Out of a crack in a rock, water spills forth, ice-cold and crystal clear. It cascades down over boulders below, filling a deep pool fringed with jewelweed and yellow coneflower. There is absolutely no reason to get in, and yet we are irresistibly drawn to the water. Giggling with excitement, my son kicks off his shoes and skips down to the pool. I dip my toes in and then scream. There is nothing to see on other side that I can’t see from standing right here – just a rock with a crack and water pouring forth. “Are you going in?” he asks. “Of course I am,” I say. Even though I think I’m prepared, the cold seizes my chest as I plunge below the surface. Two short strokes and I’m already at the other side, scrambling up onto a flat rock beneath the spring. I look across at Charlie and he calls out, “Come back and bring me across with you!”
When glaciers began their slow decent into the northern continental U.S. 110,000 years ago, they flattened hills and scraped the earth as they progressed. 12,000 years ago, when the glaciers finally retreated back to their polar homes, they pulled loose sand and gravel with them, filling valleys down below. During this most recent ice age, much of southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin, and northeastern Iowa escaped the glacial ice. Within this region, known as the Driftless Area, rivers and streams wind through deeply carved valleys amidst steep wooded hills. Only a thin layer of soil covers the bedrock limestone, sandstone and Ordovician dolomite in this area; often the rock juts out of the earth with no covering at all. Rainwater seeps easily through cracks in the bedrock and carves caves and subterranean streams. At times, the groundwater bursts forth from the side of a hill, and from this place a coldwater stream emerges, bringing life to a valley in the woods.
While camping at Beaver Creek Valley State Park two weeks ago, my family enjoyed a weekend of simple pleasures and unexpected treasures. During a run with the dog, I was surprised to emerge from a dark valley into a hidden meadow, blooming with culvers root, bee balm, and black-eyed susans. Back in the valley, where the creek winds dizzily through the woods, Molly had splashed along the water’s edge, flushing trout from beneath watercress like pheasants from a bush. The shimmering fish darted through the water, at least a dozen swimming together. At night, fireflies flickered in the woods, on and off and on.
Though ancient, the landscape in the Driftless Region is surprisingly fragile. The steep hilled valleys are prone to flash floods, more common now in a changing climate. Karst topography – fissures in the bedrock – allow contaminants from the earth’s surface to travel down quickly into groundwater aquifers. The thin layer of topsoil on steep hills offers little protection against erosion when the land is cleared for farming. Even heat can be a problem. The trout only thrive in cold water and rain washing off of hot pavement can send a deadly flush into the streams.
For now, the Beaver Creek Valley remains an oasis of calm in an angry world. The water runs cold and clear and flowers bloom everywhere. Trees cling to steep hills and deep valleys. An owl hoots in the night. Fireflies flicker in the woods. Out of rock, there is water.