The Atlantic Ocean is approximately 1,158 miles to the east of Iowa. The Pacific is about 1,796 miles to the west. And the Gulf of Mexico is a lengthy 1,086 miles from Iowa’s center. Iowa may be famously land-locked among seas of cornfields, but a mysterious ocean lurks closer than you think. On a recent Saturday, my family and I set out to unlock the secrets of the state's unknown ocean.
At one time, present-day Iowa was located south of the equator, blanketed by warm, shallow waters, similar to today’s Caribbean Sea. Over millions of years, as the earth’s continents crawled into their current locations, the oceans moved too.
Fast forward to Iowa, circa 1993, and the historic floods that plagued the state that year. Massive rains pushed Coralville Lake near Coralville to its tipping point, and an emergency spillway inherited torrents of raging floodwaters, traveling at more than 17,000 cubic feet per second.
For a record 28 days, water rushed through the spillway, en route to the Iowa River and eventually to the Mighty Mississippi. Finally, what the flood left behind was nothings short of both devastating and miraculous. The water ripped away a road, a campground, and more than 17 feet of soil and rock. And it exposed the curious Devonian Fossil Gorge, the bed of the prehistoric sea that swallowed present-day Iowa more than 375 millions of years ago. (Repeat flooding in 2008 widened the gorge significantly.)
The Devonian Fossil Gorge is a beautiful, living reminder of earth’s early life. My sons delighted in running and jumping across the rocky terrain, skipping over sparkling streams, and wondering at wildflowers.
Tasteful interpretive signage throughout the gorge teaches visitors about the various unique land formations and the animals that are fossilized within it, many of them more than 200 million years older than the dinosaurs! The gorge is as extraordinary as it is educational, as rare as it is remarkable.
You can’t come to Iowa to surf atop an ocean. But Iowa is an unlikely place where you can walk on the bottom of one.