Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Yes, I saw gators while I was paddling. No, I wasn't in my usual haunts around Louisa County, Iowa. A vacation with my sisters took me to Charleston, South Carolina a couple of weeks ago and I was able to convince the brave one to come a day early to paddle with me.

After some rigorous research (I Googled "kayak charleston"), we found a fantastic guide. Ralph Earhart knows his way around the "blackwater" creeks and rivers of the Charleston area and he planned a perfect trip for us. Two things were key to that perfection: paddling with the tide (not something I would have thought about!)and seeing at least one wild alligator. He achieved both and he even brought a red kayak - without knowing that I needed one.

We left from a small access on Penny Creek and wound our way through the narrow waterway lined by live oaks draped with spanish moss. That led us to the Edisto River but we took a side trip through an old rice plantation now owned by Ted Turner. We got a lesson on growing rice, which Ted now does for ducks instead of people. I was intrigued by the extensive canal and dike system built by slaves several hundred years ago.

As we went through the old rice canals, Ralph told us that we might see a gator out trying to grab some sunshine on the mud flats being exposed as the tide receded. We finally had one dive in the water not too far ahead and we started following it down river. While our attention was focused on that, we quick watching the bank and my sister got a big surprise as another gator dove practically into her kayak. We got our money's worth on that one!

There were so many questions I had for Ralph as we paddled. One was the black water. Ralph explained that it's not polluted but rather gets its color from the high tannin content of the pine forests it travels through on its way to the ocean.

This ranks as one of my all time favorite paddles: The guide, the gators, introducing a new person to the joys of kayaking, beautiful weather, learning new things, seeing a new part of the country. Thanks, Ralph for a great day on the water.

PS I have to confess that the closeup picture of the gator was not taken on the kayak trip (this is the one I took on the water - it looks a bit like a log or the Loch Ness monster.) But I did take the other picture and it was a wild gator. We saw it while on a tour of Middleton Plantation where it posed quite nicely for me.

AmeriCorps paddling partners

I had so much fun last night at Indian Slough that I had to get out again, even though I have a million things I should be doing. And what I really wanted to do was share the fun with someone else. It didn't take any convincing to get Lauren and Katie (a couple of the AmeriCorps*NCCC "kids" who are working in Louisa County this spring) to join me.

Since it had to be a short trip (I really do have things that must get done), we headed over to Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge and put in off the port road. With the water high, it's a perfect spot to drop the kayak in for a quick out-and-back trip.

I told Lauren (left) and Kate (right) that I always see plenty of wildlife on this loop and they weren't disappointed: deer, turkeys, herons, ducks, geese, coots, owls and probably several I'm forgetting. But it was the beavers that got our attention again. We saw a couple swimming and their behavior was exactly like the one I'd seen at Indian Slough last night except that we were treated to a couple of good tail slaps - I think they were trying to tell us something.

But the highlight of the trip was probably the beaver lodge. We saw it on our way out and decided to pull in for a closer look on our way back - we were all amazed at the size of it!

Thanks for going with me, Lauren & Kate. My plan is to get the rest of the crew out paddling before they leave in a few weeks - we'll see if our early spring can hang on for a bit.

First Trip of the Year

Though spring isn't officially here, the very spring-like weather lured me out for a quick trip to Indian Slough Wildlife Area. You'd think the picture was from the end of my trip but it was taken as I launched. I admit it wasn't as dark as this picture makes it look but there wasn't much light when I pulled out of the water.

It was however, a perfect time to be on the water. There are thousands of ducks and geese in the area and it seems they were all settling in at Indian Slough. Flock after flock circled the marsh, gliding into the trees and brush to find refuge for the night. It was really a sight to behold. And the sounds were amazing - there was a constant undertone of chattering, chuckling, splashing and wings flapping against the brush.

Between watching the birds and following a beaver, I didn't get very far from the road at all. The beaver popped up in the water ahead of me and led me around the marsh for awhile, disappearing under the water just as I would get close enough for a decent picture. Then he (she?) would pop up again and repeat the process. The picture's not great but it's a beaver though, trust me.

It was a beautiful night to be out - I'm so ready for spring to arrive for good and to get out on the water again.!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Flood of 2008

I just reread the last blog from the beginning of May. There's been a lot more water since then and, ironically, I've had no desire to get out the kayak.

Like many other folks, I spent most of the last four weeks struggling with the ravaging effects of rising waters. First with sandbagging efforts, then with emergency response and now the slow road to recovery. I'm one of the lucky ones - with a home that's high and dry. Hundreds of others in this part of the world have not been so lucky.

The destruction done by the flood waters here in Louisa County is almost incomprehensible. A whole town inundated, hundreds of buildings destroyed, people who lost both their homes and their livelihood. Some homes still have standing water - after close to a month.

We'll recover and things will eventually return to normal, even for those hit hardest. Helping with that effort are hundreds of volunteers from all across the country who have come to this place I'm sure they'd never heard of before. These people heard we needed help, dropped what they were doing and drove to Iowa to haul muddy carpet, cut moldy drywall and pull debris out of yards. It's humbling to see.

If you want to help, donations can be sent to Community Foundation of Louisa County, PO Box 171, Wapello, Iowa 52653. Volunteers should call in advance of arrival to get information: 319-457-0575.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere

What a rotten time to be out of commission for paddling!

There are endless places to drop a kayak in the water and take off for as long as you want to paddle. Paddling on the rivers wouldn't be a smart thing to do - way too much debris. But, with all the water in the floodplains right now, who needs rivers?

If I could paddle, I'd probably put in at Millrace Flats Wildlife Management Area, just north of Wapello. You can see all the water as you drive between the Iowa River bridge on highway 61 and Wapello. The picture here is of an area that is normally a field. While there is always some water along that stretch, right now there is almost no dry ground. Right now it's a great place to watch wildlife - maybe a bit too good as it's hard to keep my eyes on the road.

It's been tough though to watch the wood ducks go from guarding nests to swimming around the submerged boxes. If you look closely at this photo, you'll see just the top of a box in the background; several others are completely submerged.

After I finished paddling the 700 acres at Millrace - which would probably take just a little while - I'd move on to the 2000+ acres at Horseshoe Bend division of Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge. It's another former floodplain of the Iowa River that's currently holding excess water from the river. I'm sure I'd see lots of ducks, geese, herons and maybe a few critters that are flooded out of their homes like beavers and muskrats.

Then I'd head to the Odess Water Trail, even though the signs are all under water. It'd be fun because you can go anywhere right now. After that ....

No, I won't whine anymore because it probably won't be as long as we'd like before we'll see these water levels again (last time was in 2001). Hopefully we'll be back to normal levels before I'm back on the water.

Water going over the lower spillway at Odessa Wildlife Management Area

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day Paddle

It's been a long time since I was out on the water but my first paddle was a good one. Along with a couple of dozen other paddlers, I joined Elizabeth (blue kayak) from the Louisa County Conservation Board for the "Earth Day Paddle" at Indian Slough Wildlife Area.

It seemed at first that the evening was not going to go well. Up until noon, it looked like we might have thunderstorms. The first person to arrive got their car stuck in the mud. Parking and turning around were challenging because of high water. A brand new kayak arrived with a giant hole (tip: don't let your kayak rub against the tire of your trailer!).

But, the weather was perfect. The last person to arrive had a tow strap to pull the car out. Everyone was friendly and helpful. And, while the kayak still has a hole, we had enough boats for everyone to go out (hey, you've gotta look on the bright side, right?).

With the water so high on the Iowa River (even higher than my trip last summer), we were able to go anywhere we wanted. In fact, we ended up paddling down a road for awhile. It also allowed us to get right next to the eagle's nest. Unfortunately, it looks like the eagles have moved elsewhere this year.

Since I was way, way at the back of the pack, I didn't see much wildlife but I heard others say they saw: swallows, geese, great blue herons, a beaver, and lots of carp. The frogs were singing and the trees had that first flush of green.

My favorite part of this trip wasn't the wildlife anyway - it was the people. There were folks I knew but had never paddled with, as well as seasoned paddlers whom I'd never met. We had a family who lives near Indian Slough and a young lady from Poland (no, she didn't travel here JUST for the paddle). The age span covered 8 years old to well over 60.

Best of all, my husband and daughter were along. Really, I should say I was along since I can't actually paddle these days and the daughter offered to take me out in a tandem kayak. About 2 minutes into the trip, she regretted the offer but I think she had fun anyway.

Maybe not enough fun that she'll take me out on the Mother's Day paddle. But she should, right? After all, giving birth to her was a LOT harder than paddling me around for a couple of hours.

Emily got the Red Kayak out on the water

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Chinkapin Hike

So, what did I do on what could be the last nice day of fall? Wrong, I didn't get out on the water though I should have because I am a wimp. Combining cold, wind and water just doesn't appeal to me. Maybe I'm just not that into it yet. Maybe in the spring I'll be more willing to brave the cold after months away from my little red kayak. Maybe.

Anyway, today a friend and I hiked at Chinkapin Bluffs Recreation Area just outside Columbus Junction. It's a beautiful park with a shelter, playground, overlook deck and at least five miles of trail.

We started on the crushed limestone trail in the picnic area. It leads to the deck overlooking the Iowa River floodplain. With many of the leaves gone, we could see the river as well as water in the Chinkapin wetland. This park is worth a visit just for the view from the overlook.

Then we headed out past the demonstration prairie and pawpaw research plot to one of several trails that wind through the timber. Once you get into the timber, watch out - these trails are steep! While they aren't for everyone, they're a great way to put some extra work into the old workout.

The steep part gets you to the base of the bluff pretty quickly (thus the steepness) and then you are on a wide, flat trail -the old railroad bed. This 3.5-mile trail is part of the Hoover Nature Trail which has several completed section from West Branch to Morning Sun. It's got a crushed limestone surface with a lot of grass growing on it. Nice for biking, walking or running. There is even a parking lot at the end so you don't have to walk up or down the steeper trails.

My friend, who lives less than 10 miles from the park had never been there. She really liked it and kept saying "this is really nice." Now that I think about it though, that was before we had to go up the steep part.

One of my favorite things about this trail is that it runs next to the Chinkapin wetlands. So that even though I wasn't on the water, I was near it.