Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Kayaking the Winnebago River - Cerro Gordo County, IA - May 18th, 2015

It was a cold day, for May, and people thought we were crazy. 10 miles on a rarely paddled river after a full day of work when it was only in the 40's and threatening rain? What fun could that be?

But the threatening rain hinted at our weather for the last week and the reason we were so excited to go. It had rained, a lot, and the river was up a good foot or two. Not enough to be dangerous, but enough to help us over some shallows and move us along quickly. Neither of us had paddled this river before, but a short drive along the roads that paralleled the much of the river over lunch had revealed we should be fine.

Steve's wife dropped us off in the city park we were launching from, and I'm sure we got some odd looks as we loaded our borrowed kayaks into the water. A few moments of balancing and adjusting and we were off. The river was broad and gentle. We marked the time at a bridge Steve had used to calculate distances and slipped out of the park into a more wooded area. I had spent time on both banks of the river here, but viewing them from the water was just a little different, and they seemed new and foreign, exciting.

As we rounded a bend to head due east near Mason City's Murphy Park, a piece of floodplain forest where I was helping the Jaycees build a short trail, we caught sight of our first rapids. Normally a low head dam with a 12 inch drop, today it was a tossing, churning monster. You see, Steve and I have no whitewater experience whatsoever. This would be interesting. We tacked left the safely avoid a rock ledge I knew was hiding somewhere and went -WHAM- right into a wall of waves rising a foot out of the water. Chilly river water ran right over the front of my 8ft boat and right into my lap. I was half panicked and half frustrated. It would be half a mile before I could check how my dry bag and empty the water from around my butt.

We passed under a bridge and back into still waters as we cruised by the high school, hidden by trees. Across from that, where the road ran near the river, a man fishing smiled as we passed by. At least we weren't the only fools out enjoying the river today.

A quick stop at the non-existent Asbury Park canoe launch proved my dry bag a success, though I could not drain my kayak successfully. I soldiered on.

The river stayed wide and smooth for another mile, but then turned away from the road, into territory I had not been able to scout. And we hit rapids almost immediately. They built up size over three sets in the next half mile, swollen by rain. Fallen trees and the tips of submerged boulders gave us a limited trail to follow, and so we learned by trying various methods to stay dry and afloat.

Lean back to raise the bow above a wave then shift your balance forward as you crest it.
Back paddle briefly to hit the rapid at just the right angle.
Don't crowd your boats together.

Of course we made it, and in retrospect only crossed one rapid that would be of any consideration to most paddlers, a monster that dropped us nearly three feet. But my butt was still wet and water in the boat was throwing off my balance. The next access was a little easier and I was able to pull the boat all the way out and finally pull the drain plug. Dryer and noticeably lighter, we set off, through several miles of smooth water bordered by Iowa farmland hidden by a narrow band of trees.

Passage under an iron rail bridge marked entry to the town of Portland, one of those communities that is mostly a few houses built around a grain elevator. We passed an island that looked like it could be fun to explore, but because the Winnebago is not considered a “meandering river”, that island belonged to someone, and we would be trespassing.

Portland appears to be so named because of the Portland Cement made throughout this part of Iowa. There are several small quarries and the town sits on a rise of limestone, making for some wonderful scenery to paddle past. Dozens if not hundreds of swallows dart in and out of nests built on the cliffs that reach twenty and thirty feet out of the river, swooping down to grab bugs and mouthfuls of water all around us. Above, people have built porches and patios that project out over the water, many of them on impressive steel girders. We came to the river to experience what little nature we could find in North Iowa, but the chance to view the private sides of some impressive homes was fun as well.

The cliffs continued for a good mile. Here and there were wonderful little springs, generally accompanied by a bit of field garbage, indicating they were maybe not springs but the end of tile lines and drainage ditches. In a few places though, the rock rose up on both sides and it was much easier to to imagine that we were in fact out in real wilderness, watching for bears or wondering where to camp. In the cliffs, in fact, were sizable caves that looked like they would be perfect spots for bears or emergency shelter. Of everything we saw that day, these caves were the thing I would most like to return to.

After our majestic cliffs fell away, we came upon a stark reminder of the fact we were not in the wilderness, US Highway 18. US 18, or as it is known locally, the Avenue (of the Saints, because it connects St. Paul, MN and St. Louis, MO) is a massive four lane divided highway that may as well be an Interstate. But the interesting part was not the highway per say, but a spray painted line about five feet below the road deck marked “'08”.

Seven years ago, on June 8th, 2008, the river crested here at 18.75 feet, nearly 15 feet above the level it was as we zipped past. This was before I or Steve lived here, but the scars it lefts on Mason City are plainly visible as lush green areas along the river, where hopes have been wiped out and nature has begun to take her course. But this is not an almanac, and I will just leave with while the developed areas still show wounds from seven years ago, the few preserves of nature along the river seem as healthy as ever.

After that bridge the river again took us between two thin ribbons of trees with farm fields beyond, with a rapid here and there to provide some excitement. We saw our only real wildlife, but it was a good one: a green heron, not rare but not often seen up close as they prefer secluded riparian perches. With the wind at our backs we were moving at a good clip and were no longer worried about getting back too late. If anything, we were regretting not parking the car farther along down the river. With the river so calm, we were free to discuss real life, things like politics and finance. That to me is one of the great things about wilderness. On the river, you can talk about the real work and be on the same page as your companion. If you sit in your office or a coffee shop and talk wilderness, there is no guarantee the person you are speaking with sees the same rock, the same riffles in the water as you, and it is all a little more pretend that way.

Our final mile took us past Claybanks Forest, a stand of hardwoods on a hill too steep to farm, interspersed with big barren areas too rock hard to farm, and so it was donated to the county many decades ago. It is small, maybe 40 acres total, but the topography and riparian nature of it, as well as the fact that public land in Iowa is so few and far between, made it another place I intend to visit on foot.

The river took a turn to the north and suddenly we were faced with a prospect we had not dealt with at all in the last nine miles: we had to paddle to move forward. We fought to move, the cold wind hitting us doubly with a chilly mist and forcing our kayaks to not track straight. It lasted all of about 10 minutes, but it was just a little more excitement to our day, well appreciated at the end.

And at the end we were. Once the river turned back east, we began looking for a pull out spot as a small concrete bridge came into view. On a gravel road that had no houses on it, the bridge had been a perfect place for Steve's wife to drop off the truck. With the water high, we were able to nose our boats right on to the grass at the base of the bridge and scramble up a rocky slope onto the road.

As we loaded the kayaks, Steve noted how despite his pants being so wet he had to change them, his socks were still dry, and on our drive home scoped out from the road a few places on the river we had been. Then it was back home to our families, hot pizza and cold beer.

Paddling the Winnebago, short and developed as it is, was an inspiring reminder that while we have no Wilderness, capital W, in Iowa, we all have little bits of wild in our backyards. If we utilize them a little more, we might be able to grow them.

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