Posts Tagged: inspire(d) magazine

Phyllis (Johnson) Leseth

Interviewed by Benji Nichols

(Benji’s note: It is impossible in one page to summarize the incredible depth of knowledge and love that Phyllis Leseth has for Decorah and the surrounding area. In a short two-hour chat with her, it became apparent that Phyllis should really be the subject of a book, not a single page, but we’ll do our best to represent her amazing accomplishments here!)

“My Mother always said I was one of the first babies born at the old hospital,” says Phyllis Leseth from the heart of her historic home on Rural Avenue in Decorah. Speaking with her, it is apparent that this charming woman has more stories than one can imagine. At 92, Phyllis speaks eloquently about her experiences being among the first group of women to attend Luther College (class of ’39) – where she earned a degree in English and History – and of being one of the first females to work on the Luther Newspaper & News Bureau. Through a fascinating life of teaching, writing (including a stint at the CR Gazette!), volunteering, and raising a family – it’s the history that she has thrived on throughout the decades. It is also timely to note that Phyllis was a part of the very first organizing committee for Nordic Fest in Decorah in 1966. At that time project leaders from the local J.C.’s including Jerry Aulwes, Mike Dahly, Harry Olson, Darrell Pierce and Gary Svenson enlisted the help of Vesterheim Director Marion Nelson and Phyllis Leseth to help launch the first annual Nordic Fest – which has since brought over 1.5 million visitors to Decorah over 43 years.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
My Father was the youngest in a large family, and was a very self-made man. He had great respect for education and was the only one in his family to go to High School. He always had the feeling that you were only as good as your word. “Remember to always tell the truth, and if you ever promise to do something – do it.”

What did you want to be when you grew up?
Growing up on Washington Street in Decorah we had a great bunch of neighbors and friends, and the schools and teachers were wonderful. I was lucky enough to attend Luther as one of the first female students – and with my interests in writing and history I think teaching seemed natural. I did teach for a short time in Western Iowa before I was married, and then went on to write for the Gazette amongst other things. (Phyllis also spent a short time working at Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids during The War.)

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you want with you?
Oh I would want a stack of books as I read all the time, and a GOOD pair of shoes. And I suppose I do love a good cake – nothing better!

Tell us about…
Your wedding day:

Hubert and I were married at Decorah Lutheran Church – the old church. All of our high school gang was there and I had five of my good friends as bridesmaids. I remember my dad walking me down the isle and stopping to ask me, “Are you sure you want to go through with this?” He was joking of course – he had a wonderful sense of humor. Hubert worked for A&P in Decorah for many years and then went to the main offices in Des Moines and eventually we moved back to Decorah and he managed the office at Peter Johnson & Sons.

Your favorite memory:
I have so many wonderful memories of my life here in Decorah and beyond. I feel so blessed to have had such great parents  – they set very high standards for us. My mother was a graduate of the Northwestern School of Music and taught before she was married. She sang at many occasions around the area through her life. I give my parents a lot of credit for making education so important in our lives. I went to Luther as one of the first Women to do so, and during depression times, so it really is something else. My family, of course, has just been wonderful and both my daughters became teachers and are in Decorah. (Cam Ford, and Adrianne Coffeen.) I have also enjoyed volunteering at the Vesterheim Museum for many years – History is really my thing, and it has been for years –and it still is!

Black & White: Phyllis Leseth with Marion Nelson (past Vesterheim Museum Director) and the Leseth’s Rosemaled ’56 Chevy. Laura Hoeg painted the original design and updated the date annually.

Color: Phyllis Leseth at home, Spring, 2009

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Miles of Trekking at Lake Meyer

By Lauren Kraus

Hello, Summer! As each day begins and every heavy rain passes, the trees and vegetation bring a bright green glow to Northeast Iowa. That fresh glow has been buried in snow for too long and now is the time to get out and play. The late sunsets, colorful flowers, and green leaves are intoxicating – you just can’t help but feel happy in the presence of summer! For me, this constant beckoning to be outside means tromping around in the woods and exploring area trails. I am excited to keep surveying the region’s greatness and continue the trail series featured in Inspire(d) last spring, summer, and fall. We checked out some pretty prime spots, and if you need a refresher, see the complete series of trails articles in the main “read” section. Whatever your mode – hike, bike, run, or walk – make sure you take advantage of the fantastic natural setting that is the Driftless region.

Know of Lake Meyer? No, no, not to be mistaken with Michael Myers, the fictional character from the “Halloween” slasher series. Winneshiek’s Meyer is much better and not scary. (Although, summer is definitely a great time to stay up late and watch horror movies or tell ghost stories.) Lake Meyer is a hidden gem that sits on 33 acres of rolling, rugged woodlands nestled just three miles southwest of Calmar off Highway 24. It’s not the land of 10,000 lakes here in Iowa, so a body of water surrounded with great hiking trails like Lake Meyer is unique and not to be missed. Home of the Winneshiek County Conservation Board, Lake Meyer Park not only has beautiful trails with a few rustic bridges (including a hidden draw bridge) to enjoy, but boasts a campground and nature center that is open for outdoor education and regular events such as the Women’s Canoe Workshop that happened this June.

In the mood for bluegill, largemouth bass, or channel catfish? Lake Meyer also has great fishing. So get out the picnic basket, pull out those fishing poles and brush off the old Eureka tent, ‘cause Lake Meyer Park has it all. For more information and specific event dates, check out

Itching for a new trail to check out or need a reminder of the sweet, sweet tromping grounds in Decorah? You asked for it. The folks of Decorah Human Powered Trails (DHPT) as well as several volunteers kept their momentum going – even after the flood damage last June – to build virtually one mile of new trail in the Dunnings Spring Park above Ice Cave Road. Deke Gosen of Decorah’s Oneota River Cycles expressed his excitement about the success in making this new trail a great loop with little elevation differential and a better entrance off Ice Cave Road. This is open to all types of bikers, runners, and hikers with varied skill level. To access this new trail, called “Mother’s Day,” head east on Ice Cave Road and keep a lookout for a trailhead on the north side (your left) of the road. You will notice a small, brown Decorah Parks and Rec. sign with a little hiker on it well after the entrance to Dunning’s Spring but before the Ice Cave. This is the older trail. Keep going about 100 yards and look for another trailhead. It is clearly tracked out, but not marked with a sign. Note the most recent, updated map included for a visual. Head up and enjoy the lush, thick forest!

If you love the trails in Decorah and are looking for opportunity to have a little organized fun on them, the DHPT hosts a variety of events each summer, competitive and non-competitive.

For information, dates, and contacts check out Get outside! Summer is in full swing and now is the time to take advantage of the awesome landscape of Winneshiek County. Soak in that sun and fresh air and check back in August for more fantastic locales to explore.

Lauren Kraus loves sleeping under the stars, enjoys eating food cooked over a fire in the woods and gets antsy when inside for an extended period of time. Does this surprise you? Unfortunately, she did not find one morel mushroom this season. She has a lot to learn.

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Happy Trails: Eventful tromping in the Driftless Area

By Lauren Kraus
Printed in the May 2008 edition of Inspire(d)

Spring is here and you should be too! The squeals of kids playing ice hockey on Decorah’s flooded and frozen 5th Avenue basketball courts have been replaced by chirping birds eagerly greeting the day ahead. Mammoth mounds of snow have disappeared. The Whippy Dip is open. Daylight is staying with us longer and the many miles of trails that weave in and out of the area’s wooded bluffs are beckoning for exploration. This is the first in a series of articles that serves as a tribute and tutorial of our regions amazing hiking, biking, and walking trails.

We folks in Winneshiek County are lucky for several reasons. One, the Oneota Valley is located within the Driftless Area, a region in the Midwest lacking “glacial drift.” By escaping the glacier’s path in the most recent Ice Age, the Driftless Area was not flattened out like much of Iowa. I often have to remind my Colorado friends and family that I am not living in a giant, flat cornfield, say, like most of Nebraska, but rather am surrounded by deep river valleys, rolling bluffs and pronounced limestone outcroppings that are characteristic of this region.

The fine people behind Decorah Human Powered Trails and Decorah Parks and Recreation deserve praise for helping us take advantage of this geological luck. These two groups are concurrently pushing forward, and with the help of a myriad of volunteers, numerous trails have been constructed and secured since 1991. While talking with Deke Gosen of Oneota River Cycles in Decorah, I was thoroughly impressed with the evolution and documentation of the trails right in or near town. Gosen explained that, in the 80s specifically, only a limited amount of the Ice Cave trails existed. The year 1981 saw the birth of bicycles equipped with fatter tires to ride on terrain more technical than a road. Decorah led the state of Iowa in hosting the first mountain bike race on its (then few) backwoods trails. The rest is pretty much history… and some good organization, solid dedication and mindful trail building.

The current 15 miles of trails are truly something to be proud of. They form a foundation of outdoor life in Decorah that has caught the attention of people from all over the country.

“The incredible variety of trails in Decorah and the ability to totally lose yourself once you’re out there is awesome! The trails keep my running exciting and challenging,” says Yarrow Pasche, Luther College cross country and distance track coach from Bellingham, Washington.

Jesse Reyerson, biking enthusiast and secretary for Decorah Human Powered Trails, says on his website (, “The biking in Decorah, Iowa, is some of the best in the Midwest. From our gravel and road rides to our miles of singletrack, you’ll have a hard time finding the challenges and fun that our trails offer anywhere else.”

I have to completely agree with these two. While growing up in Denver, Colorado presented an exciting childhood full of all the hiking and skiing I could handle, a vehicle is a vital component in mountain access. The extensive and wide-ranging trails in Decorah are available right out our backdoor. The town is literally bordered by great trails of all sorts and sizes. Throughout my time as a Luther College student and runner, I explored them with utter excitement and awe. I continue to discover more and more accessibility to the peaceful stillness that awaits us in the woods. So, whether you’re clipping into a mountain bike, throwing on some hiking boots or tying a pair of running shoes, get out on those phenomenal trails for front-row access to budding trees, grazing wildlife, and riverside views.

To the trails
If you’re feeling like cruising through a natural-grass prairie while watching the sunset or hurdling fallen trees and large rocks in some rugged woods, we’ve got it all here. Check out the sidebar for a complete listing of trail recommendations.

A few of my favorites are: Twin Springs Park, Upper Ice Cave Hill in Dunning’s Spring Park and Van Peenen Park. All three offer a mix of jagged rock and mud trails that snake though the heavily wooded bluffs, the trickling of natural spring water never far away.

Twin Springs Park
Twin Springs Park is tucked on the west side of Highway 52 past Twin Springs Campground off a road of the same name. You can get there several ways – walk, bike or run from town off the Oneota Trail (Dug Road) below Phelps Park and head west past the campground and under Highway 52. Cross a single-lane bridge and you’re in the middle of the lush foliage and crystal clear water that is Twin Springs. Once you forget about the great grilling smell from the campground, you may almost think you’re on the set of Lord of the Rings – but pinch yourself – you’re still in Decorah. Hop on the trail parallel to the stream and continue west. Eventually you will come to the base of a bluff and have to head up. This portion of the trail is a loop and is roughly three-fourths of a mile in length. You’ll be happy you made the trip and may even work up an appetite to do some of your own grilling later.

Dunning’s Spring Park
If you’re familiar with Decorah, you’re probably familiar with Dunning’s Spring. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a picnic there or climbed the wooden stairs leading to the top of the waterfall to see the natural spring’s source. But did you know that there are several trails in the woods above the legendary spring? Finish that peanut butter and jelly and go east of the waterfall to the trailhead. From that point, you’ll begin on a very steep path that eventually leads to an awesome viewpoint of downtown Decorah. Keep heading up and you’ll find yourself in a wooded area on top of the bluff, east of Dunning’s Spring. These trails form a series of loops that wind through pine groves and other native trees and provide perfect opportunities to spot deer, hawks, bald eagles and other animal friends. On the opposite end or east side of the bluff, there are exit trails marked #36 and 37 that let out onto Ice Cave Road. If you don’t feel like stopping here, head down the north side of Ice Cave Hill on Randy’s Trail or Backside Trail and find yourself in Van Peenen Park.

Van Peenen
In my opinion, the Van Peenen trails are the most astounding of them all. I get giddy every time I’m up there. You can access Van Peenen from the backside of Ice Cave Hill, near the intersection of Quarry and Ice Cave Roads or further up on the Quarry Road. If you’re ready to jump right into what Van Peenen has to offer, I recommend starting on the south side either from Ice Cave Hill or off of Quarry Road. Get on the trail marked #1, stay right and you will eventually be led into what the biking community calls “Death Valley.” It’s the valley between the Ice Cave Hill bluff and the bluff Van Peenen is situated on. From here, the only way to go is up. Hang a sharp right in Death Valley on a trail marked #3 that skirts around the bluff and is a little bit more gradual in elevation gain. You’ll cross two wooden bridges and notice a small spring to your left. Continuing up the hillside, pay attention to the trees above as I’ve spotted a large Barn Owl as well as several hawks on that trail. Back in Death Valley, if you take the other right turn at #23, you’ll find yourself on Fred Trail, a pretty direct ascent up the side of the bluff. With either route, you’ll be led to the main set of trails that make up the Van Peenen system.

On top, you will be off the jagged, wooded trails and into a rolling mix of open prairie and deep pine sections. Pines West and Pines East are beautiful pine groves that Decorah Parks and Recreation planted nearly 20 years ago. Now, they have grown enough to walk, run, or bike through the thick of them on a soft, narrow, winding trail covered in pine needles. At this point, sometimes I forget I’m still in Iowa, as it smells just like a pine forest in Colorado. From the Pines, you can continue north down the other side of the bluff onto the Dust Bowl Trail that eventually leads to the exit on Quarry Road. I promise, a thorough exploration of Van Peenen is well worth a Saturday afternoon.

So get out there! May is here and summer is just around the bend. Later sunsets leave plenty of time to get off the pavement, get dirty and check out the terrific trails I’ve mentioned here. Let us know which one is your favorite. And check back next month as I head north of Decorah to explore some other trails…

Lauren Kraus loves her family and friends, is stoked about the transition into warmer weather, and was most definitely a mountain goat in a previous life. This is evidenced by her need for climbing steep surfaces and maybe a correlation to her frequent cravings for chèvre. Goats don’t ride bicycles though.

Here are some details on other great Decorah trails:

College Ridge Trail: two miles of several loops of wide, grassy, rolling trails through beautiful pine area. Bring a picnic and enjoy the great view from the top. Access off of Pole Line Rd. west of Highway 52

Decorah City Prairie: two miles of awesome, flat, wide trail that winds through natural prairie grass alongside the Upper Iowa river. Access it from Ohio Street and make sure to check out the old oak tree.

Luther’s Cross Country course: a great two-mile loop on Luther’s lower campus. Walk over the dike toward Highway 52 into Gateway Prairie. Another flat, soft prairie trail to extend your mileage while you’re out on the course.

Van Peenen Park: see article for description and directions.

Upper Ice Cave Hill: see article for description and directions.

Lower Ice Cave or River Trail: an awesome, rugged trail that runs next to the river off of
Ice Cave Road. Check out the newest additions adding great variety to the trail. About _ mile in length.

Palisades Park: There is something for everyone here! Continue west on Ice Cave Road until you hit the gravel. Head up on the paved road or stay low on the gravel road. Either grants access to the great trail system that meanders through Palisades Park. Hilly, wooded and beautiful views of Decorah.

Oneota Drive Rec. Trail or Dug Road: paved path that provides a great look at what Decorah offers- limestone bluffs alongside the Upper Iowa River. Access on the west end off Hwy 52 on Oneota Drive or at the west end of Main St. (Dug Road portion closed until further notice due to large cracks in the trail.)
Twin Springs Park: see article for description and directions.

Other trails to check out:
Anderson Prairie and the Hickory Ridge Trails: located next to Luther’s Baker Village and across from the Decorah Pool, Anderson Prairie leads up to the trees where you can access the secluded Hickory Ridge trail system. Great for an evening stroll in the woods.

Upper Phelps Park Trail: Access from Phelps Park off of Upper Broadway. The wooded trail leads you west of the Park along the ridgeline and offers an awesome view of the river and town. Come up the backside near Twin Springs Campground. Cross the “Cut” and take a right up the hill to the trailhead.

Pulpit Rock: At Will Baker Park located on Pulpit Rock Rd., head up on the trail. Take a break at the awesome lookout spot and then continue onto a great trail system that borders the ridge of the bluff. Beautiful place to watch the sunrise!

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