We drove north on Illinois’ scenic state road 84 along the eastern edge of the upper Mississippi River where we arrived at our home base for four days, Mississippi Palisades State Park. It was our introduction to the driftless area. When I think of the Mississippi River, I have visions of low country deltas. The area here is nothing like that with its rock cliffs standing 1000 feet above the river. When I did learn about the driftless area, it became clear that the upper Mississippi River is a completely different one from its southern counterpart.
The driftless area is a geologically unique territory represented by Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota and if not for Vivian’s fly fishing research, we would never have known it exists. How the driftless came to be has to do with the absence of glaciers. Glaciers are known to flatten things and when they retreat, they leave behind drift (clay, gravel, silt). Because this area escaped the leveling effects of glaciers during the last ice age, its landscape is characterized by ridges, deep river valleys, spring-fed waterfalls, caves and cold-water trout streams. Without drift. This unassumingly beautiful area is like a combination of Florida and New England. It is similar to Florida because of its karst geology comprised of soluble rock (i.e., limestone) and for its underground drainage system of sinkholes and caves. But the large cliffs, ravines and forested areas are more akin to New England. There are very few lakes in these parts, but the upper Mississippi River passes right through it. And it is fly fishing’s best kept secret.
Even better, the driftless contains one of the top ten charming small towns in America, according to TripAdvisor. What’s not to love when you put charm and small town together? Consequently, we spent a day walking the downtown streets of historic Galena. The town is named for the main ore in lead which formed the basis of the region’s early mining economy. Although native Americans had been mining this area for over a thousand years, European settlers turned it into the first major mineral rush in America. By 1828, Galena was the largest city in Illinois. By the beginning of the 21st century, lead demand had declined dramatically, and Galena became a rural farming community. Later, Galena was listed on the National Register of Historic Places with 85% of its structures within the historic district.
We left the eastern banks of the Mississippi to go north, but a couple weeks later came back down to the driftless, this time to a small town in northeast Iowa. If Galena is the flamboyant city-wannabe country girl, Elkader is Galena’s hardworking but quirky never-leave-the-farm sister.
Elkader is unassuming in all its qualities (except for the gigantic grain mill that hovers over the downtown area) and full of delightful surprises. I so enjoyed walking the empty streets of the tiny town one early Saturday morning as the sun rose above the hills overlooking main street. While walking down the main street sidewalks, the smell of baking bread from Pedretti’s bakery, the one-room city hall building, the movie theatre, the lack of traffic and other reminders of smalltown life made me want to live there. Our home on wheels was parked less than one mile away, so in reality we were living there.
During our 10 days at the Deer Run RV Resort on the outskirts of town, we experienced Elkader’s wonderfulness; pumping then paying at the gas station, buying fresh eggs, vegetables and homemade pastries from local women, tasting various brews at Deb’s Brewtopia where Deb grows her own hops in the backyard, crossing the historic Keystone bridge many times, perusing the 3-story Turkey River Mall antique store, and enjoying a pleasant dinner at Elkader’s only gay-owned Algerian restaurant, Schera’s. All this while a river runs through it.
We took in the town of Elkader as often as we could, but only in between our driftless area explorations, which was why we were there in the first place. Vivian researched the numerous trout streams and had her heart set on practicing her new flyfishing skills in as many of them as possible. I tagged along looking to photograph the uniqueness of the driftless area. When we explain to people that we spent time in Iowa (and not just to drive through it!) while enjoying every minute of it, they were perplexed. We tell them, the driftless area of Iowa is very different from the rest of the state. And it has some impressive places to see, such as Pikes Peak State Park where the bluffs reach their maximum height of over 1000 feet or the unique Effigy Mounds. Rolling farmland goes on for miles, interrupted by country roads with minimal traffic and farms with barns and silos. The tariffs were in full force when we were there, so we talked about that with the campground owner, Doris. The locals, mostly farmers seem to take it all in stride; the recent floods, the current drought, lack of sales to China, and so on. What else can you do?
Almost every day, we got out before first light and drove to a remote trout stream where Vivian could fish. Water levels were extremely low, which seemed strange given the severe flooding four months earlier. The waterfall at Pikes Peak was nothing more than a trickle. But I photographed water whenever I could. The enchanting farmland kept calling me and I really wanted to capture it under the right conditions.
On the last morning of our stay, I sat inside the RV drinking coffee with darkness outside. I rolled the window shade up and peered out. Through the darkness, I could see heavy fog. Opportunity finally arrived. I quickly gathered up the camera and equipment, got dressed and drove off into the dark abyss to a lookout point I had discovered earlier. Conveniently, it was only 2 miles away, so that by the time I arrived the sun had yet to peer over the horizon.
What a glorious site that unfolded before me. For miles, I could see green undulating hills veiled in long folds of fog waving across the land like flowing scarves. The sky awakened in color as the sun appeared and the illuminated fog kept a fluidity that created an ever-changing view. Facing the sun, I worked the scene only to get more excited when I turned around and saw an equally beautiful front lit view. For well over an hour, I ran back and forth between my designated spots and captured the morning as it brightened the sweeping farmland. I got what I came for and not a day too soon.
We left Iowa on Labor Day to head south with anticipation for what was to come. As is always the case when RV traveling, some places try to pull us back as we leave them for the next adventure that pulls us forward even stronger. But that is the beauty of RV life, we can come back.
RV Traveling Issues and Tips
We pull a fifth wheel, therefore we drive a big diesel truck which requires maintenance now and then. If you are traveling extensively, you must plan for some maintenance. In our case, the F350 Ford needs an oil change every 5000 miles or so, filters need replacing, tires need rotating, etc. We keep a record of these things and can anticipate when and where we will need to visit a Ford dealer. Fortunately, Ford dealers are just about everywhere. The point it, when planning your trip, account for the maintenance schedule and be sure you have access to service wherever you plan to be. Not only that, consider that you will probably have to devote at least a half day to get these things done.