Des Moines River Kayaking
By Ricky Kinder
The trip wasn’t off to a good start. At 6:30 p.m. on Friday May 10th my cousin Nick and I were standing in what used to be the parking lot for the Yellow Banks Park boat ramp, but was now consumed by the swollen Des Moines River. Three of us were set to shove off our kayaks the next morning on an overnight camping trip down the river. This was a repeat of a trip we had done the previous spring so the route was familiar but the river looked nothing like it had twelve months prior. Now it was a fast flowing torrent with some very menacing looking logs and debris being swept down from the upriver floods. The previous year was 50 degrees and rainy and we had hoped that Mother Nature owed us one, but it appeared like she wasn’t done running up the score on us. It was decision time.
I used everything at my disposal to come up with a game plan, one that would get us on the water but hopefully insure a safe trip. I called up the third member of the party, Pete who was set to meet us in the morning and asked what the water levels were like up north and if he had any alternate routes. I also jumped on iowasportsman.com and asked the advice of anyone that had been fishing the areas of the river that we were set to paddle. A site member that had been fishing roughly ten miles downstream responded with a report that the river was out of its banks but he had found a spot that looked suitable and dry for camping. Then without prior knowledge he described the very exact spot we had camped the previous year! We looked at an alternate route on the Boone River by Webster City but were not excited about the drive. So after consulting the US Geological Survey website that gives river flow information and seeing a slow but steady trend that the river had crested and was falling we called it. The trip was on!
Nick and I spent the rest of the evening meticulously sorting and packing gear. When all your food, water, shelter, clothes, and fishing gear for the next two days are packed into the small storage of a twelve-foot kayak, gear selection is of the utmost importance. Ounces turn into pounds very quickly and the weight limit on my kayak was something that I did not want to test on a river at flood stage. We were in my garage packing well into the small hours of the night. A good night’s rest before taking such a trip is paramount, and in what has become Nick and I’s camping tradition, we didn’t get one.
A warm sun and a cloudless sky greeted us the next morning and we thought we had hit the jackpot. Between the cups of coffee to help recoup from the previous evening and last minute preparations neither of us bothered to check the weather forecast. Not that it would have mattered because we would find out soon enough that we were in for 30mph winds that were gusting well beyond that. Pete pulled in just as we were ratcheting down the last strap on the kayaks in the back of my truck. The wind hadn’t started yet so we were all smiles and in good spirits. Hellos were exchanged along with the mandatory ribbing that ensues when friends that only see each other a few times a year get together for an adventure, and we were off.
The plan was to launch the boats at Yellow Banks Park in Runnells, IA and to take out 19.8 miles downriver at the Bennington Access, and to camp for the night somewhere in between. This stretch of the Des Moines is known for its steep cutaway banks and 140 foot bluffs. Wildflowers dominate the scenery that isn’t taken up with willow thickets and a mixture of soft and hard wood trees. This is a bird watchers paradise. The advantage of this particular route is that much of the land surrounding the river is classified as Wildlife Management Area making camping along the river’s edge perfectly legal. The other nice part is that there is no roads that run through it and no motorized vehicles allowed, so solitude is almost assured.
We dropped the boats and Nick at Yellow Banks and Pete followed me through the rolling countryside in his truck to the Bennington access ramp were I was leaving my truck so we had a vehicle waiting for us when we got off the river. On the way there we got a few glimpses of the river through the trees, we also got a good view of the flooded farm fields. It did not exactly instill confidence in us finding a dry place to camp. We agreed that camp must be made upstream from Webb’s RV Park because the river was out of its banks beyond that point. When we got back to Yellow Banks we were greeted by a young fisherman that just landed a 5lb walleye right at the boat ramp! I had basically written off the fishing because of the high water but this gave us the boost we needed to rig up some jigs and Rapalas before we launched. A quick self-timer picture was snapped of the three of us and we were floating by 10:15 a.m.
That river was really cooking! My GPS was showing a flow rate of about 4.8 mph and as we rounded the first bend we were smacked in the face by that brutal north wind that would make the rest of the day on the water not so pleasant. The river in the Yellow Banks area bends north briefly and then turns and flows southeast for three miles until the North River joins the Des Moines on the west side. The previous year we had spotted bald eagles, owls, ducks and even a lone river otter along this stretch. This year I think every creature with any sense was camped out somewhere out of the wind. On this southeast bearing with the wind at our backs I watched my GPS hit 6.9 mph without so much as a paddle stroke to increase speed. Average flow rate for this stretch is about 2.0-2.5 mph. This was going to be a quick trip. After a jaunt to the southeast the river starts into a series of meandering loops and it was in the first turn to the north that we got a good dose of “what were we thinking”. The surrounding hills formed a funnel that sent the wind howling down onto the river and directly into our faces. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the water and I had never seen water act like this. The wind was making the water stand up into whitecaps but the flow of the river was holding the white caps in place. It looked very similar to the waves and pools that are created by large boulders just under the surface that white water rafters in Colorado seek out, but only there weren’t any boulders creating this water. It was high wind and a fast flowing river teaming up to make some very inhospitable conditions. The wind was strong enough to actually push us upstream against the current if we stopped paddling. I reached up and turned my hat around backwards, cinched the hood on my sweatshirt down tight, did a quick check to make sure the life jacket was close, leaned forward and prepared to get soaked.
As I was paddling into that wind and getting bounced over some two and sometimes three foot swells I was thinking about every extra ounce of gear that I should have left at home. For some reason I was angry with myself for adding a 12oz can of bacon at the last second. You read that right, canned bacon. If you don’t have any I recommend finishing this article, then ordering yourself some immediately! More than once the swells were large enough that they crashed over the bow of my boat and the cockpit was starting to fill up. The spray coming in off the tops of the waves were only adding to that. I was grateful that we were all experienced paddlers; this was not a place for a beginner. We all made it through without any major catastrophes and pulled over to the side for lunch once we rounded the bend and found a place out of the wind. I bet I had close to three gallons of water onboard between the cockpit and the rear cargo area. My extra clothes were floating in three inches of water, luckily the dry bag I had them stowed in did its job. While we were eating a quick lunch and bailing water out of our kayaks the wind knocked down two trees on the opposite bank with a horrific crash. Not small trees, but large old growth trees that had trunks in the three-foot diameter range. A note was made to inspect camp very closely for dead trees or branches before a tent was set up. Another self-timer camera picture was snapped and we were back on the water.
As we got closer to where the Middle River joins with the Des Moines we started looking for a place to set up camp because we were rapidly approaching the flooded area. We were making such good time we paddled up the Middle River for a little exploring, about a half mile up the Middle we detoured up a small feeder creek that we later found out was called Butchers Creek. Butchers Creek was about fifteen feet wide and wound up the leeward side of some tall rock formations that reminded me of a miniature Loess hill. We didn’t have to look very far and we found the perfect campsite. Plenty of firewood and more importantly out of the wind. With the fast flowing current we were in camp by 2:30 and had plenty of time to relax, set up camp, gather wood, and explore our temporary home.
Camp was in the bottom of a large river valley that was home to a multitude of soft wood trees and some scrub growth. Tents were pitched, the pots and pans started coming out for cooking, and some silver cans were popped open, and cigars lit in celebration of finding such a great place to camp after a windblown day on the water. I broke into that can of bacon that I was sure was going to be the cause of me capsizing a few hours earlier, draped a few slices over a stick and held it to the fire. When the bacon started sizzling and that smell wafted through camp I was no longer mad with myself for putting unnecessary weight in the kayak. This was very necessary!
As the sun started to creep lower on the horizon we had a neighbor stop by to announce his displeasure with our choice of camping spots. A very large beaver was cruising up and down the creek and tail slapping the water to let us know he didn’t appreciate our intrusion into his territory. We also had a visit from some very noisy and territorial Barred owls. At dusk their calls started on the other side of the valley and the sound drifted down to us. The temptation to mess with them just a little bit proved impossible to resist. We began calling back to the owls and within minutes we had what sounded like every owl in the valley answering back at us. At one point one of the owls perched himself in a tree just far enough out of the firelight that we couldn’t see him, but very assertively made himself known by vocalizing in that throaty, raspy call that barred owls do when they are agitated enough that they are beyond hooting and more screaming. It proved to be a most entertaining evening that lasted well into the waning hours of the night with owls, beavers, and some good friends telling lies around the campfire.
We rose the next morning to some deer grazing on the other side of the creek and a catfish on one of the lines we had left out overnight. That was our one and only fish of the trip. Pete had a special surprise for breakfast hidden in the bottom of his cooler. Rib tips wrapped in foil. The foil packs were dropped into the coals from the previous evening’s fire and were cooked to absolute perfection while we broke down camp and repacked the kayaks. The water level in Butchers Creek had dropped almost two feet overnight making launching the kayaks down the bank similar to walking down a playground slide covered in grease. How no one went for a swim that morning is beyond me. Muddy and sore we were back on the water and the weather was perfect!
Day two wasn’t anywhere near as eventful as day one, but it was much more enjoyable. The day was shaping up to be 70 degrees with hardly a cloud in the sky and very little wind. A short paddle down Butchers Creek, a sharp right turn onto the Middle River and we were back on the mighty Des Moines in no time. The last bend before we got to the Runnels access ramp provided us with a wonderful display of pelicans that were doing what I can only assume was a mating flight. They were flying in tight flocks of what seemed to be hundreds of birds circling and climbing into the sky. Upon reaching a zenith in the air they would come circling back down to the ground in ever tightening circles. It was a sight to behold.
After passing the Runnels access you get a view of the Highway 316 Bridge far off in the distance. Just past the bridge the river splits around a large island, we decided to take the north loop because we had done the south loop on the previous float. We got a firsthand look at the floods on the jog to the north. Water was pouring into the river from a cornfield and we could hear the sounds of airboats running wide open across what used to be dry land a week prior. The river was still moving right along and we were averaging about 3.5 mph according to the GPS. It only took another hour past the island for us to reach the Bennington access.
We pulled the kayaks into the boat ramp and climbed out with that bittersweet feeling you get at the end of trip like that. You are glad to be back safely but saddened because these trips always seem to be over too soon. We loaded the kayaks into my truck and tried best we could to wash off the mud and two days worth of grime. While in route back to Yellow Banks we heard on the radio that two kayakers had to be rescued by the DNR after getting their boats caught in a logjam in the Boone area. We were glad to hear they were fine, but also glad because it just as easily could have been us. Stay safe and hope to see you on the water!