Charles City Whitewater Park, Iowa

Aug 9, 2011  | 8 min  | Ep 105

Steve Welliver, Prairie Rapids Paddlers: “Who would have thought something like this would ever happen in Iowa.”

Marty Colbert, Prairie Rapids Paddlers: “This is a world class feature. I’ve boated a number of places around the country. I’ve played in a number of features like in Colorado. This is by far and away…this park is equally every bit as good. Its fantastic”

Iowa’s first whitewater course is now fully operational. Kayakers from across the state and Midwest are flocking to Charles City and the hydro features specially designed for fast-paced paddling.
Amanda: “But this project wasn’t without its challenges. A low-flow dam in town had to be changed to provide safe passage for kayakers.”

Scott: “Construction and planning costs led Charles City to invest one million dollars in the downtown whitewater project. ”

Community leaders were approached by paddlers like Steve Welliver and Ty Graham - who dreamed of an Iowa whitewater course for much of the past decade. The river’s low-flow dam in Charles City, similar to those utilized across the state, are known as death traps for anyone caught amidst the powerful churning motion. Engineers sought to remove a top section of the dam…creating a water feature that was safe but still challenging.

Hannah Eden, Prairie River Paddlers: “No other place like this for 800 miles. We’ve played at old broken down dams but its great to have a safe place.”
When paddlers presented the idea of a whitewater course to Charles City officials in 2006 it seemed within everyone’s grasp.
Steve Welliver: “…and they took it and went from there and got the funding. We were ready to get going on it but then the flood hit so the state pulled the money for flood recovery.”
The floods of 2008 raised the Cedar River to historic levels, devastating communities and potentially dooming the whitewater park project.
But Charles City redoubled its efforts…

SCOTT: “The rocks that line this new course had to be brought in by heavy equipment. Construction crews spent much of the winter and spring assembling not just the water’s flow but the riverfront as well.”

Amanda: “The people of Charles City hope the Cedar River project draws hundreds of new visitors…but the green spaces along the banks are equally important.

Scott: “Plans were designed to draw the casual park goer and not just the seasoned kayaker.”

Green spaces up and down the riverfront provide a scenic view of action on the water and an open invitation to enjoy a sometimes forgotten asset.
When the park opened in 2011, kayakers from near and far discovered a variety of options.
SCOTT: “Three major water features line the whitewater course. Ranging from beginner to advanced, each feature provides a different spin on the Cedar River.”

Entering the whitewater course at its upstream point, you’ll first encounter dam drop. Once the site of the Charles City low-flow dam, its now a safe churn of the Cedar River.
Hannah Eden: “The first drop is definitely for beginner to intermediates. My favorite is probably the dam drop, the top one. It’s just really easy because you can sit up there and surf for what feels like half an hour at a time. Its not but it feels like it. I can do anything up there. I learned how to loop up there and flat spin up there.”

Marty Colbert: “I love surfing up at the double-D at the top end. Its fantastic for flat surfing and ideal for spins. You can loop both in the top and in the second chance wave.”

Next up is Doc’s Drop, a water feature that has already developed a serious reputation.
Steve Welliver: “The middle one is named after me because my nickname is Doc. Its kind of a monster at most levels.”

Marty Colbert: “Clearly the middle feature, Doc’s drop, is the true rodeo hole and it requires your undivided attention. When I go and paddle out there I know I need to be on my game. Its exceedingly powerful.”

The third and final drop was dubbed exit exam and draws plenty of paddlers to the downstream section.
Marty Colbert: “Exit exam down here is a lot of fun at this level. Part of the beauty of this feature is that at different levels it presents different opportunities. It would be hard to pin down my favorite. It’s much like sledding down a hill. We are up here playing in this thing and enjoying it.”

AMANDA: “And if you’re looking for a calmer, less turbulent path, each water feature has a safe chute nearby. So a first-timer can bypass the expert section.”

This course isn’t just for kayakers. Hundreds of tubers glide through whitewater park every week. Young adults and families can find local businesses nearby that have begun renting tubes. The water is even safe enough for a pair of TV hosts.

On a sunny day in mid-July, the Cedar River flow rate is 2500 cubic feet per second, or CFS. Different rates generate dramatic changes in the water features…especially when Mother Nature gets to work.
AMANDA: Today is a testament to the raw nature of Iowa’s rivers and streams. Heavy rain in southern Minnesota just days ago sent a rush of water downstream.

SCOTT: The water flow was 500 cubic feet per second 48 hours ago. Today it’s at 9000 CFS…making the course unsafe until the flow-rate drops.

In only a matter of days those water levels drop back into a safe zone…leaving the course open for adventure seekers from across the country.

Marty Colbert: “Here they are getting people from all over the Midwest. People from Oregon, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin so they are coming from all over.”

Hannah Eden: “Once you get the people excited about it you can take care of the river and get this going in your community. It creates economic impact. People come stay in town and eat at the restaurants and that’s what we do when we come up here.”

Amanda: “Charles City’s Main Street is just a stones throw away from the Cedar River.”

Scott: “Visitors to the nearby water project are expected to spend $45-$75 each day. That could provide a nice economic shot-in-the-arm for any Iowa town.”
With Iowa’s first whitewater project operational could there be more in our future? Die-hard paddlers concede it takes tremendous community effort and financial backing in tough economic times.
Steve Welliver: “Communities just have to pull together and have a vision and get it done. Charles City, when they first heard they thought it was the best idea ever and they pursued and didn’t let the naysayers deter them one bit.”