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Catch the wave

Paddlers take on the waves at the new whitewater park in Manchester.
There are plenty of ways to enjoy the outdoors in Iowa thanks to a multitude of parks and multi-use trails found throughout the state.  Some communities, though, are also finding ways to better utilize water resources in their own backyards.  

Charles City, for example, was the first in the state to remove a low-head dam along the Cedar River and develop a whitewater park that runs right through the city’s downtown area. The success of this venture has helped convince other communities that taking advantage of (and enhancing) local natural resources can not only provide a host of new recreational opportunities, but offer some economic benefits as well.

Opened in Spring 2014, the Elkader Whitewater Park (www.elkaderwhitewater.com) was an idea originally discussed between kayaking enthusiasts and a De­­partment of Natural Resources fisheries biologist as a way to remove a small dam and make the Turkey River more accessible as it flowed through town. However, a common occurrence in many river towns helped make it more of a priority eight years ago.   

“After the flood of 2008, the project took on a new significance as a way to rebuild the lower end of town and re-embrace the riverfront,” explains Tom Gifford, an Elkader resident and kayaker, who has been involved with the whitewater park project from the beginning.

Today, the park’s features are a result of strategically placing individual granite boulders of various sizes to channel and spread the forces of the water in the riverbed. One of the main features of this re-engineering is a 22-foot-wide perpetual wave — called the “Gobbler” — that allows one to face upstream and ride the wave using a kayak, boogie board or whatever. But these improvements have benefitted more than just paddling enthusiasts.

“I like the multi-purpose usage of the area compared to before. It used to be a good fishing spot, but it wasn’t accessible or useable by the general public.  Now the area is used for fishing, kayaking, boogie boarding and occasionally tubing,” offers Gifford.

Elkader leaders also made sure the project’s improvements went beyond just placing boulders in the river to create waves, as they took a close look at enhancing the shoreline as well.  

“The riverbank was also re-done during the process, changing an upright river access with steep, uneven steps into a handicap accessible walking path with various viewing spots suitable for hanging out, eating lunch or just reading a book,” explains Gifford.  “The usage of the area for general socializing has increased tremendously.”

Featuring six different drops spanning more than 800 feet, the Manchester Whitewater Park (www.manchester-ia.org/whitewater-park/) first opened in May 2015 and has become a favorite stop for all types of water enthusiasts from Iowa (and beyond) seeking ways to enjoy themselves along the Maquoketa River.

“Since it officially opened, the park has seen constant use by anglers, waders, swimmers, tubers, body surfers, whitewater canoeists, rafters and kayakers,” says Chuck Ungs, a conservation education specialist with the Linn County Conservation Department, who is also a Manchester resident, an avid kayaker and a member of the park’s organizing committee.

The park runs right through the heart of downtown Manchester and is the site of an old hydroelectric dam built in 1904 that provided electrical power to the community up until the early 1960s. With the original dam gone, that stretch of river now consists of six rock weir structures that concentrate the flow of the river into a narrow channel, which then drops and creates wave-like flows at each structure.

“The water levels at the park produce different experiences at each feature on any given day. There are favorite waves to do different whitewater tricks on, but swimmers, tubers, body surfers and more all run straight through, from feature one to six, and then walk back along a nice sidewalk to the top and start over,” says Ungs.

Water enthusiasts, however, are not the only ones who have benefitted from this river revitalization project, as the park is free, open 365 days a year, easily accessible and designed to be used by people of all ages, abilities and interests.

“I like the appearance of the park and how it has become a focal point for our community. Citizens have taken pride in the park, and it’s exciting to see the number of people who regularly use and enjoy it,” says Ryan Wicks, a local resident and professional civil engineer who, along with his wife, Angie, has been involved with the river and recreation subcommittee of the Manchester Good to Great organization.

Wicks says the first concept plan for the park was completed in 2010, but construction did not begin until fall 2014 once the necessary grants and funding were secured. He acknowledges the park’s features have been great for whitewater enthusiasts, but said other benefits of the park have also been revealed.

“One of the most surprising outcomes of the project has been the increased park activity and the fellowship of people using the park,” explains Wicks.  “A majority of the visitors are along the shoreline, with many simply hanging out at the park to watch activity on the river and simply enjoy the sights and sounds the park offers.”

Yontz is a freelance writer from Urbandale.