It seems like January is really the start to winter these days. We get our first taste of “real” cold. We get snow. Then ice. And winter truly sets in for a while.

In this case, it may be tempting to stay inside under a warm blanket with hot cup of something. And that’s fine after dark. But in daylight hours, the outdoors beckons. And even in winter, there’s lots to get out and see and do.


With the cold comes eagle watching season. Head down to the river with binoculars and watch our national bird pull fish from the water, fight with each other, and do their majestic eagle thing. Park at one of the boat ramps and you don’t even need to get out of your warm car. We’re lucky to live where we do. The Mississippi River is one of the best places in the nation to see eagles.

If you want to learn more about our nation’s bird, attend our eagle watch program on Saturday, January 13. This free, public event starts at the Port of Burlington at 10:00 AM with an educational program. Then we caravan over to Lock & Dam 18 to view and count eagles. While nature is inherently unpredictable, it’s not uncommon to have counts in the triple digits at this event.


Our geography isn’t exactly suited to traditional downhill skiing but that shouldn’t stop you from strapping on some skis and getting in a winter workout. Did you know you can rent cross-country skis from Starr’s Cave Nature Center? We offer weekly and season-long rentals. Once we get four inches of snow on the ground, you can ski the trails through Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve. Or take them with you and ski the trails at Big Hollow, traverse the county on the Flint River Trail, or bushwack through your favorite natural area.

Whether you have a new year goal of getting in better shape or not, skiing is a great way to do it. In the world of exercise science, cross-country skiing is considered the best cardiovascular exercise you can get. It uses a large percentage of your muscle mass in that it requires constant movement of both legs and arms. The constant weight shifting from one side to the other improves balance and the gliding action is easier on joints than, say, running or even hiking.

Skis rent for $25 for a week, or $75 for a season. Every rental includes skis, poles, and boots. To arrange your rental, call Marcus or Jacklyn at Starr’s Cave Nature Center at (319) 753-5808.


While you’re out exploring the wilds of winter, why not add an adventure pack to your arsenal? At Starr’s Cave you can also rent backpacks loaded with all the materials you need to read and interpret animal tracks you encounter, birds you hear and see, or to learn about creatures of the night. These packs are loaded with field guides, binoculars, journals, owl calls, and other things you may need for your adventures.

These adventure packs rent for $5 per day. Again, just contact nature center staff to set up a time to rent your pack.

Ice fishing

With extended cold comes hard water on ponds and lakes. Ice fishing is a great way to get outdoors in the peak of winter. But some precautions are necessary when venturing out onto ice.

First, know that no ice is completely safe. And ice thickness can vary from spot to spot due to underwater currents, springs, and other conditions. Check ice conditions regularly as you go along. Four inches is the minimum thickness you want for fishing. Avoid off-colored snow or ice. Always tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Fishing is best done with friends and family, and is much safer when you have someone with you.

The Iowa DNR published fishing reports and this time of year those reports often contain ice conditions. It’s good to check there before heading out, but realize that those reports will be a few to several days old. Always field-verify before venturing too far from shore.

Staying warm

While winter offers unique outdoor recreation opportunities, it’s not without its share of challenges. Namely, staying warm in the cold. For this, the key is to dress in layers and stay dry. Start with a snug-fitting underlayer such as thermal underwear. Over that, wear what you might wear any other time such as jeans and a sweater or sweatshirt. Just don’t pack it on so tight that it impedes circulation. You need that to get heat to the extremities.

Finish the ensemble with an outer layer, preferably one that’s relatively waterproof. Don’t forget gloves and a hat. If you’re going to be out long, bring an extra set of gloves. Good boots are a must for keeping your feet warm and dry, as are good socks. Despite all our technological advancements, wool is still the best material for winter warmth, especially for socks.

If you’ll be on the snow on sunny days, don’t forget sunglasses or tinted goggles.

Winter brings its share of challenges for sure, but it also offers plenty of opportunities to get outside and enjoy the natural world in ways no other season can.

See you out there.

published Friday, January 12, 2024

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