Shallow Beauty on the Iowa River

At Low Water, the Iowa River Shows Off

I've lived in Iowa City for seven years, I've taught at the University of Iowa for six, and I worked in a local paddleshop for three. In all that time, I've never heard local paddlers speak positively about the Iowa river—not once—except in reference to the Wildlife Management area north of North Liberty, where the Iowa River floods across a wide, wooded area and, for a few miles, looks like a completely different body of water.

Certainly, I can understand the disproportionately high attraction to the Wildlife Management area: It's an unusually scenic waterway tantamount to a bird-watcher's paradise. It can also be a sea kayaker's or playboater's paradise (a little known fact), whipping up waves in excess of three feet when a hard wind (20+ kts) blows in just the right direction across the wide, shallow swath of water alongside the Hwy 965 bridge. I've paddled there many times, at high water and at low, in wild conditions and in calm, and the experience is always enjoyable. It's a secret paddling gem of the Iowa City area, overlooked by the many paddlers who flock unawares to the better-known, but less varied waters of Lake Macbride and the Coralville Reservoir.

What I can't understand, however, is how the "rest" of the Iowa River has managed to evaporate so completely from the local paddling scene. Indeed, when folks start talking about "good paddling spots in Iowa"—or even "good paddling spots near Iowa City"—the Iowa River is virtually guaranteed not to make the list. Instead, it gets eclipsed by the reputation of "showier" and more remote rivers in Iowa, like the Upper Iowa, the Turkey, the Volga, the Yellow, and (nearest to home) the Maquoketa. A Google search confirms that this phenomenon extends to the Internet: The Iowa River shows up in staggeringly few trip reports or river reviews—often, buried under an avalanche of false hits for the Upper Iowa River or for businesses which happen to share the Iowa River's name.

Worse still, talk of paddling the Iowa River often elicits derogatory remarks from locals about the "dirty," "disgusting," or "polluted" quality of the water and the inordinate amount of trash lining its banks. "How can you bear to paddle on that river?" some folks remark. "Isn't it disgusting? I'd be afraid to even wade in that muck!" To be honest, there is some truth to their remarks—at least where the river passes through downtown Coralville and Iowa City. Of the half dozen times I've paddled above, below, or between the Coralville and Iowa City dams, I've encountered an appalling amount of trash left behind by shore fisherman and picnickers. I've also encountered strange smells, a lot of dead animals, and (during the hottest part of the year) a scum that leaves behind tenacious water-marks which are hard to scrub off the hull.

Then there are the dead fish: some washed ashore, others deliberately tossed there to die by fisherman who figure the river already has "too many carp" (or some other species) to let them live. Whatever the source, an inordinate number of dead fish can be found stinking up the river banks at many of the most frequented "fishing holes" near Iowa City's bridges and dam. When you paddle by, the smell lingers in your nostrils (sometimes for an hour or more) and instantly destroys any romantic notions you may have had about paddling the Iowa River to "get out to enjoy the fresh air."

More than Meets the Eye

Happily, after my recent two-day trip downriver to the confluence with the Mississippi, I can now report that this is not the whole story of the Iowa River. In fact, the unappealing view of the river described above is almost entirely confined to the Iowa City/Coralville area, where the use (or rather abuse) of the river by litter-bugs is unusually concentrated.

Once you get south of Hills, IA (just a couple of hours downstream by kayak from the Burlington Street dam in Iowa City), the river cleans up its act considerably. Trash, debris, and random lawn furniture on the shores diminish quickly—indeed, they nearly vanish, though not quite. The wildlife also grows much more abundant: heron, eagles, deer, turtles, and carp are the most abundant, but you may also encounter raccoons, foxes, coyotes, cormorants, pheasants, turkey vultures, and pelicans—a diverse repertoire of creatures to rival that found on any other river in Iowa (perhaps not as plentiful as some, but certainly every bit as varied).

Better yet, unlike the nearby Maquoketa River, there are no dams or fences to contend with anywhere below Iowa City, allowing for 75 miles of portage-free paddling all the way to the confluence with the Mississippi River. In many ways, the Iowa River bears a striking resemblance to the scenic headwaters region of the Mississippi. Its gradual growth in the 75 miles from Iowa City to the Mississippi approximates much of the scenery and changes you would see if you paddled from Jacobson to St. Cloud on the Mississippi River—though in smaller form, and without the high bluffs.

Why, then, is the Iowa River so rarely mentioned or recommended by local paddlers? Well, there are three likely explanations: First, the Iowa River has the gross misfortune of sharing its name with Iowa's showiest and best-reputed river, the Upper Iowa; thus, its very name invokes an unflattering comparison which exaggerates its inferiority to a "real" or "serious" paddling river like the Uper Iowa. In fact, it's not unusual to hear paddlers say things like, "Well, if you can't get up to the Upper Iowa, at least go over and paddle the Maquoketa River. Don't waste your time on the Iowa."

Second—and in conjunction with the first explanation—paddlers in the Iowa City area are understandably put off by the comparatively atrocious condition of the river in and around the downtown Iowa City/Coralville area. Perhaps paddlers in other areas of the state do use the Iowa River often, but if so, little word of it has reached Iowa City, where most local paddlers speak of the river as if it isn't worth the effort of launching a kayak—except, of course, for the aforementioned Wildlife Management area, which is talked about as if it were an entirely separate body of water.

Third, and probably most to blame, the best, most scenic qualities of the Iowa River appear to lay hidden below typical water levels. Based on the evidence and debris I saw along the shores during my trip, I suspect that when the river is running at its normal depth, it probably looks quite boring and unremarkable for very long stretches at a time. Some sections are probably also saturated with fishing boats, shattering the stillness of the river and scaring off the wildlife. Fortunately, my spur-of-the-moment trip arose while water levels were unusually low—at barely half the long-term median flow rates for August—which turned out to be ideal for paddling: deep enough to allow comfortable, easy progress throughout most of the trip, yet shallow enough to discourage boat traffic and to reveal dozens of pristine sandbars.

Again, whatever the reasons for the Iowa River's obscurity, don't be fooled: There are some great paddling opportunities on the Iowa River, especially at low water! In fact, surprising as it sounds (even to me), my trip down the Iowa turned out to be just as enjoyable (perhaps more so) as my excellent trip down the Maquoketa River earlier this year—partly because the Iowa so far exceeded my admittedly low expectations, and partly because it afforded a couple of very unique encounters with wildlife.

Letting Heron off the Hook

One of the most rewarding (yet disturbing) experiences of my trip occurred very early into the first morning, just a few hours south of Iowa City, near Hills, IA. I noticed a ragged-looking heron on the east bank which began to take flight, then immediately shot back down to the ground. When I paddled closer, I found that he was caught on a hook tied to a fiberglass pole sticking out of the river bank. I presume the poles are normally used to hook fish, but with the river so low, the hooks were dangling out of the water. The heron had obviously swallowed the hook, then tried to get free (tearing a bloody gash in his throat) only to have it lodge deep in his tongue. The hooks were four or five times the size of a standard fish hook, with a very aggressive barb on the end. The poor creature had nearly thrashed itself to death trying to free himself.

I can't bear to see animals suffer, so even though I was timid about wading over to the large log strainer where the heron was caught, I decided I had to do something (thankfully, the current was very weak, minimizing the risk of strong undertows around the debris). So, I donned my neoprene gloves, crawled across the muddy bank, and climbed over the log to the heron. The heron, although surely frightened, was too tired to make much of a fuss. His tongue was dangling halfway out of his throat and was swollen badly around the hook. There was also a bloody gash on his throat. Otherwise, he appeared in reasonably good health (albeit ragged from thrashing himself back and forth).

As soon as I wrapped my hands around his beak, he went deathly still, waiting patiently as I tore the hook free from his tongue. It probably hurt like heck, but he didn't make a peep. Tearing the hook out was the only way—the barb was much too big to be backed out gently. When I let him go, he hopped back about a foot, cocked his head, stared at me calmly for about 20 seconds (as if to say thanks), then took flight in an impressive rush of wings and disappeared down the river. I was encouraged by his show of strength. I really hope he lives and his wounds heal, but I suppose I'll never know. Either way, I'm glad I was able to help him. Starving to death at the end of a hook would have been a terrible fate. To spare other herons the same misfortune, I tied up the dangling hooks carefully and then moved on.

Shallow is Good

On many other rivers in Iowa (especially the Upper Iowa), I avoid unseasonably low flow rates like the plague because they usually make for very poor paddling—not only taking a toll on your kayak's gelcoat, but also requiring you to get out and drag your kayak several times per mile. On the Iowa River, however, I think low water levels make for ideal paddling conditions.

On the morning I set out for my 2-day trip (August 11-12, 2006), the flow rates "at Iowa City," "near Lone Tree," and "at Wapello" (all listed under "Lower Iowa" on the USGS site) were 597, 667, and 2,910 cfs, respectively—though they were on the rise and had increased to 983, 690, and 3,010 cfs by the end of the second day. All told, I bottomed out (briefly) 10-15 times each day, but I only had to get out and walk three times the first day (Iowa City to Colombus Junction, 44 miles), and four times the second day (Columbus Junction to the Mississippi, 31 miles)—never for more than 150 feet at a time.

There were a few snags in isolated spots along the way, but none which appeared particularly dangerous as the current was fairly moderate. About three miles south of the Iowa City dam, there was one short, spirited drop of turbulent water which approximated a class-I rapid, but little skill was required to navigate safely through. By and large, it was an extremely tame ride all the way to the Mississippi, with the exception of a couple of spots where the current was abruptly re-directed by a large boulder or an old bridge support, producing rolling or "boiling" currents which might catch a novice off-guard and cause a dunking. A reasonably experienced paddler should have little to no trouble negotiating his or her way downriver at the water levels cited above. (At higher water, however, know that the Iowa River can run quite swiftly, and snags and strainers may pose significant danger to inexperienced or unalert paddlers.)

The one navigational "difficulty" I encountered was that the brown, muddy water made it extremely difficult to "read" the river and to avoid the shallows. As I quickly learned, the swifter, deeper water is more often found along either shore, while the middle of the river regularly thins out as it passes over long, barely-submerged sandbars. With a moderate breeze, these sandbars can usually be spotted (and avoided) by the tell-tale wind riffles blowing across their surface, but in calm airs, even experienced paddlers are likely to run aground several times before they get a good "feel" for the elusive depth and flow of the current. When in doubt, hug the shoreline and pay close attention to the direction of the current by observing the ripples created by sticks and other debris jutting out of the water.

Minor logistical hassles aside, the pay-off for paddling the Iowa River at low water levels is the comparative increase in beauty and encounters with wildlife. The low water reveals many excellent sandbars which not only provide convenient places to rest, eat, or camp, but also help to coax wildlife out from the heavily-vegetated banks, where they would otherwise go unseen. In addition to the herons which are quite common all the way down to the Mississippi, I encountered a flock of turkey vultures, three pheasants, several families of deer, an enormous flock of pelicans, and even a coyote!

The coyote was a rare treat, as they tend to be extremely human-shy. He was drinking at the river's edge in broad daylight (around 4:30 in the afternoon), just a mile below the Hwy 92 bridge near Columbus Junction. To my surprise, he wasn't the least bit disconcerted when I back-paddled and came to a stop only 20 feet away. In fact, he seemed as fascinated by my kayak as I was by him. But alas, the instant I reached for my camera, he bolted six feet in the air to clear the high river bank (a truly impressive feat) and vanished silently into the woods. (Later that night, I heard his calls from my campsite, a mile downriver from where I had spotted him.) This and many other encounters with wildlife would not have happened without low water levels and wide sandbars to force these creatures out into the open.

The sandbars also increase the aesthetic beauty of the river and help to bring out the "character" and curves of the river in photographs, making for much better paddling photography than the duller, plainer, muddier appearance of the river at higher water levels. Best of all, they keep most local fishing and pontoon boats off the water, keeping noise to a minimum, and thereby making for a more enjoyable experience.

River Recommendations

I highly recommend that paddlers try to schedule trips on the Iowa river when flow rates are running somewhere in the neighborhood of those listed above. Keep in mind, however, that if you camp overnight on the exposed sandbars, you should pick a spot at least two feet higher than the surrounding water, and keep your eye on the weather to avoid any danger of getting flooded out if the river rises. In fact, if heavy rain is in the forecast, I would opt to climb atop one of the high muddy banks and pitch camp there instead—for safety's sake.

I think the prettiest stretch of the Iowa River is the 14-mile run from Columbus Junction (the Hwy 92 bridge) to Wapello, IA, with the stretch from Wapello to the Mississippi ranking a close second. Either section would make for a wonderful day-trip or overnight trip. Fishing- and pontoon-boat traffic might seem intrusive in some areas if the river is flowing at normal levels, but at the low levels I paddled (on a sunny Saturday, no less), I encountered only one boat during the entire 30-mile stretch below Columbus Junction. (There were other boats docked along inhabited areas, of course, but the majority of the boats had been stranded high-and-dry by the low water.)

The 44-mile trip from Iowa City to Columbus Junction is also worthwhile (especially for bird watchers), but the river is smaller, narrower, and less "spectacular" until it joins the Cedar River at Columbus Junction. Wildlife viewing, however, is very good—perhaps even better and more varied than on the section below Columbus Junction. To avoid trash and traffic noise from the Iowa City area, you may wish to put in further south, at the park in Hills, IA. Again, at low water, I encountered only one fishing boat during the entire 44-mile stretch from Iowa City to Columbus Junction, but at higher water levels, you should expect to share the river with some fishing boat traffic.

Well-conditioned paddlers can reasonably expect to maintain a pace of 3.5 to 4 miles per hour throughout most of the 75-mile trip. Casual paddlers may want to plan for a slower pace of, say, 3 miles per hour to allow for more rests and a more moderate pace. Through narrower sections, where the current becomes more concentrated, I reached speeds as high as 6 mph; however, 4 to 4.5 mph was more typical, and in particularly shallow sections, my speed often dropped as low as 3 mph.

I highly recommend starting each morning early. I woke at 5:00 each morning and launched by 5:45 in the civil twilight, when the sky was bright enough to illuminate the river clearly. The Iowa River is extremely peaceful in the early hours, and wildlife viewing is excellent—especially for herons, which seem to be less skittish (allowing you to paddle closer) before mid-day. Avoid making too much noise, and you're sure to run across a few families of deer drinking by the water's edge, or perhaps a flock of turkeys nestled along the banks. You may also spot groups of pelicans or cormorants, especially in the lower sections, closer to the Mississippi (though I also encountered a large flock of pelicans just a few miles downriver from Hills, IA).

At low water, there are ample opportunities for camping, so there's no need to tackle the high-mileage days that I chose to paddle. (The Iowa River is classified as a "meandered" stream, so the land up to the high-water mark, where permanent vegetation begins, is considered public domain.) Hiking and other on-shore activities are limited, however, as most of the Iowa River is hedged in by dense vegetation which prevents any easy foray into the woods. If you're not too sheepish about the water quality, there are several good spots for swimming, but be careful: the river drops off abruptly in many spots, and undertows or underwater debris might present drowning hazards to an unwitting swimmer. Since I was paddling solo, I opted to play it safe by wading around in the shallows to cool off at the end of the day. Many ideal wading spots can be found mid-river, next to the low, sprawling sandbars—but again, watch out for drop-offs.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting


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