Thursday, May 19, 2011

Canoeing the Little Sioux River

Map of the Route
~110 miles by canoe

On May 12th I began a 5-day adventure down the Little Sioux River in Northwest Iowa. Ever since my early 20's, I've wanted to go on a long canoe trip down a river in Iowa. I chose the Little Sioux River because it is one of my favorites. I giddily put my canoe in the river one mile north of the Iowa-Minnesota border, late on a Thursday afternoon. I only say "giddily," because I distinctly remember squealing in delight several times as I transitioned my belongings from the car to the canoe.

The river at this point is a small stream, flanked by willow trees and saturated with an abundant population of ducks, red-winged blackbirds, and Canada geese. It was hatching season for the Canada geese, and the little ones were everywhere, swimming at first, and then ducking and diving away from us, as we came too close for comfort.

The first night was spent at Diamond Lake Wildlife Management Area, north of Spirit Lake. The Little Sioux River winds through a grassland here, with a series of wetlands and a lake sitting above the floodplain (to the left). How beautiful!Link

I found out that camping is legal on these state lands, which is nice to know for anyone wanting to spend an overnight in the great Iowa outdoors, i.e. not packed in like sardines at a state park campground.

There was a brisk, wet wind out of the north. I found a spot to make camp behind a plum thicket out of the wind. I had planned on laying out my sleeping bag and snoozing under the stars. It was cloudy though, and just as I was getting a fire going, there was a white flash and a rumble of thunder. Rain started to fall. I was paralyzed for about 60 seconds, taking it all in, and then when I could see that the rain wasn't going to stop, I changed course.

I bolted for my canoe and set up a shelter by flipping it over and pitching my sleeping bag under. I grabbed some food, encouraged Jefferson to join me, and bedded down for the night. We stayed mostly dry but there was a little bit of airing out to do the next morning.

With an adventure like this, I can't help but feel the call of the Native Americans who must have must have gone down the same path before (perhaps sans the red plastic canoe). I wedged some goose feathers under my hood, and we were off for our first full day of paddling down the Little Sioux River.

The first section of the Little Sioux is graced by two state preserves. Preserves are areas of special significance, with rare plants and animals being concentrated on these lands. Our first stop was Cayler Prairie State Preserve. Beautiful native prairie grasses from last year covered the hills.

Within last year's growth, there were early gems like prairie smoke, preparing to bloom.

Onward to our second stop, Freda Haffner Kettlehole State Preserve. As Scott Moats from the Nature Conservancy explains it, a kettlehole is essentially a water-filled bowl in the landscape ringed by gravel. The gravel was deposited during the melting of the last glacier in Iowa. According to The Guide to Iowa's State Preserves, it is the largest kettlehole in the state at 500 feet across and 30 feet deep. There are over 360 species of plants in the preserve.

Toward the end of the day we reached a wooded section of the river near Milford. Horseshoe Bend Park was our stop for the night. I've admired Horseshoe Bend for years because it is the site of many a intertubing adventure for our family in the middle of winter. It has a sledding hill with a rope to pull you up, and a warming house. However without the cover of snow, the park is in general disrepair, with broken playground equipment, faded posted notices, and piles of trash.

The one thing they (Dickinson County Conservation Board) do seem to accomplish, is a lot of mowing of paths - very wide paths. Horseshoe Bend seems to be a cross between a bygone 1980's recreational park, and a sad, mowed-out refuge for wildlife. There were 5 camping spots on a hill above the river, but we chose to stick to the shore since there was nobody around on a Friday evening to make us follow the (faded) rules.

I won't waste a photograph on this park. But I will insert a random photo of some horses.

After the 2nd night, the following day proved to be as windy as the previous ones. By this point I had perfected the art of standing in the canoe and letting my person act as a sail, particularly when we were headed south (the wind was from the north). Sorry, no self-portraits of that. But several people driving by over river bridges along my route may have seen what I imagined to be the spectacle of me hover canoeing by. Sometimes my canoe was hidden from view, and all they must have been able to see was a man moving along the water while standing. I'm no Jesus walking on water, but maybe somebody thought I was!

At one point the sun came out, and the chilliness of the previous 2 days seemed to be coming to an end.

But alas, it was an illusion. Within a couple of hours the low gray clouds had re-amassed into a solid formation, and a wind-driven drizzle turned to rain. I took refuge under one of the many gravel road bridges that cross the Little Sioux northwest of Spencer. The wind was powerful, as the wooded bluffs had faded away, and I was in the middle of open pastures.

After a couple hours of lying under that (not photographed) bridge, the rain stopped. I paddled as hard as I could to get closer to Spencer by nightfall. As we pushed on, we disturbed a goose sitting on a small island on the river. She flew away, and I did a quick investigation to see what she had left behind.

Night began to fall, and Jefferson kept watch for a good camping spot (and for raccoons).

By this time the rain had begun to fall again, and I was desperate for a spot to stash ourselves under the canoe. We found one, and just in time. It rained . . . and it rained . . . and it rained . . . all . . . night . . . long. I slept well, except that every time I woke up, I noticed that my hip touching the ground was getting wet, and then wetter. The black of night transitioned to gray, and the rain kept coming. I began to fantasize about calling my dad to pick me up, and just when I had begun to approach the precipice, it stopped. I crawled out, and it was beautiful.

We began the process of drying out and relaxing, watching the storm clouds slide away to the south.

The river here skirts around the edge of Spencer. The surroundings are remarkably flat. Historically, this section of the Little Sioux was part of Glacial Lake Spencer, where melt waters of the great flood of millennium past pooled in a vast area around Spencer, failing to cut a valley into the land because of a glacier that had blocked the river south of town.

When I reached the area south of Spencer, I became entranced. Gone were the farmsteads and houses and the clouds and the wind and the rain. Blue sky and a silver maple forest dominated the view.

In this section, the river takes on a distinctly wild feel. Perhaps this is one reason it was designated as a Protected Water Area between Spencer and Linn Grove. There are few bridge crossings, and by the time I reached Little Sioux Wildlife Management Area to set up camp for the 4th night, I was elated to hang up my hat.

I saw a handful of old iron bridges on the trip (including this one back in Spencer). But none compared to the High Bridge downstream from the small berg of Gillett (pronounced JILL-it) Grove. This is an abandoned railroad bridge which used to carry trains between Sibley and Pocahontas.

I was fortunate to have lots of wild greens during the trip. Here I'm eating the leaves of basswood tree. I also had my fill of stinging nettle and wild leeks most days.

For lunch on the 4th day I stopped at Kindlespire County Park (managed by the Clay County Conservation Board). I docked at a boat ramp next to a trickling brook, and cooked a meal on a grill next to a picnic table, while a county crew fixed wooden bollards so that vehicles couldn't drive into the wooded bluffs. It was the prettiest park I saw along the river. And this sign hung above the boat ramp.

It says:
John Hinkeldey
Aug. 20, 1950 - Dec. 7, 2005

He Loved The River

He Was Our Friend

Ol' John Hinkeldey sounds like my kinda guy.

On the last night, I camped outside of Sioux Rapids. As day broke, warm steam rose off the river, as calm and chilly air signaled the final transition over the storm of previous days.

I paddled under the rumbling Highway 71 Bridge. After a few miles, when we had left the highway sounds behind, we stopped to gain some perspective on what the Little Sioux River valley had become. It was far different from 5 days earlier. Woods mixed with grasslands on both sides of the river, and the river was far hidden below the bluff tops.

As we approached the Linn Grove dam, the river became sluggish and lake-like. Signs appeared warning of impending death, so I paddled the canoe up to the final boat ramp of the trip, and Jefferson and I walked into town to find a telephone to call for our ride home.


  1. Aaaaahhhhh....a wonderfully delightful read, seriously. The pictures were such a thing of beauty that I started to long for being on the trip with you. But, then the realization of just how pissed off I would have become had I woken up to my hip being wet and then getting wetter...yeah, probably not for me.

  2. Great photos, great trip! When I was a kid, the family would rent canoes at the Dam Bait Shop in Linn Grove and paddle down to Peterson. Apparently now each year there's a big tubing expedition, in conjunction with PATOOT (Peterson's Annual Trip On Old Tractors). I hope they pick up their beer cans!

  3. I wanna go!! I wanna go !! I wanna go !!
    uh, Shaun, can I go next time? Please?

  4. hey guess what...I have prairie smoke growing in my very own little prairie! it looks just like your pic from the wild....

  5. John Hinkeldey was my uncle, and I was googling family names, and this came up. I did not know there was a plaque hung up, but the dates match, so has to be him. He was an interesting man, that is for sure. Glad you enjoyed your trip. My husband and I enjoy canoeing the Little Sioux. Beautiful right after sunrise.