Last Best Streams: #1353.

How on earth did that one make the list? I thought to myself, when its number came up. I’d never seen it before, although I’d visited streams in the area, and knew something of its character. Best case scenario, it was a pretty little prairie stream out in the middle of nowhere. But, I could use a post-holiday ramble.

It was only a couple hours away, a bit longer if I kept to two-lanes. Through rugged loess hills and small towns perched on their flanks, overlooking the river. The valley’s wider up here than downstream. Older. A lobe of ice a mile high pushed the river into a new channel ten thousand years ago, the old channel reserved for outwash as the glaciers retreated. The ice left a small river in a big valley, and myriad oxbows, marshes, and wet pairies in its wake.

You can drive up the valley of the old abandoned river channel, given over to glacial outwash as ice sheets retreated, leaving myriad oxbows and wetlands in their wake. It’s all for the most part been ditched and drained, fields tiled for corn and soybeans.

Water doesn’t hardly go anywhere on a native prairie, except down. It isn’t muddy, it’s spongy, roots reaching twenty feet or more, mixing air and soil and organic matter, developing tremendous capacity to hold water. A cornfield’s rooting zone is six inches. A farmer can spend a pile of money tiling his field so rain runs off in April, and a ton of money pumping water onto his land in August, and lauded as a modern agricultural genius for paying-twice- to do what the land will do for free, if they’d let it. It’s wild. Always gets me. I always cuss the corn and soybeans, their fields barren now after harvest, and they’ll stay a moonscape for the next four or five months. Chernobyl’s got nothing on industrial agriculture in the midwestern US.

The creek I’m hunting is up the broad valley of the old abandoned river channel. Estimates are when the glaciers receded it was two hundred feet deeper, flooded wall to wall, sometimes two or three miles across, carrying all the rock and sand and topsoil the ice had left behind. It’s a small creek, maybe third order, twenty or thirty feet wide, and the landscape so flat that from the top of the watershed most everything is laid out neatly before you. It gathers headwaters along a low limestone ridge, likely the valley wall of the old ancient river channel, its top cleared for cattle and sheep. The steeper slopes and draws wreathe the pasture with a few three and four hundred year old white oaks, vestiges of early settlement savanna. Mixed within them are the usual elm, locust, silver maple, the occasional cottonwood, scraggly black walnut. On average, this part of the world gets three inches less rainfall than home. Doesn’t sound like much. It’s largely the difference between marketable timber and scrub.

Topeka Shiner, Notropis topeka (=tristis), Konrad Schmidt, Minnesota Dept Natural Resources

It’s tough finding rock-bottomed prairie streams. Mostly they’re mucky or sandy affairs due to poor land management practices, or ditched to the point they offer little in the way of habitat. Though small, this one is intact, and forested enough to keep it cool during summer. It’s likely one of the last refuges of the Topeka Shiner, a chubby, steel-blue, orange-finned minnow once widespread throughout the central prairie- but they need healthy, small streams. The kind so commonly overlooked.

This one was probably overlooked too, in a different way. Tucked as it is in a small watershed, bottomland fields can only run fifty or a hundred acres, not the thousands necessary to justify the expense of modern machinery. It’s steep upper slopes and rocky pastureland aren’t fit for rowcrop agriculture, remain as small parcels of family farms and recreational property.

There’s always threats- you’re never far from someone who wants to put in a hog barn or a 10,000 unit poultry shed in this part of the world. The occasional drought is becoming more regular. The nearest town- home of JC Penney, its business district gutted by Wal-Mart, is rebranding itself as a bedroom community for a midwestern metro area, bringing with it ranchettes and McMansions.
But that’s all in the future. For now, it’s a pretty little prairie stream out in the middle of nowhere.


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