Outdoors

F.W. Kent Park renewal makes swimming safer

The Nature Call: Clearning forest was a big help

A large central lake at F.W. Kent Park in Oxford, shown in 2005, is much cleaner now thanks to the efforts of the Conser
A large central lake at F.W. Kent Park in Oxford, shown in 2005, is much cleaner now thanks to the efforts of the Conservation Board. (The Gazette)
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A hot and sunny June day was my baptism at F.W. Kent Park.

Baptism suggests renewal. As we welcome the renewal of the calendar, and by extension individual attempts to make good on our resolutions, I want to remind you renewal is possible.

These cold and dark days of January may seem lifeless — and in some ways they are — but you know that in six short months our days will be long, warm, and lush: the promise of renewal fulfilled.

I wanted to swim in some clean water, I wanted to see my toes.

Too often, we Iowans equate a swim in clear water with a pool or a vacation in the Great North Woods. Iowa swimming holes are typically murky.

To add insult to injury, we need to do chemistry and math in our heads to decipher if the water is safe enough anyway. The timeless act of taking a natural swim shouldn’t come with a warning label.

F.W. Kent Park near Tiffin is the jewel of the Johnson County Conservation Board. The fee for admission is a simple “thank you.” They promised clean water at the beach. Such a claim in these parts necessitated a personal investigation.

Not so long ago, the beach at the park was as murky as any other. It took a purposeful process of renewal to find their improvement. Most methods were typical, one was radical. All meant some temporary hardships.

The man-made lake was drained in preparation for renewal. The accumulated muck and silt of half a century meant a good dredging and scraping was in order. The surrounding runoff basines received similar treatments.

And if that was all that was done, then the water many have cleaned up for some years before the same downward spiral of quality repeated.

Two additional treatments promised to break the negative cycle. One was obvious and the other was outrageous.

A cattle lot in the watershed was a direct source of “nonpoint” pollution. As luck would have it, the owner wanted to sell the land to the park and then move the operation elsewhere. In the hands of the conservation district, the property transformed from a liability to an asset. In our renewal goals for 2021 this is like cutting excess sugar from your diet.

For the sustainable cleanliness of the lake, the Conservation Board also cut down a forest. Yes, they did.

They chopped and dragged and worked up a powerful physical and emotional sweat, grappling with the hard truth that the trees added to the lake’s pollution. It is almost a bewildering statement, except it’s true.

Most of our region lies in the South Zone Drift Plain, a land last renewed by the Kanasan glacier so long ago I’m flummoxed to explain it. With millennia of windblown silt and rain, we inherited a light soil that was held in place by deep prairie roots. The rolling hills were a grassland punctuated by open-spaced groves of oaks. Forests per se were relegated to the riversides.

The upland hills that became F.W. Kent Park were planted thickly with trees by thoughtful and well meaning folks. The effort however produced a bare soil under the sun-blotting canopy of leaves. Tree roots were not up to the job. They let the precious soil slip past with each rain, accumulating in the lake.

Large swathes of trees are now gone. The prairies were restored and the lake will stay clean. A renewal that’s also sustainable.

Oh, that our personal goals for renewal could be so achieved and then sustained.

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In the conservation of nature, our society, and ourselves, I wish you the courage to embrace real renewal. Come June, I’ll be back for the water at F.W. Kent Park — unless the ice fishing bug gets me there sooner.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

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