|Lacey Lake at the dam, the ice settling in|
Saturday, December 21
For twenty-one years I had commuted on Highway 1 to Keosauqua Junior-Senior High School, and now I was traveling it again on the last day of fall, driving the half-hour journey with the Green Goddess towed behind, traveling again to Lacey-Keosauqua State Park to camp for three nights, welcoming the winter season, snow on the ground even as warmer weather swept in from the south. I enjoyed the easy drive on the state highway through fields and farms, a route where one could sight deer, turkeys, eagles . . . and cattle, horses, and goats, not to mention corn and beans during the growing season.
The roads to the park had been clear of snow with just patches remaining where the low-lying winter sun had trouble reaching. When I entered the campground, however, all the roads were still snow-covered, the main, outer perimeter road lined with tired tracks. As I dropped to the bottom of the lower campground, I realized the inner campsite loop that bisected the outer oval loop hadn't yet been driven on. It was still untouched, the entire inner area of the campground a beautiful blanket of snow, although only a couple of inches deep. Turning onto the middle route to gain a campsite, I checked some early sites, thinking they might have better sun, but because they were completely covered with snow, I chose the site at the crest of the hill which I'd camped in a month earlier. Having received more sunlight, the gravel area was free of snow, which would provide a cleaner, drier camp for me.
|First to drive this loop since the snow!|
The site is a drive-through, and this time I hit it just right, finding the trailer completely level. I stayed hooked up, filled out the registration form, and when I went to post it was surprised to find a registration form already in the security slot--mine from a month earlier! Not much turnover in the park during the off season!
Iowa is not a state where the weather makes winter camping easy. Usually this time of year I am happily reading or writing at home, sitting beside my woodstove. As I've said before, though, my tiny trailer has access to a heater if there's electricity, and since there are no liquid systems, there's no need to winterize. The temperatures for the next three days will be between 30-50 degrees, so I'm really enjoying early fall weather in late fall.
After a big lunch, I launched off on an early afternoon walk. With dark arriving early, there was no time to waste. The park had an aura of remoteness to it--not abandoned but a sense of being further removed from people than it should have felt. The animals were more casual or perhaps just more undiminished by the hustle and bustle of civilization, even though cars still drove by on the park's main road. An eagle flew overhead, arcing across my path during my hike. Squirrels barked nearby, and a woodpecker hammered for insects in the forest down by the lake. My walk wasn't for a long time, around an hour, but it was long enough for my senses to absorb the earth colors and sky colors, the smell of leaf mulch and the sound of the wind in the bare limbs of the trees.
|Snow clings to the north slopes|
A flock of geese soared overhead as I headed back to camp to light a fire. Deciding to neglect my laptop, I opened my daybook and wrote these words as the sun lowered in the west to the horizon. I set my daybook on the camp chair beside the fire and cooked a simple dinner of steamed vegetables, almond butter, and chapatis. Making tea, I sat down in the gloaming, settling into the moment, realizing that I had nothing to do, that I could sit as long as I wanted to. Three different species of birds flitted in the trees nearby. They chittered and chirped as I alternatively wrote, enjoyed the warmth of the fire, and just took in the moment. The fire settled to embers, and the day settled to evening and silence. Winter etched its cold, stark beauty on the sky as tree limbs were silhouetted against the darkening sky. In the east, the first stars lit the sky. Seven swans flew overhead, high enough to still be lit by the sun, brilliant white against the purpling western sky. Then they were gone, passing into the silence, wending their way to winter.
Just sitting, watching the stars pierce the sky, the fire burned low but still radiating its glowing heat, I realized I hadn't been inside the trailer hardly at all. It has been so enjoyable outside, I just hadn't wanted to go in, "alone but not lonely," as I had written about in an earlier article. What a perfect first day of camping!
Sunday, December 22
The hike began late, perhaps because the sun was also late getting going, perhaps because I was just not needing to hurry. Because of my late start, I decided to walk around the lake, a shorter hike than down and along the Des Moines River. The sun shining more brightly today, I set myself two goals: to find and photograph more color, and for variety to circle the lake in the opposite direction than I have done in the past. A little color and a little novelty.
My heart lifted as I took to the trail among the trees, for overhead three swans passed, a vee of white beauty, their long necks stretching toward their destination. I walked slowly, for the weather had warmed and the slushy snow and wet leaves created a slippery route on the climbs and descents. I was in no rush, though, and the slow and deliberate pace matched my mood. The new direction of my travel did provide new perspectives, the geography the same but the vistas different. I also discovered that color in the winter Midwest forest was largely uniform, a landscape of earth browns and grays. The varying colors occurred in the miniature, so I found myself focusing on fungi, moss, and lichens. Moments when the sun burned through the haze and lit the slopes, I stopped walking and concentrated on what the light was doing to the world around me--what brightened and what contrasted.
|Color in the miniature|
About a third of the way around the lake, a trail branched away from the lake, up out of the hollow of the lake's shore and into the timber. The trail was unmarked, but I decided to follow it anyway. A good portion of the lake trail is actually not near the lake, but this trail left the lake completely and crested the hills above the lake and descended down the other side into solid forest. At a tee in the trail, still unsigned, I had the choice of continuing to my right, uphill along a ridge angling away from the lake, or downhill on a course that I felt would eventually lead back to the main lake trail. I chose the downhill because I felt the uphill trail would lead back to the campground. Prior to dropping down the trail, I marked the tee with the old Boy Scout "leaning stick on a forked branch" so that if other trails meandered, I would have a solid indication of how to, at least, backtrack and return to the main trail. The descending route did return to the main lake trail, though, and when I reached it, a sign indicated that the trail I had been on led to Lake Sugema, over three and a half miles away, which would have been my route if I had followed the uphill course.
|By Lacey Lake Dam|
An eagle flew by, carrying something in its claws; another followed soon after. A single oak leaf rattled on a branch close by, emphasizing the silence of the morning. Ice coated the surface of the lake in the small bay, in places the tracks of animals bruising the surface. Sun warmed me, and I sat for a time, at peace with both the world and myself. Continuing my hike, I looked for opportunities to photograph the beauty around me. It was a good walk, and I returned to camp happy and hungry, treating myself to a late lunch after a four-mile trek.
This shortest day of the year, the sun was low in the sky even at mid-afternoon. I built a fire and enjoying the end of the day, reading by headlamp as I sat next to the warm fire. A simple meal of muesli, and I was ready for bed.
Monday, December 23
After a lazy morning consisting of reading, writing, a campfire, and a short walk, I decided to duplicate my trail and river walk that I'd taken a month ago ("A Walk on the Quiet Side"). This time, though, I concentrated more on the hiking and exercise and finished the walk in an hour. The day had been wonderful, though, with the temperatures reaching the low 50s. Earlier I had talked with a park worker ("technician") about the campground during the winter, and he told me that he had been my student for one year at Keosauqua. I told him, "Take off that hat and manage to look like what you did fifteen years ago when you were fifteen, and I'll recognize you!" We had a good talk about the area, and he filled me in on several of the trails that I'd walked and their connections.
|Morning by the fire|
My walk this afternoon was more knowledgeable because I'd walked it once before and also because I had been able to ask a few questions to my former student about the routing of several trails that I haven't yet walked. As in my last hike of the Park Trail and the River Trail, the woods were peaceful, but this time my passing stirred up some whitetail deer. I was also serenaded by a Pileated Woodpecker when my hike dropped down along the river.
This afternoon I'm resting, reading, writing, and picking up camp so I can easily leave in the morning. There's not much to pick up, really, since I've been putting outside gear away at night, due to the heavy frosts. A wet canvas camp chair isn't much fun to sit in!
|A lean camp profile. All the action is by the fire.|
It had been my intention to dazzle everyone with my great cold-weather camping skills, but this trip could have easily happened a month earlier . . . or even in October. Patches of snow still dot the north sides of the hills and cover the green grass in ditches, but it's nice out. My portable heater is off and the door is open to the trailer as I write these last words. Today was a study in contrasts: the first day of winter yet it's warm; no chiggers, yet a mosquito the size of a damselfly was hanging onto the door screen. Who would think it will be Christmas Day in thirty-six hours?
I'm continuing with my camping plan of week by week checking the forecasts. Maybe I'll be striking out again (my wife hopes to take one more trip with me), and perhaps I'll be wrapping the Green Goddess up until springtime. Oh, the suspense!
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