Prairie Paddling: Whitewater Comes to Iowa
When it comes to having an eye on the future, three towns in Iowa have their stuff together. Charles City, Manchester and Elkader each have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to create whitewater parks. For someone who spent his first 30 years in Iowa, this is an amazing development to witness. During my time in the Hawkeye State there was no notable paddling community. But during the past few years a transformation in thinking has taken place. Ambitious Iowa kayakers have teamed with visionary community leaders to establish whitewater parks, with more on the way.
The Iowa whitewater effort began in 2008 when a $200,000 state appropriation provided the impetus for removing a deadly low head dam in downtown Charles City. Some local fishermen argued against the project, saying it would harm a popular upstream fishing pond. However, fears about lawsuits resulting from dangers of the low head dam, plus the potential economic upside of recreation enhancement, won the day. The dam got removed and the Charles City Whitewater at Riverfront Park opened in 2010. It’s a ¾-mile segment of river with three drops of fast water and waves for whitewater play-boaters. There are three man-made features with an ADA-accessible boat ramp at the end.
I paddled the Charles City Whitewater Park at a low water level in late September 2011. It was one of my earliest “park and play” experiences. The low-flow conditions that day made it the perfect venue for a whitewater newbie like me. I can’t really call my paddling that day “play boating” because I was in my larger river runner kayak, yet I managed to stick the bow upstream in the three features for some fun front-surfing and a few spins.
Kayakers have traveled to Charles City from all over the country. City officials estimate the yearly economic impact of the park is well over $700,000. That success has spurred similar efforts in two other northeast Iowa communities, Elkader and Manchester.
In Elkader, a dam on the Turkey River was modified in 2013 to create a whitewater chute. The Gobbler Wave, a 22-foot wide wave, is the main feature at the park operating at most of the Turkey River’s normal flows ranging from 300 cfs to 3000 cfs. At lower flows it’s great for front and side surfs as well as flat spins. It’s also a great learning spot with a defined eddy line and a long roll-up pool. Higher flows above 1600 cfs allow for more advanced freestyle moves including blunts, loops and cartwheels. The Gobbler, a single whitewater feature with two distinct channels separated by a midstream island, opened for business in 2014. Facing downstream, the swifter right channel of the river is designed for whitewater paddlers while the more placid left channel is for canoeists and fish passage. The re-engineering is also supposed to greatly improve fishing and public access to the river.
In terms of scale and dollars spent, the most impressive of Iowa’s three whitewater parks is in downtown Manchester where a $1.8 million project created six drops including some class II and III rapids when flow levels are right. The money came from the city ($600,000), along with grants, funds from the state dam mitigation program and private donations.
On a chilly road trip across Iowa last October, I stopped by to get a first-hand look. I didn’t have a kayak with me but from the shoreline, the Manchester whitewater park looks fantastic. Even for non-kayakers, the beautiful landscaping is reason enough for a visit. Hundreds of huge limestone boulders line the river banks and constrict the river flow to create the six hydraulic features.
Other Potential Whitewater Projects and links