Paddling the Cedar
25 Years of Canoes & Camaraderie
Story and photography by Tim Ackarman
A massive ’79 Jamboree Rallye motor home rumbles in towing an equally massive canoe trailer, a functional work of art lovingly crafted from planks and pipes. The mighty ensemble creeps down the service road through Halvorson Park, a narrow ribbon of trees and grass along the Cedar River just south of St. Ansgar.
The sound of tires crunching gravel is periodically lost among shouts of welcome from enthusiastic campers. Waving, the driver answers the salutations with marginally melodious notes from a resonant brass bulb horn.
Jim and Laura Hughes of Colwell have arrived.
Jim is a large, tall truck driver and onetime farmer with a demeanor as unpretentiously bold as his entrance. He merrily greets everyone while Laura — of slighter frame and milder deportment than her larger-than-life husband — passes out sweet rolls and collects liability waivers.
Then, packed with fellow paddlers, the Jamboree leads a caravan on the nine-mile trek north to Otranto Park near the Minnesota border. One by one the paddlers nose their vessels into the rapid current just below an upstream low-head dam.
The annual Cedar River Canoe Float is about to commence.
Event Becomes Tradition
Iowa author and educator Robert Waller quite inadvertently inspired the inaugural adventure. Waller, widely known for his best seller The Bridges of Madison County, recounted the joys of paddling the Shell Rock River in a 1987 essay for The Des Moines Register, and his words caught the attention of St. Ansgar’s then-restaurateur Stan Walk.
“Why couldn’t we actually do something like that on the Cedar?” he remembers wondering.
Walk contacted the author, and the two spent a day scouting along the river from the Minnesota border to Osage. “An opportunity to meet Waller is what it really was,” admits Walk, though he also hoped it was an opportunity for economic development.
Mitchell County had potential to be a destination for serious paddlers, Walk believed, and he organized a committee of local volunteers who planned a grand event complete with riverside food stands and nightly entertainment.
Over 100 canoes navigated the Cedar during each of the first two annual floats in 1988 and 1989. Walk wasn’t among those early participants, however. He had no desire to join the armada himself and little interest in managing the affair for the long term. “I was hoping to get this thing started and that others would pick up on it.”
Flooding prompted a high-water alert just four days prior to the third float. Conditions proved manageable, but only about 20 vessels made the voyage. Although a handful of enthusiasts continued the float in subsequent years, it never again achieved the scale Walk, now a Mitchell County supervisor, had envisioned.
One of those devoted paddlers was Jim Hughes, for whom flowing water has been a lifelong theme. He grew up along the Little Cedar north of Charles City, an area he still calls home. “Except for a few years in college, I’ve never lived more than three miles from a river.”
Jim, then a competent if not accomplished paddler, was president of the Floyd County Izaak Walton League when the first Cedar float took place. He saw an ad for the event and, as a local conservation leader, felt “almost obligated” to take part. Somewhere along the journey, paddling the route year after year, his perspective changed. “On about the third day, all of a sudden you start mellowing out, and you didn’t even realize you were wound up.”
On June 11, 1994, a now-mellower Jim married a pretty young widow with an infectious laugh and a well-developed sense of adventure. Laura’s first Cedar float was also her honeymoon cruise. Fellow floaters welcomed her with a shivaree, a mock serenade of clanging pots and pans. “It seemed very unusual,” she admits, “and I’m up for that.”
Their family tradition firmly established, the Hugheses somewhat reluctantly took charge of the event when other organizers stepped away. “We didn’t want to see it die,” explains Laura, “and a lot of other people didn’t either.”
Solitude and Solidarity
This stretch of the Cedar is almost entirely tree-lined, a narrow corridor of wilderness within an extensively farmed landscape. The annual float bypasses most of the riverside communities, which often feature slack water, dams, and other hazards. Only the occasional bridge, power line, or riparian homestead serves notice that civilization lurks just beyond the foliage.
Over five days, paddlers on the 24th annual float log over 60 miles by river (and at least 20 by car or Jamboree) through parts of four counties en route to the final takeout at Janesville.
From Otranto to Osage the Cedar offers an array of limestone bluffs, many pocked with caves and adorned with ferns and vines. Black dirt and coarse sand predominate as the river widens farther south. Sunlight bathes wildflowers and grasses where the canopy opens to a larger sky.
Wildlife abounds: bald eagles, waterfowl, songbirds, deer, muskrats, and turtles. Encounters with river otter and beaver aren’t uncommon. Sandbars are littered with clamshells, the former occupants of which likely served as dinner for hungry raccoons.
With the current brisk and the water mildly turbid, courtesy of abundant spring rains, paddlers can only speculate as to what lies beneath the surface, though the occasional fisherman hoisting a catfish or bass offers evidence.
The group covers 8 to 19 miles by river each day. Some choose to rise and retire early. “The other group” lingers around campfires or local watering holes until well after dark and seldom stirs until well after dawn.
Nights are spent at riverside campgrounds offering modern restroom and shower facilities. Some choose to rough it by camping in tents and cooking over campfires or propane stoves, while others opt for the comparative opulence of campers or motor homes.
The Hugheses have tried all of them, finally settling on Jamboree Rallye accommodations. “We’ve really graduated,” says Laura.
The couple is pleased to note some changes on the river as well. The practice of dumping abandoned cars and other large items seems to be waning. There’s now more riprap in place to limit erosion. Jim, a longtime member of the Floyd County Soil Conservation Board, finds such efforts to improve water quality encouraging.
The float is open to anyone, so the faces change from year to year. Yet there is a core of regulars, from all across the state and beyond, who anticipate their annual reunion as much as the annual paddle. “We don’t see these people except for at this thing,” says Laura.
As on previous excursions, camaraderie develops through shared relaxation and strengthens as participants collaborate to overcome the inevitable challenges.
Melissa Krishnan’s trip takes a discouraging turn when her trailer blows a tire and wheel. Her “pit crew” of friends, family, and an accommodating local welder has her rolling in less than 24 hours. She never misses a stroke on the river.
When Steve Honken of Mason City struggles to paddle alone against a fierce headwind, 70-year-old Neale Reetz of Colwell lashes their canoes together. The ponderous but stable makeshift catamaran delivers its occupants safely downriver.
Reetz becomes the friend in need a few days later after switching from canoe to kayak. Misjudging a large snag, he ends up entangling his craft in its branches and dumping himself in the cold river. Zach Bathen, a bulky college football prospect from La Porte City, takes a frigid plunge of his own to dislodge the vessel.
“It may not seem like it,” observes float veteran Ed Barnes of Goldfield, “but we all look out for each other.”
The Hugheses enjoy the Cedar for its scenery and its solitude. Yet their yearly journey is perhaps defined more by the shared experiences than by the route, muses Laura. “You get to be pretty good friends along the way.”
“I used to be kind of sad when an adventure was over,” says Chuck Rila of Mt. Pleasant, who’s only missed a few floats in the last 16 years. “But it’s just that much closer to the next one.”
Down the River
The 25th Annual Cedar River Canoe Float runs June 9–13. For more information, contact Jim and Laura Hughes: firstname.lastname@example.org or 641-228-7855.