I few years ago, a comedian wrote a ditty about his drive west through Iowa on Interstate 80. It went something like this: “corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, …what’s that smell?” It’s true–Iowa is not known for its enthralling scenery. First-time visitors often comment on Iowa’s flat, treeless terrain. However, with a little effort, it’s not hard to discover that Iowa has a few appealing places of its own. If I jump in my car in Cedar Rapids and drive northeast for about an hour, I can find rolling hills and scenic views that are quite enjoyable.
If you like kayaking or canoeing, Northeast Iowa has some excellent canoe-ready rivers and relatively untouched prairies that take you back into the mid 1800’s and the days of French traders and native Sac and Fox Indians. The Upper Iowa, Turkey, and Yellow Rivers of Northeast Iowa are all good canoeing rivers. All of these feed into the mighty Mississippi, and the closer you get to that famous waterway, the more beautiful the scenery gets. You’ll often find majestic bluffs with eagles and turkey buzzards swarming overhead.
I struggle finding family activities that all of my teenagers enjoy. This past August, I struck gold when I suggested we go kayaking on the Turkey River. Three daughters, one son, and my wife and I loaded into the Surburban and made the trek north. It was a send-off for our son, Joel, who was heading back to Iowa State University the following day to begin his sophomore year.
We put in at Elkader, Iowa, which has a few treasures of its own, including a keystone bridge and a vintage opera house. Elkader is nestled within a valley surrounded by towering, wooded bluffs that give a cool, eerie feeling upon first arrival. The Turkey River cuts through the heart of Elkader. It overflowed its banks and flooded the town in the epic Flood of 2008 that deluged Eastern Iowa.
On this day, the Turkey’s current was peaceful and steady. We floated along at a leisurely pace, sunning ourselves, watching the red-winged blackbirds guarding their nests.
No canoe trip is official unless somebody dumps. My son let his life preserver float harmlessly behind his kayak. When he approached a fallen tree, the life preserver caught a limb, dislodging my son and the contents of his kayak. He lost his shirt in the process and his oar drifted downstream, but somehow he was able to hold on to his cellphone (priorities!). I was bringing up the rear of our little entourage, so was able to come to his assistance. After some effort, we got the kayak right-sized and floating once again.
We had chosen a short, 2-hour float, and as we rounded the last bend before our departure site, the historic Motor Mill came into view. The Motor Mill is part of the Retz Memorial Woods State Preserve near the hamlet of Communia, Iowa. It is a beautiful, six-story structure made of locally-quarried limestone. It has served multiple purposes in its lifetime, including a mill, cooperage, ice house, inn and stable. It stands next to one of Eastern Iowa’s iconic iron bridges creating an impressive effect.
I snapped a few photos, one of which became the subject of this painting. It is a little reminder of that special day trip with my family. Those little memories are becoming fewer and farther between, so I cherish this one and thank Northeast Iowa’s hidden beauty for the moment.