Paddle-Packing the Cedar River
Mitchell County, Iowa
July 5th, 2015
I had been looking forward to this trip for some time. We would be combining two of my greatest outdoor passions, hiking and time on the water – while also providing a rare experience for a full day adventure in the Iowa outdoors that required little to no backtracking. My co-adventurer Steve and I would paddle about 6 miles down the Cedar River from Mitchell, Iowa to just south of Osage, Iowa; then hike back along a county nature trail for 9 miles.
We picked up our aluminum canoe from a friend along the way, half pleaded him to come with, and then hit the road. What should have been a quick 30 minute ride was delayed though, as, while roaring down the highway at 55 miles per hour discussing the price of Iowa farm land, the bow of the boat, visible our the windshield, slowly lurched right, then violently swung off and hit the gravel shoulder of the road with a sickening crunch. Then the middle, still attached to the bed of the truck, caught, and caused the canoe to be dragged the boat twenty feet along until Steve could safely stop the truck. But what looked like a fatal blow to our trip just ended up giving us a more charismatic canoe. The bow was dented, badly, but otherwise she was structurally sound. The bow loop, which had been connected to the strap that broke and started the whole mishap was also ripped off, but we recovered it and Steve thinks he can repair it all.
The rest of the drive was uneventful, and we pulled into Mitchell's Interstate Park around 9:45 to find it full of campers still waking from the 4th of July festivities the night before. Interstate Park is named for the large dam, built by Interstate Power (now Alliant Energy), which is still functioning and providing power to the area. The dam, 15 or 20 feet tall, creates a long, gentle portion of the river above, and flood control below. It is one of only a handful of operational hydro-electric dams in Iowa today.
We put in on a gravel beach below the dam, kicked off and passed under the highway bridge we had just crossed over, and very quickly it was very quiet. Quieter, in fact, than we expected as it was a holiday weekend, and also because we had gotten quite a bit of rain in the last week and the Cedar flood easily, even below the dam. But it was not flooded today and with a strong headwind we actually had to paddle most of the day.
There is a road to one side of the river here, and the trail we will return by on the other, but for a long time all we see is a great blue heron and some swallows. We were down stream nearly two miles before we were able to do anything more interesting than watch a car go past, but it was still nice to sit in the warming morning sun and chat.
About two miles down from the dam, there is a small island separated from land normally by a slough, but with today's higher water, it was perfectly passable. We slipped over the rocks and debris that normally pile up at the head when the water is lower, and entered a pleasant green tunnel. But it was not just a pleasant green tunnel, it also hosted one of the more exciting elements of our trip.
Steve saw it first. Just fifteen or so feet off the ground, a massive Golden Eagle sat watching us from a branch. This river is home to many Bald Eagles – the year prior we often counted 4 or 5 at a time and even now there was a nest we'd see if we had stayed in the main channel – but a Golden is a much more rare bird. We are able to get close, probably within thirty feet, and confirm there was not way it could be a juvenile bald eagle, but certainly a Golden. A firm reminder that there is still much to be protected in Iowa.
Downstream again we joined the main channel, and it was calm and tranquil again. This is a simple, relaxing river, at least at this time and place. We are passing along the heart of a county conservation area, where things are left more natural and we can see what kind of power the river can unleash. Up on the bank, sometimes ten or fifteen feet about the currently elevated water level are dozens of branches, logs and tree trunks, some twenty of thirty feet long and wide enough around that two grown men wouldn't be able to reach. And this river tossed them like Lincoln Logs.
One thing Steven and I wanted to try today was paddling upstream. We had read about various people doing so while adventuring more remote places and were eager to give it a try and see if we were capable explorers. We chose a mark, a power line running along the Highway 9 bridge, and just after passing under it began a gentle paddle, time it for 60 seconds, then spinning around, we began to paddle furiously. It was harder than we expected, especially considering the strong wind now at our backs, and we worked every muscle to move the boat. We did eventually get back to our marker at the bridge and much to my surprise, it took us only twice as long to go upstream as down. But that was maybe 100 yards, I don't care to know what it would feel like over days and days and miles and miles.
We relaxed after our push upstream and the river slowly started to become more meandering. As a river rolls along and picks up silt, it begins to flow a differently. Water can only keep a certain amount of particles in suspension at a given speed, so when it becomes overloaded, the water slows, the particles drop out and build sandbars and islands, forcing the water into smaller spaces, which means that for the same volume of water to go through it must go faster, so it can and as it does it carries more silt. This is how any larger river will eventually for a set of sand bars, islands and channels that constantly move, and we were experiencing a miniature version on this upper stretch of the Cedar.
The high water meant the islands and sandbars weren't so much a navigational issue, but a problem of choice. We picked our way between clumps of sand and vegetation and did go down a side channel that we were unsure would let us out at an appropriate place to approach the upcoming rapids, but that only made us feel like we were in a little more remote locale.
We did get back tot he main channel is plenty of time, and were able to beach our boat in a campground called Spring Park and survey the situation. The rapids, a mix of just shallow water and large rocks, as well as rip-rap meant to solidify the parks position at the bend, went all the way across the river. With the damage from our transportation event we weren't keen to press out luck on any rocks, but after considering a portage had no logical re-entry point, opted for a relatively calm area against the far bank.
We hopped back in the water and had to paddle hard across, as our launch point was only 30 or 40 feet upstream of the rapids, and as small as they were, we did not want to hit sideways. As we approached the far bank, we swung the bow left just in time to hit the first crest and...nothing. We tapped a few spots of gravelly bottom, but otherwise the short section was no different than any other, maybe a little faster. Lesson learned: we need to spend more time in rapids to understand them.
Below the rapids, the last mile of our paddle took us between high wooded hills mostly devoid of obvious humanity. We spotted our bridge and pulled off to the bank, and scouted ahead on foot to find a place to fully pull out that would be close enough to both the road and a place to lock and hide the boat. We decided on a thicket of trees that would keep the boat of out sight, and still just at the bottom of the embankment to the road that would make it an easy carry out.
We first unloaded our small amount of gear, and I hopped into the back of the boat to paddle closer to our storage spot and Steve walked down to catch the bow and lift it over the rocky bank under the bridge. I waited until after he had pulled his canoe out completely to inform Steve that I had never paddled a canoe alone. We used a bicycle cable lock to secure our ride to a tree, grabbed out bags, and hit the road.
* * *
Iowa is known, accurately, for straight, flat roads overlooking corn, beans and hog confinements. But there are exceptions, and Lime Kiln Road is one of them. From the river, we followed a long, slow curving slope, passing a few small hay fields and cottages, and one massive deep ravine. Woodland crept in close to the road, and with almost no traffic, we felt more like we were in northern Wisconsin than northern Iowa. Knowledge that multiple black bears had been spotted locally in the past few weeks heightened the feeling. All in all, this was a very pleasant part of the trip instead of the slog I was expecting. And I'm sure we gave the few drivers we encountered a good smile with our odd combination of hiking gear and wooden paddles.
Lime Kiln Road took us eventually to the Harry Cook Nature Trail, operated by the City of Osage Park Board. It is a gravel and dirt trail, similar in appearance to what you often see in a rails-to-trails conversion, though that is not in fact it's origin. As near as I can tell from researching the history of the area, this is the old stagecoach trail townspeople would take to the same park we were headed to, but more on that later. We start by walking in a narrow wooded corridor between homes and a cornfield, but after a half mile or so cross a road into a more isolated, wooded section.
The sun has gotten high by this point, and the move to solid shade was very welcome. The trail moves closer to the river again, rolling over a number of small ridges between gullies. We pass through a dry creek bed, the same creek bed where the water that cut the massive gully along the road flows. It's unclear if the creek is just not making it this far (we know it exists farther north) or if flooding has caused it to re-route and join the river at a different spot. The hills start to make us feel isolated, glad there aren't many nature lovers out today. We are reminded, though, of the true rugged and secluded nature of our situation when we pass two older women out for a Sunday stroll. So maybe there is some “take what you can get” mentality here. Oh well.
When we come into sight of the river, we stop for lunch at the top of a slope 50 or 60 feet over the water. We finally saw our first boaters here, an impressive family with two adults and two small children in a canoe and a teenager in an inner-tube tied behind. I ate simple sandwiches and dried fruit and jerky, Steve a series of trail meal type items he was testing for a trip to the Boundary Waters later this year. As the conversation turned to “what would you do in a Zombie apocalypse”, we decided we were ready to move along. We met a young woman on a bike who demonstrated great trail etiquette by announcing herself when she came up behind us and walking her bike past us. She would be the last trail user we would see that day. I have yet to decide if it's great to get the isolation or sad to see such resources go unused.
The Harry Cook Nature Trail is technically just the portion of trail that runs from Osage to Spring Park, where we had surveyed the “rapids” a short time before. We arrived here on foot now to see a few more people preparing to hit the river for some afternoon cruising or waiting to pick up those started upstream with trailers. There were also people camping and generally enjoying the park, but again not as many as I'd like to see.
Spring Park is a very old piece of public natural space, especially for this rural area. It's use as a camping and recreation area goes back to 1894, when early citizens of Osage purchased it as a semi-private camping club from a local farmer. Eventually, after growing the park to protect more land, it was deeded to the city, the caretaker now since 1938.
The park is named for an artesian well that has been the central feature since the beginning. It is still tested and available as potable water year round (a service we happily utilized while visiting); and was in the past even used as a liquid refrigerator by early park owners, who had semi-permanent containers with holes that allowed cold water the flow through. This kept perishables like milk around prior to ready supply of ice while people often camped here for a week or more at a time.
Now the park has some nice shelters, playground equipment, bathrooms and about a dozen campsites which we passed on our way through before hooking up to the Cedar River Greenbelt Trail, our route for the rest of the day. Greenbelt trails in Iowa are generally trails on land that has been purchased from private land owners after flood damage, ideally to protect them from further losses while allowing the public access to this less-valuable land.
The southern section of the trail (north of the park) is less used, and we find ourselves hopping over downed trees and walking single file instead of abreast as we did on the stagecoach portion of the trail. One backwater stream had a nice tall iron bridge like you would find in an urban park, but another albeit smaller creek had only stepping stones and a wooden plank. The trail stayed on bottomlands for about three quarters of a mile, giving us occasional river views, and then after a last pass by an obviously regularly flooded bend in the river it veered uphill.
The soil on the trail was hard and well worn, as unlike other places it was not overly washed out and gullied. This was a testament to both good trail building taking the hill at an appropriate pitch and angle, but also the fact this was a hill that had seen probably thousands of years of floods by the Cedar and still stood its ground. All that remained was harder, packed rock and soil.
At the top of the hill we were greeted by a cornfield, and the trail took the form of a lane through some private ground. To our left, opposite the corn, was a woody savanna pasture that included perhaps an old farm site or a family's person vacation spot, complete with a pavilion, tire swing, and of course, a no trespassing sign. It obviously looked over the river and I'm sure that sign has been ignored many times. Someday, I hope, the land can become part of the greenbelt, but I don't blame the owner for keeping it to themselves.
This lane leads to a blacktop road, which we had to follow for a quarter mile, and then to a somewhat major highway (though still just a two lane road) which we walked on in order to cross the river and get to where the trail restarted. This minor inconvenience highlights one of the major inconveniences facing the construction of long distance trails in Midwest: access to public land. Even in this very progressive, outdoor-minded community, the trail has to follow one of the busiest roads anywhere within an hour just to connect. There is plenty of undeveloped or privately protected land, but whereas in other parts of the country easements are often utilized, here we get nothing. Combine this with the fact that Iowa, Central Illinois, Eastern Kansas and Nebraska lack almost any large tracts of protected land and it's a wonder we can go backpacking at all!
Once our route does rejoin a trail, after we went under the bridge to avoid crossing traffic, we are officially in the Falk Wildlife Area owned by the Mitchell County Conservation Board. In Iowa, County Conservation Boards act as a sort of mini-Department of Natural Resources, and were founded originally when some counties felt land was not adequately being protected for public use. Unfortunately county budgets can only carry conservation so far. We pass a few buildings – conservation office, heritage museum – and enter the woods. Like much naturalized land in these parts, this is an old quarry, probably for gravel, and the pits are now small ponds. One here hosts a family of swans, and because the prairie potholes that used to dot the fields nearby have largely been drained (as they have been across the region), these ponds are a welcome addition for naturalists and migrating waterfowl alike.
The trail climbs a small ridge which in reality is an old flood levy and turns to follow the river. There are a wide variety of trees here, mostly old large ones that predate the quarry operation, and smaller ones that have grown in since. On the river side of the trail, where sunlight has better access, there are many wildflowers, though mostly past peak now.
When the trail splits, to a higher pasture path and a lower river path, we stick with the river. It is at first a shelf of dirt and ruble at the base of tall cliffs, just a few feet above the river, if that. Presumably the reason for the split trail is to allow access during annual floods, though it also allows for looping without so much repetition. There were still a few places that were difficult to access given the recent floods, but horse droppings and hoof prints indicated it wasn't that bad.
We did start to see people utilizing the river, especially more social groups of kayakers and tubers. It was mid-afternoon now, so apparently people just needed more time to get going. Many would holler and wave, probably confused as to why we were bothering to walk with paddles. Hopefully some caught on and were inspired.
We came to the spot near where we had seen the Golden Eagles, but on our northbound pass, it was the trail condition that was much more interesting.
A sign indicated we would be crossing private land for a few hundred yards, and the trail instantly fell in quality. It became narrower and full of tree roots. Where it went up a hill, it was a muddy gully; no leave-no-trace practices here. I could not imagine taking a child or a horse here (though obviously the latter had been done often). Again, private land owners unwilling to share the (unutilized) portion of their land for anything but the most marginal public use seriously hampers and entire communities exposure to the to outdoors. What could be a premiere destination is instead an afterthought.
Fortunately the next landowner is more open, and has allowed a wide gravel trail to be build just outside the fence of their cow pasture. We see a small herd in the distance on a hill, but they pay us next to no mid. The trail is very well built here, as much for bikes as hiking it seems. Rip-rap boulders of concrete and re-bar protect the bank where the trail touches the river, and a built up dam/bridge gets us across a woodland gully. It was almost too much, too far away from the natural setting I seek, but the river valley's overall beauty, and location in otherwise endless farm country, made it all worth while.
The path curved around the edge of the pasture between the fence and a surprisingly deep gully. No, not a gully, a ravine. We were in very short order 300 feet from the river and 200 feet above it, and the cleaved out portion of earth here between us and the water was almost vertical, and yet full of trees and underbrush. At the head of the very short ravine, we passed back onto public land at a small parking area, and the other side of the valley rose into a magnificent bluff top oak savanna. Trees often 4 or 5 feet around created a park like setting, though the grass was only loosely being mowed by a farm implement and there was much bull thistle. A burn would do the area well.
But it was inviting enough, and the trees were just the right distance to show off and trial his new hammock set up. I had never set up a camping hammock, and so the ease with which Steve set up a surprisingly complex hammock and cover was impressive. Sitting and laying down, I was amazed at how comfortable I was. I could easily imagine using this as is for many nights of the year, an a sleeping bag would make it capable of replacing any other means of outdoor lodging (provided of course there are trees). I quickly feel the urge to travel more wildlands, explore more remote corners of the continent, but first, to finish the day.
Even standing still for 30 minutes, we saw no hikers, no horseback riders. And we were less than ¼ mile from a parking lot on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Perhaps, I think, the first step to a more naturalized Midwest is to get people to use what we have. And while there is something counter-intuitive about wanting a more crowded trail when seeking wilderness, there is still something to be said for supply and demand. And if people choose occasionally to paddle the Cedar River instead of the Brule, or hike the Loess Hills instead of the Foothills of Arizona, we might prove to the people at the purse strings that it is worth setting aside and protecting, or even restoring land here in the heartland. But we've got two more miles of hiking and these are thoughts for the wrap up of a story, not the middle.
Once the hammock is packed up (again, incredibly easy and fast), we keep moving north. The conversation dips back towards apocalyptic, with a question of how long could one stay in woods this small unnoticed, then paused on what large predators could survive here, then to another thought provoking incident.
Steve had been on this section of trail before, and had seen two men in camouflage, with guns, hunting. Unexceptionable for rural Iowa, hunting is the main driver of our Natural Resource program. But this was well out of any season, and they had rifles, illegal for hunting in Iowa. Poachers. Scary on its own, but troubling on a whole other level when we consider again that hunting is the main driver of Iowa's Department of Natural Resources.
Hunting is a huge driver of public land acquisition and protection across the whole country, along with fishing. The Federal Pittman-Roberts Act, which places a tariff on guns, fishing poles, and other related products has funded hundreds of thousands of acres of restored habitat that is also used by hikers, campers, and boaters. Hunters are often the leading conservationists in a community, and groups like Ducks Unlimited and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation supplement Federal and State land purchases as well.
But when land is protected primarily, or even in extreme cases solely, for the use of hunting and fishing, and not the many other wide-ranging social, ecological and environmental benefits, a certain small sub-set of the hunting community can take the impression that other groups should be excluded. Of course, there are hikers who act out of line and interrupt hunters, the game gets away. When a hunter confronts a hiker, it involves a weapon in the hands of a the aggressive party. A totally different dynamic. And when the aggressive party is operating outside the bounds of the law anyway, it is best to avoid the situation all together.
I do not want to drive a wedge between hunters and hikers though. Quite the contrary, it makes the most sense for those groups to work together as closely as possible. The best times for hunting are often not the best for hiking (I don't want to spend all that much time with deer trying to make babies). And many times the best places for hiking don't offer the cover or clear shots needed for hunting. So if we can work together, demonstrate the demand for land is there, and then cooperate to acquire that land, we will all be better off.
After passing the poacher area, we were within about a mile and a half of the end, as several signs indicated, and with the trail being less than riveting here compared to much of the rest of the day, talk moved to plans for the future. And the quiet, isolated but well worn nature of this section lended itself to being more in thought than watching for other people or roots to trip on. We talked about what to do that night, where else to adventure in our back yard. This last mile, as I said, is flat, with nice views of the river. It's a good cool down for our legs and would be a nice warm up if coming from the opposite direction. The trail leads up to the road, and we must again walk on an unprotected shoulder across a bridge to get where we are going, the truck.
* * *
We cover the same section of river for the third time in a day, but again it feels totally unique. We are now focusing on houses and land for sale and moving at 40 mph instead of 3 or 4. We pull up to our canoe hiding bridge and gingerly descend to avoid parsnip as we go, eager not to get burned on this otherwise nearly fault free day. We haul the canoe up and load it awkwardly into the bed of the truck. We take back roads home for everyone's safety, and in doing so discovered there are more small creeks to explore than we ever knew. We just need to look, reach out, find partners for ourselves and for our missions, and regain access and protection for the land that can help us all.