Winneshiek County, Iowa: Canoeing the Upper Iowa River

By Roman Skaskiw

Canoeing the Upper Iowa - Photos courtesy of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
Canoeing the Upper Iowa River – Photos courtesy of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation

We canoed the Upper Iowa River and spent most of the first day floating and fishing from the canoe. We’d cast into the dark deep swirls in bends behind rapids.

This was ideal. Where there were no such spots, we cast where little creeks flowed into the river, or behind fallen trees, or into deep spots.

When possible, we cast upstream and pulled our lures down toward us ahead of the current, so they’d wiggle in the water. I caught the first fish, which was a joke. It was barely double the size of the lure. An ambitious little guy.

Stony River Bottom

In places, the river was wide and no more than eight inches deep all the way across, the surface rippling over the stony bottom. Now and then, the canoe dragged, and we pushed against the bottom with our paddles. Twice we had to step out to light the load.

The river bordered farmland. You could tell there were fields where the tall prairie grass crowned the bank and no trees were visible behind it.

Iowa City, a UNESCO Heritage Site

The curve of the river cut into the mud bank, and farmers had dumped gravel to ease the erosion. It worked. Wild grasses grew between the gravel, and their roots held the banks together.

Elsewhere, there were bluffs: twenty, thirty feet tall. We passed Chimney Rock which stretched a good hundred feet into the air and had a single, stunted pine growing on top, but for the most part, the bluffs were smaller. Layers of strata were apparent, and each seemed to crumble at a different rate, so the rock faces had successive overhangs and ledges all the way up.

Chaotic Precision

Cliff swallows made their pod-like mud homes on the rock, and when we pulled the canoe near a bluff to try a little curl of water, a bright beak could be seen jutting from each pod.

As we fished that spot, the swallows grew alarmed. A few darted from their nest, then more. Then they all poured out and filled the sky – crossbow shaped birds in a great cloud. The highest ones just specks of black against the grey sky, the nearest circling rapidly at eye-level.

The Upper Iowa
Upper Iowa River

I looked back after we left the spot. They poured back into their pods with chaotic precision, like bats flying into a cave, except each found its own home.

I saw an eagle sitting atop a dead white tree trunk that towered above the surrounding woods, and a vulture, flapping and circling.

We must have gotten too close to the nest of a ring-neck duck, because a female flapped out of the brush and kept flapping awkwardly and noisily through the water, pretending to be lame, trying to distract us. We pulled the canoe alongside the brush, and thought we heard the peep of ducklings, but couldn’t spot the nest.

Occasionally, a lure would get caught up in the grass onshore, or in a tree branch, and we’d fight the current to paddle there and free it.

A deer crossed the river, not thirty yards downstream from us. I spotted a water snake. It looked white in the water. Steffen waited for it to turn broadside and snatched it by the neck. He passed it to me. It had green and black flecks which formed vague diamonds. Its eyes were blue and one looked completely clouded, like glaucoma.

Mysteries Remained

I was reminded of many of the trees and plants whose names my grandfather taught me. Ground elder, quaking aspen, various pines, linden, but there were so many more. It’d take a lifetime to learn all the names – the vines curling down the bluffs, hundreds of grasses, each with heads leaning and lolling in distinct ways, tall straight yellow-flowering plants with enormous triangular leaves. Such richness.

I felt vaguely excited by the fact of plants whose names I did not know. Mysteries remained. If I felt inclined, I could read about these plants. I could even take samples. The unknown still existed in abundance.

We’d spot smallies (smallmouth bass) in the shallows where the bottom was rocky and the current brisk but not rapid. This surprised us. We’d been fishing the deep spots. We tried for smallies in the shallows, dragged lures right under their noses, but never got the slightest reaction.

We only caught them in deep spots, and Steffen also hooked a pair of rainbows. One got away when I hesitated to lift it into the boat. The way to grab it, I learned, was by the lower lip. Much easier than cupping it. You grab the lower lip between your thumb and the second knuckle of your index finger, and the fish hangs there, obediently, mouth open, letting you work out the hook.

We put the fish on the rope, not weaving it through their gills — this kills them — but through a hole punched in the skin below their lower jaws.

An eagle's nest on the Upper Iowa
An eagle’s nest on Upper Iowa River.

Our packs were tied into the canoes. I made a bit of a mesh by wrapping a five-fifty cord from the seat to a thwart and tucked the garbage bag with our bedrolls below it.

Getting the Hang of It

Until I got the hang of it, some of my casts flew high. I wouldn’t simply whip it to the spot of the river I wanted. They flew too high, or else the bail flipped closed, or the excess of line I pulled with my opposite hand would wrap around something and the cast, for all its vigor, went nowhere, springing back like a rubber band.

A blue heron walked along a shallow muddy bank, looking for fish. Later, it flew and perched impossibly still on a single narrow branch of a dead tree, balancing with perfect calm on its long legs.

In the muddy pits along the banks, thousands of black tadpoles wriggled back and forth.

When our mood was up, we were a regular riot.

Fish today don’t appreciate a good cast. That’s one unhappy fish we’re dragging behind the boat. He’s a damn freeloader. Next time we get grounded, I expect him to pull us. We pretended to hallucinate. A pulled pork sandwich swam alongside us. We dragged in the shallows because we were weighed down, what with the weight of all the fish.

Taking Voltron’s Side

My lure had a name: Voltron. Voltron was a fighter. He fought fish, he fought the plants that grew along the banks, he fought the fishing line, and he even fought my thumb.

Sure, blame it on Voltron, Steffen would say. Goddammit, Steffen. You always take Voltron’s side.

We passed some boy scouts and joked about scuba diving by their canoes. You surface near the youngest kid so only he can see you, and you yell “balls!” Make him cry.

I giggled like a fool when Steffen threw a fish at me –one we’d kept on the rope, but later decided was too small for flaying, a wasteful misjudgment.

It rained on and off. I put on a rain jacket, removed it, wore a fleece intermittently. I wore a keffiyeh (Muslim headscarf) against the sun and cold. A sheik I worked with in Iraq had given it to me.

A canyon on the Upper Iowa
A canyon on Upper Iowa

Pitching Camp

In recent days, it had been light until almost 10 pm, but with the sky overcast, I wasn’t sure how long we had, and it was a pain to make camp and search for wood in darkness.

The signs on the side of the river read private property. Once, when we stopped to fish from a little island, a man rode along the shore a four-wheeler, scouting for trespassers. We exchanged hard looks.

Later, the signs along the river changed to “wildlife preserve,” which would have been fine, except the banks were high and steep and muddy, and the tops of them, a solid tangle of prairie grass and scrub.

Steffen knew of campsites along the river but camping there is cheesy, he said. There’s no point in camping if you’re going to be surrounded by people pitching tents right beside their cars, getting drunk and loud. Yuppie college kids, and besides, I don’t know how far that is.

We made camp where the river bent around a pebbled beach. Tall grasses grew in thick clumps, but there was plenty of sandy and pebbly space around them. Priorities of work: Canoe, Camp, Fire, Chow.

We pulled the canoe ashore, unloaded it, and flipped it to let the bilge water muddied from out sandals pour out. Steffen had a tent. I planned to stake in a poncho hooch, as I’d done in the Army.

The woods were some ways off and surrounded by thick grass. Too far. I picked a sandy spot among the rocks, pulled the canoe into place, and set up my poncho hooch against it. I tried rigging an anchor point with the paddles to tie off the apex of my hooch, but it wouldn’t work. I settled for a mast on the interior, which was less than ideal, as it crowds you, and can get knocked over.

Steffen collected driftwood. I put on pants and broke brush toward the forest, stepping sideways to trample the tall plants. My steps gained confidence. I made it, delighted by the accomplishment.

A Gourmet Meal in the Rain

The woods were, naturally, darker, and had waist-high underbrush as far the eye could see – no one had been through these woods for quite some time. I was excited by that too. I made two trips, returning each time with enormous branches dragging behind me. Steffen had the fire going and was working on the fish.

The trout, he gutted. The smallmouth, he flayed. It started to rain. Raindrops hissed on the hot pan beside the fish. We’d brought a lump of butter wrapped in foil, and a little bag of cornmeal which he used to bread the bass, and two potatoes which we wrapped in foil and tossed into the fire. We ate the bass from the pan with our fingers.

I tried for catfish from the shore, casting a ball of Velveeta on the hook with a heavy sinker to anchor it. I set the drag on my reel very lose, so we’d hear it giving line if a fish bit.

We sat by the fire trying to dry our sandals until the rain became too much. Nothing came of the attempt at catfish.

Listening to the Rain

I crawled into my hooch and undressed while sitting and ducking my head. I unrolled my sleeping bag onto the soft sand and crawled in. The rain tapped incessantly against the poncho. I felt warm in my sleeping bag and arranged a life preserver and towel as a pillow.

It had been a long day. I hadn’t done physical work in a while, and it felt good. Good for the soul. I rested and listened to the rain.

I crossed my arms over myself and felt grains of sand against my body. I didn’t mind them. It felt good to find comfort, and good to be able to find comfort with so little – as I’d done so many times in the Army. I inevitably ate some ash and sand with my fish and felt a gentle pressure in my stomach, but it was nothing.

I don’t know if I slept, but eventually the thunder and lightning and rain all grew quite fierce. My poncho flapped in the wind. It was a hell of a thunderstorm. I worried the wind would pull the stakes of my hooch from the sandy soil, making me fix it in the rain, but the stakes held. I thought I felt water a number of times and patted my sleeping bag to check, but each time it was dry.

Steffen called to me to see if the river was rising. I told him to check it his damn self and he told me I was closer. In the darkness, I groped for my headlamp. The light barely cut into the darkness. If the river was rising, it still had a ways to go.

I slept and eventually woke to the sound of more rain. It was grey outside. My watch said 5 am. I hated the thought of breaking camp in the rain and went back to sleep.

Finding Breakfast

When I woke at eight, the rain seemed to be tapering off. We got up at nine, and explored. The creek only rose a few inches – apparent by the line of submerged grasses and white pebbles free of algae along the bank.

The river ran muddy and high and fast beneath the canoe, and we didn’t see any fish, but had a few bites. We each ate a pop tart.

I hooked one fish big enough to take line, but he shook free. I may have been too gentle reeling him in.

A light rain came in sporadic intervals. We passed some campgrounds, and Steffen knew one of them was by a small town that probably had restaurants. We dragged our canoe ashore and went for breakfast.

We found one just fifteen-or-so minutes from the bank. I washed my hands in the sink – quite a luxury – and returned to the table feeling sharp precise points of pain in the cracks of the fingers of my left hand.

My fingers swelled like sausages. A mild cold injury. I couldn’t make a fist. We reasoned it was from gripping the aluminum of the paddle. The swelling began to subside by the time I finished my burger and milk.

Eventually, near a bridge, we’d lift the canoe from the river, and Steffen would pull his cell phone from a ziplock bag to call his father, who’d pick us up as we waited in the drizzle, but as we walked back through the campgrounds, our return might as well have been decades away.

There was still the abundant, gently bending river, and the fishes hiding from me in its muddy water. I searched my pack for a pair of wool gloves. There was nothing but small comforts, the gently unraveling mystery of the river, and a chance at the hiding fish.

Roman Skaskiw


Roman Skaskiw served as an infantry officer with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was recently recalled for another tour in Afghanistan with the Kunar Province Provincial Reconstruction Team. He is a 2007 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, Stanford Magazine, Front Porch Journal, In The Fray Magazine, and elsewhere on 

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