Perched above the surrounding countryside in north
central Iowa lays one of our rarest and most
interesting water bodies. The small lake, of about
eight acres, occupies the southwest comer of Pilot
Knob State Park three miles east of Forest City.
Nearly half of this lake is composed of a floating
sphagnum bog which feels, if you could walk on it,
feels like you are actualIy walking on an extra soft
bed. Following one's normal tendency to jump up and
down in one result in wet ankles, but move over a few
feet returnes the sodden boots to semi-dry terrain.
Then while standing still or squatting to scrutinize
the green mat closely for the smaIl sun dew plant,
the feet begin to sink imperceptible. Move, sink,
move, and sink; again and again until the impulse to
get right down among the plants can be repressed. A
rare plant, the sun dew, is indigenous to this
The sun dew is a diminutive carnivorous plant related
by feeding habits to the Venus flycatcher and pitcher
plants. It is common in this part of the country, but
only in acid, peaty areas and quite possibly Dead
Man's Lake may have the sole accumulation of them in
Why Dead Man's Lake
The name of the lake is another item that has
aroused considerable interest. Several stories are
told as one can well imagine with such a name. One
tells of an early pioneer traveling to an unknown
destination that passed by and drove his oxen out on
the ice to let them drink. The ice gave away and the
oxen, wagon, and man sank to a spongy coffin..
Another tale relates that a dead man was found on the
lake shore. No one in the vicinity knew his name or
the cause of his death, but many years later an
ancient fowling piece was found on the same location
with the root of a small tree grown through the lock.
Some say he comes back when the moon is full in
search of his lost wagon.
The Real Reason
Truth, always stranger than fiction, gives
credence to following. Before the advent of the white
man in this territory various Indian tribes wandered
in Pilot Knob and at times had headquarters there..
Sioux, Fox, Chippewa, Sac, and Winnebago left
mementoes of there (sic) passage. After settlements
reached the Winnebago River (since dubbed Lime Creek)
the Knob witnessed Indian pilgrimages over the
flatlands and rolling hills.
One of the first homesteaders followed the meandering
Winnebago River to a point just south of the high
knob and climbed it to get a better view of the
wildlife around him. From the height of his lookout
he discovers the small lake in the hills and wondered
at its elevation above the surrounding plain.. When
he walked down to visit the lake be made a further
discovery a lone Indian who perramently resided
there. Patiently communicating by signs scratched on
a sandy portion of the shoreline, the Indian revealed
some of the history connected with the lake, his
tribe, and also, that the water body was called
"Lake of the Dead Man'" by his former
The Indian, an old man at the time, bad been a
aspiring politico in his youth but was either
defeated or betrayed by his friends and soured on
life in the tribe. Failure to be made head shaman
(medicine man) led him to quit mingling with his
fellows and sometime later when the tribe moved on he
Perhaps he became too closely associated with the
little lake to leave it - whatever the reason, be
ceased wandering and spent the rest of his solitary
life at this seldom visited retreat. Here was his
home when white man came. His shelter a crude log hut
that he said was standing when his tribe moved in.
Nearby the cabin legend has it that a natural cave
opened into Wisconsin glacial drift that mantles the
area. The, old, would-be shaman reportedly made trips
into the cavern daily for what reason no white man
knew. Neither did a white man ever enter the cave.
When the Indian died years later his tribesmen buried
him there, sealing the caves entrance. and
obliterated any evidence of the opening. No one has
since discovered the cave and now, of course the lake
and adjoining grounds are part of the Pilot Knob
State Park and digging is prohibited. So ends the
tale of Dead Man's Lake.
For those of you interested in facts and
statistics. Dead Man's Lake is only natural one in
the vicinity. Its shape is slightly like a figure
eight, one loop being open water and the other
containing the island-like sphagnum mat surrounded by
marsh vegetation. Many varied forms of bird and plant
life abound there as is natural where marshes are
found. Due to the acidity of the bog and of the lake.
several species of plants are present that are
otherwise rare in Iowa.. The congregation of birds is
such that some ornithological clubs come to see them
during peak migration periods. Animal life in the
lake is quite limited. The highly acid water supports
only the species of invertebrates that are adapted to
such conditions and fish are non-existent there.
A word of caution. When you visit Dead Man's Lake be
careful about walking on the bog itself, although
apparently safe enough for the author, it would be
tragic indeed to have the name of the lake apply to
an unwary visitor.
A Rooted Carnivore
Many animals eat plants for sustenance, but did
you know that we have a plant in our State which the
reverse is true?
Round-leaved sun dew, a small plant that attracts,
catches, and eats insects, is wide spread in the
world but comparatively rare in Iowa. Its generic
name, Deserve, comes from a Greek word meaning dewy
and the specific name. retundifoilia, refers to the
leaf shape. Many hair-like red stalks cover each leaf
and at the end of the stalks are droplets of clear
sticky gelatin that glisten in the sunlight. Enticed
insects alight, become trapped in the artificial dew
and after they die the remains are digested by the
The sun dew is a low-grower and little difficult to
see unless you know what you are looking for. The
round green leaves, about three-eighths of an inch
long. appear to have a pink fringe around them.
Flowering in mid summer, the white bigamous are
supported by a stem varying in height from three to
There are about t00 species of sun dews scattered
throughout the world. Seven species are found in the
U.S. and apparently only one kind life (sic) in Iowa.
This single species is reported from just one
locality; Dead Man's Lake at Pilot Knob State Park
near Forest City.
The sun dew requires a very moist, acid environment
which the bog in the north central part of state
provides. Other peaty localities probably support
this plant, but have not been discovered or made
The common pitcher-plant a carnivorous relative of
the sun dew, is listed by some sources as extending
westward from the east coast to MInnesota and Iowa,
but records of finding them here are not known. .
The strange carnivorous plants are just another of
the many interesting natural features found in Iowa's
parks and marshes.