Kayakers navigate the Raccoon River near Van Meter during ICON Water Trails’ last float of the season. Photo by Emily Kestel
Kayakers navigate the Raccoon River near Van Meter during ICON Water Trails’ last float of the season. Photo by Emily Kestel

I had the amazing opportunity to join ICON Water Trails for its last float of the season recently. A group of about a dozen folks from ICON, the Iowa DNR, Polk County Conservation and supporters paddled the stretch of the Raccoon River from Van Meter to Booneville, west of Des Moines.

 

It was sunny, calm and hot. The water was low. So low that if it hadn’t rained the weekend before, the float would have been canceled.

 

For the uninitiated, ICON Water Trails is a $125 million initiative that connects more than 80 sites along 150 miles of rivers and creeks in Central Iowa. It is being funded through a combination of a capital campaign and public money.

 

After a quick safety talk, we carried our kayaks to the river, carefully climbed in and set off on our journey. 

 

After a wobble or two and the obligatory splashing around, I got my balance in my blue kayak, which was accented by the neon green paddles I would use to navigate my way to our destination.

 

I’ve canoed before. Not a lot, but enough that I kind of understood what I needed to do.

 

I was told beforehand that the low water would make it a little more difficult to navigate. On several occasions my kayak scraped along the bottom. On a few occasions I needed help getting unstuck.

 

Here’s a quick nod to Rich Leopold, executive director of Polk County Conservation, who more than once (OK, several times) gave me a nudge or a pull to free me.

 

As the group floated and scraped its way downstream, there were introductions, conversations, stories shared and advice given to this newbie. Directions like “back paddle’’ were given a few times, by more than one person.

 

It was networking on water. A nice afternoon away from emails, technology and meetings.

 

My co-worker Emily Kestel joined us to shoot some photos. I learned that she has been kayaking since she was small. Really small. So I figured she’d be a good person to give me some advice. “Engage your abs,” she said, explaining that I should use my stomach muscles when paddling or my arms would get tired.

 

I must have engaged my usually not engaged abs because they were a little sore the next day. But it didn’t keep my arms from getting tired, especially late in the float. Surprisingly, though, my arms and shoulders weren’t really sore. 

 

Besides the river bottom to navigate, there were tree limbs and stumps jutting from the water — obstacles that at times appeared ominous but ones I fortunately did not encounter, or at least not closely enough to be a problem.

 

Along the way we passed a group of paddlers who had pulled up on the riverbank. We saw various birds, including blue herons. A bald eagle soared overhead on more than one occasion. 

 

We took a break midway for a quick lesson about the river, but soon returned for the last stretch of our trek.

 

I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a little difficult, at least for me.

 

My paddling technique was — nonexistent.

 

Several times I found myself turning sideways. On one occasion I just gave in to the river and let it carry me backward for a while.

 

It really wasn’t until I was within sight of where we would get out of the water that I hit a wall. Figuratively speaking.

 

Let me preface this by explaining something. I’m not in the physical condition I once was. I’m the guy who fudges the truth when my doctor asks me how much exercise I get when he tells me I should lose a few pounds. Or at least I used to, until he called me out on it. Now he just says I should try to get SOME exercise. 

 

AND it was hot.

 

I had my water bottle with me, and drank from it periodically throughout the afternoon. But maybe not enough.

 

Not to belabor the point, but I felt like the distance runner who pulls a hamstring after the last turn and needs help across the finish line.

 

Fortunately, there was plenty of help and a super supportive group of folks to get me there.

 

Despite the lackluster finish to my first kayaking adventure, it was a good time. What’s not to like about being outdoors with fresh air, hearing only the sounds of paddles splashing, birds chirping and squawking, the occasional sound of leaves rustling in the light breeze, and the directions being called out to back paddle?