As John Schultz worked on surfing his kayak over the rolling white water of Exit Exam, David Krueger threw his fishing line into a small eddy off of Doc’s Drop less than a 100 yards upstream. Those are two of the three new white-water paddling features at Charles City’s Riverfront Park.
Within less than five minutes, Krueger pulled a good sized bass out of the water.
“Fishing’s been good since they made all the changes,” Krueger said. “I always thought that it might get better if they got the project done.”
Krueger and Schultz are just two Charles City-area residents who now spend substantial free time in Riverfront Park taking advantage of one of the more unusual recreational projects found in any Iowa downtown area.
Since 2011, the Cedar River, which runs through Riverfront Park, has become a mecca for tubers, paddlers, fishermen and others simply wanting to take advantage of the only white-water paddling course and park in Iowa.
“A lot of people were skeptical and I was one of them,” said Andy Hintgen, store manager at the local Theisen’s Home, Farm and Auto store in downtown Charles City.
But skeptics are hard to find now that Riverfront Park has three kayaking courses and also has become a popular spot for tubing, fishing or simply relaxing during Iowa’s hot summer months.
Planning for the new park began in 2006 as community leaders began to ask how they could develop the river into a better resource not only for recreational purposes, but also to help attract new economic development.
“We wanted all kinds of ideas, and there was no idea that wouldn’t be considered at the start,” said Steven Lindaman, director of Charles City Parks and Recreation Department. “In fact, we wanted folks to think outside the box.”
One possibility was raised by the Prairie River Paddlers, a group of Iowa white-water paddlers who had approached other cities to consider using their rivers for kayaking.
Lindaman said that after reviewing the idea with landscape architects, the idea of lowering the city’s potentially dangerous low-flow dam to allow for kayaking and tubing gained momentum. One reason was that high wall concrete levies – typically found along rivers in Iowa urban areas – had not been built in downtown Charles City.
“It had been left pretty natural, and that made it easier to get to the river,” he said.
But plans for the park stalled in 2008, when heavy rains inundated the Cedar River Watershed and created record-level floods in many cities along the 200-mile river.
In downtown Charles City, the Cedar crested to more than 25 feet, causing millions of dollars in damage and destroying the 102-year-old landmark suspension bridge just north of downtown.
Undeterred by the flooding and its clean-up cost, city officials revived the plans for the park and raised more than $350,000 locally to match an additional $1.3 million from state sources. Construction, which included hauling in 10,200 tons of limestone and 40 red granite boulders, began in 2010.
In July, the river flows at an average rate of about 500 cubic feet per second (cfps) – though this summer that rate has dropped to a meandering 200 cfps because of drought conditions. But those flows can change quickly if heavy rains hit northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.
“The water is a lot slower, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be practicing,” said Schultz, a 29-year-old kayaker and farmer from nearby Greene. “I get a lot of work done on my surfing and other maneuvers when it is a bit slower.”
For Schultz, the paddling course and its three features allowed him to continue his love for white-water paddling, which began when he lived in Washington and could paddle the fast-running Spokane River.
“When I heard that I would have a place to paddle so close, I really couldn’t believe it,” Schultz said. “Paddlers will travel a long way to go into white-water rapids, and now I just have to drive about half hour.”
But the three paddling features aren’t the only attraction to the Charles City Riverfront Park. The surrounding 23 acres of park land feature a disc golf course, natural play areas, an amphitheatre, storm water foundation, labyrinth and access to more than five miles of recreational trails.
Lindaman also says that the project had to satisfy area fisherman, who didn’t want to lose a favorite spot.
“We knew that they would be concerned, but we have been able to make the area even better for fishing than it was in the past,” Lindaman said.
Since opening in 2011 as Iowa’s first and only white-water course, the park has attracted a steady flow of paddlers, tubers, waders and anglers. Tubers can glide nearly a half mile down the river and through the white-water courses and return to the start on a paved walking path.
In June, hundreds of paddlers from the Midwest descended on Charles City to participate in the Charles City Challenge, the first white-water padding competition ever held in the state. A week later, the city hosted a white-water slalom competition as part of the 2012 Iowa Games annual competition, which attracted participants aged 12 to 60.
Schultz flatly predicts that there will be a surge of interest in white-water paddling as a result of the 2012 Summer Olympics, which has a medal competition in white-water slalom.
“I wouldn’t doubt that we start seeing folks train here for the next Olympics,” Schultz said. “This facility not only can stay open almost all year round, but it is also free of charge.” He went on to explain that more traditional white-water rivers west of Iowa are often dry by mid-summer months, so now folks from Colorado might be making their way to Iowa to get their “white-water fix.”
Paddling events and the expanding interest in the water park area has increased traffic at Theisen’s and other local businesses, according to Hintgen.
Planners initially estimated that the park would generate close to $1 million annually, with the park being used 10 months out of the year. They have predicted that 85% of the visitors to the park would be from the area.
Hintgen said that he can’t estimate precisely how much economic impact the new facility has generated, but knows that there has been an improvement. He said that he has noticed cars with license plates from as far away as Montana in nearby parking lots.
“It’s absolutely been a benefit to a lot of the businesses here,” he said. “A lot of us have just started to understand what a great thing it could be.”
Hintgen said that Theisen’s sale of kayaks, inner tubes and life jackets have been consistently high this summer, even though record dry conditions have slowed the river’s flow. As a result, inner tubes have been the best seller.
“I am selling about 30 a month and have ran out of tubes four times already this summer, even though I tripled the number of items I order compared to last year,” he said.
“There are so many people who are coming here now,” Hintgen said. “It is a great thing that we have, and it is just going to get better.”