Paddle with Dan Kaercher as he and his canoe partner follow a string of lakes, portage trails and part of the Cedar River that brings them full circle.
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.
Kaercher: Canoeing Iowa Rivers is generally a one-way experience. It's all downstream with the current, but in Black Hawk County, a combination of a river and lakes can bring you full circle. I'm near highways 58 and 218 between Cedar Falls and Waterloo. It's an unlikely spot for outdoor activities, but as odd as it may sound, these highways actually contributed to the recreational development below. There's a water trail here where you can paddle a chain of mostly man-made lakes created after highway crews dug up roads for highway construction, leaving behind holes in the ground. I'm here with Vern Fish, the executive director of the Black Hawk County Conservation Board. Vern, tell me how is it that a highway construction site was turned into a chain of man-made lakes.
Fish: Well, a lot of leaders, a lot of members in the community saw an opportunity when 218 was put in. They said we've got to have holes dug to build the highway, let's make into lakes, make the state park bigger. Then the next step was to try and connect them with trails, both water and hard surface.
Kaercher: Well, physically how did you do that? How did you connect these?
Fish: Well, it was all in the planning process. A lot the planners sat down. They gave it a lot of hard thought. They worked with the dot. They constructed the lakes so we could take advantage of the natural features, and then they started building the infrastructure around. It took twenty years of planning.
Kaercher: Well, we have lots of water recreation in Iowa. Isn't this sort of unique to the state?
Fish: Yeah, I think the chain of lakes concept in Cedar Falls/Waterloo is unique to Iowa. As more highways have been dug, we're seeing other communities adopt it. Most of the lakes in Iowa are natural, but in Black Hawk County we only had one natural lake. This is it. Now we have several lakes as a result of construction.
Kaercher: Now, along the way today as we're canoeing and kayaking, what are we going to see that's unique to the area, vegetation and fauna wise?
Fish: Well, we're going to have, first of all, a great opportunity to see Fisher Lake, which is the natural lake that's here. We're going to be going back and forth across a lot of the bike trails. We have over a hundred miles of bike trails here in the metropolitan area. We'll float down the Cedar River. We may float into Hartman Reserve Nature Center and see one of the osprey towers. That's kind of cool. That's the second place in Iowa where osprey were released. Then eventually we're going to work our way right back here in a complete circle.
Kaercher: Cool. Now, tell me, I’m not big on drowning, so what are some safety precautions that we should be taking?
Fish: Well, you're going to have your life jacket on, and we're going to have throw ropes with us and safety equipment with us.
Kaercher: Also with us are a couple of Vern’s friends and their dog, Domino, paddling this 10-mile loop. Are you in?
Fish: I’m in.
Kaercher: Okay boy, is this great! We're right on the water.
Fish: Oh, yeah.
Kaercher: One point I wanted to check with you, I see a lot of algae here but the water looks really clean. What's the story here?
Fish: Well, the algae is doing what it's supposed to do. It's cleaning the water. It's purifying it. It's soaking up the nutrients. And this is a natural lake. That water is relatively clean.
Kaercher: I never looked at it as a positive. I always thought, oh, that's disgusting.
Fish: Some of that algae, see how it drags on the boat? You've got to pull through that.
Kaercher: It's an easy paddle, so no worries if we're distracted by a flock of geese taking off from the lake or admiring a bald eagle overhead. Just aim for the sign here?
Fish: Yep, yep. Then we're going to practice the fine art of portaging.
Kaercher: Oh, boy. I have an assistant that's supposed to do that for me I think. Portage is nautical lingo that basically means to hike, carrying your boat and supplies overland between two waterways. At this portage, we cross a bike trail and traverse a wooded area before reaching Alice Wyth Lake. It's peaceful on the lake and enjoyed by other sportsmen onshore fishing. On the next portage, I try my hand at carrying the canoe. This portage parallels Highway 58, which makes for some interesting sightseeing under the bridge. This looks like a good spot for a break, Vern. What's with all it is urban art?
Fish: There's bike trails right down there and people have access and they've come to express themselves.
Kaercher: Very interesting.
Fish: Very interesting. Yeah, it changes every day and every season. It's always whenever you come, you're going to see some new and different.
Kaercher: Enough about art. We need to keep moving to our next waterway, the Cedar River.
Fish: We're going to hop in. Are you ready?
Kaercher: Yeah. This should be easier than paddling a lake, since the river current will take us downstream with little effort. We soon see a reminder of the power of water on river rides. In the 2008 floods, this river took out many homes along its banks, including that of my canoe partner, Vern.
Fish: Pushed on the door. It was jammed shut. I finally got it open. And part of the reason I couldn't get it open is the refrigerator had floated in from the kitchen out to the entrance way. My couch was in the kitchen.
Kaercher: Farther downstream, most Iowans probably remember that this very river flooded most of downtown Cedar Rapids. The abandoned homes along the river, the highway noise, and the graffiti remind us that we are paddling in an urban area, but that doesn't mean we don't get to see any wildlife. We spot a Great Blue Heron, and I’m immediately transported to the wilderness. Before long we detour from the river to enter another lake. On Shiree Lake is a wooden tower once used as an osprey nesting site. The Valley Park Tower is usually locked, but we made arrangements for it to be open, so we could catch a spectacular view of the section of the water trail we just traveled. We'll see you guys! Thanks a lot! It was great! This is my last stop of the day, but the others are heading back downriver to more portaging and more lakes. They'll eventually end up at the same lake where they started. On the Cedar River in this beautiful chain of lakes today, we saw a Bald Eagle, a Great Blue Heron, and all kinds of geese. Who knew you could experience so much of nature so close to city life beside two major highways between Cedar Falls and Waterloo.