ELKADER — A 15-foot tall wall of limestone topped by a tree canopy looms on the opposite bank of the Turkey River as one by one 27 kayaks dip into the cloudy waterway in northeast Iowa on a Sunday morning in July.
“Do you like to get in bow first or stern first?” Charlie Kucera asks a kayaker launching from a dirt access ramp near the historic Motor Mill just south of Elkader. “Some people like to go in backward because they can get more leverage to push off.”
It’s quiet out here on a dead-end gravel road in the middle of nowhere. A few pickup trucks and RVs have claimed spots in a grassy field near the stone-built mill, of which each side was constructed uniquely by a different mason. Clayton County offers these grounds for camping.
Otherwise it’s just the kayaking group dubbed the Back Water Paddlers lathering in sunscreen, rolling tight their dry bags and fastening life vests before floating 12.4 river miles to Garber by day’s end with a dinner stop at the Anchor Inn Supper Club — one of the last businesses left in town. That night they’ll shuttle back to camp at the Motor Mill, and head north to the Yellow River near Volney to paddle 13 more miles the next day.
Scenic. Peaceful. Remote.
This is God’s country for this crew of 30 to 60 somethings. It’s also a typical Sunday.
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall — and even some times in the dead of winter — every Sunday the Back Water Paddlers reconvene on one of Iowa’s hidden-in-plain-sight waterways. One week it’s the Wapsipinicon, the next the North Fork of the Maquoketa, the Cedar, the English, the Iowa and so on. It’s their way of exploring a part of Iowa many never do.
“It’s an addiction,” said Ruth Dunlevy, 56, of Cedar Rapids, who started Back Water Paddlers with three friends in February 2016. “Paddling, just being out in nature. When I come out here, it just relaxes me.”
STEEP CUTS AHEAD
Interest in Iowa outdoor resources — such as paddling and bike trails — is as high as it’s been in recent memory, trail advocates say, but the momentum is at a crossroads.
Steep budget cuts threaten the expansion of water trails, bike trails and other environmental and outdoor programs helping revitalize rural communities and lure adventure-minded young professionals to come to or stay in Iowa.
Iowa Tourism survey data found nature-scenic and outdoor adventure were the No. 1 and No. 3 interests, respectively, of travelers to Iowa. Arts, history and culture ranked No. 2. Bike and water trails are key marketing elements by the Iowa Tourism bureau.
A lobbying group for the Iowa outdoor industry calls outdoor recreation an $8.7 billion industry in Iowa. The economic report for the latest economy report by the Outdoor Industry Association claims the industry supports 83,000 direct jobs, $2.7 billion in salary and wages, and $649 million in state and local tax revenue in Iowa.
“I think communities are really embracing the outdoors and that is so perfectly suited for Iowa,” said Shawna Lode, Iowa Tourism manager. “It gives us another way to position Iowa, another way to showcase our state, and unique amenities to distinguish our state compared to other places people travel.”
Amenities such as the High Trestle Trail Bridge in Madrid, Whitewater at Riverfront Park in Charles City, and Iowa’s signature outdoor event, RAGBRAI — or the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — help make the case, “Come to Iowa. You don’t have to go to Colorado for this experience,” Lode said.
CASE STUDY: CHARLES CITY LOW HEAD DAM BECOMES WHITE WATER COURSE
State investments have given Lode amenities to promote.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has created 28 water trail maps, covering some of the state’s 18,000 miles of navigable waterways, including the Turkey. The maps pinpoint distances, accesses, dams, portages, parking and other features. Boat access ramps have been upgraded to make it easier to get vessels in and out of the water.
The Quaker Mill dam in Manchester will be the 19th low head dam — small dams ranging from two to five feet tall — removed since a state program began in 2008 in response to fatalities.
Since 1990, there have been 51 dam-related deaths, according to the Iowa Whitewater Coalition. The dams can create a recirculating effect that can trap people under water. Communities have paired work on waterways with upgraded riverfronts, which has spurred local development.
“Trails are not a magic bullet, but trails are a free fitness facility, a transportation facility, a community gathering space. In some cases it’s the only thing to do in some of these communities, and the demand is there. Yet we aren’t putting any funding into it.”
- Andrea Boulton
Trails and Greenways Director, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
Charles City, along the Cedar River in north-central Iowa, invested $1.6 million in state and local money to replace a low head dam with a series of rapids for a ¾ mile white water course. Meanwhile, the city renovated 26 surrounding acres into a riverfront park with trails, a disc golf course, a labyrinth, an amphitheater and flood mitigation. The city has become a destination for paddlers, tubers and fisherman, generating $1 million a year in economic impact, according to news reports, and spurring new businesses including a riverfront pub and an outfitter.
“All because they got rid of the dam and created something much more interesting in their town, it really changed the complexion of their town,” said Nate Hoogeveen, director of river programs at Iowa DNR.
Hoogeveen works with communities and waterway users such as paddlers and fisherman. One of his top priorities has been making waterways more accessible for those with mobility challenges.
Recreational use of rivers has been surging. River access is uncontrolled, making it difficult to get use metrics, but since 2004 the number of places to rent a kayak, canoe or inner tube in Iowa has increased from 24 to 80, Hoogeveen said.
Cities see the potential. After Charles City opened its white water park in 2011, Manchester on the Maquoketa River and Elkader on the Turkey began working on similar revitalizations, he said.
River users are interested in preservation and emersion in the wild, which has meant Hoogeveen working with private landowners to create buffers along the river, typically between farmland.
“What they really wanted was wilder spaces along the river,” Hoogeveen said. “They wanted riparian buffers, and generally wanted rivers to be in better condition, reduce erosion and improve habit for wildlife.”
Getting the next wave of people interested and engaged in Iowa’s outdoors could help improve environmental awareness, he said. This is important, he added, because there are so many water quality issues in Iowa due to high levels of nitrates, phosphates, and bacteria, as well as erosion.
The state has invested $7 million on water trails and low head dam mitigation since 2008, often tied with local and federal dollars and other grants. In the fiscal 2018 budget, however, the funding has been slashed to zero.
While Hoogeveen respects the will of “democracy,” he said projects they can tackle, including low head dam mitigation and assistance for riverfront developments, will scale back considerably.
A NEW PUBLIC GATHERING SPACE
The recreational trail budget also faces reductions to $1 million in fiscal year 2018, down from $2.5 to $5.5 million in recent years. Those cuts could interrupt planning and land acquisitions.
The state spent $32 million from 2007 to 2016 on its recreational trails program, which generates five-to-10 fold more in requests from urban and rural communities alike than funding available. The program has helped extend trails, replace bridges and connect to new towns, such as on the High Trestle Trail in central Iowa, trail connections in Decorah, and the Iowa River Trail in Iowa City.
“We see a lot of these smaller communities struggling with losing population and losing businesses and really trying to figure out what they can do to diversify their economy and quality of life,” said Andrea Boulton, trails and greenways director for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which supports trail development around the state. “They feel this trail can bring people into their community and once in the community people can see all they have to offer. It may not be a magic bullet. It’s not going to land the next big business. But, it’s giving people a chance to explore their community when otherwise they wouldn’t know it existed.”
In Central Iowa, the High Trestle Trail drew 48,653 people to Madrid, home of an iconic High Trestle Trail Bridge and Flat Tire Lounge, while the Raccoon River Valley Trail had more than 36,900 people pass through Dallas Center in 2016, according to a draft trail count report by the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. On the Raccoon River trail, businesses such as Hotel Pattee in Perry and the Nineteen14 — a trailside bar and restaurant in a restored 103-year-old railroad depot in the 367-person town of Minburn — cater to willing-to-spend cyclists.
“There’s a huge emphasis in Iowa in rural community development, economic development, growing the workforce,” Boulton said. “Trails are not a magic bullet, but trails are a free fitness facility, a transportation facility, a community gathering space. In some cases it’s the only thing to do in some of these communities, and the demand is there. Yet we aren’t putting any funding into it.”
Iowa’s trail network has grown to 1,800 miles of multi-use trails, said Milly Ortiz, bike and pedestrian coordinator for the Iowa Department of Transportation.
A number of small communities want connections to popular trails. The 485-person town of Farragut in Fremont County is working on a connection to Shenandoah, which has a spur of the 63-mile Wabash Trace Trail. Connecting new towns to existing trails and tying two existing trail systems together, such as the 72-mile Raccoon River trail to the 25-mile High Trestle Trail via a Perry to Woodward link, has been a focus of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and the Iowa DOT.
“What is happening here in the last 10 years is the connections to more communities and connections to other trails,” Ortiz said. “The Raccoon River Valley Trail ends in Perry, the High Trestle Trail stops in Woodward. Once that connection is done it opens up a hundred miles around in a big loop.”
A POLITICAL DECISION
The state’s Resource Enhancement and Protection program, or REAP, has supported soil conservation and water quality, economic development, environmental education, outdoor recreation, and preservation of cultural and historical resources from border to border to the tune of $16 million annually. But that’s been cut to $12 million for next year.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources blamed several cuts, including eliminating its forestry division, on a $1.2 million budget reduction. Money for state park infrastructure was reduced from $3 million to $2 million, while the lake restoration program is one that saw an increase, from $8.6 million to $9.6 million in fiscal 2018.
Brad Freidhof, conservation program manager for Johnson County Conservation, said the cuts are going to delay projects such as new single-track bike courses, bike trails, and campgrounds. It could be particularly painful for rural areas hoping to draw upon recreational tourism, he added.
“We were on a really good path. Unfortunately, they are trying to put the brakes on it,” Freidhof said. “It’s a political decision on budgeting. I look at it as an investment, economic development. Even in rural Johnson County we can take people from urban areas and get them out to the rural areas. I don’t understand it. It is a growing trend. People want recreational opportunities.”
Freidhof has been leveraging proceeds from a 20-year voter-backed $20 million conservation bond as seed money to land state grants for recreational trails. His top priorities are connecting Iowa City and Coralville to rural areas such as Oxford, Amana Colonies and Ely. But the local money won’t stretch very far without matching state dollars, he said.
“Do we want to stop the brain drain and compete for workers of the 21st century or are we just satisfied with continuing with a stagnant population and stagnant economy in Iowa? I think we need to do something bold.”
- Rob Hogg
Iowa State Senator
State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the state is going “backward” rather than capitalizing on the “tremendous growth in support and use of water trails, bike trails, hiking trails and general interest in outdoor resources and outdoor recreation.”
“It is something people want,” Hogg said. “People want places to live where they have ready access to amenities. Young people especially can chose to live anywhere in the world, seniors are retiring. It is an area Iowa needs to be competitive and we could actually have a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, funding in the Iowa Legislature for many years has been inadequate and in the past year was driven to almost nothing.”
Hogg is among those calling for a 3/8 of one cent sales tax increase to fund the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which has sat empty since 2010 when 63 percent of voters supported a constitutional amendment. This would mean dedicated money for clean water, productive soil, healthy wildlife habitat and flood mitigation.
Iowa has $670 million in unmet needs that could be paid for through the fund, which would generate $150 million to $180 million annually, according to Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy.
“Do we want to stop the brain drain and compete for workers of the 21st century or are we just satisfied with continuing with a stagnant population and stagnant economy in Iowa,” Hogg said. “I think we need to do something bold.”
Back on the Turkey River, several of the kayakers are new to the Back Water Paddlers.
Since creating a Facebook group, which provides maps, routes, meeting times, and lots of pictures, turnout has risen. Regulars relish sharing their knowledge of the waterways and making newcomers feel welcome.
“Do you like adventures?” Cristy Saldana, 41, of Cedar Rapids, asks a new paddler.
Saldana got into paddling with husband Scott Petersen, 54, 18 months ago after being invited by a friend who lent them kayaks and encouraged them to give it a try. They recently upgraded to higher-end vessels from an outfitter called Up a Creek in Central City. Saldana thinks more people would see the benefits of the waterways if there was greater awareness and better signage.
“We have so many beautiful places in Iowa and people just don’t know,” Saldana said.
Outdoor enthusiasts will access waterways and recreation trails regardless of state investment, but it’s those just getting introduced who will stay away if conditions worsen, some say. That’s a concern for Gregg Stark, of the Iowa Water Trails Association.
Stark said better information and convenience of access has been key to getting people to explore outdoor resources.
“Core paddlers have been out there for years, and they will still be out there,” Stark said. “It’s getting more family groups, people who are mobility challenged, more diversity if you will of the paddling public, that will suffer.”
The Back Water Paddlers, for instance, slop through muddy banks and overgrown accesses to get on the water. A bigger concern for this group is the number of U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges across Iowa shut down because of a lack of funding in 2016. The gauges help hydrologists forecast floods, which prompted their installation in 2010 and 2012. Paddlers rely on the gauges to determine if a river has sufficient water flow or too much to make a river run.
They love to paddle. They love Iowa. They love the historical finds. And they love the outdoors.
“These are beautiful underused resources,” said Kucera, who was helping load boats into the Turkey. “They’re the backside of where we live.”
Hope Morrison, 53, of Solon, added, “Iowa’s waterways are some of the best ways to see the beauty of Iowa. You can’t see this from the road.”
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This story appears in the fourth edition of the Iowa Ideas magazine. Order a free copy here.