Elkader to Garber:
With wooded ridges and robust bluffs lined down the river one after another, together with limestone rock outcrops, enormous boulders, frisky riffles, a dedicated Class I-II rapid at the put-in, a gorgeous historic mill building midway, and a general feeling of wild and wonderful isolation – yes, even in Iowa – this trip on the Turkey River is all gravy.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 24-25, 2022
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
≈ 3.5′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Elkader: ht/ft: 6.5′ | cfs: 550
Elkader: ht/ft: 5.63 | cfs: 320
We recommend this level.
Time: Put in at 10:00a. Out at 12:15p.
Total Time: 2h 15m
Miles Paddled: 6.25
Time: Put in at 12:30p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 4h
Miles Paddled: 12.75
Bald eagles, turkey vultures, great blue herons, plovers and kingfishers.
7.5 miles for Trip 1; 8.75 miles for Trip 2. Bear in mind that Trip 2 is literally twice as long as Trip 1, river-wise, but only 1.25 miles longer road-wise. Iowa’s weird – at least the Driftless part of Iowa: what constitutes a “direct” route between points A and B (and I’m being very generous here by implying that anything is direct) is likely to be dirt-gravel. The state highways are paved but more out of the way. Regardless, the Turkey River in Trip 1 is straighter than Trip 2, which meanders in a couple magnificently irrational ways. Case in point, while the first trip is 6.3 miles on the river, it’s 4.3 miles as the crow flies. Pretty comparable. By contrast, the second trip is 12.75 miles on the water but 8.75 miles as the crow flies.
Let’s talk Turkey. (Yes, had to. But at least now it’s out of the way, right?) To wit, what a wonderful river it is – this 19-mile stretch especially, and especially during low-water slumps when neighboring streams are parched and too low to paddle (which was exactly the predicament we faced on this beautiful weather weekend in late September). Clocking in at over one million acres, the Turkey River has the largest watershed of all Iowa’s Driftless streams, so it retains its paddleability admirably well. This is why we waddled over in the first place; originally, the plan was to make this a whitewater weekend, but there wasn’t a single stretch of steep-gradient river within a four-hour radius. So, instead we went Driftless, as we’re wont to do.
The Turkey River is 150ish miles long, with Elkader at about the 110-mile mark. In other words, from Elkader it’s only 40-some miles to the Mississippi. Thus, these two combined trips can be considered part of the lower Turkey River and receive the full benefit of multiple tributaries contributing their volume upstream. When deciding on which section(s) of the river to paddle, we relied on the excellent advice from Nate Hoogeveen’s Paddling Iowa. Both his guidebook and the admirable Turkey River Water Trail Map & Guide begin their Turkey trots from Eldorado on down and provide mercifully helpful ranges of water levels to ensure enough volume to pleasantly paddle. Having been burnt brutally before by woefully low levels in Iowa – stink eye’s on you, Little Maquoketa! – prudence dictated that we side with Hoogeveen’s final two trips: 1) Elkader to Motor Mill and 2) Motor Mill to Garber, described as a “radical departure” from the four separate trips preceding these, meaning nary a sign of civilization (or cultivation), by and by. Plus there was at least the premise if not promise of a whitewater park, which seemed like a good consolation prize for the original weekend plan. And with a very simple but very private camping option at the historic Motor Mill site that equally doubles as the takeout for one trip and the put-in for another, we skipped the fool’s gold of Eldorado to save for another time and sided with Elkader instead.
These two trips certainly could be paddled in one day, but we split them in two since it was late September and not early summer. Moreover, from Madison it’s almost a three-hour drive one-way. Accesses are excellent but by no means evenly distributed, which is why the first trip is so short.
One last quick word about logistics. At the time of Hoogeveen’s writing – at least my copy of his book; I know it’s been updated – there was no whitewater park in Elkader. Instead, there was the major dam upstream of the gorgeous arch bridge downtown, which is still there, and the BS low-head dam on the downstream side of the arch bridge. That’s what was taken out, in 2014, and reconfigured to allow for a safe, if choppy, passage through. It’s for this reason that his trip begins about a mile downstream from downtown Elkader. But it’s also for this reason why we began where the low-head dam used to be, to make good on running the little rapid right there. As has been said a great many times, “you never paddle the same river twice.”
We wanted to run the rapids downtown, so we parked as close to the sidewalk and stairway leading to the water as possible. While there is no official launching spot per se, the bank here is lined with riprap and boulders to allow for a pretty easy and straightforward access. Billed as the Elkader Whitewater Park, take that with liberal grain or two of salt; for it is by no means a “park,” but it is whitewater insofar as constituting one of two ledges to run where there used to be a low-head dam. Dubbed the “gobbler” (get it? – it’s the Turkey River after all), the ledge on river-right is the bigger “drop” and allows for a wave and play spot for whitewater paddlers honing their skills and practicing tricks. The river-left is a splashy flash-in-the-pan. The whole affair is a brief one-and-done, whichever side you run. In kayaks, you’ll want a spray skirt for either to keep from being wet. Open canoes can expect a robust plunge of water in the gobbler, but will be as dry an overcooked turkey on Thanksgiving running the smaller ledge on the left.
Paddlers disinterested in the rapids can skip this by accessing the river a mile downstream at Turkey River Park, off Strawberry Point Road (aka Highway 56). From there to Motor Mill is a neat and tidy 5.5 miles.
Below the two drops on river-left is a mix of industrial ag buildings, train tracks and a public park. It’s a long 19 miles from here to Garber, with virtually zero evidence of civilization in between. A flush of frisky riffles awaits below the Highway 13 bridge (also the only modern construction bridge of its ilk til Garber). Rolling hills and riffles continue one after another, a premium pattern that is the soul of this trip’s first six miles in particular. There’s a very attractive vignette where the river makes a hard 90-degree turn to the right (south) at the base of a big bluff. The mouth of Roberts Creek is found on the left, awash in rocky rabble. Looking upstream of the confluence, the view sure is pretty and plants a seed in the paddler’s insatiably curious mind – can you paddle that? (Probably not, but maybe…)
As you saunter downstream a smidge the main channel will be braided by several small islands. An iconic barn painted in that lush, thick swath of red that only barns can be is seen on the left hunkered below a looming hill – a moment that passes by in a flash but allows one to forget where they are. Iowa? This could be Kentucky. Or the Ozarks. For reals.
From here to Motor Mill the landscape is rugged and wild, featuring steep banks, gravel bars, small islands, seemingly endless riffles, and wooded ridges. Being Iowa, farms are never far away, but on this trip they’re seldom seen. In a similar sense, one can say the same about the plethora of natural springs. I’m sure I missed most of these, but there are at least two notable ones in this section of the river. The first is on river-right in between two huge boulders at the bottom of a hill. What almost looks like a miniature cave, it’s water coming out of the hill itself – like a mouth exhaling vaporous breath. With a little imagination and a lot of lore, it could be a portal into another world.
What may well be the highlight of this trip (and arguably anywhere on all the Turkey River) comes after a long graceful arc to the south and east. First, a gorgeous wall of rock outcrops will ripple on river-right, foreshadowing the showcase downstream on the left – the six-story tall mill built of in situ limestone. Before its rhapsody is cast upon you, take notice of something extraordinary in the limestone outcrops on the right. There, you’ll see yet another natural spring quietly gurgling right out of the crook of the rock. It could be what’s called a “disappearing stream,” where water falls into a sinkhole or similar depression, travels through porous limestone below the earth, and emerges out of a cave or crevice. Either way, this dazzling babble percolates out from some invisible space beneath or behind the rock wall itself, which, I’m sorry, is so friggin’ cool!
And then there’s the gorgeous grandeur of the mill, plumb along the left bank, and just upstream of a statuesque iron truss bridge. It’s an oft-photographed scene (and currently my computer’s screensaver), for good reason. (For more than you’d ever want to know about the mill, see below.) More riffles lie below the bridge, as do limestone outcrops along the right bank. Along the left bank for the next mile or so is the Retz Memorial Woods State Preserve, a proverbial back-forty (well, 49 acres to be precise), known for its “picturesque limestone cliffs and chimneys tower[ing] over a deep ravine filled with massive limestone blocks,” some of which are estimated to be half a billion (with a ‘b’) years old. Also on the left – much smaller and less ancient – is the dedicated access, after a left-hand bend in the river.
Note: For paddlers wishing to start their trip here and not Elkader, but still take in the sight of the mill from the water, one can launch from the mill itself, along the rocky banks. There’s no designated place to do so, but it’s none too difficult. It’s worth seeing the mill from this vantage – and seeing that natural spring. And it definitely beats paddling upstream the surprisingly strong current at the riffles.
From here to Garber it’s nearly 13 miles, all of it pretty wild and utterly lovely! Indeed, it’s my kind of Wild Turkey. It has many of the same features, of course, with the singular distinction being the river meanders considerably – at times doubling back on itself. Riffles will be encountered here and there, but less frequently. But it’s mile after mile of top-shelf bluffs and occasional long lines of limestone outcrops. There’s very little development in this segment, which is fairly remarkable for Iowa (where seemingly every square inch is grown for corn) and makes the paddling experience supreme. There are plenty of places to stop along the banks or sandbars and picnic, pause, saunter, sunbathe, look for fossils, and stack cairns.
Alas, before you know it, the solitudinal reverie will taper – a set of power lines here, the abutments of an abandoned bridge there – and suddenly you’re in Garber (not that that means much). For wanderlust paddlers (aren’t we all?), one nota bene before we’re done is the nonchalant entrance of the Volga River on the right before the first bridge in Garber. The mouth is at a slight bend to the left, so it’s easy to miss. The Volga is the largest tributary of the Turkey and a stunning stream to paddle in its own right, fyi. From here down to the mighty Mississip, the Turkey should have enough water at all times other than extreme droughts. There are two bridges in Garber; pay no mind to the first one. The dedicated access is at the second one, on river-left, downstream side. Like so many bridges in Iowa spanning recreational rivers, it’s marked – telling you what road it is as well as how many miles til the next access. A short and none too steep concrete-lined walkway leads from the water to the parking area.
What we liked:
It’s trips like this where all I want to say in this section of the report is “Everything!” and then drop the mic, exit stage left. But that would be a little glib. Besides, no one has ever accused me of being succinct. Honestly, however, there’s nothing not to like about this stretch of the Turkey River. Its natural beauty is abundant, and the human-added sideshows are plenty becoming as well. Since we haven’t yet paddled the river upstream of Elkader, our frame of reference is narrow. But my inside voice has a hunch that this Elkader to Garber stretch is the prettiest of all the Turkey’s tail-feathers. Accesses are excellent. The river is wide enough for deadfall to pose no problem, yet still retains an intimacy. The flow and gradient alternate between slow swaths to loaf and float and frisky riffles to keep your attention piqued. Arguably, it’s the geology that is the main attraction here, featuring a luxury of limestone outcrops – from attractive rock walls to enormous boulders – and mile after mile of wooded ridges and undulating bluffs. Again, what’s there not to like?
That’s the paddling part. Then there are the extra perks that make this trip just so special. That might sound hokey as hell or, worse still, a caustic kind of cynical sarcasm a la Dana Carey’s Church Lady tagline of “Well isn’t that special?” Haters gonna hate. I for one will make no bones about wearing socks easily knocked off by a six-story-tall mill rising above a lazy river like a quiet sentinel next to a one-lane iron truss bridge iconic to Iowa. The mill was built in the late 1860s, and the bridge is a replica of the fin de siècle original that was demolished by the floods of 2008. Lest we forget, this postcard-perfect vignette comes after a sweeping relief of limestone outcrops and a gurgling natural spring right out of the rock. And there’s a very quaint, very secluded campground here with potable water, bathrooms, hiking trails, and an excellent boat landing to begin or end a trip right here. Consider it a different field of dreams…
About the mill – and thank you for asking. It’s a seriously impressive 90′ tall edifice that is composed of local limestone quarried right at the spot. The foundation walls are a whopping 5′ thick. The whole mill is six stories tall, but the walls on each floor progressively taper 6″, such that the uppermost floor is only 2′ thick. Each wall is unique and comprises a disparate construction technique. Even more impressive, no nails were harmed (or used at all) in the making of this mill. Tours are given, but it’s enough to just marvel at its majesty from the outside. This amazing oasis lies plumb in the middle of nowhere, a little nook you’d never find by happenstance as it requires taking a long dirt road from the top of the ridge down a couple hundred feet into the valley floor below – only one road goes there. A friend of mine calls the Driftless “upside-down land” because to get to the hills you don’t go up, you go down. Geologists call this “inverse topography,” meaning instead of mountains that ascend from the earth’s surface, here it’s all riverine erosion that descends to the earth’s surface. When you’re on top of the ridge or plateau, it’s easy to forget that there’s a kind of magic kingdom surrounding you but that lies below, a secret place to slip down inside. It’s all these ancient rivers that have incised the limestone and sandstone, creating the valleys and ravines. Can you dig it?
Then there’s charming Elkader. Like Decorah, Iowa, Mineral Point, Wisconsin, Lanesboro, Minnesota – heck, even Galena, Illinois – Elkader is an adorable little burg with a great downtown that has the look and feel of how a small town’s downtown oughta. Here are three fun facts about Elkader the likelihood of which guessing will range from “sure, ok” to “huh, really?” to “wait, what?!?” Respectively, those would be the following:
1: The picturesque Keystone Bridge spanning the Turkey River downtown is one of the largest twin arched keystone bridges in the United States, made entirely from local limestone;
2: It’s home to the oldest running grocery store west of the Mississippi River; and
3: Elkader, settled in the 1840s, was named after a Sufi scholar and guerilla revolutionary from Algeria kicking ass against the colonial French, named Abd el-Kader.
Indeed, you really should stop by Schera’s Restaurant for a bite or beverage – or better yet, both. Where else will you find authentic Algerian food matched with Belgian beer? San Francisco? L.A.? New York? Maybe. But nowhere the hell else in Iowa, of all places – much less a humble hamlet of 1200 that’s the seat of a county with not a single traffic light. That, my friends, is just one of the charms and part of the charisma of the Driftless Area.
The dessert to all this savory goodness – for all those whose druthers are sweet treats first – is the a la carte option of running one of two rapids ledges, ranging from solid Class I to II, just downstream from the beautiful Keystone Bridge in downtown Elkader. While we find it a stretch to call this one-and-done feature a “park,” it’s a fun option all the same – and adds way more value than a dumb low-head dam. After all, the silly dam was built (to spill?) in 1914, at the onset of World War I. It would take another hundred years to remove this superannuated stupidity, catch up with the times, and create a little whitewater action to attract the recreational reality of the 21st Century. Now, if only something could be done about the bigger dam 500′ upstream from here. Then you could have a real whitewater park!
What we didn’t like:
Honestly, nothing. This trip on the Turkey is all gravy, stuffing, and fluffy mashed potatoes.
If we did this trip again:
Done and done! Several folks in our paddling pod came back to this spot only a month later to redo these trips – but now in the full basking glory of fall foliage. That said, like so many Driftless streams, the best times to paddle this trip are in early spring and late autumn – when the trees along the banks and up the bluffs are leafless and allow the belgard of every paddler to observe the exposed rock outcrops and topographical splendor or the area.
Camp: Elkader City Park Campground
Camp: Motor Mill Historic Site
General: Turkey River Watershed
Map + Guide: Turkey River Water Trail
Outfitter: Turkey River Rentals
Wikipedia: Turkey River