Surfing Iowa

About 15 years ago, Hannah Ray J’s brother asked her to go kayak fishing with him. While the fishing was good, what really hooked her was the rush of riding the whitewater currents of Iowa’s waterways.

“Pretty quickly,” she said, “we decided to quit that fishing stuff and started just paddling down rivers.”

Since those initial kayak adventures with her brother, Hannah has branched out and added stand-up paddle boarding and river surfing to her repertoire. She’s gotten so good at riding rivers, she’s picked up sponsors and has her own website, The Otter Life, where she documents her aquatic exploits. And she’s done it all from Iowa.

Iowa is, in fact, home to three whitewater parks – Charles City, Elkader and Manchester – and she knows them well. All three, she said, are as good as you’ll find anywhere. When out-of-state visitors arrive at the parks, she said, they can’t believe their eyes.

“They say, ‘Holy smokes! I didn’t even realize you had this here. This is amazing,’” she said.

Hannah explained that the parks were all built in recent years by repurposing non-functioning dams and reimagining the rivers as recreational areas in each town. She said all three offer different experiences for everyone from weekend warriors just wanting to get their feet wet to experienced paddlers like her.

So, load up your kayak, pack your paddle board or inflate your innertube. Here’s a rundown of the three parks:

  • Charles City
    Located on the Cedar River, Iowa’s first whitewater park also offers the widest range of skill levels for water adventurers. And if you prefer to stay dry, there’s a disc golf course and stone amphitheater along the waterway.
  • Manchester
    Inspired by Charles City, Hannah herself had a hand in bringing this park to life on the Maquoketa River in her hometown. Because of its typically low water levels, it’s the best of the three for beginners. And, for a post-adventure refreshment, she recommends stopping by the nearby Franklin Street Brewing Co.
  • Elkader
    This park on the Turkey River is best for more experienced adventurers because of its higher water levels. If you don’t have the experience, it’s still fun to watch the experts do their thing while dining on the riverside patio at Schera’s.

Whenever you decide to visit these parks, Hannah said, always remember to play it safe. Check the weather. Check the current. Don’t forget those helmets, water shoes and wet suits. And have fun!

Published May 14, 2019

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