Paddling the Maquoketa River

The Maquoketa river is to river-paddling what street magicians are to the world of magic: Instead of all the glitz, glamor, flash, and flare that usually draws a crowd, it strips spectacle down to the bare minimum and limits itself to a small assortment of surprises; but it uses those surprises so well—first concealing, then revealing them, one by one—that it never fails to delight or impress. Its beauty is smaller, subtler, and more basic than some other Iowa rivers, but to those who experience it, it takes on a power all its own—perhaps even overshadows some of its "showier" counterparts.

No, the Maquoketa river does not have the miles of scenic bluffs of the Upper Iowa, the spirited riffles and bucolic runs of the Yellow, or the volume and swift flow of the Cedar. But it has tastes of all of these: a few strikingly beautiful cliffs hidden behind the treeline (particularly in the Pictured Rocks area), a handful of riffles, and a few short stretches of swift current (mainly below Monticello). If you can overlook the rigors of portaging, it has several gorgeous dams: south of Dundee, at Terrill Park in Manchester, and at Monticello. It is also teems with more wildlife-per-mile than I've encountered on any other Iowa river: dozens of deer, gaggles of geese, flocks of wood ducks, mud turtles, heron, eagles, hawks, beaver, raccoon, turkey, fish—the list goes on. Best of all, it seems to offer the perfect balance of that special Iowa "charm": a few pastures, a few fences to cross and cows to meet, miles and miles of densely wooded hillsides, a mixture of rural and remote wilderness, a handful of sandy beaches scattered among the muddy banks, and a few small towns (full of nice folks) within hiking distance.

If you're looking for an ideal day-paddling destination or a scenic expedition locale in Iowa, the Maquoketa river is calling your name.

An Expedition Cut Short

Late in the evening, on May 21, 2006, I arrived in Dundee, IA and set up camp beside the Maquoketa river at the Dundee river access (off 3rd street). The next morning, I woke up, made breakfast, and set off on a journey that was intended to take me approximately 130 miles to the Mississippi river. Unfortunately, a wrist injury forced me to cut the trip short at the end of my second day on the river, but not before I saw the most scenic half of the river (appoximately 67 miles, from Dundee to the Hwy 136 access south of Monticello) which is of greatest interest to paddlers. What follows is a blend of my paddling journal, itinerary, personal reflections, and logistical information which should be of interest to other paddlers heading down the Maquoketa river.

Monday, May 22, 2006: Dundee, IA to Hopkinton, IA (approx. 34 river miles)

  • The flow rate for the "Maquoketa River at Manchester, IA" gauge reads 145 cfs, a little lower than the ideal, but higher than average according to a local paddler at Manchester. From what I'm told, 150+ cfs is best for paddling this section, and based on my experience today, I would look for 160+, though paddling was still mostly pleasant with only about a half dozen places where I had to get out and drag the kayak a short stretch.

  • Wake at 4:40 a.m. Three strawberry pop tarts for breakfast—going to need the sugar. Sky is lightening quickly, starting around 5:20 a.m. Weather looks beautiful. Set off downriver at 5:35 a.m., when it is finally bright enough to paddle safely (able to see strainers and obstructions clearly).

  • Note: Polarized sunglasses are terrific for lining through riffles and spotting shallows—a "must have" on this trip. Also great when paddling into the early morning sun.

  • Carrying 6.5 liters of drinking water. Expecting to consume 4 liters/day, but hoping to come across a places to refill in town. Didn't bring a purifier on this trip: An article scared me into thinking it wouldn't be effective against likely pesticides in the river. (Is that why Iowa's regulations don't allow retailers to sell or market water filters without crossing out the "makes water safe to drink" type of claims on the packaging?)

  • In just the first hour of paddling, I see 11 deer, 12 geese, 2 wood ducks, 1 raccoon, 3 turtles, and 1 crazy fish that exploded out of the water right next to me and scared the heck out of me. Here I am in Iowa and it's been three years since I last paddled on the ocean, yet my first thought was: Shark! That had me laughing at myself for at least a mile. In any case, there's something neat to see around every bend in the river. I also come across three fences in that same time, though I only see two more (one electric) anywhere along the rest of the trip. Keep your eyes peeled—fences are hard to spot in the early morning fog, and a few are camoflauged by weeds.

  • As usual, portages go fastest by making three trips: one to scout the path (look for solid footing and plan the route intelligently with the kayak in mind), one to carry all the heavy gear (use a length of rope to tie dry bags together and make a shoulder-harness), and one to carry the kayak (go slow and be careful not to drop the boat).

  • There are five portages between Dundee and Hopkinton. Two are brutal. One was the worst portage I've ever seen—even worse than any of the brutal portages along the upper Mississippi river. The worst portage is at the south end of Lake Delhi. A close runner-up is the first dam below Dundee. Here are the essential portaging notes:

  • Dam One (south of Dundee): Portage on river-right (west bank). Head up the embankment a few yards, then descend the hill through the trees, across a rocky crevice, up a small hill, then through the saplings and thorn bushes (wear long pants and long sleeves or suffer the wrath of the thorns!). This is not a pretty portage at all, but it's more hospitable than attempting the feat on the other side of the river, where the local resident has posted about 20 "No Trespassing" signs in a 200-foot stretch and there's no viable way to get back down to the river below the dam due to a tall, sheer cliff. Of course, even on the "portageable" west side, I discovered a "No Trespassing" sign in the thorn bushes on my last pass-through (Note: Why can't people be more hospitable to paddlers?). Since the Maquoketa is not classified as a "meandering river," I suspect they could legally enforce their property rights even though this is the only place to get through. Keep your head low, portage quickly, don't make a lot of noise, be respectful, leave no trace, and hopefully no one will come out and yell at you before you make it through the thorn bushes. From there, step down a few rock tiers to the water. Time to portage: about 35 minutes.

  • Dam Two (at Terrill Park, Manchester): Portage on river-left (east bank). Take out by the gazebo in the park and follow the long concrete path about 70 yards down below the dam. This is a fairly easy portage, but would be easier with a wheeled cart or a partner to help carry the load. Time to portage: about 30 minutes. Note: Met an extremely nice local paddler, Rick (?) Appleby, who stopped to chat and even offered to help with the portage. I enjoyed his company, but declined his offer to help since my gear was already muddy and I didn't want to burden him with the task. Apparently, he works (or has worked) with the fire department to help post water level gauges on some of the dams and bridges in the area. He offered much useful information about water levels, upcoming dams, and portage routes.

  • Dam Three (approx. 3 miles below Manchester): Portage on river-left (east bank). The dam is low but looks potentially unsafe to shoot through the middle unless with a shorter, more nimble kayak. I paddled up to the left edge of the dam and simply slid the kayak up and over carefully, making this a very quick, easy portage with no need to empty the kayak first. A very tiny sandspit just below the dam provided a nice spot to rest and eat lunch in the sunshine. Time to portage: about 5 minutes.

  • Dam Four (at Delhi): Portage on river-right (west bank). This portage is grueling. Take out just to the right of the dam, drag the kayak up the steep bank, across the road, to the grassy area on the other side. Here's where it gets tough: There is a steep, narrow trail on a 50-degree descent down the hill to the base of the dam. Footing is rather precarious and trees and boulders make it very difficult to carry a sea kayak down through. Go slow, take your time, plan your route carefully in advance, and carry all your gear in a separate trip to minimize the weight of the kayak. At the base of the trail, it turns to boulder-skipping and rock-hopping as you make your way down the rocks to the foamy water. I set my kayak down at the base of the steep descent to rest and eat a snack before tackling the rest of the portage. Time to portage: a full, grueling hour, plus time to rest. Note: This portage would be much safer with a partner to help shoulder the load. Do not try to hurry this portage!

  • Dam Five (at Hopkinton): Portage on river-right (west bank). This is not so much a dam as it is a vigorous and impassable boulder-strewn waterfall which cascades down a short, shallow drop. Paddle up to the right side under the bridge and look for a concrete path just a few feet up the bank. Follow the path about 40 yards down to the low end of the dam and put in. I was greeted at the end of the portage by a huge, dark black, ridiculously friendly dog which appeared to be a Rottweiler-mutt mix of some sort. He sniffed my gear, played in the water, fawned at my attention, then strolled away like a happy country dog.

  • Considering the rather dull appeal of Lake Delhi, which is slow-flowing, lined with wall-to-wall houses, saturated with speedboats and personal watercraft (stick to the shore!), deprived of its "river-esque" character, and ends in a grueling portage (Dam Four, above), I would strongly recommend that paddlers skip this section by taking out at the Bailey's Ford Access and driving down to the Maquoketa River Access south of Delhi to resume paddling.

  • The long hours of paddling combined with the grueling portage around the dam at Delhi caused me to strain my wrist. It hurts to bend and flex it, but I'm hoping it will heal after a good night's sleep so I can continue the trip. At 5:30, a mile or two below Hopkinton, I make camp on a small sandy island across from a county park. Note: Pain makes me lonely. There's something about being injured so far from help or home that makes you crave company. Oh well. I concentrate on cooking a tasty dinner instead and it takes my mind off the pain. Ibuprofen helps too.

  • Turns out 6.5 liters of water was just enough to cover the first day since the combination of a hot sun, 5 portages around dams, and the choice to cook pasta for dinner have led me to consume more water than typical. Probably should have re-filled on water at Terrill Park in Manchester just to be safe, but seemed too early to worry about it at the time. Maybe I could've found somewhere in Hopkinton, but I didn't see any obvious, nearby public place to obtain water. I'm down to my last half-liter by nightfall.

Dam One, south of Dundee, and Dam Two, at Terrill Park, Manchester.

Dam Three, south of Manchester, and Dam Four, at Delhi.

Dam Five, at Hopkinton, and Dam Six, at Monticello.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006: Hopkinton to Hwy 136 River Access (approx. 33 river miles)

  • The total flow rate for the "Maquoketa River near Maquoketa, IA" gauge (824 cfs) minus the flow rate for the "North Fork Maquoketa River near Fulton, IA" (205 cfs) is 619 cfs. By most accounts, a total above 300 cfs is reported to offer pleasant paddling. In my experience, even at 619 cfs, there are several spots where the river bottoms out. I would wish for a bit more water through a few sections, but perhaps at lower flow rates, the course of the river is easier to read. Regardless, some careful attention to the direction of the current and other signs of the river's course can help you avoid many, many annoying groundings on long, shallow sandbars. I had to get out and drag the kayak only about a half-dozen times, though I would have had to do so much more often if I had been less attentive to the meandering course of the deeper portions.

  • Wake at 4:30 a.m. Last night was a bit cooler, dropping into the mid-40s, but I slept very well after yesterday's paddle. Wrist feels marginally better. Tender, but not in pain. Take two Ibuprofen to prevent further swelling or inflammation, though it is visibly swollen. Looking forward to only one dam-portage today, compared to yesterday's five! Bacon, cheese, and bagels for breakfast. On the water by 5:35 a.m. again.

  • I am down to my last half-liter of water this morning. Next time, I would bring 8 liters of water instead of 6.5, or else I would carry my MSR MiniWorks EX filter. I brought my MSR MIOX water purifier along in case I do become desperate for hydration, but I am trying to avoid using it due to concerns I've read about pesticides and nitrates in the river. Note: Why aren't there any water-spigots at the public parks along the way? With just a few small improvements, these little towns could do a lot to make the river more attractive and hospitable to paddlers. Fortunately, the morning is still nice and cool so I should be able to stretch the half-liter of water pretty far and (hopefully) make it to Monticello before I run out.

  • The morning is stunning—early morning fog rising off the lake in silver wisps, sunlight streaming through the trees, and many, many young deer caught unawares while drinking from the water.

  • At the first bridge I came to in the Monticello area, I stopped river-right (west bank) and climbed up the hill to find a campground within 100 yards. I walked down and knocked at the office but it was closed since it was so early in the morning. I walked over to the pump-out station and found a water spigot, so I was able to refill my water just in time, as I had just run out about 15 minutes earlier.

  • Dam Six (Mon-Maq dam, at Monticello) appears shortly after passing a second bridge in the Monticello area, but before you get to the Interstate. Portage on river-left (east bank). Drag the kayak along the grass, up toward the road, around the dam, then down a sandy beach. There are a few rocks and a cement slab along the way, but I didn't need to empty the kayak first. I used a length of rope to fashion a shoulder harness through the front bow toggle to aid dragging. My thighs are burning from the effort. Time to portage: 15 minutes, plus time to rest and eat a mid-morning snack. Hooray! This is the last portage I should see today! I'm starting to notice more tenderness in my wrist again, but I've already come 10 miles and it's been doing reasonably well so I push on.

  • The current is a bit swifter in some sections now, causing me to average an extra mile-per-hour in some places. There are still shallow sections which require much attention to read accurately. In a few places, the whole river shallows out and requires a quick trek on foot to get back to passable waters again. The river is quite pretty here, with a noticeably higher concentration of eagles and hawks here than elsewhere. It is also familiar, as I have paddled this portion of the river several times before.

  • Around 9:30 a.m., I am already to the Pictured Rocks Access, one of the prettiest sections of the river, with stunning cliffs hidden in the trees. I have come approximately 19 miles already today, so progress is definitely faster without so many dams, shallows, and stalled currents to slow the journey. A trio of canoeists is getting ready to set out at the same time that I return to paddling, but I lose them behind me quickly as they are in no hurry to get down the river.

  • At 11:55 a.m. I stop for lunch on a small sandbar below Eby's Mill. When I try to slice cheese with a knife, my swollen wrist screams in pain. Now I know I've done something to seriously injure it and it needs more than a one-night rest to recover. The next access is several miles yet, so after lunch, I take to paddling again and continue down to the Highway 136 River Access (south of Monticello). My wrist feels like it's separating a little during each pulling stroke. Note: Later, when I get my wrist checked out, it turns out to be a severe case of tendonitis. The "separating" feeling is the lack of lubrication in the tendons. The doctor puts me on a heavy regimine of Ibuprofen—2,400 mg per day—and says no paddling for at least two weeks. Ugh.

  • I reach the Highway 136 Access at 1:10 p.m. and decide to take out and call an end to the trip. The rest of the river is said to be much less scenic, particularly after Maquoketa, where it widens and slows down until it joins the Mississippi. I am disappointed to quit, but it's not worth doing serious injury or permanent damage to my wrist, which is very swollen now and extremely sore. Besides, I've seen the best half of the river, had plenty of exercise, enjoyed two perfect days of sunny, mid-70-degree temperatures, and portaged plenty of dams to "give up" the "joy" of portaging yet another dam at Maquoketa. Perhaps I'll come back later this summer to paddle the estimated 30 miles between the Highway 136 Access and Joinerville, so that I can complete the "scenic" portion of the river.

What to Know Before You Go

Wrist injury aside, my two days on the Maquoketa river were a real joy. Who says you can't take an enjoyable multi-day kayaking expedition in Iowa? If my wrist had been up to it, I would've loved to continue on, and I feel reasonably confident I could have reached the Mississippi by the end of the fourth day. Of course, I had the benefit of higher-than-average flow rates (below Monticello) to help my progress. At other times of the year, the Maquoketa river can become ridiculously shallow, turning an enjoyable paddling trip into a wading trip from hell. If you go, there are a few things you should know about the river which, to my surprise, are not readily apparent from the limited information you can glean on the world wide web.

First, read the flow rate recommendations I mention above and check the flow rates for the relevant sections prior to your journey. You need to make sure the river is flowing well, or else your progress will be slow and arduous as you continually run aground in the shallows.

Second, the Maquoketa river is not classified as a "meandering river," which means that unlike the Cedar river or portions of the Iowa river, the area up to the high-water mark is not public property. Private land-owners own the land, the river banks, and even the land beneath the river, so technically, unless you're floating, you're trespassing. This means that you should probably plan to start and end each segment of your journey at a public campground. Unfortunately, there aren't enough campgrounds along the way to present many options to paddlers wishing to traverse the entire river as I aimed to do.

One option to expand the possibilities afforded by established campgrounds is to camp at public landings (as I did at the Dundee Access before starting my journey, and probably would've done at the Highway 136 Access if I had continued on), far enough out of the way that it is unlikely anyone will "kick you out," as long as you are respectful, quiet, and practice "leave no trace." Another option is to camp on islands along the river which, though few and far between (and still technically "trespassing") is far less likely to anger local landowners than if you make camp on their shores or in their pastures. I call this practice "ninja camping." Click the link to read more about this practice and the ethical and logistical issues it involves.

Third, several of the portages on the Maquoketa are not for the weak of body or faint of heart. The dam below Dundee and the dam at Delhi are beyond what some folks would consider "portageable," and they require a lot of effort, especially if you're portaging them alone. (I'm told the dam at Maquoketa is also quite difficult, though I have not seen or portaged it myself.) Read and memorize the portage notes I've listed above so you'll know which side of the river to take out on before you get to each dam. Also, be alert. The dams are not always easy to spot since the water flows right over the top of them. You'll likely hear them before you realize that you're looking at the top of a dam, so pay attention.

I've always found that portaging moves quickest by the rule of three; that is, make three trips: One trip to scout the journey and plan your route; another trip to lash your heavy gear together and haul it across; and one final trip to haul your empty (or nearly empty) kayak. Never hurry a portage and always take a quick stock of your gear as you load up again on the other side to be sure you haven't left anything behind. Your trip could easily be ruined by the loss of your tent, food bag, sleeping bag, or water supply. It could also be ruined if you get in a rush and drop or damage your boat.

Fourth, I noticed virtually no public places along the river where you could easily obtain water. You can use a reliable water filter, but there are numerous concerns about pesticides in Iowa rivers which may or may not be valid. I've certainly filtered water out of Iowa rivers before and, so far, I've noticed no ill effects, but a lot of folks recommend carrying your own water since the adjacent farm and pasture lands can contribute high amounts of chemicals and nitrates to the water. If you do filter, I recommend using both a mechanical (0.3 micron or smaller pump) and a chemical (iodine or chlorine) step in your filtration. As for places to obtain water, there is a Hardee's, a Burger King, and a Fareway grocery store close to the river just above the Terrill Park dam in Manchester. There is also a campground with a water spigot on river-right just a short hike from the first bridge you come to as you enter the Monticello area. The second bridge you come to (before Mon-Maq dam) should also be a moderate hike from the Hardee's and a few gas stations in Monticello.

To my surprise, none of the public parks or landing areas—including Pictured Rocks—appeared to offer any water spigot or drinking fountain. If you carry your water, I would expect to need about 8 liters of water per person to make it from Dundee to Monticello comfortably (33 miles, plus 5 portages). Since I pulled out at the Highway 136 Access (another 33 miles, plus one portage), I can't say where the next readily available refill location would be. Take a filter of some sort as back-up in case of a pinch, or else resort to boiling water in a real emergency.

Fifth, when planning my trip, I found very little useful information about paddling the Maquoketa river. The two best resources, though incomplete, are Nate Hoogeveen's book Paddling Iowa: 96 Great Trips by Canoe and Kayak (pages 88-93) and this PDF document from the desmoinesriver.org website. In my experience, Hoogeveen's water level (flow rate) recommendations tend to be a bit low for an expedition traveler who will be carrying more gear than a day-paddler and, thus, will draw a bit more water and be more likely to bottom out than Hoogeveen seems to expect. Even so, the book is quite useful for day-trips and at least somewhat useful to folks planning longer trips on rivers in Iowa. I highly recommend it if you expect to paddle in Iowa often. As for the PDF document from desmoinesriver.org, a few of the portage recommendations were wrong (see my portage notes above, instead) and the information is limited, but the distance table from access to access is quite useful. It is also the only information I could find which made mention of the river beyond the Joinerville Park Access, where the "scenic" portion of the river customarily ends.

I know of no "good" set of maps available for the Maquoketa river. Some good satellite images can be found online, but I took only the photocopied pages of Hoogeveen's book, the PDF document mentioned above, and my GPS unit. Even without maps, I had no trouble distinguishing the main river from its occasional branches or drainage channels. Maps were useful mainly for determining how far until the next dam or town, and for measuring daily progress. Still, I would never recommend proceeding without some printed, map-like approximation of the river's course. You could find yourself in a dangerous predicament if you get lost or separated from your boat without a map to approximate your location and the direction of the nearest town.

Finally, a word of caution about mileage: Although I paddled 33 miles on both days of my trip, most paddlers would find my pace uncomfortably rigorous, especially with the added rigors of portaging around dams. Assuming a good flow rate, it is probably realistic to plan a pace of 12-15 miles per day if you like to stop often, take lots of pictures, swim, or spend an hour lazing on a sandbar at mid-day—though at that pace, you may need to carry extra drinking water also (see above). If your primary goal is the joy and exercise of paddling, assume a pace of perhaps 20 miles per day. The pace will likely increase or ease as you get to the lower section below Monticello, which seems to flow noticeably faster through several sections, at least when the flow rate accords with my reports above.

As for me, I started paddling at 5:30 a.m. each morning and stopped at 5:30 p.m. the first day, and at 1:10 p.m. the second day (due to an arm injury). Notice that I traveled the same distance both days (approx. 33 miles), but the second day it took me four fewer hours because the current was flowing faster below Monticello and there was only one dam to be portaged (compared to five the day before). I took very few rests, rarely for longer than 5 or 10 minutes (except lunches, which ran about 20 minutes, and after portaging dams), and paddled fairly consistently the rest of the time. If you're the sort of paddler like me who gets in a zone and can go for hours without realizing how much "work" your arms are actually doing, then a higher pace can be expected, but be sure to plan around your abilities and your idea of a comfortable, manageable pace. Most of all, have fun!

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