116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Soon after launching, we spotted an Iowa mink scurrying amid riverbank cottonwoods and maples.
Minutes earlier we had seen an oriole tending a nest dangling from a limb over the water and surprised a huge fish thrashing in the shallow water.
Viewing Iowa from a canoe is vastly different from from a car. Most roads bisect a sea of corn and soybeans, broken occasionally by a woodsy river corridor.
However, when you launch a boat and float that river wildness settles in. Although cultivated fields are close, the river view is a wild woodland scrolling past as the current gently ushers the boat downstream.
Many Iowa boaters roar around a lake or reservoir in a powerboat. For us, gasoline and boating don’t mix. We prefer quietly exploring wondrous places.
We prefer our muscles over motors.
Visit almost any Iowa public lake and odds are kayaks dot the water. Many will be inexpensive recreational boats, while others are sophisticated fishing models that enable anglers to silently glide to bass and bluegills.
Technology is fueling a kayaking boom. Decades ago, our kayak was made of canvas stretched over a wooden skeleton. Elegant but fragile, it needed tender care.
That has changed. Today’s kayaks are molded into a diversity of shapes suited for whitewater, peaceful rivers and even cruising oceans and vast lakes. Tough new models withstand jarring rock encounters that would have splintered our old boat.
Sea kayaks are long, sleek and capable of handling heavy waves in big water. Stockier fishing models come equipped with rod holders, storage compartments, comfortable seats and even leg powered fins that enable an angler to sneak up on lunkers with casting hands free. Specialized kayaks can cost a few thousand dollars but entry level boats are a tenth that cost.
Age has taught us a kayak lesson. They’re fun and stable because a paddler’s body sits low in the hull. It makes getting in and out a challenge for our older knees. Fortunately, many lakes have low slung hand grip studded docks that make entering and exiting safer and easier.
Like kayaks, canoes have undergone a technological metamorphosis while remaining steeped in history. Native Americans and French voyageurs once paddled huge canoes made of bent wood and birch bark that carried supplies and furs over thousands of miles of interconnected waters.
Our first canoe was a hand-me-down made by the famous Old Town Canoe Company in Maine. Its frame was bent cedar covered with waterproof canvas. It was gorgeous, a paddler’s dream — and fragile. These expensive canoes are rare today.
During the Second World War the Grumman Company stretched aluminum sheets over a curved form to craft airplane wings. With the war’s end the airplane market evaporated. The company shifted machinery to craft aluminum canoes. Far less expensive and much more durable than wooden counterparts, they ignited a canoeing boom.
We bought our aluminum canoe 45 years ago, store it outside and, despite smacking river rocks, it is as good as new. Aluminum boats are tough but have downsides. Hard to craft into efficient shapes, they are clunky and noisy.
Technology again changed. Modern canoes are usually made of plastic, fiberglass or Kevlar. They come in dozens of shapes. Different models are made for long distance touring, shooting rapids or just bobbing on a nearby lake. Advanced Kevlar canoes weigh about half as much as aluminum models. That’s a big difference.
Rich loves fishing from his eight-foot aluminum row pram. It’s tiny and weighs just 41 pounds.
A friend calls it our upside-down barbecue cover. Although a dream to carry and row, it was made in 1961.
Once common, rowboats have nearly vanished from the market. Contemporary boats are designed for motor power. They can be rowed but it’s awkward.
With the exception of rowing shells made for racing, row boating is in decline. According to Iowa DNR River Programs Coordinator, Nate Hoogeveen, only 722 rowboats were registered in the current licensing cycle, down from 808 in the next most recent one.
If you find a good rowboat in a garage sale, buy it. Rowing is efficient and fun.
A few years ago, as we slowly paddled along Lake Macbride’s shore, a woman cruised past us on a stand-up paddleboard.
“I just love it,” she called and swished ahead.
We’ve not tried the relatively new paddle sport, but it’s on our list.
Where to Paddle
Iowa is a great paddling state.
Nearly all of its major rivers offer uncrowded floating. Many state and county parks welcome boaters.
Our personal favorite for a short outing is Cedar Rapids Prairie Park Fishery. Slipping our rowboat or canoe off the pickup is easy from its boat ramp.
Last fall a paddling friend, Mari Phelan called. “Want to paddle this afternoon,” she asked?
Within an hour we launched our canoe and her kayak at Prairie Park Fishery, paddled for an hour and were home for dinner.
“I’m pleased that Cedar Rapids offers quality paddling at Prairie Park. When construction is finished Cedar Lake will be another outstanding destination,” said Cedar Rapids Commissioner Dale Todd.
Charles City, Quasqeton and other towns have developed special white-water rapids for thrilling kayaking. Shooting rapids is exciting, but novices should get training before attempting it.
Every year news reports bear sad stories of drowned boaters. Simple tips keep paddling safe and include:
- Wear a proper fitting life jacket. State law requires having one for each person in the boat, but they do no good if someone tumbles into the water and the jacket is out of reach. Children under 13 are required to wear one.
- Avoid overloading. Boats have weight limits, usually stamped on the hull.
- Be weather aware. Wind and cold add to danger.
- Know the water. River hazards include fallen trees in the water, rocks and dams. Dams are visible on aerial photos and usually printed on maps, but always know what’s downstream before launching.
- Beware of booze. An Iowa summer tradition is sipping beer while on the water. Alcohol and safe boat don’t mix. Enjoy the brew after returning home from a paddling day.
Few outdoor activities bring us as much fun as floating gentle Iowa rivers, backwaters and urban lakes. We’re happy to share the water with growing numbers of paddle enthusiasts.
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”