185th Street to Highway Y31:
For the sake of brevity and bang-for-your-buck alone, this clip on the Maquoketa River’s North Fork is second to none. Astounding natural beauty and an atypical sense of wildness (for Iowa) make this trip one of the very best in the Driftless. Just be sure there’s enough water to avoid scraping or going for a walk.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: November 6, 2022
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
~2.7′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Fulton: ht/ft: 3.5 | cfs: 370
Fulton: ht/ft: 3.65 | cfs: -999999
We recommend this level.
Below 300 cfs = You’ll need to read the river to avoid running aground in the shallows.
Below 200 cfs = You’ll need to find another river to paddle.
Time: Put in at 2:15p. Out at 4:15p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 7
Bald eagles galore, a gaggle of turkeys, one great blue heron and several deer
6.5 miles – a little hilly in the beginning, but nothing Herculean. Virtually all the roads on the shuttle are dirt-gravel, fyi – it’s Iowa.
To some, it might seem prohibitively impractical to drive two hours and pocket change, one-way, to Iowa, on a Sunday – on the first day of daylight savings time no less, when it will be nighttime in the afternoon – to paddle only seven miles. To which I would say, It was also only 52 degrees outside – and really windy. Where you going with this? But it had rained 2+ inches in the previous 36 hours, and I’d really wanted to return to this river before it got too late in the year – or too late in the first place and would have to wait til next year. Carpe paddle diem.
The North Fork of the Maquoketa River is a sizeable stream in and of itself and no mean tributary. It begins northwest of Dubuque, but isn’t viably paddleable until the Dyersville area, about 45 miles upriver from this trip. And from here to the confluence at the main river in the namesake town of Maquoketa lie another 26 miles. While narrower than the main trunk, the North Fork doesn’t hold its water all that long, thanks to its steeper gradient and minimal tributaries, thus making it tricky to catch when high enough to avoid Scrape City.
The other snag about the North Fork is its scarcity of bridges – to say nothing of basic accessibility. They are literally few and far between. For example, the paddling distance from Dyersville to Cascade is a whopping 27 miles, but with only three bridges in between. And there are zero bridges between Cascade and where this trip begins, a lengthy distance of 18 miles. That’s a lot of river to commit to, as opposed to the a la carte option of choosing this section over that. The good news about that is paddlers can expect a lot of solitude, both on the water as well as along the banks; by and by, fewer bridges indicate less development. This is why the two trips singled out in Nate Hoogeveen’s Paddling Iowa – an excellent guidebook that no paddler curious about the Hawkeye State should be without – are so lopsided in distance.
This trip faithfully emulates the latter (and more or less connects the former, which we first did and documented back in June of 2018). That was a very pleasant journey, but it was full-on summer – meaning, anything and everything that photosynthesizes was in full-effect and thus camouflaged the nude geology of the landscape. Furthermore, I was utterly in the wrong kind of boat for such a trip, a crossover kayak shy of 10′ in length on an 80′-wide river with no rapids. Ever since then I’ve wanted to put the North Fork back on my plate, to see it from a different seasonal vantage and to be in a better boat. Thanks to a trick-and-treat freak rainfall plus a devil-may-care attitude about practicality, we loaded the car to go to Iowa for the afternoon, knowing full well it would likely be the last new trip for the year.
The access to the water is on the upstream side of the bridge, river-right. The bridge itself is 21st Ave, but the actual access is via 185th Street, a blink-and-miss unpaved road that is quietly perpendicular and dead-ends at the bridge. There’s room enough for a few cars and/or a trailer along the shoulder, and there’s a well-worn path that neatly leads to the water. It makes for excellent access. Downstream on river-left is a tenderloin-shaped slip of cornfield, but A) you won’t notice it on the water and B) it’s the welcome exception to the undeveloped land rule on this trip.
The vignette here is movie-set and a paddler’s dream come true: the water has that jade green hue of Driftless rivers and it courses past enormous boulders at the banks while wrapping around a tall ridge of gorgeous limestone rock outcrops. Together with a chatty Class I rapid just down from the bridge, it’s a sight for sore eyes and delicious hors d’oeuvre for tongue and taste bud alike.
After a couple of graceful sine- and cosine-like loops the river is thick-deep in the Ozark Wildlife Area, an oasis of public land that is 323 acres large and pretty glorious. Indeed, for the next few miles both banks are undeveloped – a rarity in Iowa (and a lot of places, to be fair). Frankly, it is hard to capture how impressive this swath of land is or paddling the very river through it. As with most things in life, the trick is timing. Sure, a sunny day ousts an outcast one, but that’s probably obvious. So what I mean is how you season what’s on your fork, so to speak. (Enough with the overwrought puns already? OK, that’s fair.) Seriously though, this trip is blessed with an abundance of geological splendor – namely, rock outcrops – so it’s best to be paddled in early spring or late autumn, when trees are sans leaves. Come full foliage, most of the geology show will be camouflaged, a bit of a tragedy. Believe (leaf?) you me, I love a good, strong, supple, healthy tree as much as the next person. No two ways about it. But if something comparable to Dutch Elm Disease befell the riverine arboretum along the North Fork – or the main Maquoketa River – it would be a not unwelcome wipeout for paddlers. With the full effect of foliage, you’ll see only quick glimmers and squinted glances at the splendid limestone adorning the hills and bluffs.
Soak it up and take it all in. Think about this a minute: for about three long, languid miles the river simply loops around one bluff and then another…and then another, with no farms, no housing development, no municipal whatnot. Nothing. Just big buxom hills with toothsome limestone showing off almost ostentatiously. Have I been to the actual Ozarks? No – not yet. But it’s pretty easy to understand why this area was named after them.
For one of those miles the river snakes straight south. You’ll see a pretty random patch of pine trees on the river that look a little out of place. Sure enough, they precede a quaint as all get-out red house. Opposite the house, on river-left, is an access path. This is where our trip from 2018 ended. It’s also where there used to be a picturesque wood-planked iron truss bridge named “Caven Bridge.” Alas, that bridge is no more; it was taken down in 2021 – replaced by…nothing. That’s right – there is no crossing over the river anymore along 60th Ave (although the Google maps satellite image shows it there still, fyi). So, if you’re seeking to access the river here, note that the only way to do so is from the north side of the river.
From here it’s 2.75 miles til the next bridge, where we took out. This stretch is quite lovely in its own right, just not as bonkers beautiful as before. Here, the river flows in broader straightaways west to east with only one notable meander in the last half-mile. Still, there are plenty of rock outcrops along undulating ridges. Some stick out like castle blocks, limestone fortresses abutting the bluffs as opposed to embedded in them, complete with parapets of conifers lining their crenellated tops. It’s all very impressive. Worth a two-hour drive to get there? You betcha!
Eventually, you’ll see a couple low, wide buildings above a bluff on the right. No surprise, they signal that the bridge is nearby. As the river arcs to the left along a sloping hill you’ll see a wooden fence that follows the natural descent of the land’s contour. Follow the fence and you’ll find the bridge at Highway Y31 (aka Bernard Road, aka Crab Town Bridge). The landing, such as it is (see below), is on the right, below an abode of adobe mud swallow nests. The “path” up from the river to the road is a little steep and slow-going due to the loose rocks, but it’s totally doable. There’s room for a vehicle or two, off the road, on the upstream side of the bridge (but still river-right).
What we liked:
Together with its nearby neighbor to the north, Whitewater Creek, this modest paddle may well be the single prettiest and most tidy little trip in northeastern Iowa. In terms of (relatively) easy access, succinct point-to-point distances, and a glory of natural abundance and physical beauty, rivals don’t quickly come to mind. (That said, I haven’t made it out yet to the beguiling Volga River. Or the Little Turkey River. Or Crane Creek. Or, or, or…) But there is no competition, of course, no pageantry of “mirror mirror on the wall.” It’s all good paddling.
This stretch of the North Fork is blessed with a bevy of ginormous boulders and a chapel-like frieze of limestone rock outcrops along bluffs, ridges, and cliffs. Together with near nonexistence of private property and development, this trip is a sumptuous feast.
This may well be of marginal value to most folks, but the bike shuttle was about as memorable as the paddling itself. There are hills, to be sure – it’s the Driftless – but none so daunting. Being Iowa, almost all of the shuttle route was along unpaved roads. Because they’re compacted dirt and gravel, and because this was a Sunday night in rural Iowa, the effect was like riding down a really wide dedicated bike trail: there are few houses (it’s mostly farmland) and there were no cars. Moreover, our trip coincided with a full moon, and our shuttle transpired over sunset. So on the western side of the horizon was a glorious Kandinsky-like canvas of setting sun, while opposite on the east was the full moon rising like the beautiful luminous orb that she is. Meanwhile, we were two fools in love atop a ridge in the Driftless bicycling from our boats to the car. It really was very pretty – and pretty breathtaking.
Truth be told, I had misgivings about how much driving time this trip would take – and on a Sunday no less. But my girlfriend looked at me the way one does when someone is saying something stupid that even they don’t believe but feel obliged to say to sound practical. But then I was all in knowing that she was too. Sometimes need supersedes commonsense. This trip was like a booster shot my spirit needed to bounce me through the next few months. Because for all the clamor and alarums of seize the day this and carpe diem that, it will only get darker… and colder. The time does come to call it quits for new trips – even for the fanatic. But this lagniappe trip will stick with me for a good long while!
What we didn’t like:
The takeout. First, that we arrived there at all, since we wanted this trip to not end. Second, it’s a crumby but not terrible access. We’ve entered and exited rivers via a motley smorgasbord of absurdly bizarre/awful bridges, waysides, gully washes, and questionably legal backyards, so I’d like to think we have, if not legal standing in this regard, then at least the de facto benefit of experience and exposure. What’s that line from the Farmers Insurance commercials during Packers games – “we know a thing or two ‘cause we’ve seen a thing or two”?
If you’re a visual person, like I am, ignore the map and instead read the actual text in Hoogeveen’s trip, wherein he explicitly states “Take out on the river-right beneath the bridge, with a carry up the trail.” Alas, the dot on the map indicating the takeout location is on river-left and on the upstream side of the bridge. Lost ten minutes of daylight trying to reconcile that one… Frankly, were it not for the littered aluminum cans lining the way, the so-called “trail” would have been unrecognizable, as it’s a feint footpath at best. Doable to be sure – and by no means the worst. This is amusingly mentionable in that Hoogeveen goes on two sentences later to warn “Just because there is a bridge crossing doesn’t make for easy access, however.” He’s alluding to other trips downriver from here. In other words, if the take-out bridge is considered “easy,” then how much a tough mudder are the others below? Only one way to find out! But that will have to wait til next year. Probably. Maybe. We’ll see…
If we did this trip again:
I would – and wouldn’t change a thing. If I lived in the area, I would paddle the Ozark section (4 miles) once a week every week til I knew every single outcrop and boulder like the back of my hand. There are lots and lots of miles to paddle yet on the North Fork – this being Iowa (re: home of hogs), one might go so far as to say “too much pork for just one fork” – but honestly, it’s hard to imagine any other stretch rivaling the continuously pretty nature of this segment. If there’s only one clip of the river you paddle, may it be this trip – and may it be in early spring or late fall, when the trees are leafless, so as to be best imbued by all the lovely limestone along the bluffs and cliffs.
Full confession: November is my least favorite month of the year. March is no picnic either, but at least there’s daylight at the end of that seasonal tunnel. Plus Canoecopia. A number of rivers may well be frozen still, or so swollen from ice melt to be unsafe to paddle yet, but relief from winter is nigh! The juggernaut of longer and warmer days is unstoppable, and you are on the right side of the solstice. The steely clench of cold and its full-body lockjaw starts to release; that taut fist lets go its icy grip and becomes an open palm full of psalms and bird-song soon enough.
November, however, is a slow and dark dirge. Each fallen leaf is a minor key, and setting the clocks back an hour feels like the capital city of your country sacked by savage Vandals, Vikings, and Visigoths. Those of us who are acutely affected by light know this all too well. However relatively slow and soft the assault may be each year, the jig is generally up after the first week in November. Most forms of recognizable life have abandoned, and the landscape itself is generally barren. Remember rain? Yeah, me neither; our favorite rivers are typically too low to paddle by November and must be shelved til April.
Oh, and let’s not forget that what wildlife hasn’t flown the coop or high-tailed it to migratory climes down south are being shot at by dudes and dudettes in blaze orange amidst a glory glimpse of Vortex Nation. So, just in case the muted colors of the landscape limited to beige or gray or dead doesn’t sap your spirit, or the frigid tingle in your fingers five minutes without wearing mittens, or the penal colony evenings that feel like midnight before the six o’clock news comes on – just in case all that weren’t enough, there’s also the distinct possibility of some dipshit up in a blind mistaking a human being in a boat for a trophy buck and putting a cap in your ass.
In my book, they got the first two letters of the month right and could have called it quits then and there.
But there is a bittersweet beauty to November as well, for the human spirit and the paddler alike: it’s the preliminary phase of wintering (which tide we clever and clothed apes would do well to bide by), and if you choose wisely, there is an unmistakably enchanting serendipity to paddling rivers and environments when all the wild fluff and scruff of leaves and weeds have fallen or faded away, revealing the most basic – truth without blandishment. November is how a lover awakes without makeup, how your favorite song was first born on an acoustic guitar beside the bed before all the layered tracks arrived later in the studio.
To the accountant’s acumen, it don’t make a lick of sense to drive 4+ hours to paddle less than 7 miles on a Sunday when it’s dark by 5pm. To Iowa or Anywhere. I get that. But for the poet-paddler such is poultice for the soul, making the most of what’s left before things really go to pot. If there’s a better antidote to feeling SAD than paddling a lovely and lively river through an environment half as beautiful as the person accompanying you – the former full of sentimental nostalgia, the latter full hope and passion and determination for the future – well, if it exists, I for one am unaware of it.
And that’s how we go on.
Makquoketa River Nork Fork I: Highway D61 to 60th Avenue
Guide: Illinois DNR’s Maquoketa River Water Trail Guide
Guide: Illinois DNR’s Expedition + Fishing Guide
Wikipedia: Maquoketa River