I’m not worried about it,” remarked Chris Sickert about the electric fence that crossed the creek in front of the canoe.
“Okay,” I said back. I imagined in terror that Chris would grab the electric wire as we drifted under it, and the current from the live wire would travel down the water in the bilge of the canoe and shock me. I rearranged my feet outside of the water, and wondered if the rubber bottoms on my Teva’s would block the current. “Did I every tell you about the time my father took a pee on an electric fence?”
“No,” said Chris. “I doubt that they would have the fence turned on anyway.”
We were paddling Buffalo Creek, which runs 51 miles and parallels the Wapsipinicon River until it joins with the later near Anamosa. We had been waiting about a month for spring rain to fill the creek and make it canoeable. It just so happened that the day after it rained, Chris, Steve Hauptli, and I all had the day off, so we had loaded two canoes on top of my little Toyota Corolla and headed to central Iowa to paddle the creek we had been looking at on the map for several years. I often find myself hovering over maps for hours on end, scratching my chin and imagining how well a creek, stream or river will paddle. From my research on this creek, my imagination ran wild, because it seemed to have all the perfect characteristics that you’d look for in a great Iowa River. Mainly, it had water.
Most of my good friends fled Iowa after college for the steep and fast waters of Colorado, so they would laugh if I told them that the other characteristic that made me want to paddle the Buffalo Creek was the gradient. To them an overall gradient of 4.8 feet per mile or a 245 foot drop over the 51 miles would be laughable, and to most people it would be considered gentle with a few riffles thrown in for fun, but what interested me more was that in the last 11 miles from Burlingham Road to the creeks mouth on the Wapsi; it drops 6.4 feet per mile. And the 12 miles before that from Cogon the Buffalo drops 5.6 feet per mile. That drop put this little creek up in the ranks of some of the best Iowa rivers that I’ve paddled, which include the Volga and Yellow. As a comparison, the Wapsipinicon, which the Buffalo parallels only drops 1 foot per mile over the same distance, which is pretty typical of rivers in central Iowa. These higher gradients and the surrounding green corridor that appeared on the topos made this a highly desirable run for us.
Despite all my hopes for a river, and despite how good a river looks on a map, I always feel a bit of trepidation before placing paddle in the water. I often wonder what I’m getting into, and question if I really want to be dragging a canoe over a shallow creek for 12 miles, but that is all part of the Iowa paddling game. You win some, and the ones you lose, you drag. At the put-in under the Burlingham Road, the water ran swift and muddy from the rainwater. The outlook looked good for this river, and this forecast provided a good taste of the river to come. For most people the picture that forms in the mind of an Iowa stream is a slow moving shallow waterway surrounded by cornfields. The Buffalo Creek would disappoint those looking for that type of paddling trip, because a nice lowland forest surrounded the creek, and the those trees combined with hills on each side built an intimate atmosphere. It felt as if the Buffalo wanted to hold you in its hands and gently pull you downstream to deposit you into the Wapsi.
Small rounded river rock combined with mud and some sand formed most of the creek bottom, and this rock covered many of the beaches, making some great spots to pull off the river to snack, stretch the legs, and snap a few pictures. Somehow, the great creek gods, had worked hard to make all the drops as completely enjoyable as could be. The powers that be decided that anytime there was a drop, the channel would narrow and be forced into a small run and quick drop that even the greenest novice could handle, but would excite the most jaded pro. Or in other words, the perfect Iowa river!
Despite all the perfection on this trip, we ran into three big obstacles: a massive log jam, that required a long hike and boat pull through a muddy shallow ( read four inches) side channel that the creek was forming, cows that for some reason followed us and in several cases forced us to back paddle to avoid them crossing the creek, and the electric fence which I warned Chris not to touch.
Despite my warning he choose to just push the fence out of the way instead of ducking, and when he reached up to grab the fence, I cringed, but nothing happened. He looked back and then I saw his jaw clamp down and pain in his eyes. The fence sent its electricity in pulses. After he let go, he yelled, “Duck.” With only 4 four feet of canoe between me and the fence and Chris without a paddle in hand, I forgot about my job as stern man, decided to let the canoe do as it may, and dropped flat to the floor of the canoe. The electric fence just cleared the painter line resting on the stern deck of my canoe.
“That’s exactly what happened to my dad,” I said after making sure Chris was all right. Steve, in his solo canoe, already had let his chuckling turn to laughter and shortly after Chris and I joined him in a good belly rumble.
The trip on the Buffalo Creek turned out to be a memorable one, and not just because of Chris’s encounter with the powers of electricity, but because even in Iowa, a place that most people don’t believe has wild places, if you look at a map long enough you’ll find a small left over of natural history. If you’re willing to search out these slivers and attempt to explore them, the rewards and adventures will inspire you to make sure that they remain for all to enjoy. A bonus for paddlers is that most of these untouched places surround a good stream to descend, so get out and paddle.
This story was originally published in the Spring 2005 issue of The Iowa Paddler.