Brandon Butler: Feeling free while roaming Midwestern prairies

The freedom of the open road was so alluring at 15. The anticipation leading up to the privilege of just jumping in your car and taking off for parts unknown was nearly unbearable. Once you were able, nothing could keep you home. You drove just to drive, because there was so much to see. Each trip uncovered new places to visit and things to do. Those were the days.

But they don’t have to be behind you. The outdoors give us endless reasons to anticipate our next road trip.

The public natural resources we have here in the United States are unrivaled by most of the world. Our public lands and waters offer more opportunity for exploration than you could undertake in a hundred lifetimes. From county parks to Yellowstone, state forests to national scenic rivers, mountaintops to canyons, our cup runneth over.

I’ve been blessed to travel much of this continent. Fishing in the northern most reaches of Ontario. Hunting ocellated turkeys in the jungle of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. I’ve hunted in nearly 40 states, from coast to coast and border to border. Still, I choose to make my home right smack in the middle of the Midwest. The flyover states are where I want to be.

One, I believe Midwesterners are the salt of the earth. When Paul Harvey wrote “God Made a Farmer,” I have no doubt he was thinking of the Heartland. Secondly, the Midwest has far, far more outdoor opportunity than it’s given credit for. I chased the mountains. I moved out to Colorado and Montana after college. Out west I learned how to discover and enjoy public lands. Applying that knowledge back home — here in the Midwest where whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and largemouth bass rule — has led me to countless public lands and waters for outdoor recreation.

In recent years, prairie has become a habitat I enjoy exploring. Life has me traveling to Iowa often these days. Two things Iowa doesn’t have much of are public land and prairie. Across much of the state, the incredibly rich soils producing corn and soybeans were developed over thousands and thousands of years as native prairies. When you do find prairie in Iowa, it’s special.

Sand Creek Wildlife Area, tucked in Decatur County, is a 3,700-acre property with reconstructed prairie intermixed with timber and river bottoms. It’s a popular destination for hunters and bird watchers, an example of how public lands serve a multitude of interest group. Although hunters are most birdly watchers who occasionally pull the trigger, I generally watch more birds from a tree stand while hunting than anywhere else I go to view birds.

Chad Paup, a wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said about Sand Creek, “It’s one of our most popular areas because of its size and location. This area has everything Iowa has to offer. It draws a lot of people from the Des Moines area and from outside of Iowa.”

Public lands, when under proper management, are perpetually improved, meaning each generation of stewards is working to leave our public lands and waters better than we found them. Sand Creek is an example. The area, like most, has a management plan, which currently prioritizes improving the timber by removing cedars and invasive species. This benefits wildlife and bird species.

“That work is paying dividends,” Paup said. “You can see some improvements on the area and in the stands. It’s pretty cool.”

Birders have a lot to look for at Sand Creek. The area has a Multiple Species Inventory and Monitoring team documenting the bird population. Their list includes common nighthawk, hairy woodpecker, great crested fly catcher, white-crowned sparrow, yellow-breasted chat, northern flicker and more. They have also documented 11 bat species and more than 60 species of butterflies, including regal fritillaries.

Sand Creek received a special designation when it was named as Iowa’s 15th Bird Conservation Area (BCA) in early 2010. This designation should serve as an indication to traveling bird watchers that Sand Creek is worth a road trip.

Across the Midwest, there are public lands and waters open to exploration by anyone adventurous enough to take a road trip. Find that feeling again of just wanting to go somewhere, anywhere, for little more than the feeling of freedom we have when traveling to parts unknown.

See you down the trail …

Brandon Butler writes a weekly outdoors column for the Daily Journal. For more Driftwood Outdoors, check out the podcast on www.driftwoodoutdoors.com or anywhere podcasts are streamed. Send comments to [email protected].