Taking the scenic route
Kayakers make a trek down the Des Moines River
Behind the Sunkissed Meadows Disc Golf Course, a kayaking trio pulled into town this week on their way through Iowa.
They’re taking the road less traveled — in this case, the river less traveled — from Lake Talcot, Minnesota, to Keokuk, on the Iowa-Missouri border where the Des Moines River feeds into the Mississippi River.
The 483-mile trip over a couple weeks will take a bit longer than the 6 1/2-hour drive would, but they have time for the scenic route.
The pleasures of recreational kayaking have not come without their challenges, though.
Rapidly rising water levels with rain were the kind of thing they postponed their trip, originally scheduled in June, to avoid.
“We thought it would be perfect in October, but guess what,” said kayaker Larry Jordison, a Fort Dodge native taking the trip with his son, Graham Jordison, of Lincoln, Nebraska, and his friend Nathan Harp, of Spirit Lake.
The water has come up a few feet on their river gauge, which means a more challenging ride down the stream and more difficulty finding places to get out of the river or camp.
It’s a small challenge even for seasoned kayakers like Graham Jordison, who once kayaked down the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to New Orleans by himself.
The higher water levels make it more challenging to stay out of log jams coming around the bends as the water moves much more quickly and powerfully.
“You can’t pull over and stop those canoes and crawl up the bank,” said Larry Jordison. “The water makes it really tough.”
Each kayak is packed length-wise, making it over 150 pounds without the weight of the person in it. But even with that weight they’re making good time easily at about 25 to 35 miles per day.
And if you’re looking for a sandbar to camp out on, good luck. Find one only a few inches above the water and you may find your tent stakes washed out after a bit.
“Once we watched the water rise over our staked area,” Graham Jordison said.
But the good news is they don’t have to paddle as hard, and there are “river angels” all along the way that have offered help as needed.
“Every time you do this, you meet amazing people in Iowa and across the country,” he said. “People on the water connect and are ready to help, they want to be there for you.”
That has come in handy more than once this trip. A truck owner once helped them take their kayaks to a more accessible spot in the river to get back in.
“I’ve never seen anybody get in over here,” the truck owner said. “You guys need to go to the other side of the river, and I’ll help you.”
As a novice in particular, Larry Jordison appreciates that special camaraderie among “river folks.”
“They have a love for the river,” he said, especially for those who want to appreciate it through recreational use.
The journey they’re taking down the entire Des Moines River was only made possible by the removal of lowhead dams like the ones Fort Dodge had, known to recreational users as “killers.”
The city cited the attraction of kayakers as a supporting reason for dam removals earlier this year, and it looks like it’s paid off by bringing at least a few visitors this year.
“That’s the reason why we did this, because they got rid of them,” said Larry Jordison, a retired postmaster for Ames.
With dams in place, kayakers have to portage with each one, carrying their kayaks and equipment around each time, which can be exhausting and time consuming.
“It’s good not only for conservation, but removing these dams helps open up the waterways for guys like us,” said Graham Jordison, who works for The Sierra Club. “A lot more people would do this if they didn’t have to portage the dams.”
By now, they are likely well past Des Moines on their way to the end of their journey with the possibility of snow and brisk temperatures in the forecast.
But former Fort Dodger Larry Jordison is glad to take the journey, braving through trepidation.
“These guys have helped me when I screwed up or did a good job,” he said. “That’s the best thing, that I can still compete and hand out with young people.”