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Revisiting the River

Sometimes doing something on the spur of the moment is best. I don’t think my wife and I could have planned a nicer outing than we had on May 31 if we ‘d had weeks to do it. We were both busy with odd jobs around the house and yard on Saturday. During a brief break at about 10:30 in the morning, I mentioned that the good old Skunk River should be just about right for a canoe trip. It was something we used to do at least once a year, and hadn’t done in far too long. Lunch sandwiches were whipped up and the canoe rack and canoe placed on the pickup in record time. We dropped off the car at our planned pull-out point at Sleep Hollow on the north side of Ames, and were loading the cooler with our lunch into the canoe at Soper’s Mill by noon.

Others had obviously come to the conclusion that it would be good day to be on the river. The parking area next to the river access point at Soper’s was already crowded with young people blowing up inflatable floatation and smearing on sun lotion for a planned float down the river. I wasn’t worried about the river being too crowded, though. The first inflatables weren’t even on the water as we rounded the bend and had the river almost entirely to ourselves. We eventually passed a young man in a kayak who was obviously enjoying his own quiet float down the river. He’s the only other person we saw until we pulled out.

A few trees were down across the river, and the water got pretty shallow as we skimmed over several sand and gravel bars. We were able to sneak past each obstacle without as much as getting our feet wet, though. The river is a series of leisurely stretches punctuated by laughing little riffles feeding into deeper pools. A few riffles were swift and steep enough to actually feel the canoe accelerate and feel the drop. Late spring wildflowers sprinkled the shoreline in places. We paddled through occasional snow flurries of drifting cottonwood seeds. It’s amazing to think that the tiny seed in each floating puff of cotton could become a giant cottonwood tree in only 50 years or so.

Even though the river was nearly dry for parts of 2012 and 2013, it was evident that some fish had survived. Schools of minnows flashed across shallow flats and larger suckers and carp swirled the water as they sped away from the canoe. I can only hope that a few small-mouthed bass and channel catfish were hiding unseen in the deeper holes under log jams and below little rapids. A great blue heron perched in a tree within 50 feet of us as we passed near McFarland Park. A family of geese with five well-grown goslings grazed on riverside grass as we passed Peterson Park. Orioles, waxwings, hawks, jays, sandpipers and other birds flashed across the river in several places. The most memorable thing we saw was the largest colony of cliff swallows I have seen in a long time. Hundreds of them have taken up residence in their gourd-shaped mud nests under the new bridge at Peterson Park.

We enjoyed the lunch we had brought on a large gravel bar. It provided an opportunity to see who could find the prettiest rocks and the best skipping stones. We brought home a beautiful piece of glassy smooth chert that was mottled tan and brown. I pondered how a Native American might have made a useful tool out of it only a couple of hundred years ago. Sadly, I also found pieces of broken beer bottles and some unbroken bottles that some slobs had left behind not long ago. Several of the light plastic beach inflatables that kids had bought to float down the river obviously didn’t fare too well when scraping over sharp rocks or had been punched by one of the many branches that lurk just under the water. Some were left where they went flat and a couple of more were left at the pull-out point.

There were no mosquitoes yet. The day was warm with a light refreshing breeze. The water was clear and sparkling. The only mistake we made was not starting sooner and planning a longer trip. We were on the water less than two hours, but would gladly have canoed on into the evening. I sure hope we’ll go again sometime soon.

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