Whitewater Thrills, Chills, and Spills Rejuvenate Iowa Towns
In the last six years, three small towns in northeast Iowa have built whitewater courses, creating an unlikely Mecca for paddling and tubing enthusiasts in the Midwest. The projects get credit for helping support local economies and reviving the region’s historical focus on waterways.
“You get on the water and it’s a 7 foot drop. The water’s going quick and you see people’s eyes get really big when they’re going through. People aren’t expecting to find something like this in Iowa.”
— Bob Kloberdanz, Charles City, Iowa, whitewater enthusiast
When you think of rural Iowa, you probably don’t think of whitewater sports.
“Iowa? Whitewater? That’s the usual response,” says Dave Hillman of the Iowa Whitewater Coalition. But that’s changing. Quickly.
In the past six years, three whitewater courses have opened on rivers in three small Iowa towns, all within an hour’s drive of each other in the state’s northeast quadrant. These courses – which are short river segments that have been engineered to create a series of drops and waves – were conceived and created independently by local advocates in each community (their proximity is just a happy coincidence).
The Charles City course on the Cedar River, where Kloberdanz enjoys those unexpected thrills, opened first in 2011. It was followed by the City of Elkader’s course on the Turkey River in 2014, and Manchester’s run on the Maquoketa in 2015.
As a result, Iowa is now a leader in the Midwest for whitewater parks. “We are one of the only places to do whitewater in the Midwest,” says Adam Pollock, a volunteer who helped create the Elkader course.
“I like to say that Iowa is in the top five states for whitewater,” says Hillman.
In all, three towns, the courses run through the middle of downtown, which makes for a unique whitewater experience. “When you’re in the wave, you look up river to the stone bridge and through the waterfalls up river,” says Pollock. “To the right you see the county courthouse clock tower, it’s a really beautiful view.”
The projects have been almost universally celebrated locally and are attracting visitors, boosting business, and bringing residents together. But the decision to make these multi-million dollar investments in the rivers was not an obvious one. Although these towns were all historically founded based on access to the water, for the past few decades that asset had been largely ignored.
“We had a river coming through downtown. Occasionally it would leave its banks. But usually it was ignored,” says Tim Vick, Manchester’s City Manager.
“It was rare to see people down there,” says Pollock. Businesses in Elkader had turned their backs to the river, he recalls, and getting down to the banks required some climbing skills. “You’d have to climb down broken concrete stairs.”
The courses are part of a larger goal in each of these communities: to create a more positive connection to the river. This desire became particularly poignant in the aftermath of the record floods of 2008 that left many Iowa towns ravaged with hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. For Elkader, especially, the timing couldn’t have been more symbolic.
“Ironically, when we introduced the idea [of a whitewater course], that night it rained and rained and rained and there was the big flood of 2008,” says Pollock. Needless to say, the vision was delayed, but local supporters managed to push through.
In all three communities, residents and city officials worked together to gain community support, technical expertise, and a heap of funding from a combination of state grants and private donations (the largest course, in Manchester, cost $1.8 million). Now there’s life on the rivers again.
“Visitors are coming downtown to check out our whitewater park,” says Vick. “Yesterday I counted 10 people fishing – it used to be two or three a week. It has become a destination.”
The courses are indeed a destination for more than just locals. In each community, supporters joke about their primary mechanism for tracking out of town visitors: “We check license plates,” says Foley. “Our mayor is very good at license plate checking and talking to out of towners. He’s our unofficial welcoming committee.”
These license-plate-watchers report a steady stream of out-of-state visitors, and even sightings of professional whitewater athletes. Charles City now hosts a regional whitewater competition.
“Last year we saw [competition] participants from eight different states,” reports Ginger Williams, tourism coordinator for the Charles City Area Chamber of Commerce. Iowa brings an advantage over some of the more well-known whitewater hubs – the water flows year-round here, while rivers in the West may dry up mid-summer.
Though the courses are competition-ready, they’re also approachable to beginners (all are given a “novice” rating on the international scale of river difficulty), and are used by kayakers, stand up paddle boarders, and most of all, tubers.
“A lot of kids will tube and float down [the course],” says Kloberdanz. “At the end there’s a boat ramp and they get out and walk on the bike path to go back up to the top [to go again]. So they walk in a circle – it looks like a beehive.”
And if the kids don’t have an inner tube, well, they improvise. “Around town they’re selling out of inner tubes. If they can’t find an inner tube they get an air mattress or a blow-up dolphin.”
But alongside the dolphin-riders, there’s a growing contingent of locals getting serious about the sport. “There were two of us and we burgeoned quickly to 10 or 11,” says Pollock. “Those people have gotten very good very quickly because they can go down there every day.”
Between the three courses, there’s plenty of variety for both locals and visitors. “Each have their own little flavor” says Williams. Manchester’s course is the longest, with six 18-inch drops along 800 feet, while Elkader’s main feature is a surfing wave that users can ride continuously. “I’m now happy not to go anywhere else,” says Pollock of the regional whitewater offerings.
Even those who don’t get on the water are enjoying it. “For every one person on the water there’s four on the bank,” says Manchester’s Parks and Recreation Director, Doug Foley.
“You’re starting to see more socializing,” says Vick. “People sit down and talk to each other – maybe they have different backgrounds, different experiences.” The river is bringing those people together, he says.
The towns are coming together on a bigger level as well, jointly marketing themselves as a regional whitewater destination at events like Canoecopia, the world’s largest paddling expo. “Each of us is too small to be a draw by ourselves,” explains Pollock. (Charles City is the largest of the three towns at 7,500). “Working together, there’s multiple things for people do – and not just whitewater.”
“Elkader has a four-story antique store, a Moroccan restaurant, bed and breakfasts – lots of things we’d like to see, but what’s gonna get you there?” asks Hillman. Local leaders are hoping that a three-stop whitewater tour can provide that hook.
The exact economic impact of the courses is uncertain, with Manchester estimating $2 million per year and Charles City around $750,000. The fact that the course is free and open 24-7 makes it hard to count visitors, but the anecdotal evidence is encouraging.
In Manchester, a brewery opened near the river in anticipation of whitewater traffic, along with two kayak and tube rental places. In Charles City, businesses are eager to appeal to visitors, with one bar mounting a kayak on the front of the building to drive the point home.
“There isn’t a store front that’s vacant downtown,” says Pollock of Elkader. “That wasn’t always the case. I’m not going to say that’s all because of whitewater, but it’s one of the components.”
Notably, these three small towns have accomplished something that has eluded the state’s larger cities. A Des Moines whitewater course was proposed as early as 2002 and is still in discussion. A 2014 Iowa City proposal was deemed too costly, while discussions in Waterloo are starting to heat up. But their larger size works against them.
“There are more resources there, but it’s also a bigger river,” explains Hillman. “I think Des Moines might be a bit jealous of the smaller cities beating them to the punch,” he jokes.
But why are so many Iowa towns itching to put in a whitewater course in the first place? Surprisingly, all three of the towns conceived of the whitewater idea independently and began planning before the first course opened. When asked why, most aren’t quite sure how to explain the coincidence.
“It was kind of in the air,” says Pollock.
Part of the answer may lie in what the courses are replacing. Many of Iowa’s rivers are home to low-head dams, outdated structures that Hillman calls “drowning machines.” He explains: “They were for grist mills, then used for electricity, then they fell into disrepair.” The whitewater projects involve dam removal, providing a win-win solution to the problem. “You took out a safety hazard. You bring in money. That stuff starts to stack up.” The safety angle also opened up doors for funding opportunities to bring the projects to life.
Beyond safety, the dam removal brings along a few other benefits. “The fishing has been through the roof outstanding,” notes Hillman. “Basically you’re restoring the natural environment. There’s an ecology benefit.”
Ironically, some of the biggest resistance to the creation of the courses came from fishing enthusiasts, whose fears have now been allayed. Other resisters were those who lamented the loss of the dam as a historic landmark.
But as Hillman argues, in some ways the whitewater course is helping the town reconnect to its history. When these towns were founded, the river was the focal point, he explains. After being ignored for years, the whitewater course restores the river to its place of prominence. “It’s just amazing how the towns [have] re-embraced some of its heritage that was clearly overlooked,” he says.
With all this success to celebrate, Iowa’s whitewater advocates now have an easy response for anyone who still thinks Iowa seems like an unlikely destination for adventure. “People say: wait, there’s whitewater in Iowa?” says Williams. “And I say, yes, where have you been?”