116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In the span of less than 10 minutes, I saw a magical animal and touched a mysterious miniature waterfall.
This all the while I was in southeast Cedar Rapids. Yet, there was no one to witness my tale.
Adventure is what you make of it.
Flowing water is an invitation to padde. If it’s your first time on a particular stretch, then that qualifies as an adventure for sure.
This was my first time on Prairie Creek, an unassuming stream in the middle of Linn County. I drove over and past Prairie Creek for decades with hardly a second thought until last June. I was attending a professional development course about dyslexia at the Grant Wood Area Education Agency building kitty-corner from Hawkeye Downs.
A cold, windowless classroom in the summer demanded a refreshing event for the lunch break — something more than scooting to a drive-through.
I knew the creek was just across the parking lot, so I gave myself permission to cross the street and wander the bank of the adjoining property. Despite the drone of nearby Interstate 380, Prairie Creek was a balm to my senses: gliding water, chirping birds and the smell of summer.
It was a grand contrast to the classroom. Then and there I decided to paddle Prairie Creek, sooner than later.
Sooner became later, about 12 months later. A recent heavy rain pushed off my attempt for a couple of days so as to let the storm’s surge of water flush.
My put-in was Fairfax. My takeout was Tait Cummins Park. In between was my adventure.
The water was flowing gently but steadily as I let the current take me under the pedestrian bridge. And off I went. The visibility of the water was about six inches, the wet marks on the banks still were visible from the recent high water.
It only took moments to disappear into the environment of Prairie Creek. Modern life became secondary but omnipresent. Slabs of broken concrete lined the banks as much as the silver maples. I focused on the trees, arched together to form a green-leafed tunnel. Catbirds called. I paddled enough just to keep my bow pointed downstream.
Seth Eugene Meek wrote a report for the U.S. Fish Commission entitled, “A Report Upon The Fishes of Iowa, Based Upon Observations and Collections Made During 1889, 1890, and 1891” in 1891. In addition to the fish, he described many of the larger river systems and their tributaries. He noted many of the prairie streams had been narrow and deep because they were protected by layers of native plants and sod.
Three generations into settlement Meeks wrote that most streams had widened, warmed and muddied owing to intense plowing and pasturing. Prairie Creek reflected that latter description. Nevertheless, on a hot summer day, the shaded turns and bends of the wide and shallow creek were a joy.
Prairie Creek was like a stroll. The water was in no hurry. At most every point in its course I could have gotten out of the kayak and walked. No one made any demands on my time.
A pronounced riffle at the iron bridge suggested a historic effort at a dam. Some of the graffiti there was contemporary. So much was old and new.
At 12:46, I saw a unicorn on its side among the tree debris on the left bank. Its body was white with a violet tail. The hide was polyvinyl and still inflated: an escapee from an upstream party. Like Huck Finn, I doubt it had no plan other than to go downriver.
A twist and turn of the channel and nine minutes later, I came across a gusher of cool and clear water flowing into the creek from a concrete tube. Its source was to the south, underneath the railroad tracks. I have my origin theory, you can come up with yours. The rush was neither Niagara nor natural, but it was a neat find.
Just about when I made notice of the lack of turtles, there was a softshell turtle, basking, river right. Perhaps owing to modesty, my appearance caused it to take some steps with urgency and disappear into the water.
Rounding a bend, I interrupted another softshell lounging. This one was atop a steep and sandy bank, river left. He saw me first. It was his falling down the bank that caught my attention. The turtle did a complete somersault as his inflexible body interacted with gravity and the acute pitch. In a cloud of sand he was quickly back to the muddy depths.
After passing under I-380, I kept flushing great-horned owls out of the stream-side trees. The first was quite the start, the next six were surprise after surprise. There is something about a bird that large flapping away but barely making a sound due to its stealth-shaped feathers.
The only log jams that raised my blood pressure occurred in the final leg of the run. In both instances, I charted a course to the left and was rewarded with safe passage.
Meeks listed 87 fish species for the Cedar River and tributaries, clearly not all were or could be present in Prairie Creek. His report included this passage, “Mr. Aquila Miller, who has resided on its banks for many years, informed me that the larger fishes were formerly quite abundant in it, but at present only small ones can be found.”
The report said most rivers in the state wore multiple dams “and few, if any, are supplied with fishways.” Meeks and others knew over 130 years ago dams were stifling the bounty of our rivers.
I often wonder about how the size and abundance of fish would change if our rivers were free of wildlife choking dams.
My time on the water was three hours and 15 minutes. I hauled out under the C Street SW bridge. Here Prairie Creek ended, its flow adding to the Cedar. Downstream the fishes of Iowa swim, turtles bask and, maybe just maybe, a unicorn bobbs along the surface.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion, teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and is past president of the Linn County Conservation Board.