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At Play: River Relationships


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.

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.

Enthusiasm for water trails in the state was now escalating. The Iowa Legislature established the DNR-led water trails program in 2008. By 2011 Iowa — with 18,000 miles of navigable waterways — counted nearly 900 miles of designated water trails with another 600 miles under development.

Nate Hoogeveen, DNR director of river programs and avid paddler, took the lead in developing Iowa’s state water trail plan, a framework for low-head dam mitigation and trail development that has since become a national model. A water trails toolkit helps trail developers protect the water, maximize the assets of each waterway, produce essential signage, and meet the needs of local communities and trail users.

Communities embrace water trails for different reasons, says Hoogeveen. “People want to make something of what they’ve had all along. Rural economic development, watershed, and water quality — each project has its own focus.”

State-designated water trails provide a variety of experiences and are labeled for necessary skill level: Gateway for beginning paddlers, Recreational and Challenge for those with more paddling experience, Wilderness segments (with limited access and fewer amenities) for paddlers willing to rough it.

One of the newest water trails, dedicated in 2011, is a 50-mile stretch on the Middle River across Madison County and into neighboring Adair County. It’s only natural that the river flowing under those famous covered bridges would attract attention, too. “We saw the river as such a resource that we decided to work for a water trail designation,” says Jim Liechty of the Madison County Conservation Board, who’d been working with a dedicated group of volunteers on annual river cleanup days.

After securing a grant and developing a site-specific plan, volunteers joined local, county, and state organizations to restore flood-damaged embankments, improve accesses, and install signage on the roadways, access areas, and bridges. Two years later the new water trail was ready for the dedication.

Paddlers had been using the trail since spring, but by the scheduled October event, a drought had made the river too low to float. Organizers didn’t expect much of a crowd.

Some 150 paddlers were undeterred. “We did a river walk instead,” says Liechty, recalling the eager devotees.  
In just 50 miles, the Middle River Water Trail passes through rolling hills and timbered river valley, past 80-foot-tall limestone outcroppings and fossil rock bars. “People think there’s no wilderness left in Iowa, but they’ll find really cool wild places on the water trails,” Liechty says.

He also acknowledges that Middle River paddlers will see eroded riverbanks and areas where crops are planted to water’s edge.  Liechty is not discouraged. “We have a long way to go to get our rivers in the shape they should be. The best way to get significant change is to get people out on the water to see the good and the bad.”

Water trails reconnect people with Iowa’s geologic and cultural history, says Hoogeveen, and when people get on the water, they become aware and come to care. “Rivers have a lot to teach us. There’s a peace, a solitude, on the rivers that we don’t encounter in the real world.”

Iowa has 10 different sub-ecoregions, each including unique landforms, soils, and features. State-designated water trails are already in six of the ecoregions. Gerry Rowland’s passion continues to propel Iowa’s connection to its vast water resources. “My vision is to see the entire Des Moines River, all 404 miles from Estherville to Keokuk, a designated water trail.”  

Row Your Boat

Learn more about Iowa’s water trail projects and find maps and paddler resources on the DNR website: > Recreation > Canoeing & Kayaking > Water Trails.

Photo courtesy Madison County Conservation Board


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