Every year I try hard to get close friends and family together to enjoy the outdoors. This often takes many forms from the simple fishing trip, a walk in the woods mushroomin’, a short hunt or, like this past Memorial Day weekend, a healthy dose of camping. No, not just any type of camping where you pick some random park and hang out. We’re talking God’s Country, Northeast Iowa where limestone bluffs, clean, small streams and classic Iowa towns give you plenty to do like canoing, fishing, birdwatching and a kids versus adults game of kickball. This past weekend was unbelievable!
You have to immediately understand why this part of the state is such an attraction for anybody that loves the outdoors. The image to the right is literally across from our campground. Imagine how relaxed you’d be hearing the trickle of the stream, echoes of morning songs sung by birds and he shear beauty of such a perfectly sculpted work of art! Another reason this part of the country is so special is because this is where my mom took my sister and I many times. Gone now two years this coming Father’s Day, the memories I have of my mom over so many years up there gives me a strong spiritual connection with her everytime I visit. I can only hope that everybody reading this has such a place, somewhere you can go to clear mind, get right and focus on what is truly important in life. That’s exactly what I did!
The first treat for me on this trip was leaving a day sooner than the rest of our group to secure a good camping spot along the river. Because Maia had school, Kate stayed back with her while I took Lauryn and Ava on their first trip to this special place. It’s not often I get to spend quality time with any of my girls but especially with my younger two. The nearly four hour drive up was pleasant as the kids did some napping before waking up to sing songs they heard on SIRIUS’ KidStuff channel (awesome channel for anybody with kids). After arriving in Bluffton the kids were angels just taking in the sights and exploring as I got camp setup. As you can see in the picture both Lauryn and Ava were getting the hang of this camping thing quite well!
Day two things only got better. We started thing slowly with a campfire breakfast, some donuts and, for me, coffee. After that I wanted to do a few things with Lauryn and Ava that would give them a lasting memory of this area! First up was a trip to the Decorah Trout Hatchery. For those not in the know, many Northeast Iowa streams can support trout including brookies, rainbow and browns. The Decorah Hatchery is an impressive facility that not only raises trout fingerlings to catchable size, they also have a trout stream on the property that provides convenient access to anybody including those with accessibility concerns. Ava and Lauryn absolutely loved it! Small fish, big fish and everything in between. I had hoped to do some trout fishing that weekend along with a shore lunch. Ah, but we had so much to do we simply didn’t have time…besides we’d get plenty of other fishing in! In fact, we left the Decorah Trout Hatchery to hit the upper dam in Decorah. I’ve heard the lower dam is much prettier but the upper dam gets less pressure and has easier access for guys rolling solo with two kids.
First of all, this was the first official fishing trip of the year! Man what a memorable one! Ava and Lauryn *loved* playing with the worms (yeah, that’s right, fishing old school, baby). In fact the worms were almost too much of a distraction for them. Almost. See, the area we picked is one that is now on my top places in Iowa to take a kid fishing. Not only will they likely catch some fish, but they will be a good mix of “game” fish and bigger “rough” fish. To the right you see Lauryn holding a Rock Bass…she’d be the first to tell you she did it “…all by myself!” I have a deep connection with the outdoors and I have my mother to thank for that who got me visiting this part of the state when I was younger. She’s been gone two years come Father’s Day and yet her legacy lives on by passing these experiences to my kids. My bond with the outdoors and this part of the state can’t be over emphasized!
After fishing the kids were hungry and tired. Kate hadn’t arrived yet so all our food for the weekend was still enroute so on the way through “downtown” Decorah we stopped at Happy Joe’s Pizza. Why there? Well turns out that the first Happy Joe’s Pizza Parlor was opened in the Villiage of East Davenport in 1972. A few years after being hatched in 1973 my parent rented an apartment above one of the local pubs. I have very few memories of that time in my life but I do remember Happy Joe’s with the vibrant red-and-white, enchanting noises such as bells and horns. Few can say they grew up on any one food but I can say I literally grew up with Happy Joe’s. So it was only fitting that after a great day a the trout hatchery and after some awesome fishing we eat at a place that had some significance in my life. This trip to Happy Joe’s wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the beauty of downtown Decorah. Some think if you’ve seen one small, Iowa town you’ve seen them all but few compare in raw, traditional beauty. Shop after shop with everything from ice cream and pizza parlors to antique and consignment shops. They truly have it all. (Click read-more for full story)
After lunch we headed back to camp where we all managed to catch a quick nap. Nothing is more relaxing than napping outdoors, stream side with your kids. I only regret that Kate and Maia had to miss out on all the days fun. It wasn’t long before the rest of our group started arriving. First it was the Williams clan, friends from Des Moines. Not long after them came the Kronfelds…the four of them up from Cedar Rapids. Then it was Kate’s brother, Jon, and his girlfriend (and hopefully future wife) Rebecca – Reba for those who know her best. Of course that leaves Kate and Maia who not surprisingly showed up last. It was 8 adults, 8 kids and a Boston Terrier in all. If you don’t particularly like camping and have never had the chance to camp with a large group of friends you really have to give it a try to see if doesn’t change your perception. One of the great things about camping is the kids pretty much entertain themselves, the adults can kick back fireside and relax and each day spent was nothing short of relaxing.
One the highlights of the trip was, not surprisingly, the float we made on Saturday. Blessed with perfect weather, we selected a short float that was the perfect amount of time to keep the kids excited yet not too long to bore them out of the minds. Few places in Iowa offer the beauty seen on the float between Kendalville and Bluffton and if you are familiar with the area you really need to make sure you float the section that has Chimney Rocks. To the right you see one of the Williams boys with one of the best backdrops Iowa has to offer! Best yet, this float gave us one big surprise. Kevin, a long time hunting and fishing buddy, was working with his oldest son on casting from one of the many sandbars you can pull out on. Kevin and I have been visiting these waters for over 10 years so we have gotten pretty good at reading how “fishy” a spot looks and believe me when I tell you there wasn’t anything particularly impressive about this spot. No eddies and for what little slack water there was it was only a few inches deep. That left only the swift part of the river as a viable place to cast. Thinking we had this spot pegged Kevin and I paid little attention while the kids were casting and then, sure enough, we hear yelling. Yep! Fish on! Man, as was it ever. After a few second fighting the fish to shore, it revealed a roughly 17 inch smallmouth bassblack bass that puts up the best fight pound-for-pound. This is why I’m cursed to never “pleasure boat”. I’ve decided if I’m ever going to be in any vessel that floats I will always carry at least one fishing rod.
One of the other highlights from the trip (well, for some anyway) was the kids vs adults kickball match. We’re talking serious stuff here. Both kids and adults took the game very serious and I was surprised at how much trash talking that was coming from both sides. It all sort of reminded me of this classic ESPN commercial. The kids proved to be worthy opponents and it was surprising difficult to actually hit such small and quick targets. In the end, the kids one but I’d like to point out that it was only after yours truly had to come out late in the game with a leg injury. It’s official….I’m not “young” anymore. Ok, so there I was “batting” and clearly being an idiot because a) I was barefoot…sandles were getting in my way and b) I got the itch to see just how far I could kick the ball. Foolish move. As I kicked the ball I am pretty sure I heard my quadricep tear away from the bone. Ok, ok, maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as I’m depicting but I can say it was a fairly severe pulled muscle leaving a nice bruise on my thigh for about a week. Despite this very serious injury I can still tell you it was all worth it. I can’t remember that many adults participating in any sort of pick-up game like that when I was growing up!
Wrapping up, one of the other reason for us having chose this section of river is the convenience. If you recall our campground is right on the Upper Iowa River so by floating the stretch upstream we avoided the hassle of loading all the kids up a second time. We were able to simply pull ashore and send the kids off to play while the adults got unpacked. Once unpacked the evening camping ritual of campfire dinner, smores, beverages of choice and – for those interested – a nightcap of a fine cigar under starlit skies. Even this lengthy blog post can’t recount all the memories made…things like Reba finding a dead, dried-up leopard frog, Jon accidentally giving his dog, Pele, a bath in the cold waters and of the Upper Iowa and one I won’t forget…pulling my quadricep playing the time honored tradition of kickball.
As that weekend ended, it was fate to be a perfect weekend. Before heading home I convinced everybody to go to the Upper Dam to see, first hand, how good the fishing is. I believe all the kids minus one caught a fish but everybody undoubtedly had a great time. One of the things that will last with me was when Doug told me one of his kids were surprised at how much fun fishing could be. Sounds like we may have a budding outdoorsman in the making! Trips like that is truly what it is all about. Anyway, Mother Nature chased us off with lightening coming from some ominous clouds so we all made a mad dash for the vehicles to begin the trip home. Turns out the ride home would even be memorable…but for the wrong reason. We drove through the beginning of what has now been three weeks of very heavy rainfall in Iowa leading to very serious flooding. We personally missed or tornado that touched down just north and east of Waterloo on it’s way to Dunkerton. Not everybody was so lucky as anyone in the towns of Parkersburg and New Hartford will tell you. We made it home safe and while getting home tried our nerves, I know I’m not the only one that can’t wait to get back up to God’s Country and make more memories.