Millville to Cassville Ferry Landing:
The final five miles of the Turkey River to its mouth at the mighty Mississippi, this short trip offers paddlers a small but bite-sized smorgasbord of cool riverine features like soaring bluffs, exposed outcrops, and protected backwaters. Bonus: if you’re coming from or heading back to Wisconsin, you’ll get to ride aboard the Cassville Ferry!
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 4, 2023
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Quietwater
≈ 2′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Garber: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 240
Garber: ht/ft: 5.61 | cfs: 224
There should always be enough water to paddle this trip.
Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 2:30p.
Total Time: 1h 45m
Miles Paddled: 5
A gazillion egrets, bald eagles, turkeys (appropriate), great blue and green herons, and turtles.
At five miles total, the shuttle route is as long as the paddling trip – but even more meandering. It’s a pretty series of back roads that on any other day than a holiday weekend should be dead quiet. The stretch between the ferry landing and Highway C9Y is compact dirt-gravel.
We who are lucky to paddle rivers in the first place don’t always possess the presence of mind to wonder whence has this ribbon of water come and thither does it flow? In our busy and hurried lives syncopated by dings, rings, and buzzes from devices portending this or that message like a meteor shower of communication, most of us just want to know where to show up and approximately how long it’s gonna take. (Don’t even ask about shuttle logistics.) For a romantic river wonk like me, the opposite is true: there’s no such thing as “TMI” – in fact, too much is not enough, and no amount of minutia is immaterial. Sensibility, I suppose, lies somewhere in between.
For all the thrill-seeking zeal of locating the headwaters of a given river, the reality of those sources (in this part of the country at least) often is rather underwhelming. The model we have in mind of mountains – an alpine lake or thawing glacier high in the clouds – just doesn’t apply here in Midwest. Even Schoolcraft’s quest to find the headwaters of the Mississippi is an ill-fitting analogy, as there is no comparable river here or elsewhere in the country. (Besides, so-called Lake Itasca – a neologism he coined from the cobbled Latin words for true (veritas) head (caput) – is not actually the authentic beginning of the mighty Mississip; it’s just a pretty and convenient fiction we uphold because that version is more believable than the reality of the situation – which is one of a handful of leaky tributaries that flow into said lake. Want to kill a good mood? Invite a revisionist historian to the party!)
Out here, where mountains are euphemisms, or actual molehills, tracing a stream upwards is not unlike going down an internet search rabbit hole full of click bait, trapdoors, and tangents: the further upstream you venture, the more dendrites there are that branch off hither and yon. Is that the south branch of the middle fork or the middle branch of the south fork? It’s maddening. And ultimately not very satisfying, as the beguiling source may well be a ditch along a county road or potato field on Kasuczko’s farm.
More fruitful by far is reaching the end of a river, for there is something truly thrilling about a confluence, something intrinsically rich about borders and the syncretism of two cultures. There’s poetry and poignancy, a truth-before-your-eyes lesson that there’s no such thing as closure; there’s only continuity. To finish Finnegans Wake one must return to the first page, as the last sentence on the last page suddenly interrupts itself and must be completed by the first sentence on the first page, which begins mid-sentence, the very first word appropriately enough being “riverrun.” In other words, there is no end, the cycle just continues.
Here in the Upper Midwest, every river eventually flows into one of two bodies of water: the Mississippi or the Great Lakes. In the Driftless Area, everything gravitates towards the former. Indeed, the Mississippi is rather like the backbone of the Driftless, the middle crease of two folded halves – Minnesota and Iowa on the west, Wisconsin and a sliver of Illinois on the east. That said, not all confluences are equal. Some, like the Zumbro or Upper Iowa have been artificially channelized for the sake of agriculture, rendering these erstwhile beautiful rivers as banal canals. Like an aging celebrity who’s had too much plastic surgery, there’s a sense of gracelessness after such a journey; it’s an unbecoming conclusion. Some rivers are natural straight shots to the Mississippi, like the Chippewa, leaving no drama or suspense. Still others, like the Wisconsin or Cannon, find their ends in a maze of side channels and backwater sloughs created by a myriad of islands, such that you don’t even realize you’re on the Mississippi.
The Turkey River is that welcome exception where it doesn’t give up its ghost til the very end – a bend to the left, then right, and suddenly the whole wide world unfurls before you. It’s pretty magnificent.
I’m not sure why, but this final clip of the Turkey isn’t even alluded to in Nate Hoogeveen’s Paddling Iowa – at least my first edition copy – the must-have, go-to guide to paddling in the Hawkeye State. For that matter, this trip isn’t mentioned either in the otherwise helpful Turkey River Water Trail Map & Guide. To be fair, it’s on the map, but A) no information is offered about the river after the access in Garber, 20 miles upstream from the confluence and B) the map indicates a Millville access at mile marker five downstream from Highway 52 on river-right, but believe you me: there is no such access here (or anywhere at the busy bridge). After driving up and down this road and that, getting hot and bothered, all I could settle on was pulling into the parking lot and grounds at Pint’s River Bar to scout and hopefully find somewhere to launch via the upstream side of the highway bridge, river-right. This was confusing and frustrating, as every access up to this point is well-marked, documented, and even catered to, with dedicated parking areas and signage. Why would this last point on the Turkey River before the Mississippi be any different? Beats me, but it is.
It was Labor Day, windy, and in the lower 90s already by 11 am. Not my favorite circumstances. (Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love that there’s a federal holiday honoring the working class. I just don’t like the traffic and congestion.) There wasn’t a soul in sight, but while scouting we noticed a new dock behind the bar. I’m not gonna look that gift horse in the mouth, especially since there was nothing and nowhere appealing near the bridge itself. We waddled up to the bar to ask for permission to launch and leave our car, but it was closed. So we quietly launched, leaving our vehicle, and made ready to ask for forgiveness instead upon our return.
Once you pass under the bridge at Highway 52 attractive wooded bluffs and rock-lined banks appear. Given the lack of development here between the hilly terrain and wetlands, the space in between Highway 52 and the Mississippi River feels a little wild, a forgotten about remoteness. There’s a road along the right bank for nearly the entirety of this short trip’s five miles, and, being Anywhere, Iowa, you’re never far from a farm. Still, this trip feels secluded. The river is wide (150′), and the current is slow-going. On the plus side, there should always be enough water to paddle these backwaters.
While flowing in broad strokes with long straightaways, the river does still bend here and there. As it does, you’ll see stately bluffs in the backdrop as well as wooded hillsides near the banks. Being a veritable no-man’s-land, the wildlife opportunities should be excellent. On several occasions we came upon and fluttered a flock of several dozen egrets congregating in tree debris and gravel bars, leaving this writer to remark “Egrets, I’ve had a few…” (No one found it funny at the time either.)
There’s a pleasant mix to this trip in balanced opposites: for here the hidden bottomlands are flat and lush, while over there are scraggly bluffs whose exposed bedrock towers above the landscape for all to see. A long railroad bridge crosses over the river, the only real placemark on this trip. And now a quick word from our sponsor at Burlington Northern Santa Fe… While railroad bridges are hardly uncommon structures to happen upon while paddling, there is nothing ordinary about this one. Is it diamond-studded? No. Golden Gated? Negative. But it is the rail line on the west side of the Mississippi River (its eastern parallel lies on the Wisconsin side). These two twin steel corridors, in conjunction with the stalwart barges on the big river itself, are the potentates of freight. Could be wheat, coal, corn – all gross weight goods human labor grew or manufactured moving up and down the country from St Paul to St Louis to the city of saints and out the Gulf of Mexico to international ports beyond. Iron veins circulating fungible blood. I’m the last person to wax ecstatic over capitalism, but the romance of the rails is not lost on me.
There are two sights to note on the downstream side of the railroad bridge: on the left is a dramatic outcrop high atop Estes Point in the Turkey River Mounds State Monument; on the right is an ad hoc access point from the road to the river used more by folks fishing, but it could definitely be used by paddlers to get on or off the water.
It’s only a mile to the Mississippi from here. As such, the surroundings flatten out. But there’s a pretty “cemetery effect” of tree limbs poking above the water like inhumed skeletons reaching out to undig from their graves. (Sorry, but it’s literally el dia de los muertos as I’m writing this.) Be mindful to keep a wide berth of these snags; but now that the river has swelled to 300’ wide, this should pose no difficulty. What might first appear as a small hill on river-right soon reveals itself to be the bluffs on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi. The effect might catch you off-guard at first, for when you reach the confluence you’ll be at the tail-end of two very large islands creating sloughs in the middle of the Mississippi. But a moment or two later there’s no mistaking it: you’re on the largest river in North America. Pretty damn cool, but play it safe and stay close to the right bank.
In quick succession you’ll see the remains of a power plant generating station (razed to the ground in 2017) on the Wisconsin side and then the concrete lip/plate for the ferry at the landing. The ferry takes about 15-20 mins to ride from one side to another, and the service runs only on demand (there’s literally a button to push to call it, if it’s not already docked at the landing). The cost of a one-way ride is $15, but the experience itself is worth every penny. (Actually, depending on your direction and your vehicle’s fuel efficiency, the ferry fee may well be revenue neutral, as it eliminates the indirect driving options to the only two nearby bridges: Highway 18 at Marquette/Prairie du Chien (northwest) or Highway 151 at Dubuque (southeast), both about 25 miles away as the pelican flies. Then again, maybe you live in Iowa and don’t need to ford the river to the Wisconsin side. If that’s the case, then let me just say “Hello, neighbor!” and welcome you to come over and visit any old time. Have you ever had an Old Fashioned?
What we liked:
The sense of isolation and journeying to the end of one river and its confluence at the mighty Mississippi. There really is no other river like it. This was a really fun and scenic trip, and a great way to cap the holiday weekend (which had begin several days before and included three additional trips on the Turkey River). I kinda thought that this trip would be like the little bag of giblets at the, um, end of the Turkey; at best, an interesting novelty distinctly different from its more popular cuts (so to speak), but an afterthought most people would just as soon discard. But in truth I really loved this trip and am grateful for all its interesting tidbits and morsels.
And of course the egrets were awesome. Yup, giblets and egrets. Brought to you by Miles Paddled.
What we didn’t like:
The zero-access slash total ambiguity of where to start this trip. This was a confusing and frustrating omission and/or error on the map.
Also, I don’t love wide rivers either, especially in 90-degree weather or on windy days. But that’s my bias.
If we did this trip again:
I’d definitely come back here, but I’d probably not make it a point-to-point trip. Instead, I’d either launch from the railroad tracks or the ferry access, tool around upstream and down- since there’s virtually no current, and return. You’d still experience the best features of this trip, but you wouldn’t need to shuttle and you wouldn’t have to worry about trespassing or asking for permission.
Turkey River I: Elkader to Garber
Turkey River II: Tessmer Canoe Access to Gilbertson Park
Camp: Motor Mill
General: Turkey River Watershed
Map + Guide: Turkey River Water Trail
Outfitter: Turkey River Rentals
Wikipedia: Turkey River