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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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A look at Iowa’s popular whitewater courses for kayaking, tubing
Manchester, Charles City offering water adventures, and other cities may soon be following
Plunging downriver amid swirling rapids is an ultimate adrenaline-charged thrill.
Few outdoor adventures match shooting rapids on Idaho’s Salmon River, the Grand Canyon’s Colorado or the New River Gorge in West Virginia. Those rivers offer the ultimate whitewater challenge, yet few of us can indulge in multiday drives to famous rivers.
Fortunately, exciting river runs are within day trip range of the Corridor. All that’s needed is a kayak or float tube, moderate experience and a drive to Manchester or Charles City. Both towns feature whitewater parks.
On the relatively new whitewater parks, experienced kayakers “playboat,” a term for zipping back and forth and ducking up and down in foaming water. Novices usually just shoot downstream without attempting acrobatics.
Kayaking also is an engaging spectator sport. Bank-side benches often are crowded with people watching intrepid boaters negotiate the surging current.
Charles City and Manchester’s courses are so successful that more are in the works. Iowa is becoming a whitewater Mecca, drawing boaters from the Midwest and even Alaska.
History and commerce reveal why Iowa’s whitewater runs are downtown, unlike those in wilderness areas of mountain states. Before internal combustion engines and electricity, towns were established where dams could most efficiently harvest the power of falling water. Cedar Rapids took its name in honor of swift water that was soon stilled by dams.
Most of Iowa’s hundreds of dams have languished into non-use and disrepair. Urban riverbanks often are shoddy and littered, places to avoid. That’s changing as progressive cities view rivers as recreation templates that lure visitors and stimulate economic development. Recreation is replacing mills.
Charles City set the pace. Ty Graham is a river specialist with Riverwise Engineering in Durango, Colo. He advocates converting obsolete low head dams to engineered whitewater parks. According to Hannah Ray J, a native Iowan and whitewater enthusiast, Graham has worked tirelessly to create whitewater recreation.
Around 2006, Charles City leaders picked up his vision for whitewater parks. Devastating 2008 floods paused planning but in 2011, Iowa’s first whitewater park opened. Its three main features appeal to novices and experts. The “Dam Drop” (double D) at the top is a nod to the old dam. It’s quickly followed by “Tew Shanez.” The “Exit Exam'' finishes off the run. According to Ray J, each feature has a canoe and fish passage on the left for a smoother ride through the rapids.
Other Iowa cities noticed boating enthusiasts trekking to Charles City, having fun and stimulating business. Manchester created its own whitewater park on the Maquoketa River downtown.
“It has six features, which provide river fun for a variety of skill levels and water crafts,” Ray J said.
The process of creating a whitewater park usually requires removing a dam. Careful engineering precisely places rocks so the current creates challenging, yet safe, boating. Projects also incorporate walkways, benches and fishing amenities.
Establishing a whitewater park takes thought, planning, money and local support to succeed. Costs for existing courses ranged from $1 to $2 million and came from a diversity of sources.
Removing dams and creating whitewater courses has benefits beyond recreation. It helps aquatic life.
“Dams are barriers to fish migration,” said Greg Gelwicks, Iowa DNR Research Fishery Biologist. “Many fish species must move up and down rivers to find habitat needs that change seasonally, with the age of the fish, and because of weather conditions like droughts.”
With dam removal, fish can follow traditional pathways that were blocked by concrete barriers.
Kayaking and rafting follow the popularity of bicycling and trails. Expanded trails and cycling spawned businesses catering to enthusiasts. Whitewater parks have the same happy result.
Courses reinvent a town’s riverfront. They are pleasant places to sit, walk, watch boaters and fish.
“Creating better access and making the environment pleasant and safe encourages recreation,” Gelwicks said.
Boaters should wear safety equipment, learn how to handle their craft and be familiar with the course before they launch. Ray J, a Cedar Rapids graphic artist, got involved after seeing kayakers on the Cedar River.
“Oh, that looks fun,” she said she thought at the time. “I want to try.”
She chatted with kayakers, invested in equipment and took on the kayak courses.
“I just kept adding arrows to my whitewater quiver as I gained experience,” she said.
Are more whitewater parks coming to Iowa?
“We’re making great progress planning one in downtown Cedar Rapids,” said Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt.
Des Moines will build one near the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers. Others are in the works.
Hundreds of obsolete and hazardous dams remain on Iowa’s rivers. Many will be removed to benefit wildlife, business and paddling.
“Over 20 years ago, I’d hoped that whitewater courses would succeed in Iowa,” Graham said. “It’s happened and I look forward to their expansion.”
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”