★ ★ ★ ★

Turkey River II

Tessmer Canoe Access to Gilbertson Park:
With long, lean hillsides, occasional flashes of limestone outcrops, and a peppy current coursing over a sand-gravel bottom, this under-paddled segment of the Turkey River is well worth a peek and a poke. There is a more or less annoying dam to portage around, but this trip is redeemed by a unique bike shuttle along a dedicated trail.

Turkey River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 30, 2023

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty:
Class I

≈ 4′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Eldorado: ht/ft: 5′ | cfs: 95

Current Levels:
Eldorado: ht/ft: 5.33 | cfs: 93.3

Recommended Levels:
This is the lowest recommended level. While doable, this was still Scrape City. Look for at least double the cfs, even better if higher than that.

Great River Road/Tessmer Canoe Access (Access #68), Clermont, Iowa (FYI: the river flows under Great River Road several times)
GPS: 43.00846, -91.7085
Gilbertson Park west bank (Access #59W) off B64/River Park Drive, Elgin, Iowa
GPS: 42.95812, -91.62421

Time: Put in at 3:30p. Out at 7:00p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 9

Bald eagles, turkey vultures, great blue and green herons, plovers, kingfishers, great horned owls, hawks, deer fording the river, and a first-ever porcupine.

Shuttle Information:
Despite the touted RAGBRAI, northeastern Iowa – like most parts of the Driftless Area in the Upper Midwest – is not synonymous for bicycle-friendly roads or routes. This undersung section of the Turkey River is a welcome exception to that rule. Connecting the tiny towns of Clermont and Elgin is a veritable bike trail that offers a safe and outstanding road alternative. True, you do have to ride on the road sometimes – especially when the trail just ends in a cornfield – and it’s also true that the trail parallels a road the whole time. But it’s better than nothing. Whether you’re on the road or utilizing the trail, the distance is about 7.5 miles through some rolling hills and pretty farmland.

We first waddled over to the Turkey River watershed last year and paddled what is probably its prettiest section – Elkader to Garber. But that’s only nineteen miles out of roughly 150 – meaning there’s a whole lot more to nibble on. The question then became ok, which trip should we check out next? As seasoned paddlers know, unlike hiking, one can’t just go anywhere one wishes to – at least without regard to water levels. (There’s always enough earth to walk on.) And these were the last few days of August during (another) historic drought. Water levels everywhere were abysmally low. All the attentive planning in the world can’t change the fact that sometimes rivers are just too low to paddle.

Once again, I relied on the excellent resources that are Nate Hoogeveen’s Paddling Iowa as well as the Turkey River Water Trail Map & Guide. Both begin their trots from Eldorado on down and provide helpful water level ranges to ensure enough volume to pleasantly paddle (which advice we cavalierly disregarded, hoping against hope). Choosing Eldorado as a starting point is neither coincidence nor conspiracy; the little city lies at about the halfway point between its source somewhere west of Cresco and its sayonara at the mouth of the Mississippi. Moreover, just upstream from the access in Eldorado the river receives a generous windfall of water via the combined effects of the Little Turkey River and Crane Creek confluence. In other words, above Eldorado water levels will be even shallower. And while there are some quaint and pretty towns along the river – Spillville especially – they do not cater to canoes or kayaks.

The Turkey River has the largest watershed of all Iowa’s Driftless streams, so it tends to offer paddlers an opportunity to float a boat while neighboring streams are Scrape City. That said, even the Turkey River has its limits… We knew the water levels would be low – and they were. But we’d also driven 3+ hours to paddle and not just look at a river. On the drive over we crossed the river in Clermont, which ended up serendipitous. Levels were low but doable (barely). And I’d half-remembered that there was a bike trail in town. So, on the fly we hatched a plan to cobble together the last segment of Hoogeveen’s Trip 2 and the brief reference to another handful of miles below Clermont for an ad hoc 9-mile trip from Elgin to the countryside west of Clermont, all linked (mostly) by a bike trail that allowed us to shuttle off-road. It was a spontaneous decision and a bit of a gamble, but it ended up being delightful – the river’s insatiable quench notwithstanding.

This fun trip starts at the outskirts of Brick City and ends in the Little Switzerland of Iowa. What on earth does any of that mean? Sounds like a fine time for a Miles Paddled PSA. Clermont, IA (or “clermentia” in url parlance) is known as calls itself “Brick City” due to its brick production proclivity that reached its peak in the early 1900s. At its heyday, it was home to several foundries and kilns. Today, there are several extant brick buildings in the half-mile-long town. Enough to earn the appellation of Brick City? I guess. I mean, there are only 600 people who call Clermont home, so what does a few-blocks-big downtown even mean? But who am I to deny the denizens of a quaint hamlet the fame on which they hang their hat?

As for the Swiss Miss of Iowa? That, apparently, would be Elgin (aka “elginia” in url). Slightly larger than Clermont, why is it called the Little Switzerland of Iowa? Because of all the alphorns, clocks, cheese, and chocolate. Minus the alphorns, clocks, cheese, and chocolate. I mean, it might have all of these (minus the alphorns), but no more than, you know, anywhere in Iowa. Does it have hills? Sure. More so than other parts of northeastern Iowa. No. Does it have mountains? Please, it’s Iowa. So why here – why Elgin, IA? Why not – that’s why.

Back to the river. This trip begins at one of the many bridges spanning over the Turkey River along Highway B40 – to wit, the so-called Tessmer Canoe Access at mile marker #68. (There are two additional bridges with accesses upriver from here, not to mention another downstream without an access.) There’s a turnaround here, generous parking, signage, trash cans, and easy access to the water. In other words, it’s a great spot!

The immediate view downstream is inviting, featuring riffles a wooded bluff hovering above the right bank. While not towering in nature – it’s about 75′ high – it lends a sense of natural wild and a welcome foil to a cultivated field of corn or soybean. As the hill tapers in height, it’s generously offset by an attractive outcrop of limestone along the right bank. One of countless riffles/Class I rapids lies at a classic right-left bend in the river around a small gravelly island. The outcrop on river-right grows as it leads to the next bridge along B40 – the last one west of Clermont.

Below the bridge the geology jumps banks, and here it’s the left side with a sinuous ridge. There’s a kind of one-two punch, the second being a stellar knockout. The landscape is level for a moment, and then a short straightaway leads you directly before a bedazzling sight of glowing limestone, bone-white in the western sun, wrapped around the base of the bluff. This in turn is followed by a sweet little chute of an easy Class I rapid. The surroundings settle down for a spell, the scenery very pastoral. The river will gently bend left and then right. A new limestone wall beckons on river-right. Alas, so do warning signs about an impending dam in downtown Clermont that paddlers will need to portage around. It’s a modest affair featuring a lowhead dam. In higher water, it’s possible that one could run the dam center-right. But one would need to scout ahead of time. Safer and more advisable is portaging on river-right.

Here’s where it gets a hair tricky. Paddlers are supposed to then schlep nearly half a mile while crossing streets and sidewalks to the next access – on river-left – at the end of State Street, some 900′ downstream from the dam. That struck me as preposterous, so instead we schlepped up the hill above the dam and then carefully down the embankment below it, a skimpy distance of 200′. There’s no established point of re-entry, and this makeshift spot is likely used by folks fishing, not paddling. But it was doable. Plus it was easier and faster (well, faster) than walking through town forth and back two times holding 14′-long boats.

The cool limestone wall on the right naturally continues beneath and past the bridge at Mill Street (immediately down from the dam). Another limestone wall is found on the left bank, too. Better still, a fun Class I chute arrows you toward this pretty scene. Soak it all up, because things get a bit banal for a half-mile or so. The river bends to the right sharply and then lends itself to bland views of a golf course on the left and an RV park on the right – pick your poison. To be fair, the left bank does offer several cool rock outcrops, and the edge of the course is tree-lined; golfers are not known to suffer views of RV parks while hitting the links. And soon enough huge stretches of sand line the banks, hitherto unfound along the river. At the end of a straightaway the river will bend to the left. As it does, we saw one of the coolest backyard decorations I’ve ever seen: a life-sized fiberglass cowboy riding a bronco. Yee-hah!

A nearly mile-long ridge rides above the right bank, both wooded and studded with rock outcrops. Small islands and gravel bars divide the river into shallow side channels. An interesting novelty occurs in the approach to the next bridge, aka Valley Canoe Access (alias Highway W51, alias Canoe Road). Departing from its distinct sand-gravel bottom, the floor of the river here is composed of limestone shelves. Needless to say, in shallow conditions this feature is unforgiving. But it’s really cool and quite pretty. The trail guide describes this part of the river as “Shin Bone Valley, named as it is home to sacred burial grounds for many generations of Native Americans.” (The limestone lying just beneath the river’s superficial surface reminded me of a shinbone as well.) There are two bridges here, actually – one for the bike trail, the other for the road. Another neat and tidy access lies on river-right. A rubble of limestone like broken cobblestone dots the riverbed here and creates a series of riffle and another fun Class I chute. This access serves as the take-out for popular inner tube floats that start in Clermont.

Caveat lector: you may wish to skip this clip on holiday weekends in the summer, given the popularity of the tubers.

The next mile or so is flat and relatively featureless due to the heavy footprint of agriculture. Landowners abandoning junk cars and large appliances along the river’s edge don’t lend much to the aesthetics either. But the final mile is plenty pretty with occasional riffles, large outwashes of sand and gravel (think long romantic walks along a beach), and rolling hills. A wide island splits the mainstream in two preceding the twin bridges in Elgin. Swift riffles whisk you along either channel. We chose to take out via the right bank, although the left bank has an access as well. There’s nothing fancy here, but it’s a good access all the same.

What we liked:
I love a good underdog – it’s why I want to see the Diamondbacks wrangle the Rangers in the World Series right now (and why watching the Cubs win in 2016 – in extra innings of Game 7 no less – or the Nationals in 2019 were sequences of total apotheosis and spectator ecstasy). Plus, I’m also kind of an imp (take your pick: impractical, impatient, impertinent; they’re all applicable), so if you point out to me that something is being left out, that’ll arouse my curiosity more than the so-called showcase before my eyes. A gap from where Turkey River 1 ends and trip 2 begins? I’m all in. That this missing link more or less perfectly connected the map dots that were our put-in and was sheer serendipity. But this wasn’t simply convenient; the whole experience was excellent. Wildlife was fantastic, the riffles and little rapids made you bob and smile (or scrape and grimace), the wooded bluffs are pretty, and the limestone show is outstanding. Is it as grand as Elkader to Garber? No – but nowhere is on the entire Turkey. That doesn’t diminish the sweetness of this little stretch, however.

What we didn’t like:
Two things: the low water levels and the damn dam. We’d known what we’d be getting ourselves into before we left town, and that was visually confirmed once we arrived. But it looked doable – not good, but doable. And it was – exceeding our expectations. But there were a few shallow shoals that required going for a stroll. To do this stretch right, be sure that the gauge reads 200 cfs at least.

(Incidentally, the following day we paddled a stretch of river directly upstream from this one – starting in Eldorado and taking out where this trip started – and it was tough sledding the whole time; no strikeouts and a ton of walks. For that reason, combined with its relative monotony and too few features not already found elsewhere, I will not be writing up that trip.)

As for the stupid concrete wall in downtown Clermont, well, it’s a damn shame. The portage is an unreasonable pain in the ass, especially for such a purposeless and puny structure. Adding insult to possible injury, intact remnants of the defunct dam obstruct views of the natural limestone outcrops and detracts from appreciating the unique beauty of this feature. Given the value of paddling to communities like Clermont and Elgin, why not get rid of this deadbeat dam? Restore the ecology, stimulate the economy. How’s that for a slogan for next year’s elections? I’m Timothy Bauer, and I approve this message.

If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely paddle this trip again, but only at a higher level. (And maybe start earlier in the day than 3:30pm…) Want the best of both worlds without being on the water all day? Start your trip 2.75 miles upriver (a mile less that via pavement on the very same road) at Access #71 off Great River Road. There, you’ll receive a couple more riffles and a sexy-svelte stretch of limestone running along the left bank as that in turn wraps around the river.

Related Information:
Turkey River I: Elkader to Garber
Turkey River III: Millville to Cassville Ferry Landing
Camp: Big Spring Trout Hatchery
Camp: Gilbertson Conservation Area
General: Turkey River Watershed
Map + Guide: Turkey River Water Trail
Outfitter: Turkey River Rentals
Wikipedia: Turkey River

Photo Gallery:

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