Conservation Fun Night returns to Otter Creek Park

Annual fundraiser highlights much anticipated park updates

Tama County Conservation Director Stephen Mayne, center, provides the evening’s entertainment – a presentation titled “Year in Review & Future Project Improvements and Programs” – during last Saturday night’s Fun Night Fundraiser held at Otter Creek Lake & Park in rural Toledo. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON

TOLEDO–Tama County Conservation’s annual Fun Night fundraiser returned to Otter Creek Nature Center last Saturday evening following a pandemic hiatus, packing in almost 100 attendees who enjoyed a catered meal, bid on silent auction items, and learned more about park improvements all amidst the backdrop of the setting sun over the newly restored lake.

While the nature center’s expansive south and west facing windows provided the scenery for the evening’s events – including a picturesque view of the lakebed which has been slowly filling back up with water – much of the evening’s action could be found at the silent auction tables where everything from chainsaws to zoo tickets, kolaches to bourbon was waiting to be bid on in support of both the nature center and the lake restoration project fund.

After bidding on auction items and checking out the carnival games set up by BSA Troop 214-Cedar Rapids in the basement, attendees were treated to a catered dinner by Bobby’s BBQ & Grocery with dinner rolls courtesy of Toledo Fareway and dessert courtesy of Dirt Haven Acres and Kwik Star.

Following the dinner, Conservation Director Stephen Mayne stepped up to the podium situated beneath a hulking elk head wall mount to give an update on both his department’s past year and planned future conservation improvements.

The highlight of Mayne’s speech was undoubtedly the update he gave on the Otter Creek Lake Restoration project – a project that has been clawing its way toward a completion date following more than two years of work which included closing park facilities to the public.

Otter Creek Lake located northeast of Toledo pictured during the ‘golden hour’ last Saturday evening. Restoration of the lake is slowly coming to an end following a two year project spearheaded by the Iowa DNR. Soon the lakebed will refill and the lake will be restocked with native fish. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON

The lake restoration was the biggest project ever undertaken by the Tama County Conservation Board, Mayne said. The project – spearheaded by the Iowa DNR which served as the general contractor – included dredging critical parts of the lakebed that had been silted in, deepening the shoreline, and adding four new jetties while extending two existing jetties.

The project also placed a drawdown control structure in the dam that can be opened and closed by park staff.

Invasive species were removed from the lake as a result of the draining, Mayne said, and native species will be used to restock later this year.

While the lake is still mostly empty save for some recent rain and winter runoff pooling in the deepest sections, Mayne said that once the contractor finishes the remaining shoreline work and subsequently closes the gate in mid-May, the lake will begin to slowly refill over the next six months. The lake is fed by three streams plus rainfall.

In addition to work on the lake itself, the project also includes updates to park amenities. Mayne told the audience a new playground set is scheduled to be installed near the campground soon. With safety in mind, the parking area is also scheduled to be moved across the road next to the playground.

Close to 100 people turned out for Tama County Conservation’s annual fundraiser held in the Otter Creek Lake & Park nature center on Saturday, April 1 in rural Toledo. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON

An ADA-accessible path, a stream for kids to play in, and more is also planned for the new playground area.

While the park and lake including the campgrounds are not open to the public quite yet as the contractor finishes up, reopening should take place before summer.

Year in review, future plans

Mayne also provided a year in review while looking to the future as part of his remarks.

In the past year, Tama County Conservation staff held 59 youth programs which drew in 1,725 participants; 32 adult programs which attracted 503 participants; and 23 public events which saw 449 participants take part.

Tama County Conservation Board chair Nathan Wrage, right, makes his way through the dinner line during last Saturday’s Fun Night Fundraiser held at the nature center in rural Toledo. The dinner was catered by Bobby’s BBQ & Grocery of Dysart. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON

2022 park improvements included fiber optic cable installation at the shop and nature center, Mayne said, as well as lighting upgrades in the nature center.

Projects slated for 2023 and beyond include a new deck at the nature center, a new playground set installed at T.F. Clark Park located northeast of Traer, public WiFi in the campgrounds at Otter Creek, an online reservation system via mycountyparks.com, and a new lighted entrance sign for Otter Creek Lake & Park.

Following Mayne’s speech which included a Q&A with the audience, the future certainly looked bright for Tama County Conservation and all who enjoy the outdoor spaces and parks managed by the department’s staff which in addition to Mayne includes Conservation Technician/Park Ranger Dustin Horne and Park Officer Riley Conrad, while the chair of the Fun Night Fundraiser this year was Delanie Halter.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect,” wrote the late, great Iowa conservationist Aldo Leopold once upon a time.

Fun Night proved once again there are many in Tama County who see it as just that.

Tama County Conservation’s Fun Night Fundraiser chair Delanie Halter, left, works alongside fellow volunteers in the kitchen of the nature center last Saturday night in rural Toledo. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON