Coralville Reservoir Dam to Cedar

June 18, 2004

I departed into the swift flowing outlet channel of the Coraville Reservoir Dam at 5:50 a.m. under clear cool skies. A thin carpet of foam covered the river and extended as far as I could see downstream. One to two foot high mounds of the odorous suds accumulated along the shorelines where the canopies of downed trees trapped the cream colored froth. The otter edge of these foam dams would occasionally cleave off and formed small "foambergs" that descended quickly downstream in the river's thalweg marking the path of greatest current velocity and a "centerline" to guide my canoe.

Although the surface of the river carried a tan colored foam, the water itself no longer carried the suspended brown particulate material that had been so conspicuous in the river above Coralville Reservoir. The transparency exceeded several feet as a result of the solids trapping efficiency of the long, linear upstream impoundment.

Numerous cottages or houses were noted on the right bank for about a mile, the development starting just downstream of the tailwater boat landing. The lots all appeared to be in the floodplain or floodway and I suspected most received considerable damage during the summer flood of 1993.

A huge quarry spanned right bank for about a mile along the inside bend of a broad meander just upstream of Interstate 80. Massive mounds of sand and gravel rose up above the treetops and constituted the riparian bank in some areas. At the lower end of the quarry, an even higher barren mountain of mounded earth rose skyward and exhibited serious erosion with deeply cut valleys into the steep slope. Two unidentified hawks were spotted at the crest of the steep hillside and screeched at me as I drifted by.

Coraville Dam blocked the river about a mile below Interstate 80. An island in the middle of the river divided the river into two channels, a fixed crest spillway lay on the right (main channel) and shallow overflow spillway was on the left. I took out on the center of left spillway and walked the slippery concrete to the left bank. A few inches of river raced over the smooth algae-covered concrete then fell sharply through a maze of rocks, trees and woody debris to the tailwater area.

A bicycle bridge was being constructed over the spillway and dam and the related construction activity presented a substantially obstacle to portage around. Fortunately, bridge workers were absent during my carry. Bulldozers, long steel rods, mounds of sand, and steep vegetated banks blocked access to the tailwater area. It was difficult finding a site to launch my canoe. I found a temporary roadway just below the bridge works that provided a partial path back to the river. The right side of this road suffered from serious erosion problems since it was facing the strong turbulent currents of the overflow spillway. After about an hour, I was finally underway heading toward Iowa City.

A four-women crew team with coxswain was preparing to depart from long metal dock in a white, composite rowing shell on the left bank at the University of Iowa campus as I approached shortly before 8:45 a.m.

"Want to trade boats," I said with a smile as I glided up to their sleek boat.

"You wouldn't want it," a pretty girl with short brunette hair replied. Then added, "We can't get the sliding seats to work."

I expressed some sympathy and mentioned that I used to do a bit of rowing when I was at the University of Minnesota many years ago, but back then we only had wooden boats. She then indicated the seats were old and thought that I might be familiar with them. Knowing I had to portage around the downstream dam, the team granted me permission to take out at their fancy dock, but warned of the duck crap that studded the aluminum surface. After carrying my first load of gear to shore, I walked over to the team and knelt down next to the rowing shell that sat empty in the swift moving current at the edge of the dock. All eyes became fixed on me as one of the girls handed me her seat.

"You're right, these are exactly like the seats we used to use. Are you certain this seat is suppose to work in this boat," I asked while fiddling with the seat and slide.

"We'll we thought they did," a tall lanky girl replied, "but we are having our doubts now."

Then another girl piped up and speculated that they may be keeping the good seats locked-up to prevent their use. This seemed the more logical explanation, especially if the equipment manager wanted to control the use of this boat. I chucked to myself when I remembered that our rowing coach, Chuck Good, once hid our oars in the attic of his garage to prevent us from taking out a brand new rowing shell made in Australia after he became angry about our team's attitude and performance.

"Sorry, but I think you have the wrong boat for these seats or the wrong seats for this boat," and handed the seat back to one of the crewmembers. After some consoling, the coxswain got her crew together to carry the shell back to the boathouse that was located a few blocks away from the river.

I rigged up my canoe carrier and commenced a half-mile portage along a narrow bicycle path that paralleled the left side of the river through campus and portions of Iowa City. I crossed over the right side of the river on the Hwy 1 bridge (Grand Street) just upstream of the Iowa Falls Dam which emitted a loud roar as voluminous water cascaded over the crest of the wide spillway and fell into a frothy turbulent tailwater.

Iowa City 1848 - "Steamboats frequently ascend the river to this point, and some have gone above in high stages of water. About a mile above the city, are an excellent water-power and extensive mills".
Mr. Sargent, from Daniel S. Curtiss. 1852

The C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory rose up six stories above the river and formed the right bank immediately below the spillway. I parked my canoe by the front door and walked in for a brief visit. The receptionist, Dan Daily, was also the librarian and offered a brief tour of the facility, including the basement lab that contained a tow tank, models of dams, and various arrays of sophisticated hydraulic equipment and associated instrumentation.

One of Iowa's oldest river gaging stations lies in a small unimposing square concrete building with a red roof just downstream of the hydraulics lab. A Geological Survey employee was performing maintenance on the recording equipment as I poked my nose in the open door for quick peak before ascending down a dirt trail back to the impatient turbulent river. At 10:20 a.m., I shoved off into the fast flowing water with some satisfaction knowing I had no more dams to impede my descent to the Mississippi.

The shoreline below Iowa City was unattractive with old industrial buildings, run down shacks and sore looking cottages on elevated banks. Intermittent rain commenced in the early afternoon and continued for three hours. I met several catfish fishermen along the way, including an elderly heavyset man and his old black lab in an aluminum boat along the left bank just downstream of the Hills Bridge. The man was busy cleaning small catfish and throwing the entrails back into the river as I approached. The dog became excited and seemed willing to visit my canoe, but a soft discouraging word from his master convinced it to lay back down on the front seat and then it propped its head on the gunwale and watched me back paddle upstream in the strong current.

"Do you fish the river often," I asked while drifting closer to his boat.

"Yeah, we get over here several times year to catch a few catfish or what ever is biting." He starred at his pal stretched out in the front seat then added, "He's getting old like me, but we still enjoy getting out on the river, even on a crummy rainy day like today."

He threw a cleaned catfish in a pail then rubbed his eyes with the forearm of his white long-sleeve shirt. White circles surrounding his eyes stood in stark contrast to his sunburned face. A small narrow-brimmed hat barely covered his large head and exposed his bright red nose to mid-day overcast skies.

"Are those channel cats or flatheads?" I inquired.

"Channel catfish, but they should be called side channel catfish because that's where they are found," he said and laughed.

I asked permission to take his picture and he chucked again and responded, "Sure, I'm the undertaker from Kalona and this is my dog, Matty, in case anyone asks."

I thanked him for the visit and wished him luck fishing as I proceeded to drift quickly down river along the left bank.

The river made broad sweeping meanders across a one to two mile floodplain as it descended to the Cedar River, the Iowa's largest tributary. The shoreline was tree-covered for a majority of this reach, but riparian farm levees were common and indicated a developed agricultural floodplain lay hidden from my view. Ten to fifteen foot high vertical banks of eroding silt were common on the curved outside bends where the river's thalweg rushed rapidly along the shoreline. Some property owners had dumped massive quantities of jagged concrete to halt the loss of the adjacent farmlands. Further downstream, old lumber, branches and whole trees were scattered along the steeply cut banks to reduce the onslaught created by the river's currents. The mass of dead jagged limbs stuck out into the stream in a wicked fashion and care was necessary to avoid being swept into this certain entanglement.

Very few secondary channels or islands were noted on my run down to the Cedar River and sandbars were covered with water as a result of the high stage. The course of the river did not deviate from that illustrated on my old topographic maps. I was expecting to see new cuts or more widening of existing secondary channels, but apparently the upstream flood control reservoir and floodplain levees have constrained the river's meandering in this reach.

Lower Iowa River - "The current is rapid; sand-bars and snags are frequent; and the channel often changes position. In these respects, it is said much to resemble the Missouri river. It is believed that the main river can be easily navigated, during three or four months of the year, by steamboats of light draught, as far as some rapids near Poiskeik's village, a distance of 100 miles".
Lieutenant Albert M. Lea from William J. Petersen 1941

A strong odor of decomposing organic material filled the air as I approached the Cedar River shortly before 6 p.m. I suspected the source of the pungent smell emanated from a wastewater disposal pond located on the left bank about a mile upstream from the Cedar River's mouth based on the notations placed on the topographic map of the area. The Cedar River released a powerful current of brown turbid water at its mouth and its conductivity was about ten percent greater than the Iowa's indicating a greater mineral content. The width of this tributary was about twenty-five percent greater than the Iowa and carried substantially greater flow.

I finally pulled out for the day at River Fork Ramp on the left bank below the Cedar's mouth and a few hundred feet downstream of a railroad crossing. The grounds surrounding the landing were covered by a sparse grove of silver maple trees and the undulating parking lot and parkland was muddy and contained numerous puddles. I was able to find a high dry mound with sparse grass just large enough to fit the area of my ground tarp and tent. A steady stream of catfish fishermen returned to the landing during the early evening while I prepared and ate my dinner.

The skies had finally cleared and it looked like the evening would be calm and peaceful as I watched the sun disappear into the floodplain forest on the opposite bank. All that changed at 8 p.m. when a loud thunderous roar of powerful car engines broke the evening's solitude and echoed up and down the river's valley. I picked up my topographic map to verify the suspected source of this unpleasant and unwelcome commotion. Sure enough there it was as plain as day, an oval half-mile long track marked with the word "fairground." It was only a half-mile away on the opposite bank just east of Columbus Junction. I had unwittingly setup my tent within earshot of a racetrack and would have to put up with the sounds of the Friday night stock car races. The noise was so irritating I could not write or read so I just laid down and wrapped a pillow around my head and starred at the ceiling of my tent. Then almost on cue, a slow moving freight train rumbled across the nearby bridge and briefly drowned out the races while the ground beneath my tent vibrated for several minutes. "What a site to pitch a tent," I thought to myself and released a disheartening sigh. My floodplain encampment finally quieted down at 11:30 p.m. and I was then able to get uninterrupted sleep.

Women's Crew at Iowa City