Waubonsie State Park is not what I expected. I didn’t expect to fall in love with a 2000 acre park in the southwest corner of Iowa. But that’s what happened during my first ever Artist-in-Residency.
From the moment I entered the park and saw its tall bluffs and deep ravines covered in gnarly thick oaks standing over an open forest floor that was decorated in all the hues of autumn in its thick leaf cover, I knew.
Red-headed woodpeckers flitted about the forest edges and swooped across the winding road in front of me. I settled into my one-room cabin at dusk, listening to owls calling back and forth just outside.
The next morning, I was up with the sun. I had left winter behind in Chicago and rediscovered fall at Waubonsie. It was mild and clear. The sunrise was spectacular. I’ve hardly been greeted more enthusiastically before (dogs notwithstanding). I wandered off on trails, camera in hand. Two white-tailed deer immediately crossed my path. They paused to regard me and then ran off. This interaction with the park deer would become a regular recurrence.
Songbirds fluttered amid the understory; cardinals, cedar waxwings, juncos and white-throated sparrows. Blue jays called from the treetops. The red-headed woodpecker chatter is a constant background soundtrack.
Evidence of coyotes (tracks and scat), wild turkey scrapes and deer tracks, scat and rubs was common throughout the trail system. The coyotes themselves would prove elusive over my time here. I explored mazes of deer/wildlife trails off the main paths. I was rewarded with spectacular mushrooms, a shed antler (!), and a surprising number of deer bones.
After my morning wanders, I went back to the cabin for a late breakfast and a mid-day break before heading back out in the late afternoon until sunset. That’s how I spent my two weeks here, each morning and each evening exploring a new trail or area of the park.
It feels so much bigger than 2000 acres. The diversity of habitat is also a surprise. I walked the high ridges of Sunset Ridge Trail, Ridge Trail, and the prairie above the old obstacle course with their views across farmland to the Missouri River in one direction and the tops of the tree canopy in the other.
The west sides of the ridges are mostly sand prairie habitat, while the east is uniformly forested. These edge habitats (where one ecosystem meets another) are known for their diversity and abundance of wildlife. I heard snow geese flying overhead and looked up to see hundreds migrating from the east toward the river wetlands.
I meandered along trails and double tracks down the bluffs into deep ravines. Then I snaked back up the other side on the Valley Trail, in the Wa-Shawtee area and the Slusher Wildlife Management Area. Fallen trees, mushrooms, lichen and acorns are everywhere.
A downy woodpecker, several northern flickers, a couple of red-bellied woodpeckers, flocks of cedar waxwings, chickadees and robins, a single spotted towhee, a tufted titmouse, a pair of ruby-crowned kinglets, a thrush, a pileated woodpecker, flocks of turkeys, red-tailed hawks and crows all showed themselves in these forests.
I traipsed through the woods of the seven-acre Lake Virginia and its finger ponds where artfully arranged oak leaves lay frozen in the duckweed. A bobcat print in the mud among a parade of coyote, raccoon and deer prints was a thrilling discovery.
After hearing what I thought had to be a person approaching (only a human could make that much noise moving through a forest), I was pleasantly surprised to spy a flock of turkeys turning over the leaf litter in search of acorns. Once one saw me, they all fell silent and quickly moved over the hill.
The sweet smell of firewood welcomes me back to my cabin on the hill every evening. I watched a flicker poke around in my firewood pile on the porch. (I suspect he found some carpenter ants). In the dark of night, the coyotes yipped and howled. In my cozy, warm bed, restful sleep came quickly. On my last day, light snow fell resting on the limbs of the forest, transforming the landscape. What a treasure it is to glimpse winter here.
I captured sunrises, sunsets, new birds, familiar birds, a mole (a first for me!), ever-watchful charismatic deer, curious squirrels and mushrooms and lichens to my heart’s content. I listened to stories of encounters with the more reclusive residents of the park; red foxes, a gray fox, bobcats and even a black bear in 2008. I learned the history of the park and plans for the future. My two weeks went by in the blink of an eye. I feel so grateful for this experience, for this place and for these people. My Artist-in-Residency experience has been transformative.