Here we go on another water adventure! This time we traveled to northeast Iowa and paddled through the bluffs along the Upper Iowa River.
Our group was made up of four families that formed a small armada of 5 canoes and 4 kayaks. While two of the kayaks were brought by one of the families, the rest were rented from Chimney Rock Campground (red star) who also provided the shuttle and return service. They offer 7 different floats where they shuttle you upriver for a 2, 4, or 6 hour float back to the campground, or you can launch from the campground and float 2, 4, 6, or 8 hours downriver (and the times are pretty accurate). You can also combine floats for a shuttle upriver and a pick up downriver past the campground. When I called to make the reservation for our trip, for the best views they recommended doing 2 hours upriver, stopping at the campground for lunch, then doing 2 hours downriver, so that’s what I booked.
This area is very popular with river goers and there are a good number of canoe services to choose from. Full disclosure; our trip did not start smoothly as they had a couple of their shuttle workers not show up for work and one of the shuttle vans broke down. We didn’t get our launch until almost two hours after our scheduled time. They did refund us a portion of the fees, where genuinely apologetic, and busted their tails trying to keep up with the demand on them. I will return to this river, and will more than likely use their service again. Now, on to the water.
We were going later in the summer when traditionally the water levels are lower. I had been watching the river levels through the US Geological Survey site for a couple of weeks leading up to our date to make sure there would be enough depth. There was nothing to worry about. With the amount of rain we had received throughout the spring and summer the Upper Iowa River was a good 3-3.5 foot deep and flowing a little swift.
The swiftness was one of the first things I noticed as we were holding the canoes steady for people to climb in and launch. By the time we got everyone in the water, there was a good spread within the group. We closed the gaps and our armada was under way. It didn’t take long for the bluffs to enter our view and the frustrations of the rough start to melted away.
It was a gorgeous day and I shot some pics and played with my new GoPro during this first portion of our trip. The pictures turned out well, but the video footage is a little random and limited. For the most part, the first 2 hour section had a nice casual flow that allowed the inexperienced paddlers a chance to get used to being out on the water. Which we found to be a good thing.
As we neared the campground, the speed of the river picked up and every now and then a canoe would get caught in the current. Nothing major, some casual instruction would help them straighten it out. When we reached the campground it was a little harsh landing as they didn’t really have anything built up for the canoes to run aground on, and there was only about a 6-8 foot width on a semi-steep bank for 9 vessels to rapidly land and get out of the water. Not to mention other groups arriving at the same time trying to get out. With the river flowing as fast as it was, there wasn’t really a way for the canoes to sit in a holding pattern out on the water to wait their turn. Not the worst thing in the world, but something that could be improved.
While we were eating lunch and taking a break from the river I decided to leave the cameras behind in the vehicle and focus more on enjoying the moment. Unfortunately, the second half of the journey had the best views! Next time for me, but it could be an important note for you.
Once we gathered up the party, we shoved off on what turned out to be the best section of the river. The towering bluffs were beautiful and there wasn’t an unhappy face to be seen.
As I mentioned before, the swiftness of the river increased around the campground and remained that way for the duration of the float. We had two incidents where a canoe and kayak got caught up in the current and capsized when they struck a downed tree. No one was hurt, just momentarily shaken before laughing it off. Another paddler from a different party actually commented on how their canoe was currently stuck on the bottom of the river after they capsized and the current was forceful enough that they hadn’t been able to pull it out of the water yet. All along this final stretch we came across several canoes that had tipped, so be wary if the river is up that it could get dicey.
After passing Bluffton, the swiftness spread us out a bit and we all started arriving at the landing one by one, which turned out to be a good thing. That particular landing definitely needs to be improved. It was a very skinny 3-4 foot wedge on a super steep river bank that didn’t have a place to run aground. You had to attempt to broadside the shore, and grab onto anything you could in order to stop your momentum, so you could get out and crawl your way up the super slippery bank, pulling your canoe. It wasn’t very fun and would be very challenging to try and get multiple canoes out at once. Luckily, people from another party were landing there as well and helped as the rest of our group started to arrive. We worked together and got everyone out safely.
We didn’t have to wait long before the shuttle van arrived. We helped the over-worked guys get the canoes and kayaks loaded, piled into the van, and headed back to the campground.
Even with the hick-ups and challenges, some of which are just what comes with outdoor adventures, we all had a great time in the end. The day was beautiful, the scenery was amazing, and the company was great. I will always be looking forward to a return to the Upper Iowa River, and it’ll remain an option every time the talk of planning a float comes up!
Thanks for reading and enjoy you float!