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Decoding the Driftless to be shown at Gays Mills Library
Decoding the Driftless

GAYS MILLS - ‘Decoding the Driftless’ is a beautifully entertaining and educational documentary film about the ancient treasure trove of biodiversity known as the Driftless Region. The film takes viewers on a celebratory panoramic sweep of the many fascinating things that make this region so unique and precious.

The film will be shown for free on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2–4 p.m., on the big screen in the Community Room at the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center, 16381 State Highway 131, Gays Mills.The showing will be followed by a question and answer session with film producer George Howe.

The Kickapoo River Valley where Gays Mills is located is a unique and special part of the Driftless Region, which includes the unglaciated areas of Southeast Minnesota, Northeast Iowa, Northwest Illinois and Southwest Wisconsin.

George Howe, one of the film’s co-producers, spent his working career teaching high school science. Since retiring, Howe has turned his attention to promoting awareness and appreciation of the unique attributes of the region he loves.

“I realized that many residents of and visitors to the Driftless Region didn’t know the story of the unique geology and biodiversity that we have here,” Howe said. “I set out to make a film that told that story because I firmly believe that if the public is aware of what we have, they will want to conserve it for future generations.”

The film kicks off with a panaromic view of the Mississippi River, showing its majestic sweep and the bluffs with their coulees and goat prairies. It then takes the viewers on a dazzling dive into the unique geology that survived the last glacial period which ended about 11,000 years ago.

“Glacial melt formed the Mississippi River Valley and the 250 miles of rivers and streams that run through the Driftless Region,” the film’s narrator explains. “The bottom of the river was once 300 feet deeper, but was filled in by the outwash of glacial sediment.”

One fascinating detail revealed was that the ridge tops in the area are all approximately at the same height. When the glaciers melted, the valleys were created by erosion from water travelling downwards, ultimately to the ocean. The cracked and fissured karst geology of the region, composed of sedimentary layers of limestone, was particularly susceptible to this kind of erosion.

“Mountains are usually formed by an ‘uplift event,” the film narrator explained. “In the Driftless Region, the formation occurred in the opposite or ‘inverse’ way, through erosion.”

A feature of underlying geology, sinkholes and caves, gives some of the best clues visible to explorers and scientists, of the nature of the underlying bedrock. Film viewers are taken on a journey down into Coldwater Cave, just outside of Decorah, Iowa.

The cave is by far the most significant cave of the Upper Midwest karst region, and was designated a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1987. This status is accorded to geologic and ecologic features considered to be of national significance.

Since its discovery in the late sixties, over 17 miles of passages have been documented. The cave system is located in northeast Winneshiek County, Iowa and southeast Fillmore County, Minnesota. The cave proper is situated in the Iowa part of that basin. 

There is only one natural entrance to the cave and it is a water-filled spring that issues from the base of a 100-foot-tall bluff located within the Cold Water Creek Conservation area. Access through this entrance requires scuba gear, and the underwater entrance is currently gated. Primary access to the cave is through a 94-foot shaft that was drilled by the State of Iowa for researcher access in the early seventies.

From deep underground, the film emerges to climb up the slopes exploring rare and unique geologic features that can be viewed – or felt – above the ground. One of these features, ‘algific talus slopes,’ creates a microclimate so rare that they can only be found in the Driftless Region and in a few places in the mountains of West Virginia.

The Wisconsin DNR (WDNR) website describes the phenomemon on their website:

“This rare community is known only from the southwestern corner of Wisconsin's Driftless Area. Algific talus slopes are small and isolated and tend to occur on steep north- or east-facing slopes with a substrate of fractured limestone (dolomite) bedrock that retains ice and emits cold air throughout the growing season. The community of plant and animal life that thrives in the environment is dependent on water entering gaps in the dolomite, freezing in winter, and then slowly melting during the summer months and producing a steady outflow of cold air. Cold microhabitats support and enable the persistence of disjunct northern plant species, and periglacial relicts such as northern monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense) and globally rare terrestrial snails. The woody overstory is often sparse, composed of scattered, small black ash (Fraxinus nigra) and paper birch (Betula papyrifera). Mountain maple (Acer spicatum), a northern shrub, may be frequent, and extensive beds of bulblet bladder fern (Cystopteris bulbifera) and mosses are characteristic herbs.”

The mirror opposite of this north and east facing cold climate is the ‘goat prairie,’ which is typically found on hot south and west facing slopes.

The WDNR’s website describes the ‘goat’ or ‘dry prairie’ as follows:

“This dry grassland community usually occurs on steep south or west facing slopes or at the summits of river bluffs with sandstone or dolomite bedrock near the surface. Short to medium-sized prairie grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta), and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) are the dominant plant species in this community. Common shrubs and forbs include lead plant (Amorpha canescens), silky aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), purple prairie-clover (Dalea purpureum), cylindrical blazing-star (Liatris cylindracea), and gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis). 

“Although a relatively uncommon natural community, dry prairie is better represented in today's landscape than any other prairie community because it occurs on sites that are not well suited to other uses. However, dry prairie is more abundant in Wisconsin than in any other state in the Upper Midwest due to the unique topography, including steep-sided bluffs in the extensive Driftless Area, the rough terrain of the Kettle Moraine region, and the north-south orientation of several major river valleys such as the Mississippi, the Chippewa, and the St. Croix. These topographic attributes provide suitable sites for the development and persistence of this prairie type.”

From there, the film launches into an appreciative dive into the region’s abundant aquatic wildlife. Viewers are taken by boat into the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“This refuge is home to an amazing variety of aquatic life, and is critical to migratory songbirds and waterfowl,” the film narrator explains. “Up to 40 percent of the migrating waterfowl in the America’s pass through this area on an annual basis.”

And the bluffs are also home to rare and endangered species of birds such as the peregrine falcon. Viewers will be treated to a rare look at the nests of peregrine falcons and their young. The species is beginning to make a comeback due in part to the availability of habitat available in the Driftless Region.

And this description barely does the visual delight, the reverent exploration, and the exuberant enjoyment of the Driftless Region in the film justice. Safe to say, this showing in Gays Mills will provide a wonderful experience to viewers, and a valuable educational experience for the young and old alike.