It’s 8:00 am in a new year and I’m already thirsty for adventure; some type of colorful excursion that will overcome the gray doldrums a long Iowa winter brings. I drag my weary body out of bed, put on the winter gear, and head up to the quaint little river town of Bluffton to get a taste of Iowa’s own version of the Northwoods.
Perched on 450 million-year-old rocks and nearly 150 feet above the Upper Iowa River, Bluffton Fir Stand State Preserve protects the largest stand of native balsam fir trees in Iowa. Shaped like an oversized boomerang, the preserve hugs the Upper Iowa River and allows for a variety of forest communities to thrive. Several other species of evergreens live in the preserve including eastern white pine and Canada yew, but it’s the sleek, conical balsam firs that steal the show in this landscape.
In its native range, balsam fir is common in Canada and the forests of the northeastern United States. In Iowa, the trees live only in the far northeast corners of the state being restricted to rugged, steep sheltered slopes found in Howard, Winneshiek, Allamakee and Clayton Counties. Balsam fir trees are ice age relicts enduring from a time thousands of years ago when much of Iowa was covered in a boreal forest. The trees are best characterized by their slender trunk, conical crown, and incredibly aromatic needles. Most people liken the smell of balsam fir trees to a forest full of oranges. On this crisp winter day, I couldn’t think of a more wondrous scent to mark the new year.
From my perch up in the fir stand, I can hear the sound of horse’s hooves clanging on pavement floating up from the tiny town of Bluffton. People’s voices are mingling next to the wisps of smoke rising from their wood-burning stoves, wind chimes are clamoring for spring storms. Another peek through the trees reveals an adult bald eagle flying overhead. Looking further down the preserve, I see an active eagle nest sits atop an old pine tree.
As I continue my winter wanderings, tiny particles of snow start to fall, drifting aimlessly from the flattened fir needles. A small snail is frozen from the roots of a lichen-covered fir tree. There is an old magic in this forest; a comfort and aliveness is brought into the human spirit just by being surrounded by the color green. A slight breeze continues to tickle the white pines; the balsam’s flat needles remain quiet as snowflakes fall from their branches.
After an hour of rambling, the sun comes out, lighting half the town of Bluffton while cloaking the north facing preserve in the shadows. Miles across the valley, the south facing palisades of Upper Iowa are illuminated in the golden sundown. My curious mind is a kaleidoscope of green, joyful for the adventurous day spent drifting in Iowa’s own Northwoods. For the willing voyager, Balsam Fir Stand State Preserve is a hidden gem that offers a humbling journey into a timeless landscape.
No matter where home is this new year, spend a few moments under a whispering pine tree; never more will your body feel cold or frail, but instead, you will be graced by the murmurs of your own jolly, evergreen heart.