ELKADER – In a classic example of bad timing, advocates of a whitewater park pitched their proposal to local officials two days before the record June 2008 Turkey River flood inundated the heart of this Clayton County city.
“Needless to say it got put on the back burner,” said proposal presenter Tom Gifford, who five and a half years later became the first person to paddle a kayak in the recently completed whitewater feature known as the Gobbler.
While city officials focused on recovering from the flood and a national recession, Gifford and other local river enthusiasts refined their plans and sought funds for the project, which became especially appealing when the city acquired for redevelopment a flood-prone buyout area on the city’s southwest side.
The same river that caused millions of dollars in damage in 2008 is now the focus of efforts to make Elkader and northeast Iowa a mecca for water sports enthusiasts, said Roger Thomas, director of Main Street Elkader, a leader in the effort to turn the riverfront liability into an asset.
“It's taken the flood to make us realize what we have here," said Thomas, who also represents House District 24 in the Iowa Legislature.
The whitewater feature is the centerpiece of the new Founders’ Park under development in the 6.5 acre buyout area.
“It’s a neat place to play,” said Gifford, of Elkader, who tested the foamy Gobbler on Nov. 9, before its official completion.
“You can hang in there and surf your kayak on the standing wave. It feels like you’re moving fast but you’re paddling in place.”
Gifford said the Gobbler “looks exactly like I pictured it,” when he and kayaking buddy Adam Pollack of Elkader hatched the idea while driving back from a paddling outing early in 2008.
The Gobbler is a single feature with two distinct channels separated by a midstream island, said Jason Carey, an engineer with River Restoration of Carbondale, Colo.
“The whole river is going to have a different character,” he said.
Facing downstream, the swifter right channel is designed for whitewater paddlers while the more placid left channel is designed for canoeists and fish passage, he said.
The Turkey at Elkader – “with good volume, good gradient and pretty water” – is well suited for paddle sport enthusiasts, Carey said.
The re-engineering, which included removal of an obsolete low-head dam, also will greatly improve fishing and public access to the river, according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Gary Siegwarth, one of the original project advocates before the 2008 flood.
The Turkey in Elkader, with deep holes, complex structure and a high dam to halt the progress of upstream migrations, already was a fish magnet, Siegwarth said.
The introduction of about 2,000 tons of rock into a compact stretch will create current breaks, scour holes and eddies that will attract and hold game fish. Shoreline improvements, including limestone terraces and a trail, will provide attractive and easy access for recreationists, he added.
Elkader City Administrator Jennifer Cowsert said the total cost of the whitewater feature, including engineering, is $387,496.
Those funds came from a state River Enhancement Community Attraction and Tourism (RECAT) grant and donations, highlighted by a $75,000 donation from the project contractor, C.J. Moyna and Sons of Elkader.
Cowsert said shoreline developments to improve river access, including a downstream trail, will cost an additional $231,797, funded in part by state grants from Main Street Iowa, Resource Enhancement and Protection and Iowa Great Places.The Elkader project will be a key component of the Turkey River Water Trail, which features 21 access points and 250 signs along its 93-mile course.