Earlier this week John and I drove north into nearby Johnston for dessert after dinner. We stopped at Van Dee’s Ice Cream, an old-fashioned ice cream stand that might remind you of life in the 50s and 60s. Facing the street is a sign announcing the family that has owned and operated the ice cream stand for as long as we’ve lived in Iowa, maybe longer. In the back of the stand is an outbuilding, likely for storage, on which is painted a colorful mural of jaunty sunflowers framing a dairy cow. And on the inside, you can pull up to the counter, seat yourself on a padded swivel stool, and order a shake, malt, ice cream sundae or whatever treat captures your appetite.
Van Dee’s makes the best ice cream sandwich around, the Big Chipper, stuffing the vanilla goodness between two thick-and-tasty chocolate chip cookies.
“Let’s eat our ice cream while we check out Big Creek,” suggested John as he grabbed a few paper napkins for the car ride.
Big Creek is actually Big Creek State Park, located just 25 minutes from our home in Urbandale. It’s where our family picnicked when David was in grade school, where John taught him how to sail a two-person boat my father gave David, and where John lost his car keys while swimming in the lake with David. Memories. Lots of them.
When my cousin brought his middle school-aged daughter and high school-aged son from Germany for a visit more than a decade ago, we rented a catamaran and spent an afternoon at the lake. You can still rent boats here: paddleboats, catamarans and house boats. I’ve never been on a house boat before. That’s something I’d still like to do.
On the way to Big Creek, you have to cross the Mile Long Bridge that spans Saylorville Lake, a 9.3 square mile reservoir that feeds into the Des Moines River and whose water levels are monitored and controlled by a dam built by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent flooding. During the Great Flood of 1993, the water was so high that it touched the bottom of the bridge and you could say that the trees were standing in water up to their knees—that is, of course, if you think trees have knees. I think they did that year.
Big Creek is actually a flood control reservoir that was built as part of the Saylorville Lake project. Between Big Creek and Saylorville Lake, you can enjoy all of the recreational activities you’d expect at a state park. You can’t camp at Big Creek, but you can do so at Saylorville Lake. Because Big Creek State Park is a wildlife refuge, you can’t hunt there, but you can hunt on the lake and in designated public areas around the lake. Plan a family picnic, go fishing or swimming, play disc golf, visit a butterfly garden or tour a nature center. Nearby are horse stables at Jester Park. There are long biking trails and a castle playground that tops any playground anywhere that I’ve ever seen. You don’t have to be a child to enjoy it.
Click on this photo to appreciate the scope of this castle playground.
We parked our car near the castle playground and strolled along the beach, reminiscing.
On the way home, we followed a motorcyclist exiting Big Creek State Park. The winding roads, edged with fields and trees, make for a pleasurable ride whether you’re on two wheels or four.
Like many of Iowa’s state parks, Big Creek is a watery oasis plunked down in the middle of farm fields.
We had to cross the Mile Long Bridge on our way home again. The sun was ready to dip below the horizon.
Ice cream and a sunset. It’s the small moments you treasure most.
When we stayed at Backbone State Park last week, we didn’t spend the entire day in the cabin or on the trails. Once a day, we drove to town to pick up whatever we needed for the cabin. We also used these trips to catch up on e-mail or phone messages using our iPhones. Backbone State Park, after all, is where cell phones go to die. That meant a trip into Manchester for groceries and firewood at the local Fareway, a drive-through at Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone, and visits to the local Ben Franklin store and The Quiltmaker Shoppe, just for fun. Technically speaking, Manchester is not the nearest town, as Backbone State Park is sandwiched between the towns of Dundee and Strawberry Point. However, those towns are not exactly centers of commercial enterprise.
While Manchester is larger than either Dundee or Strawberry Point, it has small town charm of its own. Not many homes I know have a totem pole in their front yard.
Dundee (population 174 as of 2010), located at the southern end of Backbone State Park, takes about one minute (maybe less) to drive through. One year that we stayed at Backbone, the residents were lined up on lawn chairs on either side of the one-and-only main street to admire some vintage cars driving north to Strawberry Point, where a car show was being held in a farm field. At the tail end of those cars was our decidedly more up-to-date 2001 Ford Taurus. We waved at everyone, and they waved back.
Strawberry Point, north of Backbone State Park, is a little bigger with 1,279 residents according to the 2010 census. The town does have a picturesque shopping area with some sandwich shops and a grocery store named Strawberry Foods that we would not have known about if there were not a sign announcing it just outside the road leading to our cabin. I suspect the people who own the house are being paid to have this sign posted in their front yard.
To the left of the above sign are these two characters who guarantee we won’t miss the sign.
Strawberry Point also has the world’s largest (fiberglass) strawberry. Standing in front of the city hall, it measures 12 feet wide by 15 feet tall and is a great source of local pride.
The first year we stayed at Backbone, we didn’t know where else to shop, so we visited Strawberry Foods and were recognized immediately as outsiders.
“Staying at Backbone?” we were asked as we pushed our very full shopping cart through the checkout line.
Later we learned that most local people shop in nearby Manchester, which sports both a newly-remodeled and expanded Walmart and a Fareway grocery store. Still, the folks at Strawberry Foods were friendly and helpful, and the store was stocked with the basic items you might need during a week’s stay at a cabin, if you aren’t choosey about brands or price tags.
For the most part, Strawberry Point is residential with unmistakable reminders of its rural setting.
Once a year, I make an annual pilgrimage to Manchester’s Quiltmaker Shoppe. The staff there recognizes me by now, asking me if I’m staying at the same cabin again. I’m not sure if I should be flattered that they remember me, or embarrassed because I leave with a pretty full shopping bag each time. We do have very nice quilt shops in the Des Moines area, but that never stops me from finding lovely fabrics, books and sewing notions at the quilt shop in Manchester (or anywhere else, for that matter).
I probably spent about two hours in the shop, adding bolts of fabric to the cutting counter where a nice clerk named Jean cut my fabric and added it to a growing stack of purchases. Every so often, John sent me a text message, asking if I was ready to be picked up. Eventually he parked in front of the shop and played games on his iPhone while he waited for me.
I have a fondness for sewing bags, so on this trip to the quilt shop, I picked up several patterns with matching fabric. Likely these bags will become future Christmas gifts.
On another trip to Manchester, John and I spotted a Ben Franklin store that has sat there the entire eight years we’ve visited Backbone State Park, yet we never noticed it. You may not get very excited about a Ben Franklin store, but to the best of my knowledge there isn’t one in Des Moines, and I only occasionally run into one elsewhere. They always have a crafts department, which is where I make a beeline. John swears I have a string attached to my eyeballs that is connected at the other end to any crafts in the vicinity. The cute storefront window certainly helped.
In any event, the Ben Franklin store did indeed sells crafts and needlework. I picked up a pair of dressmaker’s shears that I really don’t need, but couldn’t resist because of the vintage look. In fact, I picked up two of them because John said he could use a pair for cutting cardboard, twine and the like. The blades announce that they are Griffin Creek scissors, while the handles have “funnersteel” and “Meerut” imprinted on them, suggesting they were made in India. All I could find out about Meerut is that it is a town in India known for its scissor-making community. The blades are likely hand-forged, and you can find them in just about any tailor’s shop in India. Whether these scissors are replicas or not, they are heavy, sharp and cut very well. And they were priced economically at $13.99 a pair.
The left side of the Ben Franklin is devoted to a colorful little gift shop that runs the full depth of the store and attracts nearly every tourist. It amused John that I never noticed it because I was fixated on the crafts department. Eventually, however, he did manage to distract me long enough to try on a pair of sunglasses in the gift shop.
I loved the garden stone below, mainly because it reflects my level of gardening expertise (black thumb).
John insisted that he needed yet one more mug for his cappuccino addiction. For some strange reason, he didn’t pack a mug for our cabin retreat and only this Irish-themed mug would do.
We both agreed that since our garden (such as it is) has no flowers (because we can’t grow them), we need to put other items in it, such as these two frogs.
As you can see, we made good use of our time in the Backbone area and contributed to the local economy.
We came home last Friday from a week-long cabin retreat at Backbone State Park in northeastern Iowa. Although the cabin itself is modern, there is no telephone, Internet or television. We love being able to unplug for a little while!
Most people think of Iowa as farm country. Although large parts of Iowa are indeed rural, many folks are surprised to learn there are 53 state parks in Iowa. Backbone State Park is the oldest and is named, according to an official brochure, “ . . . for its narrow and steep ridge of bedrock carved by a loop of the Maquoketa River. Folklore named this high ridge of rock the ‘Devil’s Backbone’.” You can see the bedrock, nestled in the greenery, as well as the Maquoketa River, below. Maquoketa (ma KOH ki tah), which is also a city on the eastern border of Iowa, is a Mesquaki native American word that roughly means “bears were here.”
One hundred years ago, state geologist Samuel Calvin described the park as follows:
Its sides are in places precipitous, the rocky cliffs rising sheer for more than 80 feet. Erosion and secular decay have carved the rocks into picturesque columns, towers, castles, battlements and flying buttresses.
Climbers and rappellers can take advantage of the more rugged trails and climb the rocks, if they wish, but they need to check in first with the park ranger’s office. John and I are not among this crowd, but we do enjoy the beauty of the “backbone” that runs through the park.
The park is divided into different areas for bicycling, boating, camping, climbing, fishing, hiking, or picnicking, so it is not a stretch to say there’s something here for everyone. There are 16 modern cabins for you to choose from if you rent a cabin as we do, but if you prefer to camp, either in an RV or in a tent, there are 127 campsites that are available.
This was our eighth year, renting a cabin at Backbone, and the seventh in which we stayed in the same one, Hawk’s Roost. I would love to know if a hawk actually had something to do with the naming of the cabin, or of that specific location, but I doubt anyone can provide that information besides, perhaps, the park ranger. However, I can attest to the fact that you can find all kinds of other birds, such as chickadees, eagles and geese.
One thing I can say for certain is that four-footed creatures are alive and well at the state park. After a late dinner on the first night, John took out the trash to the communal dumpster up the cabin road. To my surprise, he returned with the same bag.
“Looks like this isn’t the best time,” he said. “There’s a raccoon that’s sitting on the dumpster lid. When I pointed my flashlight at him, he just stared at me as if he was asking, ‘Whaddya want?’ and then he dove into the dumpster three times for dessert.”
A better time to visit the dumpster is early in the evening, after you’ve cooked your food over the campfire. For most of the rest of the week, John grilled sometime between four and six o’clock in the evening.
There are three sizes of cabins at Backbone State Park, and ours is one of the medium-sized ones. The first year we stayed here, however, we rented one of the smaller cabins, which was just refurbished by the Amish. On the left you’ll see the cabin we rented in 2006. On the right is the same cabin today.
Although Backbone State Park cabins are rented by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, they are maintained by Mike and Kelly Peterman and their two daughters, Nicole and Jnae (pronounced jiNAY). During the daytime, you can purchase some basic supplies from the concession stand, which is called the Beach Store.
The Beach Store is on the left side of The Lodge, where graduation, retirement and birthday celebrations frequently are celebrated.
You can rent a canoe, kayak, or paddleboat at the boathouse, also maintained by the concessionaires. No matter how many times or what time of day we visit the boathouse, it is always beautiful.
You can climb the stairs all the way to the top of the boathouse tower and take spectacular photos of the surrounding area. Four years ago, we discovered bats at the top of the tower, but they didn’t bother us because it was daytime and they were asleep. At night, when we sit in front of the campfire and look up at the sky, you can see bats flying between the treetops. I am sure they are feeding on mosquitoes, so they are doing a good deed!
On our way to the state park, I made a list of the towns we pass, if for no other reasons than to establish in my mind where they are located geographically. We passed the water tower of Evansdale (where two little cousins’ bikes were found near a lake last summer, but the girls’ bodies were not discovered until months later in the woods), as well as the towns of Jesup, Independence, Oelwein, Quasqueton, Cedar Rock (23 miles away from Backbone, where a Frank Lloyd Wright house was built), and Dundee. As you travel along the road you see typical Iowa farm country, which means rolling fields dotted with cows, grain silos and barns.
At this time of year the crops are nothing more than short shoots of green, poking up their heads from the furrows the tractor has dug for them. Where there is grass, however, it’s that lovely shade of spring green that you encounter during early summer, after lots of rain. And if a storm is coming, you need no weather forecast to warn you because you can see it approaching from miles away because of the open countryside.
Last Wednesday afternoon, the air was heavy and still, typical tornado weather. We were, in fact, under a tornado watch. “It feels,” John said, “as if a cloud could brush up against the top of a tree, and the water would let loose.” His words were prophetic. The park ranger knocked on our door to let us know the park was under a severe thunderstorm warning at the same time that the alarm on our weather radio sounded. This part of the state has gotten a lot of rain recently. We noticed that flooding caused river bank erosion, with trees being uprooted and carried downstream, sometimes lodging beneath bridges. This walking bridge will likely have to be replaced.
This part of the state is not a stranger to flooding. In 2006, some parts of the state park were unusable.
Our cabin, I must admit, has pretty generous proportions. The kitchen is three-quarters the size of the one we have at home, and the living room is about the same size. There are two bedrooms, one that is larger toward the front of the cabin and one that is smaller toward the back of the cabin. John and I sleep in the smaller bedroom because it feels more private and snuggy back there, and we put all of our storage items—suitcases, plastic storage tubs, bags and the like—in the larger bedroom.The bathroom is larger than either of our two bathrooms in Urbandale, but has a shower stall instead of a bathtub. Because there are not enough towel rods, we bring a couple of spring-loaded café rods, and hang them at intervals in a corner alcove in front of some shelving. This has worked well over the years, allowing towels and wash cloths to dry during the daytime in time for use mornings and evenings.
I must admit that using café rods is a lot more practical for hanging items than the solution we used the first summer we rented a cabin and were unprepared for rainy weather and bras that had to be dried in a cabin that did not have a single towel bar! (Yes, that is duct tape holding up those hangers. Embarrassing, but effective.)
One of the things that is not as nice in the cabin as it is at home is the shower itself. The water heater is old or small, probably both, so you run out of hot water in less than 10 minutes if you run the showerhead continuously. Since there are two of us, we try to be mindful of the next person to use the shower. We take Navy-style showers, getting ourselves wet and then turning off the water, soaping up, and then rinsing off.
One of the main joys of staying at Backbone State Park is having the opportunity to take long, uninterrupted walks with nature all around you. One day we walked for two hours from our cabin to the South Lake Campground located on the western shore of the lake, and back. Along the way, we crossed a bridge that arches over a stream of the Maquoketa River. This stream flows throughout the park and is known for its trout fishing opportunities.
The edge of the road is bordered with pretty flowers, and when the trees are in blossom, they hang over the deck rail of our cabin.
Our walk took us past the ranger station to Backbone Lake’s spillway, which helps keep the lake at acceptable levels during heavy rains.
Everywhere you look, you see stout old trees with interesting bark patterns.
From a distance, I thought this rotting tree trunk looked like Dorothy’s Toto in “The Wizard of Oz.”
There are a number of trails to walk, bike or hike—21 miles of them, in fact. However, the West Lake Trail that we often explore was too muddy to walk. It is one way of reaching the South Lake Campground. We took the road instead, which stretched our uphill walking muscles.
When the concrete for the road was poured, leaves from the trees left their imprints, almost like petroglyphs at an archaeological dig.
When we reached the South Lake Campground, I was amused by the sign in the bathhouse.
As we walked through the campgrounds, we noticed that nature and wildlife education are important goals of Backbone State Park.
Between the playgrounds at the campground and near the boathouse, the woods, walking trails and the beach, children are provided with ample play space.
The campground nearest us is divided into one area for RVs, and another area for tents. Picnic areas are sprinkled throughout the campground.
As we returned to our cabin, we passed a private picnicking area that appeared to be abandoned. When we asked the concessionaires’ daughter, Jnae, about it, she said that as long as her parents had been running concessions, this private area had not been used. We thought it had possibilities as an outdoor wedding reception area. Later, I searched on the Internet for “Forest Village Resort.” It was listed as an RV park/campground, but as Jnae told us, it appeared to be completely inactive.
It is difficult to describe how large the lake at Backbone State Park is, but this photo shows the southern half. When your eyes can see no more, the lake curves to the left.
This incredible pine tree stands a little off to the side and in front of our cabin.
One of our favorite times of the day takes place during the evening, when we light a campfire and sit outside until the fire dies down.
It is hard to believe that back in 1920, Backbone State Park did not exist. In 1923, six thousand trees were planted here by the Daughters of the American Revolution of Iowa.
We already made our reservations to return to Backbone State Park next year. You can hear, from the peaceful sounds in the background of this video, why our spirits are lifted when we do our annual cabin retreat.