One of the best floats in Iowa is a 3-4 hour float on the Upper Iowa River from Hutchinson Family Farms down to OFF the Driftless Wellness and Adventure Company, LLC in Decorah. It is such a beautiful and peaceful float that includes the gorgeous Malanaphy Springs. If you are able, you should hike as far up to the source of the springs as you can. It is worth it!
Some friends joined us for our second and their first trip down the Upper Iowa River. Little did we all realize, we would be in a whole lot more than we bargained for.
Rain was in the forecast for 4pm with about a 50% chance. Their were also possible thunderstorms. So, we decided that we wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time at the springs, use the faster flow of the river, and paddle for a 3 hour float rather than have the usual stops and breaks to make it a 4 hour float.
Around the time we reached the bur oak tree that is in the featured photo of this post, Erin observed the dark, luminous storm approaching. This provided a spark to light a fire under Erin’s kayak. She took the lead and paddled ahead encouraging us to keep up.
It was at this point I put my phone into the rear hatch of my kayak with a hope that it would stay dry through the storm. Thus, there were no pictures of the adventure. I will try and paint it as best as I can.
After getting a good look at the approaching storm, I began to paddle quickly, keeping Mindy, Cory, and Erin in front of me. I was thinking about how it was probably going to get to us before we got to our exit point (OFF the Driftless), but it would be close.
Then, I looked over my shoulder again.
I had an, “Oh, Shit!” moment. Between the first time I looked over my shoulder and the second, my mind came up with an idea of what I would be observing on that second look. The storm was nowhere near where my mind thought it would be. It was an unthinkable amount closer. It was the fastest I had ever observed a storm advance, and it was mildly terrifying.
At this time, I didn’t care about our exit point. Instead, I wondered where the next exit point was, because I didn’t think we would make it there before the storm hit. Indeed, we did not.
I embraced this fact and calmed myself, disregarding the things that were outside my control and focusing on those that were. I recall yelling very loudly to everyone that “We’re going to be just fine! Just keep in the center and keep paddling!” I was even able to crack a joke and laugh during the ridiculousness of getting caught in this moment.
Like a smack to the back of the head, the rain and wind hit us! Trees on both sides of the river seemed to be blowing into the river at the same time. Glancing up, we saw leaves and debris swirling overhead. Adrenaline was fueling our bodies as thoughts began racing through our minds at an incredible rate.
As we paddled furiously through the intensifying madness, car lights became visible on the left and a sand bank became visible on the right. We would later find out that we were just entering Chatahoochie County Park. Erin led the team onto the sandbank on the right.
We landed to find we would have to swim across the river to get to the vehicles that were there to rescue us. We also landed to find a family of four (with a little boy and girl) in our same predicament.
Rain was coming down hard when we landed the kayaks. I remember moving a lot more slowly than the event called for, and it had a lot to do with the fact that I did not have river shoes with me, which is something I will never forget again.
After exiting the kayak, I remember pulling my kayak up on shore 10-20 feet from the river’s edge. Others were doing the same. Lee, a proprietor of OFF the Driftless, swam across the river to help us.
The wind picked up so strongly that it lifted a 50+ lb kayak off the ground that slammed into me. Rain was pelting us like a hundred ice picks. When I pushed the kayak to the ground, I noticed our kayaks had blown back into the river and were beginning to float away. I retrieved mine and Cory retrieved Erin’s.
This time, we pulled them much further up the bank, and put them upside down on the tallest place we could get to. Lee helped the little boy to safety by floating with him down the river another hundred yards to an easier exit point.
Cory saw the terror on the little girl’s face, and thinking of his own two daughters at home, he took action. Tightly bundling the little girl in a life jacket, he told her that they were going to cross the river and that he was “NOT GOING TO LET GO.” That’s exactly what he did, too! The river was strong, and even though he started up the sand bar as far as he could, it swept him quite a distance down the opposite embankment.
During these moments, I remember having to take a piss really badly. Since I was in swimming trunks, and I was about to swim across a river, and it was raining ice picks at the time, a reasonable thing to have done would have been to just go. Nobody would have noticed or cared! I would find out later that Mindy did just that. Not me, however, as I irrationally made my way into the tall grass.
Having witnessed Cory’s crossing, we knew what we had to do. Leaving many things behind in the rear hatch of my kayak, I strapped on my life jacket and prepared to swim across. We waded as far as we could and then took a leap to swim the rest of the way. Somehow, I was able to keep my Birkenstock sandals above water. Erin and Mindy made it across like champions. So did the mother and father of that family of four, while the dude kept his cell phone above the water.
We made our way up the opposite side to a place that was easiest to climb the embankment. Lee herded all of us into his vehicle. Mindy sat up front with Lee’s dog, and Cory, Erin, and I scrunched up in the back. We felt a little guilty getting his leather interior wet and muddy.
Lee drove us back to our vehicle, where we could calm down and assess our situation. I was shirt- and phone-less, as both were in the kayak. So, we did what just about anyone would do in this situation. Mindy lent me her shirt (which was unmistakably a ladies shirt), and we drove up to Pulpit Rock Brewery for some beers to wait out the storm.
Cory bought both of us t-shirts and we enjoyed some Pulpit Rock beers in our Pulpit Rock shirts while telling our adventure story to other patrons. A little over an hour later, the rain and storm had passed. We drove back to Chatahoochie County Park where Cory and I swam back across to retrieve kayaks. We did the rest of the float, Cory in Erin’s kayak and me in my own. Lee had already told us he would retrieve all of the rented kayaks.
We finished up our evening having Mabe’s pizza delivered to Toppling Goliath’s new location, where we sat through another storm.
Coming together and experiencing such an intense moment does an amazing thing to the psyche that is hard to explain. Although a frightening experience for all of us, I don’t think there was one of us that would have traded that experience in for another.
We’ll always remember the Decorah Storm of June 30, 2018!