The Natural Gait: Northeast Iowa’s Rustic Retreat

The Natural Gait is our sister site check it out here

Taken from Radish Magazine
by Rich Patterson

The view from Grandview Cabin is startling at The Natural Gait in Allamakee County, Iowa.

The notebook in a rustic cabin overlooking Northeast Iowa’s Yellow River captured the essence of The Natural Gait.

“We enjoyed being away from television and telephones for a few days to just let the natural beauty of the area sink in,” reads one longhand entry. Others mention the cozy joy of curling up with a book by the wood stove as snow enveloped the cabin. Another entry relates a long day riding horses through the woods and prairies of this unusual Iowa location.

The Natural Gait and its sister, Ion Exchange, aren’t just businesses. They are places to connect with natural Iowa. In a way, they are a state of mind as well as a beautiful and interesting place.

“These are creations from the heart and passion of two people in love with each other and the land and a desire for everyone to get connected to the natural world,” says Howard Bright, who with his wife, Donna, started The Natural Gait.

Back in 1980, the Brights were working in Burlington, Iowa. Howard was a district conservationist for the Soil Conservation Service and Donna served as an agent for the Extension Service.

“Our jobs were good, but we started to question spending 10 hours a day apart doing separate things. We wanted to live in the country and own a piece of land that had trees, water, hills and valleys that faced in all directions. So we started to actively look.” It took a while. Four years later, they found 160 acres of rugged hills, forests and river bottom in Allamakee County.

In what they describe as a magical moment along the Yellow River, they decided to buy the place. Their Realtor/banker tried to dissuade them by pointing out that the property had few visible financial assets. There was only about 35 acres of cropland and the forest had been logged.

“We had an idea to collect native plant seeds from remnant prairies and wetlands and sell them to people wishing to restore native ecosystems. Back then this was a novel concept, especially to rural bankers who wondered why anyone would want to grow what most folks considered weeds. But we bought the place and started collecting,” Bright says.

Their native plant business was named Ion Exchange in honor of a chemical exchange that takes place in the soil and for a nearby ghost town named Ion that had flooded and washed away in 1916.

In the early 1980s, anyone wishing to reestablish a prairie faced an immediate problem: finding a seed source. There simply weren’t many nurseries that sold native plant materials. The Brights’ timing was good. Interest in prairies was blossoming, and they soon found a ready market in the growing number of people interested in restoration. Ion Exchange gradually has grown and today offers dozens of different species of seeds and plugs. They’ve expanded beyond prairies and also sell wetland and woodland seeds and plants. The business includes fields where seed plants thrive and a cluster of buildings where plants are allowed to dry, seeds are cleaned, and plugs are produced.

In 1999 the Brights created another business associated with the land. “We called it the Natural Gait because it was our intention of helping others find their own ‘gait,’ or direction in life,” says Bright.

The Gait is a place where people wanting to enjoy natural Iowa can stay. Its bunk houses, cabins and apartments attract people wishing to spiritually connect with nature, hold family reunions and business retreats, and hike or horseback ride. Some of the buildings are near Ion Exchange’s seed business. Other cabins and a campground are on the steep river bluff. They’re within sight of Ion Exchange, but it’s a six mile drive to reach them.

Our weekend at the Natural Gait started on a cold, windy October night. We found Grandview Cabin and soon had a fire crackling in the woodstove. Most of Iowa is so settled that it’s hard to get away from lights and towns and we were pleased to see a mostly dark sky and horizon.

Just four of us stayed in the cabin, although it easily could hold ten. Phones and televisions were blissfully absent, but the cabin is set up for wireless Internet, an interesting combination of rustic and modern.

Shortly after dawn Saturday, we were amazed to look out the front porch and see the land drop to the river. No slope in Wyoming could match the dizzying steepness of the Yellow River bluff. In the distance below us, we could see the fuzzy growth of Ion Exchange’s recently harvested prairie plants. The field’s texture was surprisingly different from that of Iowa’s common corn and bean fields.

That Saturday we toured the seed processing buildings and hiked above them to a large cave in a limestone outcropping where Native Americans once lived. Today the Brights sponsor concerts in this massive rock cavity high above the river. That afternoon we headed for nearby Marquette and Prairie du Chien for shopping and a coffee-shop lunch. As the sun dipped below the horizon, we grilled steaks behind the cabin and enjoyed total silence, broken only by the haunting call of a barred owl.

Following a brisk walk Sunday morning we packed and headed back to the busy world, but the quiet weekend at the Natural Gait remains a pleasant memory.

For more information, visit thenaturalgait.com or call (877) 776-2208.

Rich and Marion Patterson of Cedar Rapids are freelance writers.

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