Public Safety

Navigating Iowa's rivers by kayak can be dangerous for the inexperienced

Increasing river rescues, recoveries prompt push for kayaker safety

Steve Shriver of Cedar Rapids, foreground, and Paul Sueppel of Iowa City kayak and paddle board on the lake at Prairie P
Steve Shriver of Cedar Rapids, foreground, and Paul Sueppel of Iowa City kayak and paddle board on the lake at Prairie Park Fishery off Otis Road in southeast Cedar Rapids. Shriver is hoping to raise awareness among newcomers to the activities of the rules and regulations. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Paddling on the Cedar River or Cedar Lake or at Prairie Park Fishery makes for a quick relaxing getaway for Steve Shriver, a businessman and outdoor enthusiast.

But at times he encounters a lack of awareness of rules and regulations for using Iowa’s waterways, he said while floating in his kayak last Tuesday around Prairie Park Fishery.

“As summer kicks in, we are seeing a lot more interest in kayaking,” said Shriver, who co-owns Soko Outfitters, 41 16th Ave. SW in Cedar Rapids, which rents and sells kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and other equipment. “With that, people come up to me on Cedar Lake or Cedar River, ‘You can’t be there.’ I had a guy yelling at me from the shore telling me to get off the water, that it was illegal. It is legal to be there. People don’t realize they can enjoy the water.”

More concerning are the people who realize they can enjoy the water, but are woefully inexperienced and unprepared and get in dangerous situations, he said.

Safety incidents are on the rise among Iowa paddlers, accounting for 47 percent of Iowa’s 19 boating deaths from 2016 to 2018, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Four paddlers have died so far this year, all of whom were not wearing life jackets, the agency said.

Shriver has been working to get a kayak rental on Cedar Lake, but plans hit a roadblock when costs skyrocketed due to Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. He also noted that a kayak launch on the Cedar River is being planned in Czech Village, not far from a low head dam.

He is hoping to raise awareness about the rules and regulations and dos and don’ts of kayaking and other paddling activities as popularity surges.


In addition to posting information about safety on its website, Soko is hosting a Paddling Day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Sunday, July 28, at Prairie Park Fishery to try out kayaks and stand-up paddle boards, talk to experts and gain a little experience and information. Todd Robertson, Iowa DNR river programs outreach coordinator, said water rescues are too numerous to track in a comprehensive way — but they are up.

“I think a lot of people are buying kayaks and canoes for the first time and we’ve had a lot of high water this year,” he said. “You get unskilled paddlers who just bought their kayaks, don’t know the law. and they get themselves in trouble.”

He said kayaking has been the fastest growing outdoor activity in Iowa for the past 10 years. Inexpensive kayaks selling for $200 or less at big box stores make it easier for someone to buy one without much thought.

He laid some blame on alcohol as well.

“You have to be careful with that stuff,” he said. “Your judgment gets confused and you do things you wouldn’t normally do when you get drunk on the river, like go over a 2-foot low head dam. Almost no one makes it out of a low head dam, life jacket or not.”

He also reminded that Iowa law requires a life jacket on board all canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, and children 12 and under must wear a life jacket at all times when in a canoe, kayak or on a paddleboard.

On July 6, Iowa DNR cited dozens of people for not having life jackets aboard their kayaks when paddling on the Raccoon River around Dallas County.

Already this year, Iowa authorities have responded to numerous incidents on waterways.

The body of David Woodson, 52, was recovered earlier this month after his kayak flipped in the Skunk River near Brighton.

Decorah firefighters in June used a drone to help rescue 11 kayakers ranging in age from 6 to 71 from the Upper Iowa River. Some had become marooned on an island. At least one was hanging from tree branches.


A couple of weeks later, Winneshiek County deputies and Decorah police rescued a grandfather and two young girls from the Upper Iowa.

Upstream in May, Winneshiek County authorities rescued a 24-year-old man and 14-year-old girl from the Upper Iowa River near Kendallville.

Linn County officials rescued three kayakers among a group of six earlier this month from the Wapsipinicon River near Sutton Road and Buffalo Drive. Swift currents from recent rains capsized the three, who hung on to tree branches until rescuers arrived.

Winneshiek County Sheriff Dan Marx told The Gazette last month the increased number of river rescues was due to a “complete lack of knowledge, skill and awareness that this is a natural river” and to “drinking to complete inebriation.”

Ruth Dunlevy, of Mount Vernon, is an avid kayaker who helps run a Facebook meetup group called Backwater Paddlers, which meets every Sunday for paddling trips around Eastern Iowa.

She said participation is up, noting the group normally sees 15-30 people each weekend, including about 10 regulars.

She had a few recommendations: Get kayaking-specific life jackets that provide more room for arms to move around and make people less apt to take them off. Follow water levels to avoid floods and flash floods. Invest in a bit more to get a boat with built-in flotation and better tracking. And practice in a lake before hitting the river, she said.

“If practice on a lake, there’s less chance of you panicking and something happening if you practice ahead of time,” she said.


Tabbatha Strong, another regular kayaker who helps lead a group called Kayakers Anonymous, said kayaking safety is more than just wearing a life vest.

“My biggest concern as a local kayaker is safety and keeping our rivers clean so we can enjoy them,” she said. “You have to be prepared for all that may come your way on the water. This includes knowing what to do in a sticky situation and making sure you have all of the property safety equipment with you. There is a 101 list of things that we make sure our friends have with them on all trips.”

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Kayaking safety tips

Always wear a life jacket. You are required by law to have a personal flotation device — a life jacket — with you. Wear it.

Paddle in a location appropriate to your skill level. Beginners should look for a flat-water location with easy access, minimal boat traffic and protection from wind and waves.

Pay attention to the weather. Be aware of possible storms and have a plan for surprise changes. Winds can blow a kayak off course and make it difficult to return to shore.

Be visible. Brightly colored clothes and equipment helps in an emergency and allows motorized boat traffic to see you.

Be prepared. Have the correct safety gear. A whistle, headlamp, first aid kit and dry bag are easy to carry and can save the day.

Source: Soko Outfitters

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