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At Play

River Relationships

Recreation and reverence expand through Iowa water trails

By Carol Bodensteiner

Gerry Rowland never paid much attention to the Des Moines River until the 1993 flood. When the crisis and the waters finally receded, he began to explore by car, following the Dragoon Trail markers and discovering a lush greenbelt stretching northwest through three counties.

Intrigued, Rowland wanted to look deeper. In 1996 he put a kayak in the river for the very first time.

“I was very much drawn to the river,” says Rowland, a Connecticut native who moved to Iowa in 1979. “The scenic beauty, the wildlife, the people I met.”

He kept going back. On weekend trips, 20 to 30 miles at a time, summer and winter, over two years, he paddled the entire length of the Des Moines River from Estherville to Keokuk. “It became an obsession to paddle every mile.”

By the time he reached Van Buren County, the idea for designated water trails had formed. On his own time — and his own dime — he spent the next two years driving the back roads along the Des Moines River, posting notices in convenience stores, writing editorials about recreational potential, getting people interested.

Photo courtesy Madison County Conservation Board.

He formed an alliance with the Des Moines Recreational River Greenbelt Commission and worked with county conservation boards all along the river.

Finally, in the summer of 2000, a Des Moines River Water Trail was dedicated with the support of 17 counties and the proclamation of both the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Governor’s office.  

Then it all came to a dead halt. With no money, the vision could progress no further. 

Rowland switched tactics. He learned the grant process, then helped Van Buren County secure federal funding to create the first state-recognized water trail in 2002.

Rowland joined other paddling enthusiasts to lobby the DNR to establish a water trails program.

When DNR funding presented another obstacle, paddlers lobbied to have their boat registration fees increased with the express purpose of raising money for state-funded water trails. They succeeded.

(Read more about River Relationships)

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