Dan Kaercher finds a diverse bicycle-friendly community, go to Decorah for paved and off-road trails for bicyclists of all skill levels.
Hosted by Dan Kaercher, Iowa's Simple Pleasures features Iowa travel destinations, restaurants, events, parks, recreation and more. Produced by Iowa Public Television, the series highlights fun things for Iowans to do, see and taste, right here at home. Below are excerpts from Dan's journal of his travels in the state.
I’ve been in love with Decorah ever since my first visit several decades ago. What’s not to like? It’s nestled beside the Upper Iowa River in one of Iowa’s most scenic valleys. Water Street downtown is spotless and filled with shops and eateries housed in beautifully maintained vintage structures. And then there’s the Norwegian factor: Few communities in our state remain so clearly “ethnic” as this one. Decorah’s heritage is celebrated not only at the Vesterheim museum downtown, but also during Nordic Fest and even in the Norwegian flags you spot here and there and the “lefse” sign posted in a bakery window.
Today, I’m exploring Decorah from a new vantage point: the seat of a spiffy new bicycle provided by one of my friendly hosts, Kirk Johnson, originally a Swede from the Quad Cities who seems to fit in here nonetheless. Kirk, who’s on the staff at Luther College, has kindly lined up a jam-packed schedule for our IPTV crew, beginning with a relatively smooth ride on Decorah’s paved, artwork-dotted Trout Run Trail (named for the stream that riffles beside us), followed by an afternoon of videotaping a local group of indestructible mountain bikers as they attack some very different local trails.
Inspired by such bicycling meccas as nearby Lanesboro, Minnesota, local engineer John Hjelle (how Norwegian can you get? It’s pronounced Yelly) got the ball rolling back in 1996. That’s when he proposed the splendid Trout Run Trail, which got under way in 2001. It's financed primarily by individual donors, fund-raisers and government grants. John tells me he's pedaled around the world, noting Norway and Vietnam were his favorite countries. What a contrast! Spearheading this project back home was a no-brainer.
We begin our ride at a soaring, stainless-steel arch that depicts, fittingly, a shimmering trout stream. Before long, the group of local volunteers (who clearly are enjoying taking this sunny morning off from their desk jobs) and I have pedaled to the landmark Decorah Fish Hatchery. All those delectable fish explain the big bald eagle's nest in a tree just across the road. The artistic “sign” denoting the hatchery is one of the trail’s aesthetic adornments.
Soon, I’m huffing and puffing my way up some spectacular (to me) switchbacks that lead to a sweeping view (the trip down was a lot more fun, guys). Our final stop on the Trout Run Trail is a striking, bronze, mythical-looking statue overlooking the river and a prairie at the foot of one of Decorah’s trademark limestone bluffs. What a spot, and what an unforgettable sculpture. How wise these Decorah volunteers were to include art in the design of this $6 million trail, which eventually will form an 11.5-mile loop. Pretty ambitious, I’d say, for a town of about 8,200 residents.
By noontime, I’m hungry! We meet yet more volunteers and local officials at La Rana Bistro off Water Street downtown. It's obvious people know how to rally around a community cause here. In the food department, the hearty mushroom-and-spinach quiche and tomato-bisque soup get my enthusiastic endorsement. Now that we've refueled, it's time partake in a different type of pedaling: mountain biking some challenging, single-track trails that climb up, down and through the parks north of the river and downtown.
I decide to try a relatively flat trail along the river before a group of volunteer mountain bikers led by trail champion and Oneota River Cycles bike-shop owner Deke Gosen. Wow. You really have to keep your eyes open on this kind of a trail, which is exactly what these guys love. Thankful I brought my helmet along today, I dart around jagged rocks and fallen limbs, almost crash into a tree on a 90-degree turn, and wisely walk my bike over a log that my fellow riders somehow seem to effortlessly fly over. How did they do that?
Time to sit this one out. With our producer and videographer, I tag along in our mini caravan of ATVs and golf carts. I’d never make it up these steep, twisting trails on my own power. Yet, this is just what makes Decorah such a bicyclists’ paradise. You can choose between the paved, well-groomed Trout Run Trail favored by conventional cyclists and walkers, and the deliberately rough 18.5 miles of mountain-biking trails that push the sport to the extreme. It’s one of the few places in Iowa where you can sample both styles of bicycling in close proximity.
At the end of the day, we gather with our new friends at T-Bocks Sports Bar and Grill on Water Street downtown for a brew and some camaraderie. As we chat, it’s very clear these enthusiastic bikers take their civic responsibilities very seriously. Deke tells me there are dozens of bikers who can be counted on whenever it’s time to help forge new trails or groom existing ones. I like the idea that the folks who benefit from these trails
are the very ones who get the job done!