located between Ames and Des Moines. Typical of many Iowa towns, the majority of local business circle a central square, usually a small park like space with benches and/or a gazebo. I stayed on roads for another three miles on a paved road, past a new subdivision and open farmlands before I reached the High Trestle Trail. It was mid-afternoon and, though the trail was not crowded, there were quite a few folks enjoying what was to be the last decent biking day for a while.

I slowed before reaching the “pheasant place”, peering intently into the brush with camera in hand. Suddenly, there was a loud whoosh on my right, and I turned just in time to see a big male take off from the other side of the trail. I snapped away, wilding hoping for some kind of shot – none were good, but I include the best of the lot.

Polk City, Iowa
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Big Creek Historical Museum located in Polk City
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Polk City town square and gazebo
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Heading back north on the High Trestle Trail
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That dark thing over the power lines is a male pheasant - believe me!
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Silo ad in Sheldahl
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Old barn pic of the day
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In addition to biking, I’ve been taking a number of walks through the neighborhoods and parks of Ames. One of the small joys in my outings is the sidewalk chalk art. Sheldahl has no sidewalks, but the concrete trail surface served as a good substitute for messages of sensible advice and good will.  

"Spead love, not the coronavirus"
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"Spead love, not the coronavirus"

"Wash your hands. Cover your mouth. Practice social distancing"

"Be a light for those in a dark place"

"God loves you no matter what"

"All you need is love"

"Don't give up"

It was a great finish to a wonderful day on the bike.

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Today's ride: 38 miles (61 km)
Total: 158 miles (254 km)

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Comment on this entry Comment 6
Jon AylingThanks Susan, I'm really enjoying this journal - being stuck in densely-populated southern England, I remain amazed with every post just how much space there is out there!
Are the pheasants in Iowa wild or are they bred for hunting? We have a lot around the countryside where I am as well, and they seem to be selectively bred to be both incautious and quite dim - which makes them relatively easier to snap. I've spotted a few on my rounds - I've posted a photo or two on the "Bedfordshire full circle" entry.
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonI can’t believe that pheasant waited around for your return! I was preparing to rib you for your hopes by pointing out that birds will move around a bit.
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1 month ago
Susan CarpenterTo Jon AylingThanks Jon
Writing about my local riding from a "tour" perspective gives me a new appreciation of this area. I'm moving to North Carolina in the fall and will surely miss the space here - in the landscapes and on the bike trails and roadways.
Pheasants here are mostly wild, though I think Dept of Natural Resources does have some brood stock. The farm fields and hedgerows provides a good habitat for them and Pheasants Forever is a big conservation/hunting organization that works to preserve habitat.
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1 month ago
Susan CarpenterTo Scott AndersonSometimes a little ignorance is a good thing! I think that this is the time of year where males are scouting out their breeding territories - maybe this was a good spot???
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1 month ago
Ria HermansSusan,
Again, we liked reading your reports of your recent bike tours. We hope you can do more nice trips.
We wish you all the best and keep it safe!
Greetings, Ria & Eddy
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1 month ago
Susan CarpenterThanks Ria and Eddy. It was truly another world when we shared that wonderful Father's Day meal in France. I hope that you are able to get out and enjoy some bike travels this year, and that our paths will cross in 2021. Wishing you both good health.
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1 month ago