116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Having a river all to oneself is a treat — especially a northeast Iowa river that National Geographic named one of America’s 100 Great Adventures.
To my surprise, I was mostly alone when I paddled a stretch of the Upper Iowa River above Bluffton on June 30.
The only sounds were swallows flitting about, piping calls from bald eagles and my paddle occasionally dipping into the water as I let the fast-moving current carry my kayak downstream.
On previous outings, paddling this stretch of river has been like rush hour on the Dan Ryan Expressway, with me shooting gaps between groups of tubers or getting stuck behind them.
The conditions were about perfect — temperatures in the low 80s, blue skies with puffy, cumulus clouds. The water, turbid from recent rains, hid the fact that much of the river is only 18 to 24 inches deep — plenty deep enough to avoid dragging the bottom.
I put in at the Daley Bridge Canoe Access. I loaded my Wilderness Systems Tsunami kayak with a water bottle and a dry bag to protect my “serious” cameras, with a personal flotation device tucked behind the seat.
I had my Sony A6000 around my neck for happy snaps. Experience from a few too many photo equipment disasters has taught me to rely on the little Sony.
Considering that the Fourth of July weekend was only a few days away, I was surprised by the lack of people on the river on such a beautiful day.
I did pass three young men. Two were drinking beverages along a sandbar while the third was wading into a deeper section of the river near swallow nests built into the riverbank. We exchanged pleasantries, and I was on my way.
Surely, there will be more people on my journey, I thought. But I met only one of them — Bill Lewis of Onslow, who has been visiting the Upper Iowa for 25 to 30 years.
Onslow said he was scouting the river for a possible night float with his extended family over the Fourth of July weekend. He also was fishing and had landed five or six trout, one of them about 3 pounds.
“Those bluffs, there's nothing else like them around, at least no place in Iowa,” he said. “It’s perfect.”
The river runs through the Driftless Area in northeast Iowa, the area that escaped glacial activity during the Ice Age. As a result, limestone bluffs, 200 to 300 feet high, tower above the river. Those bluffs are, by far, what makes the river an adventure worth taking and writing about.
Early in my float, I could see a hint of the bluffs through the trees. The height and grandeur of the Bluffton Palisades increased the farther downstream I floated.
The solitary column surrounded by trees known as Chimney Rock was soaking in the sun and came into view as I rounded one of the river’s many bends. An eagle soared above the natural landmark.
After my three-hour, 8.5-mile float, I passed the last of the craggy, tree-topped cliffs and the West Ravine Road Bridge came into view.
The journey downstream, I thought, had been like watching an Academy Award-winning movie, with the credits now rolling.
What a show.