Iowa. Nothing but cornfields and cow pastures. Flat as a table top and scenic as its bottom. Flyover country in it’s truest form… Right?
Since I began my photography business 6 years ago one of my greatest joys has been displaying images captured in Iowa side-by-side with those better known vistas of America’s beautiful dramatic western landscapes. I love to see that light go off; that moment when it really hits people that this place is pretty special too. I’ve always liked to refer to Iowa’s natural wonders as having more of a “subtle beauty” -but it’s a beauty that really doesn’t take much effort to discover if one is only willing to drop their preconceptions and open their eyes.
After many requests I decided to create an Iowa specific calendar for 2016; and of my three offerings this has definitely been the best seller. Following is a list of the images that represent each of the twelve months and a brief description on the photos location.
January-Wildcat Den State Park
Wildcat Den is a gorgeous park located just outside of Muscatine. Some of it’s features include an old grist mill, limestone bluffs and rolling woodlands. This photo was inspired by a couple of previous winter trips (Apostle Islands, WI, Starved Rock, IL) where I attempted to photograph ice features from behind but had to contend with hordes of tourists. Not a problem in Iowa, especially on a sub-zero winter morning! While visiting local parks you’ll generally come across a few hikers, maybe a trail runner or someone walking their dog… but it’s never hard to find a little corner of solitude. Personally, after fighting the crowds and jostling with other photographers at better known”trophy shot” locations, returning to this peace and quiet and still being able to capture such beauty is a dream come true.
Wildcat Den State Park Info
February- Oak at Sunrise, Cedar County
This image, captured on another frigid morning, was taken on my Dad’s farm west of Tipton. I’ve always loved this tree and old oaks in general, but have struggled to get a good photo of it in the past. The way this tree sits, just below the crest of a hill, allows it to easily blend in and become jumbled with the distant vegetation (at least as viewed by the camera’s non-human eye.) You can see where that is still kind of happening here, but shooting it in winter in it’s bare-naked form allows for the capture of all the individual little branches in silhouette against this golden sky.The sunrise color reflecting off ice-glazed snow also helps to accentuate the scene. See now… our cow pastures aren’t so plain after all!
March- Cedar Valley Park
Cedar Valley is a small county park located in Cedar County, along the Cedar River between Tipton and West Branch. (A lot of “Cedar” names in these parts; possibly more names than actual cedar trees…) There is some really great history here, once home to a bustling limestone quarrying operation and a rough and tumble boom town. The old rock quarries are now filled with water and rock workers long gone; but the mention of these deep pools can still illicit grins from locals of a certain age group (apparently there used to be legendary parties at the secluded quarries in the 1960’s and ’70’s, and it was where the “hippies from Iowa City” would come to skinny-dip.) Now-a-days it’s usually pretty quiet in Cedar Valley -perfect for an afternoon of fishing, hunting for morel mushrooms in the spring, or taking a nice little walk in the woods.
April- Maquoketa Caves State Park
Perhaps one of the coolest and certainly one of the more unique parks in Iowa, Maquoketa Caves has long been one of my favorite places. My friends and I used to go camping here all the time and loved to explore the caves; belly crawling as far as we could squeeze back through dark passageways to the subterranean world. I still remember the feel and smell of returning to daylight, covered head to toe in cave mud and grinning from ear to ear. (Okay, I was just there last summer so not really a distant memory.)
My fondest recollection of those spelunking days, however, involves rattlesnakes. Well, kind of. We never actually saw one (though there are timber rattlers found in the park) but I had one friend who just loved to wait until we had slid way back into a corridor, flat on the ground with rock just inches overhead, arms pinned at our sides with no room to so much as draw a complete breath. Then, at that opportune moment, he would unleash the most perfect rattlesnake impression you’ve ever heard. After the first prank, which nearly left everyone but him smelling like more than just cave mud, we pretty much knew it was coming; but it still gave us the willies every time! For what it’s worth, the same friend also got a kick out of hiding inside some of the tamer, more heavily visited caves and making snarling noises when a curious hiker would poke their head within. (That joker is now my brother-in-law…)
This image is one that I envisioned years ago, but it took several visits to the park before conditions allowed for the capture. I love the ribbons of water flowing as a small stream exits the cave. The real keeper from this days shoot was actually a vertical composition, but in searching out material for this calendar I discovered that I had this horizontal shot that is nice as well.
May- Rochester Cemetery
Another little known jewel right here in Cedar County, Rochester Cemetery is a pioneer graveyard that includes one of the last tracts of remnant prairie in Iowa. In the summer you can find brilliant wildflower displays here, though not everyone is able to see it’s unique beauty. Although prairie lovers travel great distances to photograph and catalog the annual display, others who have family buried here argue that the vegetation (which consumes many of the headstones) is disgraceful and should be mowed. Click here to read a fascinating piece on that ongoing debate. (You can probably guess what side of the argument I fall on…)
Shown here are wild geraniums set against a majestic oak.
June- Wildcat Den State Park
June features another scene from Wildcat Den near Muscatine. I’ve already mentioned it above, but it really is gorgeous any time of the year. I’ve been surprised when displaying some of these pieces at art shows in the area as to how many people seem unfamiliar with this location. Really, if you live in Southeastern Iowa, you owe it to yourself to go!
This photo shows rays of sunlight (God beams as they’re commonly known) breaking through the forest canopy. The shot was taken just fifty yards from the cave scene discussed as the January image above.
July- Yellow River State Forest
Another favorite location of mine, for both scenic and personal reasons. Yellow River State Forest and Northeast Iowa in general is arguably the most beautiful part of our state. With clear running trout streams, towering bluffs and dense forest it resembles nothing of the way outsiders love to stereotype Iowa.
Pictured here is tranquil Little Paint Creek. I probably should have held out to capture a better photo, but the rainbows were really biting that day!
August- Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is a federal preserve located near Prairie City in central Iowa. The refuge is home to bison, elk and other animals that were once commonly found in Iowa but no longer roam here in the wild; and claims a 5600 acre mixed tallgrass prairie- oak savanna- sedge meadow ecosystem. It is an area of great importance for conservation and education- as it is one of the few remaining places visitors can gaze upon a large tract of undisturbed land and imagine Iowa as it historically was.
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge Info
September- Loess Hills
The Loess Hills are a stunning and rare land form -a narrow band of terraced hills paralleling the Missouri River for a stretch of approximately 200 miles. The hills were built by ancient windblown soils, and formations of this magnitude can only be found in western Iowa and China. The photo here was taken in 2014 outside of Council Bluffs, on a brief detour while I was rushing home from a larger trip to California. I returned again to the Loess Hills this past fall, and am anxious to share images from that venture. Though the Loess Hills are approximately 5-6 hours from my home, I am absolutely certain that I will become a frequent visitor. A very stunning area that I’ve grown increasingly eager to explore.
October- Pikes Peak State Park
And you thought Pikes Peak was in Colorado?!! Here, in this park high on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River is another prime example of the exceptional beauty Northeast Iowa has to offer. The park has some great hiking trails and is even home to ancient Native American burial mounds (Effigy Mounds National Monument is just a short distance away.)
I really like the backlit quality of this photo which highlights that tinge of red on the leaves, hinting that autumn is on its way.
Pikes Peak State Park Info
November- Palisades-Kepler State Park
Photographed on the same foggy morning as the cover shot, I love the somewhat eerie quality of this image. I actually stood here in the same general location for about six hours that morning anticipating breaks in the fog. Most of the time you couldn’t see the trees thirty yards away, but when it lifted for a fleeting moment the unique opportunity to blend river and sky contrasted against stunning fall color made it entirely worth the wait.
Palisades-Kepler is a popular park here in Eastern Iowa, located between Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon.
December- Winter Sunset, Cedar County
Here’s another picture that’s close to home, shot on my Grandpa’s farm literally half a mile from where I sit now. Despite that proximity, I actually had to work pretty hard for this image. We’d had recent heavy snows and I’d been out shooting most of the day, trekking several miles crisscrossing our family farm on snowshoes. I returned to the house late that afternoon, content but soaking wet and exhausted. The last thing I had planned after pulling my snowy boots off and setting them by the furnace to dry was to be sliding my feet back into those bad boys only an hour later; but as this sunset began to materialize I just couldn’t resist. I quickly redressed, grabbed my camera and tripod, and sprinted out the door.
The problem was we hadn’t driven either of our vehicles that day and both windshields were encrusted in a deep layer of ice and snow. If you’ve ever tried to photograph the sunset (or ever tried to chip a small hockey rink off your windshield) you’ll understand that neither would concede to the prioritization of the other. There was no time to defrost a vehicle (and if I recall, our driveway may have still been snowed in too) so I took off running down the road. I wanted to find a location with a nice foreground and this small stream (in another cow pasture) is often my go-to when time is such a factor.
I arrived with just a few minutes to spare before this vivid color bled from the sky. The true accomplishment, however, was being able to stabilize the tripod and click the shutter despite being on the verge of cardiac arrest!
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about my 2016 Iowa Calendar. I do still have a few copies available for purchase if anyone is interested. Click here for ordering information.
Unfortunately I won’t be able to ship anymore out until after January 5, 2016 as I will be traveling until then. But please don’t hesitate to order if you wish, and I’ll get a copy out to you just as soon as I possibly can.