October on the Upper Iowa River
by Wes Kisting
In the late afternoon of October 18, 2005, I launched my kayak from the put-in at Kendallville, Iowa, and set out on an overnight trip down the Upper Iowa river, on the pristine 35-mile stretch to Decorah. The Upper Iowa river is the premier paddling destination in Iowa and one of the best ways to experience the gorgeous Fall colors in the Midwest. Since the trees had been slow to change this year, I was hoping to catch a few late bursts of color. Plus, the weather had been unseasonably warm during the previous week, and I was hoping the trend would continue. Even better, while the Upper Iowa tends to be notoriously shallow in October, water levels had been unseasonably high, and current flow rates were reporting in at nearly double the normal average for this time of year. That meant more spirited riffles, easier traveling, and fewer portages through low sections. Taken together, these factors looked like the perfect recipe for a great late-season paddling trip. And they were.
Last time I paddled the Upper Iowa, it was a cold and exhausting adventure lugging my kayak through shallow areas and painting a visible trail of gelcoat along the bottom. This time, I struck bottom only three times, and never once needed to exit my kayak to get moving again. It was quite an improvementnot just to comfort and enjoyment, but also to my average traveling speed. In just two hours, I had managed to paddle nearly as far as I had paddled in five hours the last time I visited. Consequently, I found myself beset with plenty of time to "stop and smell the roses," instead of having to make a mad, shoulder-busting dash to reach my destination before dark.
Speaking of the darkness, I had forgotten how early the sun sets by mid-October. I made camp around 5:30 in the evening, a full two or three hours sooner than I am accustomed to doing on my Summer trips. Since I had only had time to paddle about two hours, I wasn't ready to call it quits, but Mother Nature has to be respected, and a strainer-ridden, fast-flowing river is no place for a solo kayaker to be after dark. Just a few moments after I began looking for a nice spot to stop for the night, I ran into a father-son pair of fly-fisherman. They kindly recommended a camping spot on the adjacent farmer's land, telling me they were sure he wouldn't mind. To make certain, I paddled another half-mile down to the farmer's private campsite and stopped to ask his permission, but there was no one around. Since it was getting dark, I decided to trust in the advice of the fly-fisherman and make camp anyway, hoping not to wake to an incensed landowner. Out of respect for the unconsulted owner (and in light of all the dead leaves) I chose not to build a fire, settling for a stove-cooked dinner and a cup of hot chocolate instead.
If you're a restless adventurer like me, it's a strange experience knowing that you have more dark hours than light ones, forcing you to spend more time on shore than on the water. The sky was completely black by 6:30 in the evening, and did not brighten again until 7 a.m. the next morning. I woke early to the sound of wild dogs and distressed cows at 5:30 a.m. Since my campsite was in a pasture, I got up and broke camp right away in case a stampede of frightened cows came pouring through the area. Of course, as a result of my early rise, I was ready to take to the water by 6:15, but the sky was still much too dark to launch safely. The Upper Iowa is relatively tame, but if you can't see where you're going, it could easily become very dangerous. So, trying to be patient, I put on my wonderful waders to fend off the chill of the early morning air and sat on the rear deck of my kayak munching crackers until the sky brightened.
At 7 a.m., I shoved off. It was the perfect start to a gorgeous day. By 10 a.m. the air began to warm noticeably, and by Noon the temperature was in the high 60s. Since it had been two years since my last visit, I was surprised how frequently I recognized the major twists and turns of the river, and how often (and well) I remembered which side to paddle to avoid the shallows. I could barely believe my progress. A busy summer with scarce opportunities to paddle had left me thoroughly out of shape, yet with minimal effort, I could easily glide along consistently at 4 or 5 miles per hour, and much higher speeds were common through the steeper sections of the river. I had expected to spend the whole day covering the 25+ miles from my campsite to Decorah at an easy pace. Instead, I found myself with plenty of time to snap photos and stretch my legs, while still arriving in Decorah as early as 1 p.m.! This was shaping up to be the ideal late-season trip.
Happily, the fall colors were still showing themselves in splotches of gold and red along the tops of the bluffs; the water was running as clear as glass; and the sunshine and blue skies made the weather feel like heaven. As usual, the river treated me to the sights of numerous hawks, eagles, and turkeys, a family of raccoons, innumerable trout, and a couple of startled (yet surprisingly curious) deer. I saw pasture land and forests, majestic bluffs and dramatic round, green hillsall the charm and beauty of Iowa concentrated along a 35-mile stretch of river. By the time I arrived in Decorah, I was certainly feeling the effects of 25 miles of out-of-shape paddling, but I was sorry the trip had come to an end. Originally, I had planned to keep going, but the forecast for the next few days was bleak, rainy, and extremely cold, so it felt like the right time to stop. No sense wrecking such a gorgeous 2-day trip by pushing on through the next 3 days of horrid-looking weather. Maybe next year!
I took out at the College Street bridge, near the Amoco and the Subway food shop. On my last visit, I took out about a mile sooner, so I had missed the spirited class-II runs which I now found myself treated to just before (and under) the bridge. It was a terrific ending to a fantastic trip. With no little enthusiasm, I treated myself to a Subway sandwich to celebrate the finale (and to fill my rumbling stomach).
If you paddle the Upper Iowa River, it's generally better to go in the Spring or early Summer seasons (preferably after a good rain) when the river typically runs at higher levels. Regardless, whenever you go, check the Web for Current Stream Flow Conditions in Iowa and scroll down to the heading "Upper Iowa River."
There are three monitoring stations on the Upper Iowa: at Bluffton, at Decorah, and near Dorchester. At the time I went, the flow rates were 223 cfs at Bluffton, 271 cfs at Decorah, and 409 cfs near Dorchester. Generally, anything above 150 cfs for the first two stations (Bluffton and Decorah) should make for good paddling above Decorah, and a flow rate around 400 cfs is pretty common in the lower Dorchester section, which generally runs deeper and faster year-round. Paddlers often run the section above Decorah at much lower levels than 150 cfs, but having run the river at its highs and its lows, I have to say that a flow at or around 200 cfs at Bluffton makes for the most ideal paddling conditions I've encountered on this river. Less than that is likely to have you portaging through shallower sections or, at the very least, bottoming out frequently.
If you go in the middle of summer, you're likely to run into many other paddlers enjoying the river. On late season trips in late September or early October, I have yet to run into any other paddlers, though I do typically see a fisherman or two somewhere along the way. If seclusion is your goal, go late, but pack warm clothing and a pair of waders.
Be sure to play it cautious around strainers and other dangerous debris in the water. The current can be surprisingly swift and powerful, and it seems that some unlucky or inexperienced paddler is nearly drowned at least once every year. If you can't see what is just around the bend, consider going ashore and walking ahead to scout the turn. There are only a few blind corners on the Upper Iowa, so you can afford to spare the extra time to play it safe if you come across any.
For multi-day trips, be aware that the Upper Iowa River is not classified as a "meandered" river, so excepting established campgrounds, there are no "public" places to make camp along the way. If you can't plan your trip around existing campgrounds or find friendly locals along the way, you may be forced to ninja camp.
© 2006, Wesley Kisting