Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Canoeing the Shell Rock River, Floyd County, IA, December 6th, 2015

Shell Rock River Paddle
Nora Springs to Rockford, Floyd County, IA
December 6th, 2015

December in Iowa is not traditionally canoe season, but December in Iowa is also not traditionally 45° and sunny. But even before we knew the forecast, we had planned this trip, hoping the date would afford us some isolation and unique views of the riverside and valley. We, here, is myself and Steve, one of the few people I know with the affinity and willingness to enjoy the outdoors as I do in the part of the country, and my frequent travel companion.

We had gotten a good amount of precipitation, both rain and snow, in the weeks before our trip, and so the river was high without being too aggressive or unpredictable. We launched, conveniently, from Steve's backyard in the middle of town, but because of the soaring bluffs that started almost immediately down stream, and then flood plain beyond that, we saw few buildings. Our trip was on the Shell Rock River, a tributary of the Cedar River that flows from Albert Lea Lake in southern Minnesota and joins the Cedar near Janesville, IA. Our trip today would be about 10 miles in the middle of the river, from below the dam in Nora Springs to just above the confluence with the Winnebago River in Rockford.

Shortly after departure, we approach two bridges in sequence. The new, modern highway bridge that was maybe 40 feet above the water, sterile but safe from regular floods, and then a block later the older, lower, arched concrete bridge. I can only think that the trend of small, rural towns turning their main streets into highway like roads, eschewing any concern for visual appeal or pedestrian comfort, is a band-aide to declining traffic, and not a way to reverse it. Though, on a river that floods like the Shell Rock does, the new elevated bridge will do much less to constrain and focus the river during a flood and instead gives unmitigated access to the flood plain the river needs.
We pass under the second, ornate concrete arch bridge and pass two fishermen, like us enjoying the unseasonable weather, say a quick hello and drift on. A doe is on the bank too, sheltering in town no doubt on this opening day of deer hunting season. A sign of wilderness to many who grew up in the nearly deer-free mid-century Iowa, these animals now exist in such numbers they are more pest than joy to many others because of a lack of wilderness. The have no competition from other large herbivore like elk (native to Iowa) which cause more crop damage than deer and are eradicated when they do show up; nor predators, as wolves are generally unheard of in Iowa and can still be shot when seen. In an interesting sign that nature will find a way to bring balance, coyotes have started to display more wolf like behavior to take advantage of the food opportunity and are packing up and attempting to take down the larger deer.

Deer are symptoms of a lack of wilderness, but also harmful to what remains. Deer do amazing damage to woodland under-stories, making recovery from flood or fire much more difficult as they graze on seedlings. They are even sometimes more at home in town than the country and I personally feel they don't deserve the high esteem many give them.

Past the deer, we pass under and old steel pass-through bridge, where the truss is above rather than below the deck you drive on. Steve tells me it is closed to vehicles and remains just for bikes and pedestrians. I take this as a sign that towns are starting to recognize the value of recreation and active transportation, and save assets like this bridge to be developed some day. 

Below the bridge are some very minor rapids, shoals really, but as my hands were on my hot chocolate and not my paddle, a good reminder that it was December, and tipping would be more dangerous than in July. At 40° water temperature, we'd have maybe 30 minutes before losing consciousness. We will be avoiding that today.

Past the water treatment plan, we had one last visage of town. A once grand brick estate on 10 or so acres of pasture right along the river, now a shell of itself. Apparently the owners have no desire to restore or sell it, and so Nora Springs will probably eventually lose this little piece of cultural history like so many grand homes in so many small towns.

After the estate, the river became wooded on both sides. On the left, the western bank rose up a wooded slope that was a county conservation area, then downstream turned private, any home that was up there was hidden for the most part though. The right, east bank was a more typical bottom land floodplain forest, full of strong trees like White Oak, Bitternut Hickory and Willow. Trees that withstand the occasional flooding and frequently saturated soil. On the left we scare up a deer. As I noted before, this is deer hunting opener, and she has a pretty severe wound on her rump, though it looks like a coyote attack more than a bad shot based on how focused and bloody the wound was. She hobbled off deeper into the woods. Moments later a shape in the water caught my eye. A deer carcass? Steve was confident it was just a boulder, as we had been tapping the river bottom with our boat and dodging some rocks. But to satisfy a gentlemanly bet, we paddled up to it, and it was indeed a young spike buck. He had no signs of injury, and may have fallen in when there was a thin sheet of ice. The lack of decay indicated it was probably a recent death, though also that the imbalance of predator and prey was such that a scavenger wouldn't even stand in ankle deep water for a free meal.

As we approached the dull roar of the US-18 bridge, homes were closer to the river and more visible. An impressive set of stonework and concrete appeared to the the remains of an old saw or grain mill, a reminder of a more independent and industrial time in North Iowa. We pass under the bridge imagining the passing motorists, if they even notice us, to be calling us crazy fools, braver than them. But I really do doubt many would even notice. South of the bridge are again more homes down near the water, I suppose to balance out having to live next to an interstate highway. Apart from one, they are modest homes, set on a short bluff to avoid flooding. Fortunately, after this development we will only see one or two more homes before landing.

Around the bend from the homes, the banks generally open up and we can see cornfield stubble and grassy pastures. Occasional silos or windmills dot the horizon. With the surroundings being flatter here and having more loose topsoil than in the woods, the river starts to braid and meander more, developing small islands. We see one off to our left that appears to come back to the main channel in a hundred yards or so, and decide we have enough time to explore. The fact the water seemed to be flowing out of the inlet rather than with the river should have been a sign, but no, it must have been an illusion, right?

40 feet up what was of course the mouth of a tributary stream we knew that no, this did not connect back to the river. And of course we could not turn around by the time we realized this, and moving backwards shifted the weight in such a way we struck bottom and couldn't move. So we paddled another 15 feet up until we could get the bow against the bank that was not a four foot embankment, and I could climb out followed by Steve. 400 lbs lighter, the craft spun effortlessly, and save a single boot getting a little damp, we launched back into the Shell Rock without fanfare.

Shortly thereafter a monstrosity of a “log cabin”, still actively being landscaped, arises on our left. If it weren't so grandiose, it's position high above with a gentle slope to the river would make it a perfect place for a river rat to live, but I'm pretty positive whomever owns this house would not use the term river rat on themselves. Luckily, there is an island here, and we paddle to the far side, quickly hiding the house. In fact, were it not for that house, the island, a sort of savannah mixture of grass and trees, would have made a great lunch spot or even overnight stop. The surroundings on this stretch of river are almost entirely grassland, and threes would offer a good windbreak and place to hang a hammock. Of course, it's private property, so maybe not.

Just below where the river comes back together around the island is a small bridge, the only one for 5 miles in either direction. We had considered this as a stopping point during our planning, not knowing the stretch of river we were going to be on or how tolerant we would be of the cold. Now slipping under the bridge I was very glad we opted for the longer challenge of Rockford for a stopping point.
Past the bridge was the expansive Nagle Wildlife Management Area, providing us with uninterrupted grassland on both banks for over a mile. Only in the far distance could we see even a tall silo, and when we beached the canoe to look around, we could see even less signs of development. Sturdy evergreens popped bright and loud against the brown, monochromatic tallgrass that ran off to the gray-blue horizon, rolling over the sort of hills that while significant up close, fade quickly into a flat prairie background. The grasses, too, were so much more different up close than when viewed en masse. A dozen or more species every square foot, stalks of varying height, girth and shape. Blades of grass, seed head striped bare. Even some scattered flowers, petals still clinging but turned brown again, almost like they just want to belong.

We linger at Nagle only five minutes or so, making a loop on foot and commenting it could be a fun place to camp in the summer when being earth bound (i.e. not in a hammock) wouldn't be so cold. Back in our boat, the banks of the river slowly take on an almost Northwoods feel as bedrock is again exposed and pine and other evergreens become more dominant. The river briefly winds north, and we are buffeted by a wind that had hitherto had kept us moving at a brisk pace, and really was still unseasonably warm, but as the river turned south, we were quickly disrupted by something much better than cold.

A large trumpeter swan entered the water from the bank at sight of us and began paddling ahead. It's a little redundant to say a “large” swan. With five foot wingspans and large bodies, they are some of the heaviest birds in North American skies. Our swan, an uncommon but no longer rare sight since being reintroduced to Iowa in the mid-1990s, stayed a few yards in front of us for several minutes, allowing us to get as close as we felt appropriate (which was not very). As we rounded another bend around a floodplain grassland, this swan turned to face us. But before we could get a good picture, a hawk swooped from a long tree, catching out eye. Either scared itself or sensing us to be distracted, the swan began it's long take off, running and flapping, slapping the water loudly on its way upstream and back around the bend. We sat for a moment in awe of our experience with this more exotic charismatic megafauna.

The next mile or so we were quiet, and while there were more quiet, and while there were no obvious houses, someone had flooded a pasture right up to the water, the barbed wire removed any false hope of wilderness, and though the opposite bank was more rustic, there were signs of habitation as well, like a (vacant?) deer blind. But the steep slope did at least hide the cornfield beyond, more than we could say for most of the final stretch of our trip. The river has a decent bugger strip of grasses, but for the most part, corn stalks or a barren field were always just a few yards beyond.

But we did have one last reminder that wilderness once ruled here. As we passed another rocky outcropping, Steve spotted a bald eagle making slow circles above the river, occasionally disappearing beyond the trees. Then, it landed in the barren crown of an oak tree, just on the bank. As I attempted to catch it in my binoculars, I suddenly noticed another eagle in the same tree, and they started screeching, or really a loud chirp. Eagles do not make as impressive a sounds as TV would have you believe. And then, the nest. It was not as a grandiose as the other nest I know of locally, but still massive. As the nest does not appear in any satellite imagery, and breeding season is right around New Years, I believe this was, so to speak, a pair of newly weds preparing to be yet another boost to the recovering Bald Eagle population in the Midwest.

We left the lovebirds and rounded a corner again surrounded by two columns of flood and fertilizer buffering grass strips with cropland beyond. Soon, houses start to line the banks, marking the outskirts of our destination town of Rockford. There is, oddly, a jet ski parked behind one, and I'm glad it's too cold for that person to be out ruining my quietude. There was a serious of small rapids leading into town, making the last half mile of our trip someone more exciting. Helping, too, were the several hundred geese that took off as we arrived at our park, the thunder of wings making it almost impossible to hear my shipmate.

With the water at a winter low, we had to take a few steps in the river pulling the canoe out, but with the truck a few steps away, we weren't concerned. In the same park, last spring, a black bear was spotted and tracks were cast, one of at least two, and as many as six bears that were roaming the northeast corner of the state at the time. I am anxiously waiting now to see if any return this year.
When we depart, we check out a recently removed low head dam father downstream in Rockford, a restorative effort for the river which we appreciate, and we talk about how we could pass here via canoe if and when we paddle the last few miles of the Shell Rock.

This would end up being my last trip of the year, and the weather combined with the relatively undeveloped portion of the river combined to reinforce my belief there is wilderness to be found, and even more areas that should be protected and restored. There are animals big and small, beautiful vistas of grass and water, and quiet.

We drove the canoe home to Steve's house and I returned home. I decided I would buy my own life vest and paddle, and begin planning my 2016 adventures, because to me, half the fun of travels outdoors is the planning, when time off from work and endurance are unlimited, and anything can be conquered.