Iowa kayakers brave big freeze for New Year's Day river time

New Year's Day paddling tradition was started 26 years ago

Dan Power of Readlyn, Iowa, paddles the frigid waters of the Cedar River with his Godzilla figurine on the back of his kayak during a New Year’s Day paddling outing at Gateway Park in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Monday, Jan. 1, 2018. Power got the monster figure for the annual Floatzilla event in Davenport. The New Year’s Day tradition began 26 years ago. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — The National Weather Service issued a warning Monday for Eastern Iowa for wind chills of minus 25 to minus 40 degrees, but at least 10 people were unfazed.

The winter warriors clambered into the Cedar River in kayaks.

It’s a tradition the owners of Crawdaddy Outdoors — an outdoor goods store in Waverly — began 26 years ago, co-owner Darrin Siefken said.

“My buddy and I decided we would try doing that one New Year’s Day,” Siefken said. “Probably a little bit of it was being cooped up inside and then looking for something different or unique on New Year’s Day. The idea is saying that you went out the first day of the year, while everyone else, they’re waiting for March or April to show up.”

About 12 years ago, Siefken said the store started advertising its winter kayak escapade in connection with Crawdaddy Outdoors. Customers, friends and outdoor enthusiasts began attending the outing.

In 2007, only three people came out on New Year’s Day, but by 2013 more than 20 people had showed up to paddle. That number doubled to 40 by 2015. A record high of 75 kayakers were on hand Jan. 1, 2017.

But that day wasn’t as cold as it was for this year’s event.

“It’s just something different or unique, and they know they’ll be able to get in without getting wet,” Siefken said. “People are maybe starting that New Year’s resolution of trying to be healthier. This is a good way to kick that off.”

Each year, Crawdaddy Outdoors employees load up about 16 kayaks, paddles, life jackets and some chest waders for event attendees, but many also bring their own equipment. They all line up for a little help being pushed into the water. If temperatures are high for Jan. 1, the group may paddle down river. If it’s frigid, they paddle back and forth on a small stretch of water.

This year was frigid. The kayakers usually enter the water near Waverly, but Siefken said he had to scout out an unfrozen patch of river.

Instead, kayakers got into the water at Gateway Park in Cedar Falls.

And no one seemed to mind the extreme cold.

For about an hour, a little more than 10 kayakers paddled up and down a stretch of a few hundred yards of water behind the Cedar River dam, just on the opposite side of Cedar Falls’ Main Street. Water vapor was rising off the river all around them.

“We’ve always been able to go, even the one year when it was 20-below wind chill,” Siefken said. “We were out for about 20 minutes. People come and go as the day goes on. I’m always surprised with who shows up and when they show up.”

Dan Power, 44, of Readlyn, was so unbothered by the bitter cold that he hopped into his kayak at the top of the ramp and slid through the snow into the river. A garage-sale-bought Godzilla figurine was attached to the back of his kayak for added character.

Power has attended the event for many years. He brought his kayak out “to say I did it.” But Power is no stranger to paddling in the deep freeze. Ending in October, Power had kayaked once a day every day for a full two years. Last February was the coldest kayaking weather he had experienced, he said.

William Denton, 73, of Waterloo, said he had attended a few times in past years and came out Monday, though he said he didn’t know half of the other kayakers this year.

“It’s New Year’s Day tradition,” Denton said. “I lived in Arkansas occasionally, and it’s too warm down there.”

It’s typical to be on the water “till you can’t take it anymore,” Denton said.

And though the high temperature Monday in Cedar Falls was about minus 4, Janeen Siefken, Darrin Siefken’s wife, said the coldest years she could remember were when the winds whipped high. It was cold Monday, she said, but Janeen’s husband still urged her to kayak.

“I normally have a two-digit degree rule, but he kindly pointed out to me that it was two digits,” she said. “It just happened to have a negative in front of it.”

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