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We Have Reached Peak Paddle

Let’s face it. Very little about the year 2020 has gone the way we’d hoped it would. From pandemics to derechos to droughts, the year has left a lot of us feeling a little tarred-and-feathered. But there have been a few shining, shimmering bright spots for those who know where to look.

The Yellow River in all it's morning glory

Iowa’s water trails system is a crown jewel. Especially in the rugged river valleys of Northeast Iowa, paddlers find a paradise with everything from calm flatwater to mild rapids. Considerable time and energy have gone into the development of these water trails, thanks to a concerted effort by local and statewide conservation groups recognizing their potential for recreation and ability to engage citizens with issues of water quality and quantity – a salient issue for a state like Iowa.

Iowa's Water Trails system

But the last few years have seen touchy conditions come and go on Iowa’s rivers. In our own backyard, the Turkey River has flexed its might several times. At times it has been difficult to plan a paddle outing with the river swelling to dangerous levels following heavy rainfall events. Even the mighty Mississippi, with its ample channels and sizable floodplains, challenged boaters last year with high water well into July and August.

Dragonfly molts at the 2019 high water mark on McGregor's riverfront

But this year has been a different story. A mild spring followed by a dry summer has left paddle routes in sterling condition throughout the paddling season.

In fact, if anything, the rivers have begun to present a challenge to paddlers by having too little water. But comparatively, that’s not much to complain about. I don’t know about you but I’d rather drag bottom on occasion than white-knuckle my way through a murky, debris-choked, swiftly running river.

Although sometimes high water opens up some new routes...

However, it does leave a few of our favorite haunts less than favorable. The wild and rugged Yellow River might be off the list – at least on the upper stretches – until a little water can fill its banks. The remote and scenic Volga River might require more wading than paddling.

While our dry conditions take some river miles off the board, they open up a few amazing opportunities. The Turkey River is one of only a handful of “meandered” streams in Iowa. Meandered streams legally allow for wading and even camping on sandbars within the ordinary high water mark. In times of high water, these sand or rock bars may be few and far between, but right now the “campsites” are plentiful and palatial.

Sand bars abound on the Turkey River

Similarly, the backwater sloughs of the Mississippi River run thick with sandy beaches and relatively clear water. While high water turns these sloughs into a complicated maze of boat-snagging weeds and sand, the low water makes it simple to follow one of her many gentle braids through a wonderland of Lotus and Wapato. Like the Turkey River, the Upper Mississippi permits camping on its undeveloped islands and sandbars for those in search of overnight adventure.

Paavo Ben Slocum drinkin in the quiet backwater views

The muted flows in area streams not only makes for delightful paddling. It also rewards those who like to drown a worm or two on their adventures. In the warm water of late summer, fish congregate in the areas with current or deep holes that can keep them cool. With less water available, the fish become quite a bit easier to find.

If even I can catch 'em, you KNOW the fishing must be good

Those looking for a good backwater to paddle and fish will find tons of opportunity right now. Clayton County’s own Frenchtown Park near Guttenberg has always been one of my favorite spots to paddle. A gentle, obvious seam in the slough gives paddlers miles of water full of pike, bass, and catfish among the gently waving reeds and grasses (and unfortunately reed canary grasses).

Canoe access at Frenchtown County Park

Sny Magill, just south of McGregor, offers another prime spot to get on the big river without contending with the big channel. Situated at the delta of Sny Magill creek, this boat landing often closes under high water, but when it’s open has one of the best spots around to get out and enjoy one of the world’s greatest rivers.

Muddy boat plying the muddy miss

For more trip planning options, check out the Army Corps of Engineers Upper Mississippi Navigation Charts. They tell you everything from boat landings to sloughs and even wingdams for you Walleye anglers out there.

Of course, low water does not come free of dangers. Snags, currents, and quicksand-like conditions can turn a great day on the water into a nightmare. Respect public lands, respect the power of water, and wear a life jacket!

Paavo demonstrating river safety

But if you have the time and the energy, there’s no better way to get out and enjoy a socially distant celebration with all the like-minded folks who appreciate our watery resources. For all the gut-punches of 2020, we should count our blessings that flooded water trails are not one of them. Hopefully I didn't just jinx it...

Looking Back

Parting is such sweet sorrow. This August we said goodbye to most of our seasonal help who returned to college at ISU, UNI, UIU, and beyond.

But in their place we got a new face! Shannon Plaht has joined the CCCB team where he will serve as Park Ranger. If you see him in the parks, be sure to say hi!

On the ground, our biggest update from August comes from Bloody Run County Park. The CCCB partnered with the Iowa DNR to do some fish habitat restoration, aided by Ethan Koehn construction. One of the park’s most popular fishing holes had silted in as little by little, the campground fell into the stream.

Construction crews armored the bank, and installed fish hides and weirs to improve the habitat. Even with the low flows, the stream now looks deep and fishy, much to the delight of local anglers!

Now to get some grass to grow...

Looking Forward

With September comes thoughts of fall. The mind of the conservationist hones in on ripening seed, migration, and monarchs.

First on the list will be the Monarch Release Party this Friday, September 4th, 5:30 PM at the Osborne Nature Center. The CCCB will have a few monarchs to tag and release for their trip to Mexico, but participants are welcome to bring their own. Be a part of the Monarch recovery effort with this great free program!

For more citizen science, come to the Osborne Pond on Saturday, September 26th, at 9:00 AM for National Public Lands Day! We will be harvesting prairie seed to scatter on some of our restoration projects, so bring a friend or ten. The CCCB will provide a little information on the types of seed to gather and the prairie restoration process before participants set out to collect from the bounty that is the Osborne Prairie.


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