Big heart on the Little Sioux River
The best turkey Karen Nelson ever fixed was cooked on a wood-fueled stove in a cozy cabin on the Little Sioux River.There’s no reason to doubt that the bird prepared that day in Cherokee County was anything short of exceptional. There’s also no denying that the meal’s setting and the people it brought together time and again, rarely disappointed.
A Gathering Place
Karen and her late husband, Tom, bought the cabin and surrounding .68 acres in November of 1985. Perched on an embankment overlooking the Little Sioux River, the water is practically within reach. Surrounded by public lands, the spot is idyllic as it is scenic.
“Tom looked at it while I was at work one day, told me about it, and said ‘take a look and see what you think,’” Karen recalled. “I saw it and said, ‘We can’t go wrong. Let’s get it.’”It didn’t take long for Tom and Karen, both whom already had an affinity for the river, to fall in love with the place. When the adjacent property was offered at auction by the county six years later, they didn’t hesitate. Tom, an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting, fishing and bird-watching, was especially excited to redevelop the upland part of the land from a gravel pit to a pond.
Karen fondly recalls afternoons the family spent floating there on inner tubes, and the days her children, and later, her seven grandchildren spent fishing and catching frogs.
In the winter, they’d invite family and friends over for parties to watch the ice go out on the river, the cracking ice audible from the embankment. In later years, the couple hosted potlucks and jam sessions on the land, everyone playing music together late into the night.
It was these memories and her love of this place that motivated her to pursue permanently protecting it when Tom passed away.
“My children are grown and have moved away, and I knew I didn’t want to go out there and stay at the cabin by myself,” Karen said. “It became my dream to preserve it for other people to enjoy.”
Expanding the Invitation
Karen reached out to Cherokee County Conservation Board to see if they would be interested in the property. After meeting with Executive Director Chad Brown, who offered ideas of how they could share it with others, she decided to donate it to them.
“We were really excited when Karen reached out,” Brown said. “The land is tucked into the middle of all of this public land, and it’s right on the river, so it’s definitely a good property to protect.”
Protection of the property has added to the growing complex of scenic land along the Little Sioux River – including 260 contiguous acres between the Nelsons’ land and neighboring natural areas – for the public and paddlers to enjoy.
Encouraged by her daughter, Meg, who had worked in conservation, she also decided to donate a conservation easement on all 60 acres to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF). This ensures the land’s natural features will be protected in perpetuity, and that the property cannot be subdivided or developed.
“I think that a conservation easement is the best way to really ensure that land is protected as envisioned for as long as possible,” Meg said. “It was really the result of my interest in conservation, and my mom’s interest in wanting to protect the land and ensure it would always be available for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Around the Bend
Karen donated the property to CCCB in February of 2019. In the days since, CCCB staff have slowly begun reshaping the lay of the land, now known as River Road Conservation Area, to realize the shared vision for this place.
An extensive renovation of the cabin, which had been significantly damaged in the 2018 floods, was recently completed and is now available for rent. A trail that loops around the whole property via an old rail-bed has been mowed and leveled off. New prairie plantings are beginning to take root.
CCCB hopes to eventually use the land to provide educational and recreational programming for kids. Tom, who enjoyed instilling “a love of the outdoors and a sense of responsibility for the land and its wildlife” in others, certainly would have appreciated that.
Some things have changed since those early days at the cabin. Karen has moved to Wisconsin to be closer to her children. The old stove where she fixed that bird is long gone. The beauty, pull of this place, and now, the promise that it will always be here, remain much the same.
“That’s what I wanted, for people to be able come and experience this place and make their own memories,” Karen said.