Burlington to Montrose: Aldo Leopold, Buttons

On October 23 we had planned to paddle five miles past there, but the cold weather forced us to call it a day, and we camped at Lock and Dam 18. The next morning we were greeted by Steve Brower and Jerry, who both work with the Leopold Heritage Group, which is based out of Leopold’s boyhood home in Burlington, Iowa. Steve is a landscape architect who specializes in native landscape recovery and restoration and created an outdoor classroom with the Aldo Leopold Middle School. Both Aldo Leopold experts, they shared their knowledge and insight about this important nature writer.  Who is Aldo Leopold? What is his most famous work? Can you explain the concept of “land ethic?”

Steve has done extensive research on nature writers; he explained that there are certain topics that they all seem to address. For example, the concept of being surprised by nature is a common theme in creating narratives about nature. He believes that it is important for children and people of all ages to have a surprise experience in nature. He is concerned that if we do not continue to protect, invest in, and create natural areas – especially within urban areas – there will be fewer places and opportunities for these formative moments to occur. Have you ever experienced a moment of surprise and wonder in nature? What happened? How did you feel? How do you define nature?

We said farewell and paddled on to Montrose. It was a long ways away, and the winds slowed us down more than we expected. The sun set and we were still five miles out. We do not like to paddle at night because it is hard for barges to see us, and it is hard for us to see hazards such as logs in the water. We stayed together and put our headlamps on. A group in Montrose who was hosting us said they would put their car headlights on and shine them towards the river. We saw the lights in the distance and headed their way.

We were greeted by a large group as we pulled up. It was exciting and heartwarming to be welcomed by so many new and friendly faces. We were doubly grateful to have an indoor place to rest for the night when we stopped paddling and felt the cold set in. Among the group were four students and their science teacher from town—real live River Ambassadors! They showed us the projects their class had done related to the Mississippi River and where they live. They had written poems, stories, and drawn pictures, and it was very impressive!

What could be better after a long, cold day of paddling than to come inside to friendly folks and a hot-cooked meal? Mary Sue, Mary, Marla, Roger, and a group of friends served us barbecue steak sandwiches, hot soup, and hot chocolate, which we ate enthusiastically as we met our new friends. After dinner, Jim taught us about the history of button production in Montrose. There used to be a button factory in town that carved buttons out of mussel shells. This was a major industry in town, but the factory shut down in the 1960s when plastic replaced mussel shells as the preferred material for buttons because it was cheaper to produce.

After a warm night in the Heritage Center, Joyce came to teach us about the turtle traps she makes. Joyce uses nylon thread and D-shaped hoops to create good traps. The nylon is then coated in tar to make it stronger. Recreational and commercial trappers mostly catch turtles for their meat. The group was then loaded up on a trailer and taken around the community. We saw the old chapel, the volunteer fire station, and the largest sassafras tree in the state of Iowa! The group was proud of their community, and it was a delight to hear about all of the work and time they are investing in it.


Something that we were very impressed with was the way the community creatively used resources they already had on hand to make their town a better place to live. For example, we stayed in the Heritage Center in town, which used to be a fertilizer warehouse and was now a community gathering space. The fountain outside the center was made from large concrete tubs that used to hold chemicals from the fertilizer production. Outside of the library was a beautiful statue carved into the trunk of an old tree that was no longer standing. In one of the front yards we saw, someone had buried an old speedboat and was using it as a sandbox. How clever! When is a time you found a new use for something old? How did you repurpose it?

After a stop at the local grocery store, we packed up the boats, said farewell to our friends, and pointed our vessels downstream.


The statue carved out of an old tree in front of the Montrose library

The statue carved out of an old tree in front of the Montrose library

Montrose Group Photo.JPG

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