AMANA COLONIES — I went into the reader mailbag for my latest outing.
The Labor Day weekend was quickly vanishing on Sunday afternoon, so my wife and I rallied ourselves and our daughter, filled a bottle of water and headed out the door for a hike at an old standby — Lake Macbride.
But, I’ve hiked the Macbride trails dozens of times and quickly set about plotting a different destination. Wouldn’t you rather find somewhere new than the same old familiar trails? I would. Plus, Lake Macbride would surely be packed on a beautiful holiday weekend.
About halfway there we called an audible.
For several days I’d noticed Facebook posts promoting a gravel road bike time trial near the Amanas on Sunday. The route included the old Greencastle Bridge, which was built in 1922 but has been decommissioned for years. It’s on Greencastle Avenue, part of which is also closed.
The event jogged my memory of a friend’s suggestion for an Iowa Explorer column. He proposed a bike tour of the area’s abandoned roads and bridges.
I loved the idea, for a few reasons.
Here’s an old route Iowans used decades ago that has been left to go wild. Imagining the past always gets my mind churning. What’s there now?
What condition is it in? How much of the past remains? Are there artifacts from 50 or 100 years ago? Does anyone still use it?
And, aren’t creepy old roads and bridges what ghost stories are made of? It’s like a ghost town but for roads and bridges.
I also love going off the beaten path to find something few people will see.
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So, with my iPhone camera at the ready to document any paranormal activity, we set off for Greencastle.
On this day, a bike tour wasn’t in the cards — although it would be a solid alternative. My idea of a good time — i.e. a muddy bike ride that includes carrying your bike through a river — and my family’s don’t always line up. We met somewhere in the middle.
We’d drive as close as we could and explore by foot.
We came in from Highway 965 near Swisher on Amana Road. You pass a shooting range and Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area, and then head south on Greencastle Avenue.
The two-lane dirt road opens up into a wide parking area before ending at the Iowa River with a boat access and the rusty old truss bridge in plain sight. The two other parked cars looked lonely sitting in the middle of the big gravel cul-de-sac.
Two dogs galloped up to greet us as we walked toward the bridge where three guys were firing up a charbroiler and fishing off the bridge deck.
No problem. They were friendly and we love dogs. A second person drove up at the same time and hauled a folding chair and a couple of fishing rods up to the bridge.
Tall metal beams form one taller truss and a second longer but shorter truss. The bridge doesn’t look wide enough to have handled more than one car at a time. Sand covers the deck, hiding if it was ever paved. Charred wood and soot from an old campfire sit in the middle of the 200-foot long span. Clearly, a few people still use the area.
A backlog of driftwood sits trapped underneath at the piers. I recall one other time being here after the 2008 flood. I was on a canoe trip down the Iowa River from the Amanas to Hills for a reporting project. Then as now, you better make like a turtle, as there isn’t much clearance for boats.
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Three metal posts jut up from the ground, blocking entrance at the south approach to the bridge. Not much beyond foot or bike traffic can get through. Here, the abandoned road winds through fields of tall grass with yellow wildflowers, stubby trees and shrubs. It’s overgrown in places but the path of the roadway still is evident. Remnants of old asphalt crumble away in some parts.
A few hundred feet past the bridge, heading south, a swarm of mosquitoes scared off my companions. Just walk faster, I said, but to no avail.
I pushed on at a trotting pace and the mosquitoes eventually did subside — although not totally — as the road encountered backwaters of the Iowa River.
Greencastle Avenue passes through the backwaters, eventually re-connecting as an active road near Swan Lake Road.
Water runs over the road here in a few spots. At the first pass, I hopped across a rock bridge but realized continuing farther required walking through waist-deep river water. That was more of a commitment than I bargained for.
So, I skipped a few rocks into the water and turned back, hustling through the mosquito swarm and over the bridge. I found my family in the car ready for their idea of a good time.
Being so close, we headed over to the Amana Colonies for an Iowa Pale Ale and homemade root beer under a pergola outside the Millstream Brewing Co. Awards for the bike race were being given out to riders who’d started and ended the time trial in the Amana Colonies before we arrived. Hundreds of others lined up for the opening of the Festival of Iowa Beers at the Amana Woolen Mill. That’s a whole other adventure.
While I didn’t see any ghostly spirits, it was the daytime. So, you might have to go exploring at night.