Iron Bridge at Bluffton — Memories of the Annual MHSAP Canoe Trip

Hruska’s Campground, Bluffton, Iowa — I started this sketch of the old iron bridge at Bluffton in 2007, but was called away not long after.  I never finished.  A year or so later, the bridge was gone.  That beautiful iron bridge was condemned and replaced by a massive concrete structure.  The iron bridge at Bluffton is a reminder to me of the annual Father-Son/Daughter canoe trips I enjoyed with my kids for many years.

Every August, the Marion Home School Assistance Program gathers at Hruska’s for the annual canoe trip down the Upper Iowa River.  The first time we participated was in 1999 with my eldest daughter Jessica (then age 7) and eldest son Grant (age 5).  We had a memorable float.  As we unloaded the vans, the skies opened up and drenched us.  You could hardly see 5 feet in front of your face.  I told Jessica and Grant to wait under a tree while I tried to secure a canoe for us.  I think they got a little scared when they couldn’t see me for several minutes, probably thinking I took off without them while they stood in the pouring rain.  But I reconnected with them and just as we launched off, the rain stopped and the sun shone.  The float was lovely for the first 2 miles, and then we nearly capsized at the bend in the river we now call “Dead Man’s Curve”.  Thank God for the folks who waited on a nearby sandbar to rescue the hapless people like us!

Our annual routine went like this — I would take the day off the Friday of the canoe trip.  Any kids that wanted to go would pack up with me and head up to scenic Northeast Iowa.  We’d spend the day seeing various sights before setting up camp at Hruska’s.  We tried to do something different every year.  I have great memories of our visits to the Laura Ingalls Wilder hotel in Burr Oak, the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, the Grout/World War II Museum in Waterloo, Osborn Zoo and the historic keystone bridge and Opera House in Elkader, Pike’s Peak in McGregor, Backbone State Park near Strawberry Point, and Effigy Mounds near Marquette.  I know every inch of highway 150 and the location of every Dairy Queen and Subway from Independence to Decorah.  Quaint Iowa towns like Oelwein, Maynard, Fayette, West Union, and Calmar are like distant cousins I see once a year – familiar and welcoming every time we drive through.  I still catch my breath every time I crest the hill overlooking the Turkey River valley at Eldorado with the steeple of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church looming in the foreground.  Simply amazing.  In the last few years, we took a liking to a certain toy store in Prairie du Chien called The Monkey’s Tail.  If you just need a good laugh with your kids, I recommend it.  On one of those trips, we listened to a book-on-CD of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 11 — The Grim Grotto. We still chuckle about (and often repeat) Captain Widdershins’ motto, “he who hesitates is lost!”

After setting up camp, we’d weave our way back the 7 miles to Decorah to complete our yearly ritual: 1) visit Donner’s Spring, where the water seems to flow right out of the rock, and 2) head to our favorite Happy Joe’s restaurant for pizza.  The Happy Joe’s is a gorgeous old building on main street.  Hanging on the wall is a front page of the May 29, 1878 Decorah Bee newspaper which contains a subtitle that says, “Be just and do not fear.”  My, how the media has changed.

Nights were spent roasting s’mores and playing UNO.  I’d crank up the air mattresses and try to sleep.  We never did sleep very well at Hruska’s.  There is another camp across the river with a bar — always noisy late into the night.  There were usually raccoons in the garbage, boy scouts rolling in at midnight or something like that going on.  One time I stayed awake all night fighting indigestion from a bad Subway cucumber.  I was thankful I kept Ibuprofen in the Suburban.  The stars are very visible at 2am in Bluffton!

The floats were always fun, lots of beautiful bluffs along the Upper Iowa.  You can usually see eagles…and cows.  We learned early you can fit a child’s beach chair in the bottom of the canoe to keep the center of gravity low.  I was happier, however, when we all graduated to kayaks.  Much easier.

Heading home, we always stopped at the DQ in Independence — the last hurrah before rejoining civilization, returning to our home in Cedar Rapids.

It’s memories like these that make life fun.  Thanks to all the kind folks at MHSAP for making this happen.  So long, iron bridge!


  1. Thank you for your memories. I’ve been on this trip three times before, but now that our family has moved out of state it is one of the things I miss most about the Homeschool community in Iowa. Now that I’m trying to record my own memories, I found that I didn’t know any of the places or other information. This post helped me immensely, thank you.


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