Graf Park to Durango:
A trip rich in potential but poor as dirt in reward, this upstream clip of the Little Maquoketa River can only be done at higher water levels (unless you enjoy getting in and out of your boat a hundred times to walk while schlepping through rocky shoals and shallow bottoms), which in turn poses a two-fold problem of tricky timing and unruly conditions that only skilled paddlers could handle. In the unlikely event that you can paddle this with “just right” water levels and have the skills to handle hairpin turns, this could be a magnificent trip in the heart of the Iowa Driftless. In the much more likely scenario that it will be too shallow to paddle (90% of the time), don’t even bother.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 16, 2021
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I-II
≈ 15′ per mile
Middle Fork Little Maquoketa River (Rickardsville): ht/ft: 9.4 | cfs: n/a
This is too low to paddle. In fact, this level was miserably, abjectly, insufferably too low. We actually think the river was steadily dropping during our time on it. The Little Maquoketa is more creek than river and drains a small watershed – especially this segment. It’s a quintessential Goldilocks stream: too much water will be dangerous and unruly, but too little (re: our experience) is both frustrating and infuriating. Ideally, paddlers should only bother entertaining this trip when the gauge is at least 10′ but below 12′. Scouting at the various bridges is strongly advised. (Just be sure you’re at the right bridges – see below!)
Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 5:45p.
Total Time: 5h 45m
Miles Paddled: 10.5
Wildlife: More great blue herons than on any other trip (ever!), wood ducks, deer, kingfishers, bald eagles, mergansers, turkey vultures, beaver, mink, soft shell turtles, carp, bass and cattle.
The road shuttle is a hilly but very pretty 10ish miles. The bicycle shuttle is an easy, spectacularly convenient and gorgeously scenic 7.75 miles.
Sometimes the love for underdogs gets the best of you. Ever hear of the Little Maquoketa River? Probably not – and for good reason. It’s a cute, peppy stream that’s more creek than river only twenty minutes from downtown Dubuque, Iowa. Not to be confused with the regular Maquoketa River or the North Fork of the Maquoketa River, this Little Maquoketa River also has its own forks. In the blink-and-miss hamlet of Durango the middle fork flows into the main Little Maquoketa (each is as wide and deep, which is to say narrow and shallow). From there it’s about seven miles to the Mississippi River. Considering that this trip is less than eleven miles long and starts as far upstream as anyone ever should (re: shouldn’t), that means this “river” is at best 20ish miles long. As such, its drainage area is quite small – and fast at that, given the steep hills and gradient. In other words, the Little Maquoketa doesn’t hold its water long.
I’ve had my eye on this trip for a good decade, thanks to the excellent guidebook, Paddling Iowa, by Nate Hoogeveen. It’s always been a little too far of a drive with too little intel on the stream itself, up to and including a reliable indicator of adequate water levels. But there we were, Wednesday night, watching game 4 of the Bucks-Suns series (aka Bucks-in-6!), all the while beguiling in the bottom corner of the TV screen was a weather window showing severe thunderstorm alerts, tornado watches, and sexy satellite images of super cells and great big blobs of red and yellow squatting over southwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa. Dubuque looked like it was getting bombed with rain. A quick look at the forecast for Friday showed nothing but sunshine and upper 70s. Sounded like a good idea to take the day off and make hay.
But it didn’t rain enough. Or if it did, it all drained in 24 hours. Who knows? But the hopeful heart goes from butterfly flutter to belly-up bust when one finally gets a look at a stream wondered about for many years, just after a purported hard rain (gosh, I hope it’s not too high! I wonder if we’ll want the spray skirts on right away…), only to see it as a pitiless spittle before your eyes. What do you do – especially after driving two hours to get there? Go back home? No. Drive another hour – and thereby burn daylight while also pushing back your ETA getting home later on – to paddle somewhere else less obscure and more reliable but now in the wrong kind of boat? Or just make the most of it, knowing you’ve already come this way and probably won’t ever again. We opted for the latter, especially since we drove from Madison in one car and had to do a bike shuttle, and this paddle trip corresponded with an outstanding dedicated bike trail paralleling the river from take-out to put-in. Alas, the shuttle would turn out to be the best part of this long day.
This trip begins and ends at parks with access points along the Heritage Trail, a 26-mile-long former railroad corridor that cuts through a valley over 400′ tall and makes for one of the all-time best, most scenic and convenient bike shuttles of all time ($2 day use fee). There is no dedicated access point at the put-in located on Graf Road in Graf, but it’s easy enough schlepping from the parking area to the river (where people fish as well).
It’s a mile from here to the next bridge, at Potter Hill Road (lousy access), made up mainly of meandering through tall banks but flat agricultural surroundings. The scene gets more engaging after Potter Hill, where it’s hillier and less developed. Riffles lie on the downstream side of the bridge – as good an indicator as you’ll get whether there’s enough water to paddle on down. Also downstream is the first passing under the Heritage Trail, a very picturesque vignette. This in turn will yield to handsome walls of limestone block outcrops now and again along both banks. A long, flat straightaway displays a signature scene of the Driftless landscape with a prominent hill in the background. Rugged and ragged outcrops line the right bank, lazily draped with lush greenery, together with riffle after riffle. Before the next (and last) passage under the Heritage Trail you’ll see a series of downspout culverts atop a hill above the right bank, testifying to the potential of this area being prone to flash flooding in high rain events. Just before the next bridge, at Asbury Road, there’s decent enough access to the river along the parking area for the Heritage Trail, on the left. It’s been 3.6 miles since Graf Road.
The geology in the next section is quite impressive, the river sneaking its way through a valley surrounded by steep hills, the most notable of which is Sundown Mountain (ahem), a prominent downhill skiing/snowboarding venue. It’s not every day you pass chairlifts while paddling – in Iowa especially! Unfortunately, there’s an inexplicable limestone mess to contend with here, the remnants of some kind of dilapidated dam. The problem is there’s just no way to run the dam(n) thing, even at significantly higher water levels (which in theory would make this a Class III drop). No sluice, no chute, no inverted V; it’s just a fortified wall of broken slabs. It wasn’t difficult to portage around/on top of it, at least at our shallow levels, but it was disappointing to find it utterly unrunnable.
Below the dam the hills will widen out some and become more meadow, signaling you’re about to enter cow country, meaning watch out for wires. It’s very pretty throughout this area, and the river will continue to plummet down riffles and light rapids (all of which would have been high-five’ing fun in enough water, but quickly became middle finger-sticking frustrating getting out of our boats to walk them time after time, while wondering if it was too soon to get out and thumb our way back to the car). The bridge at Budd Road comes next, where on the left once again is the Heritage Trail and decent enough access to the river. At this point it’s been about six miles of paddling (or walking).
The most stunning section of the trip lies in the next stretch, where tall cliffs loom high and directly above the river on one side while on the other limestone walls parallel the paddler. Big boulders dot the riverbed, too. With enough water, this stretch would be especially magnificent. The Heritage Trail hugs along the left bank for a couple miles, while in between there are countless riffles and light rapids. Other than the occasional sight or sniff of pasture, there’s zero development out here. That said, the second set of electric wires lies in between the approximately four miles between Budd Road and the next/last bridge at Cedar Ridge Road.
It’s only 1.25 miles from Cedar Ridge Road to the take-out. Not unlike the first mile of this trip, this section is a little humdrum but also is bit detracted by a road (Hales Mill Road) running immediately above the right bank for the entirety. In other words, there will be lots of vehicles passing you by and probably snickering with schadenfreude as they watch you drag your boat through shallows, wondering who in the world paddles this river…at these low levels?!? (all the while not knowing that the bigger joke is that we idiots took a day off from work and drove two hours from Madison to do this). Were it not so close to the take-out, I’m absolutely positive we’d have climbed up the banks and ditched our boats. You’ll pass through one final swatch of riffly shoals and see the next bridge at Burtons Furnace Road. Unlike in Graf, there is a dedicated access here in Durango, on river-left just upstream from the bridge. Chances are you’ll be so excited to confirm that your trip is finally over that you’ll fail to notice – or just not care – that right at this same spot is a major tributary that comes in on the left, behind which is another bridge along the Heritage Trail. See below under “Didn’t Like” about this tributary and bridge…
What we liked:
The landscape is truly magnificent, a glory of the Driftless Area rich with undulating hills, deep valleys and remarkable limestone rock outcrops. There’s a lot of limestone you’ll see on this trip in particular, whether along a rock wall directly lining the river, hovering above it on a cliff, shyly hiding behind the scenes in the forested swaths in summertime, or broken up in a billion blocks of cobble below you in the riverbed.
The wildlife was extraordinary. The only thing we experienced more than the misery of getting out of our boats to walk through shallows was seeing great blue herons, over and over again. Sure, some were the same that, as herons often do, got spooked when we got too close, flew only 50′ away – but downstream – and got spooked again when we inevitably got closer again, again flying just a short jaunt downstream. But on several occasions we’d see five in the sky at the same time. Pretty cool.
Also pretty cool was when we had a standoff with cattle cooling off in the water (or adding their effluence to its turbid muck) and suddenly a flock of geese flew right into them, spooking them and causing them to high-tail their heavy hooves out of the water, which in turn signaled us to keep on. Thanks, geese! That was pretty awesome.
I’ll resist being cynical here by not saying that one of the things we liked about this trip – and I mean really liked – is the take-out (as in finally reaching it). Instead, I’ll just say that the bike shuttle is fantastic! Not only is it a few miles shorter in distance than car shuttling, it is incomparably easier and more forgiving. Following a railroad grade, it’s basically even-keeled, whereas the roads are a roller coaster ride rollicking up and down, bending left and right. It’s nice and shady on a hot summer day, plus you pass little nooks and crannies, whether farmsteads, natural springs, or dazzling displays of limestone.
What we didn’t like:
We got out and back in of our boats at least fifty times. Minimum. Do you know how old that gets after a while? Very. It’s frustrating because it’s annoying and inconvenient. It wears on you physically; feeling like you’re doing endless reps of sit-ups. (Isn’t paddling supposed to be, um, fun?) And it saps your spirit, too: 1) after so many times the whole thing just feels hopeless (which it is) and you altogether quit caring about the surrounding beauty or cool wildlife and instead keep your eyes peeled for the holy oasis of the take-out; and 2) the take-away you’ll come back to again and again is how much fun this *would be* with even just 2-3″ more water. In other words, the potential is writ large before you, even if its actuality is an unforgiving despondency. Like a relationship partner that could be – should be – with all the right parts and connections present and intact except for that one critical thing, without which it just ain’t gonna work no matter how much you want it to or will it to.
See? The parallels between paddling and romance go beyond the mere metaphor of getting dumped.
When not miserably shallow, the river consists of deep pools of current-less muck, stagnant with a film of I-don’t-wanna-know-what on its surface. Granted, we were grateful just to be in sections with enough water to actually paddle at all, even if it did feel like lake-paddling, but it was a bit gross aesthetically and inelegant for river paddling. The longest of these is the straightaway leading to the dam at the base of the Sundown Mountain slopes. Also, one of the reasons I was drawn to paddling this upstream stretch of the river in the first place was the alluring prospect of the rapids at the dam, described by Hoogeven as a chute for a Class II drop. Nope. The top of the dam was at least a foot higher than the waterline – meaning you’d need at least 18″ more water just to get over the dam and not got stuck on top, which is an almost unimaginable amount of water in and of itself, but such that also would pose seriously risky conditions downstream at the electric wires, strainers, and occasional hairpin turns at the base of limestone bluffs.
At our [virtually nonexistent] water levels there was no concern about safely passing underneath the four areas of electric wire, but this could be entirely different in the off-chance that the river did have enough water to paddle. Not all of the wires were tagged with surveyor tape, so paddlers quixotic enough to want to do this trip after a hard rain would do well to watch out for the wires – two sets of two – in the pasture sections.
Having never been to the Little Maquoketa before and going on only a glowing ember of memory from looking into it initially ten years ago, I ended up being naively duped by an uncanny trick of the eye at the take-out. There, you see what looks like the downstream tip of an island that split the mainstream in two side channels. The Heritage Trail spans one of these, so that’s where we scouted for water levels before we began this trip. Skimpy, but it looked doable. But to do our due diligence, we drove up to the next bridge upstream, at Paradise Valley Road, to scout from its vantage point as well. Similar assessment: shallow in the riffles, but otherwise doable. That’s when and where we made our game-day decision: either commit to it since we were there and just know that we’d have to get out and drag our boats now and again (times fifty) or get back in the car and drive another hour+ to another prospect, etc. That’s why we ended up dancing with the one that brung us (so to speak).
Trouble is we weren’t looking at the right river! At the takeout, it’s not an island that splits the Little Maquoketa in two. No, it’s the west branch of the Maquoketa coming into the main branch (they look identical). And that bridge we scouted? That was the west branch. Moreover, during the car shuttle to the put-in we drove over what turns out to be the north branch of the Maquoketa and then again the west branch (which we didn’t know was the west branch). The reason I mention this is even though we saw how shallow the river was at the put-in, we reasoned that things would eventually improve downstream, where these other tributaries would come in. Alas, not so. The north branch feeds the west branch, and the west branch doesn’t even enter stage left until the very end of this trip. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.
If we did this trip again:
This would be a real hard sell for us personally, given our subjugated humbling and the distance away. If we lived in Dubuque and knew that it had just rained an inch or two, then sure, we’d do this again…maybe. At least the Budd Road to Durango section. But without a more reliable indicator for water levels, while living two hours away, then no way. Some trips are just not meant to be, no matter how pretty they are. Not unlike a relationship that’s more work than it’s worth, you can try and try, and get angry/disappointed – even a little hurt – or you can just let it go and move on to a prospect more rewarding and favorable.
Aftermath: Four hours of highway driving + ten gallons of gas + twelve hours from leaving home to coming back, all for scrape city country and taking at least one mile along the walk of shame = nope.
Miles Paddled Video: