Harrison County is about as geologically diverse as any county in Iowa—from wetlands teeming with wildlife to the Loess Hills, which rise up out of farmland that’s as flat as a pool table along the Missouri River.
As we drove into the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge near Missouri Valley under stubborn leaden clouds, fog shrouded the 8,000-acre wetland preserve.
No matter—that simply added to the tranquility of the refuge and DeSoto Lake, where there was barely a ripple on the waters. All was quiet except for a couple flocks of wild turkeys that scurried to the side of the road as we drove along.
The lake is a 7-mile-long oxbow of the Missouri River. When the Army Corps of Engineers straightened the river, the water in the oxbow was impounded, creating a haven for waterfowl.
Upwards of 200,000 Canada geese, ducks and other waterfowl stop to rest and feed there on their fall migration from northern nesting areas to warmer climates in the south. Park rangers told us the prime viewing time of the migration is in November, with the peak coming around Thanksgiving.
Waterfowl aren’t the only visitors to the wetlands. With an ample food supply in and on the water, eagles can be seen watching from the cottonwood trees and soaring overhead.
If/when you head this way be sure to stop by the visitor center—portions of it are actually built out over DeSoto Lake, with floor-to-ceiling windows for viewing waterfowl activity. And there are a number of displays in the interpretive center explaining the interrelationships of the many wildlife species that make the refuge their home.
The DeSoto visitor center also houses the largest intact collection of Civil War-era artifacts— 200,000 of them—in the U.S. Here’s the reason behind it:
On April 1, 1865, the steamboat Bertrand hit a submerged log and sank in the treacherous waters of the Missouri River near the present-day site of the wildlife refuge. It was carrying supplies upriver to gold mining towns in Montana.
The steamboat sank in 10 minutes, and in time became buried in 35 feet of mud. Sealed in that anaerobic environment, the cargo was incredibly well preserved.
The Bertrand was discovered by a couple of modern-day treasure hunters in 1968. But since the boat sank in government waters, all of the artifacts had to be turned over to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for preservation.
That cargo, much of it on display, is a time capsule of life on the 1860s frontier. There were mining-camp necessities, to be sure, but also a surprising amount of what might be considered luxuries.
Among the sunken treasures were oysters, strawberries, peaches, peanuts, catsup, mustard from France and even French champagne. The canned goods were tested in 1974, and although their appearance, smell and vitamin content had deteriorated, there was no trace of microbial growth, and the food was determined still safe to eat!
The cargo also included coats, hats, boots, shoes and even children’s pantaloons—all nicely preserved.
And, of course, there was plenty of whiskey, bourbon, brandy and brandied cherries—5,000 barrels of it. The display includes bottles of Kelly’s Old Cabin Bitters used for “medicinal pur-poses.” The concoction was 40% alcohol and, according to one account, “If it didn’t cure the ailments, you forgot them.”
This content previously appeared in the popular “Road Trip” series in Our Iowa Magazine. Learn more about the publication at www.OurIowaMagazine.com.