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Great River Rumble explores Mississippi, tributaries

by Flip Putthoff | August 27, 2019 at 1:00 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Canoe and kayak paddlers head for the lock at Lock and Dam No. 18 near Burlington, Iowa on the Mississippi River. A tow waits to lock through after the captain was kind enough to let the paddling crew go first. The Great River Rumble covered 106 miles starting near Cedar Rapids, Iowa and ending at Burlington, Iowa in southeast Iowa. Huge tugs pushing barges are called tows even though the barges are pushed.

Editor's note: Paddlers from Arkansas, Missouri and across the United States took part in the annual Great River Rumble canoe and kayak trip. This year's route covered 106 miles on the Cedar, Iowa and Mississippi rivers in southeast Iowa. The trip started on the Cedar River near Cedar Rapids, Iowa and ended on the Mississippi in Burlington, Iowa.

Flip Putthoff, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette outdoors reporter, was among the 200 paddlers. Here are excerpts from his journal.

Trip itinerary

July 27: Shuttle bus ride from Burlington, Iowa to Cedar Valley Park, Iowa.

July 28: Cedar Valley Park to Moscow, Iowa, 16 miles.

July 29: Moscow to Saulsbury Bridge recreation area, nine miles.

July 30: Saulsbury Bridge to Columbus Junction, 21 miles

July 31: Columbus Junction to Wapello, 13 miles.

Aug. 1: Wapello to Oakville, 10 miles.

Aug. 2: Oakville to Oquawka, Ill., 24 miles.

Aug. 3: Oquawka to Burlington, Iowa, 13 miles.


July 27: Lounging by my tent at the edge of a beautiful forest at Cedar Valley Park, a public park on the Cedar River where we'll start our trip tomorrow. The river looks high and full with a moderate current that'll give us a nice push.

We've got a big group this year of around 200 paddlers, up slightly from last year's Great River Rumble. It's amazing how far folks travel to come on the rumble. We've got people from New York, Florida, Oregon and California. Most are from the upper Midwest, with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois well represented.

Our group is mainly middle age to senior citizens, leaning more toward the senior citizen side. Our youngest paddler is a 17-year-old on the trip with her mom. Minimum age is 14 to come on the rumble. The most senior is Dave from San Antonio. He's 89 years young and an amazing paddler.

The Arkansas flotilla is small this year with only two of us. Tony from Fairfield Bay is a regular on the trip, along with yours truly. This is river rumble No. 13 for me.

To get this party started, we all met in Burlington, Iowa where we'll finish on Aug. 4. Three comfy, air-conditioned charter buses chauffeured us to the start here.

A sight to behold is a giant canoe trailer provided and staffed by Wenonah canoe company in Winona, Minn. All our canoes and kayaks are loaded on the trailer, plus a couple of smaller trailers, for the shuttle to the start.

The rumble is always up north because Wenonah only wants to haul that trailer so far to help us. Without their trailer, there's no rumble trip.

Most years the journey starts on a tributary of the Mississippi River and ends on the Mississippi. Most of the route this trip is on the Cedar and Iowa rivers. We're on the Mississippi the last day and a half.

This is one of the most rural Great River Rumbles in memory. Our biggest overnight town is Columbus Junction, Iowa, population 1.800.

So where do 200 people sleep each night? Most nights we stay in a town's riverfront park. Sometimes, like tonight, we're out in the boons at a state or county park. Everyone tent camps, but it's not really camping. We don't make fires or cook.

If we're at a town's riverfront park, we eat at the restaurants or taverns that are an easy stroll from camp. Sometimes the volunteer fire department, a church group or civic club fixes our breakfasts and dinners as a fundraiser. Tonight it's good old Iowa pork burgers or brat burgers, potato salad, baked beans, pasta salad and lemonade or water. We eat like royalty on the rumble.

If we're out in the boons, breakfast and dinner are catered. We're on our own for lunch. Most people carry a sandwich or foil-pack tuna or chicken in their boats. A sandbar makes fine lunchtime dining. We only carry what we need for the day in our boats, including plenty of drinking water.

Standard equipment is a magnum-sized water gun for the cooling water fights that break out on hot afternoons.

All our camping gear is transported from town to town on two rental trucks. The rumble has grown so much that now there's a third truck just for ice chests.

A hard-working volunteer road crew keeps this paddling party moving from town to town. Arrangements for camping, food and everything are made months in advance by seasoned trip volunteers. Anyone who does anything on the rumble is a volunteer. No one is paid. Reasonable registration fees paid by each rumbler fund the trip.

The crickets are chirping, stars are twinkling and that sleeping bag is calling my name. Next stop, the tiny town of Moscow, Iowa, 16 miles downstream.

July 28: Woke up to a cool morning for breaking camp and strolling down to the launch ramp and our boats. The Cedar River is high and full, with dimples of whirlpools forming in the current.

It's a wide, shallow river with a sandy bottom and forested banks showing deep, summertime green. Water is brown, with visibility of only a few inches. Water quality is an issue in every state, especially Iowa with all its agriculture.

A sandbar the size of a football field was nice for a morning break. Our group picks up any litter, always leaving a place cleaner than we found it.

We paddled under the bustling Interstate 80 bridge and took out at tiny Moscow, Iowa.

The smaller the town, the bigger the welcome, and Moscow is living proof. If we camped in Moscow's little park we'd be packed in like sardines. Instead, a family that owns a few acres nearby let us stay on their property with tons of room and tall shade trees.

A fruit stand was set up on a street corner with all kinds of goodies, but no clerk. Just take what you want and put your money in a coffee can there on the table.

July 29: It's a short trip today, only nine miles to Salsbury Bridge Park, another overnight that's out in the boons. We were off the water and setting up camp at noon right along the river bank. Plenty of time to relax, visit and get a toe-tapping music jam going.

There's some top-flight musicians on this trip, including a killer harmonica player, a professional-grade mandolin player and some mighty fine guitar pickers. We're pretty darned good for a rag-tag ensemble of river rats, especially this year. Kayla, a young elementary school music teacher, is on her first river rumble and is a breath of fresh air in the music circle. She plays a mean ukulele and sings like an angel with a repertoire of tunes everyone loves.

Rumblers seem to enjoy listening, singing and dancing to work off another dinner feast -- fried chicken, green beans, red potatoes, fruit, salad and a roll, all for $8.

July 30: A big day on the Cedar River today, putting 22.4 miles under our hulls. The Cedar is 100 yards wide, but it's so shallow that sometimes only 20 yards of it is deep enough for our kayaks and canoes.

Most people paddle long, touring-class kayaks made for long-distance travel. The handful of canoes are mainly lightweight Kevlar models. Pace of the trip is brisk so we can cover the daily miles.

Safety is priority number one. All paddlers wear life jackets, buckled and secure. There's a lead boat and a sweep boat bringing up the rear. Everyone stays between the lead and the sweep, though sometimes the sweep is a mile behind the lead boat.

Some in the armada are trained in river rescue and wilderness first aid. On the Mississippi, two power boats go downriver with us. They carry extra water, first aid supplies and occasionally give a lift if someone gets too pooped to paddle.

Tonight we're in our biggest overnight town, Columbus Junction, Iowa, population 1.800. We're camped at the Louisa County Fairgrounds. A buddy and I have a sweet camp with our tents set up between the rabbit and poultry barns.

The town has opened up the fairgrounds for us and stocked a big freezer with bags and bags of ice. Again, we just take what we need and put our money in a coffee can. You gotta love it.

People in Columbus Junction are proud to tell you that there's not one stop light in all of Louisa County, Iowa. How about that, Madison County, Ark.? Remember the fuss when Madison County got its first traffic light years ago in Huntsville? Oh, the uproar.

July 31: I paddle a kayak on the rumble, but today I'm in a canoe with my good friend J.B. Livengood from Illinois. It's a warm, 13-mile day from Columbus Junction to Wapello, Iowa.

We're on the Iowa River now, closing in on the Mississippi. The Iowa is a carbon copy of the Cedar River, with lush green banks and not much civilization.

Water fights are fierce today, and I'll wager we shot half the water in the Iowa River through our 44-magnum water guns. There's etiquette in these wet, wild battles. No aiming for the head so you don't knock off someone's glasses. If you don't want to get wet, people won't squirt you, mostly.

Now we're camped at another lovely and roomy park in Wapello, Iowa. The weather is turning out to be some of the best we've had on a rumble trip. Cool at night, around 60, with highs in the low 80s.

A great happy hour music jam broke out today before a fine fish-fry dinner. The city hired a local band to play for us after that, and the mayor made the rounds to howdy and shake hands and welcome us to town.

Aug. 1-2: It's always a magic time when we flow into the Mississippi River, the "Great River" that the rumble is named for. The confluence of the Iowa and Mississippi is about a mile wide. Water smooth as tile greeted us as we turned our boats downstream.

Big-time flooding on the Mississippi River was in the news all summer, but she's settled down now. The river is high, up into the trees a bit, but the flow is gentle. It's no problem making our way downstream.

Travel on the Mississippi is like paddling along a long, slow-moving lake. Above St. Louis, locks and dams keep the river deep enough for navigation by the giant tow boats and barges we share the river with. There's an easy current, maybe 2 to 3 mph.

They're called tows, even though the boats push the barges. One myth is these tows put out huge boat-flipping wakes, but they really don't. Cabin cruisers make bigger wakes. To me, the tows are fascinating. What's life like working on a big river boat?

Aug. 3: It's our last day on the river. We're paddling the Great River toward our takeout in Burlington, Iowa, after overnights in Oakville, Iowa and Oquawka, Ill.

Eight miles above Burlington, we arrive at Lock and Dam No. 18, the only one we'll see on this trip. Most of the time we breeze on through, but today, a tow is locking through. Our turn won't come for two hours. It'd be longer, but the captain of another waiting tow is kind enough to let our flotilla lock through first. Trip leaders are in contact by radio with the tow captains and lock masters.

We pass the two hours on a sandbar, snacking, napping and singing Patsy Cline songs.

Locking through is a big deal for first-time rumblers, but it's a cinch. Huge iron gates on the lock swing open. Our group of more than 100 boats paddles into the lock and the gates swing shut. It's barely noticeable when the water begins to drop, sometimes a foot or so, sometimes six feet.

Gates open and we paddle out, today on our way to Burlington.

The Mississippi can be busting with industry one moment. The next, we're paddling through a backwater slough that's like a mysterious jungle with abundant waterfowl and wading birds.

Civilization loomed larger with each stroke toward Burlington. A new highway bridge, almost a work of art with arches and cables, signaled our takeout in downtown Burlington.

Fun as the trip is, the Great River Rumble isn't for everyone. You're outside for a week in whatever weather nature tosses out. Daily miles can be long and difficult, especially in a headwind and white-capped waves.

It's not a trip for beginners. Most rumblers have years of paddling experience under their hulls. Rex Klein of Chicago, the trip's enthusiastic and devoted leader, tells people, "If you can paddle 10 miles without getting our of your boat, you can do the rumble."

In Burlington, most people have motel rooms waiting with air conditioning and a hot shower. There's a farewell banquet that evening. We change into clean clothes. Women put on make up. Men shave.. It's hard to recognize some folks without their floppy river hats and sunglasses.

Then it's home on Sunday, about 10 hours from Burlington to our corner of Arkansas. Road miles are pleasant with memories of another Great River Rumble.

Flip Putthoff can be reached at

Sports on 08/27/2019

Print Headline: River's rural route


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