Big River Magazine
Mississippi River stories and news

Nov-Dec 2006 Big River

In spring or early summer, walking the road is an acoustic experience as much as a visual one, especially at twilight. Cranes call from several directions. Geese honk, frogs croak, and unseen ducks paddle quickly away through the reeds, their feet and wings whirring over the water.

Army Road: Wild All the Way Out
New Albin, Iowa

By Pamela Eyden
Big River, May-June 2007

Army Road is a two-mile-long, gravel trail out into the Mississippi River floodplains and backwaters. It crosses acres of wetlands, one large slough and many small ones, then threads its way through a floodplain forest, and ends at a parking lot, boat ramp and fishing platform. If you are pulling a boat, the landing is just the beginning of your adventure into Reno Bottoms’ maze of backwaters. Otherwise, the landing is not the point - getting to it is most of the fun.

Army Road extends east of the little town of New Albin, Iowa, population 527, which is, literally, a stone’s toss from Minnesota. To get to Army Road, turn east off Highway 26, the Great River Road, onto Ross Street in the center of town near the Community Center. Ross Street becomes Elm Street after you zig and zag past the bank. In a few blocks, you’ll reach the edge of a plateau overlooking the great wilds of the river floodplain. Next to a big U.S. Fish & Wildlife sign announcing Pool Slough, is a parking area and an overlook with a spotting scope. There’s a lot to see here, right from the beginning.

Local people and birders know the road as a great place to spot birds and wildlife, including otter, beaver, deer, turtles, muskrats and frogs. A mother bear and cub were spotted crossing the road two years ago. Tallies show more than 150 bird species were spotted there last year. Sandhill cranes nest in the wetlands adjacent to the road; their bugling calls can be heard for miles. Bald eagles soar overhead, looking for fish; two giant nests are visible from the boat landing. Red-winged blackbirds, prothonotary warblers, kingfishers, herons and geese - the diverse mix of river habitats attracts all the river birds.

Migratory birds flood the area in the fall. But there aren’t nearly as many as there once were. Higher water caused by the locks and dams have drowned out places that used to be rich in arrowhead, wild celery, wild rice and other plants that birds depend on for food.

To try and correct that, biologists, birders and engineers joined forces to build dikes to surround 52 acres of wetlands near town on the upstream side of Army Road, with pumps to adjust water levels to encourage more of the plants that birds feed on. Partners in the project include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Audubon’s Upper Mississippi River Initiative and the Rivers and Bluffs Fall Birding Festival. You cannot drive on the dikes, but you can walk on them.

In spring or early summer, walking the road is an acoustic experience as much as a visual one, especially at twilight. Cranes call from several directions. Geese honk, frogs croak, and unseen ducks paddle quickly away through the reeds, their feet and wings whirring over the water.

Wild Place

Ric Zarwell, a board member of the Friends of Pool 9, grew up in New Albin and remembers the road as just one of the places where he and friends used to go fishing and looking for adventure.

“Army Road is the best place to get access to the floodplain forest. I don’t know anyplace else like this. It is in a class by itself - it’s wild all the way out,” he said.

It’s been a favorite place for locals for many decades - in fact, for longer than it’s been called “Army Road.” In the early 1900s it was just a low-lying track that led out of town and through the river bottoms to Minnesota Slough. Local people used it for hunting and fishing, but water flooded the track whenever river water levels rose, which cut people off from the river. Before Army Road was built in the 1960s, Iowans had to trailer their boats to Minnesota to put in. That was a serious annoyance and one of the prime reasons the road was built.

“There used to be summer homes along Minnesota Slough, and shanties along the road. The road itself was used heavily up until the refuge was created. [The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge was established in 1924.] Then it was abandoned and people moved away,” recounted Zarwell.

“The road started in the same place, but it used to come out near an artesian well. There was a pipe that stood up out of the ground and people would drive out there and reach up to get the water.” Zarwell has a photograph of his father standing up in a Model T and reaching up to get a jug of water.

“You can still find the pipe, but you have to reach over the gunwales of your boat to get at it,” Zarwell said.

The road was raised by a foot last year to keep it above surrounding wetlands, but it’s still a bumpy road with water all around, so go slow. Besides, resident turtles have the right-of-way in the summer.

End of the Road

Army Road ends at the boat landing, with picnic tables, informational kiosks, restrooms and a fishing platform. Minnesota Slough is a sizable side channel and a gateway to the vast maze of sloughs and channels that make up Reno Bottoms. This really is the old river, the way it was before the locks and dams were built in the 1930s.

At the end of the road you’ll be about two miles from the Iowa bluffs and two miles from the Wisconsin bluffs. That’s a big wide, open space - enough to make you a little dizzy.

Returning to New Albin, if you have time to poke around town, you can check out the city park and the community center, both sources of pride. You can also investigate New Albin’s reputation as Baseball City.

There are a few pubs and eateries in town, not to mention the City Meat Market and Grocery, an old-fashioned grocery store, of the kind they’re not making anymore. It has few aisles, but the shelves are packed, and there’s a meat market in the back that offers a fine selection of homemade smoked meats and fish. Their pork jerky is the best. I haven’t tried the fresh cheese curds. © 2007 Big River Magazine