My pickleball scores weren’t that embarrassing, but my temper sure was. On the court, I was making a name for myself as “that lady who throws her racket, drops f-bombs in the presence of a small children, and cries on a regular basis.” This was not the reputation I was going for.
As I handed $40 over to a local herbalist whose concoction promised to help me keep my cool on the court, I looked at the plastic pot of pills in my hand and realized it was time to find a new sport—one that would bring me peace, not push me closer to the sanitorium. I traded in my pickleball paddle for a different kind and haven’t looked back.
Clouds or sun, hot or not, if I find myself with three free hours before sundown, I’ll pack a snack, fill a bottle, and skip town in search of water. Because the me I find on a stand-up paddleboard is happy. Quiet. Curious. Kind. It’s a me I actually like hanging out with.
After my first few fabulous floats—one magical paddle I’ll admit involved me in my skivvies under the sparsely populated cliffs of Madeleine Island, Wisconsin, during which I swear I was inhabited by some sort of Lake Superior goddess—I finally bought my own board. Once a year was not enough. I wanted this experience every day. And with the invention of inflatable stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) made with sturdy, military-grade PVC, I could fold up my beautiful baby and store it in the trunk of my car, ready to ride at a moment’s notice.
I also splurged on a car-battery plug-in air pump and a life jacket to stop my mother from making warbled worry noises through clenched teeth. I was legal now. And off into the wild.
I’m sure SUP is old hat for some of you. Originated in Waikiki, Hawaii, in 1940 by John Ah Choy—an aging surfer who grabbed a canoe paddle and adopted an upright position to reach the waves he still craved—the sport didn’t rise to popularity until the 1990s, but truly exploded around 2013. I’m catching the second wave.
If you’re thinking of giving it a try—or investing in your own little slice of peace—I am delighted to share this list of Southeast Iowa waterways I’ve loved exploring on my heavenly hoverboard—and a few other tips for turning a good float into a great one.
They say balancing on an SUP—and paddling—is great for building core strength, but truly I spend most of my SUP time sitting down. Why don’t I just get a kayak? Because I like to keep my options open. On an SUP you can sit cross-legged, fold your legs under you, kneel, or if you have flexible hamstrings, try an L position. Some boards come with an attachable seat-back for a supported sit, but that kind of sophistication would prevent me from achieving the ultimate lazy-paddler pose: lying down to look at the sky.
I do stand up for a portion of every paddle. It’s great to stretch one’s sea legs, with the added bonus of feeling like King of the World. The classic upright position comes in handy, too, when you’re making your way downwind and want to use your body like a sail. It may feel scary at first, but if you get the board that’s right for your size (they are available in myriad widths, lengths, and styles), you’ll be surprised at how comfortable you feel with a little practice. People even do yoga on these things, but I don’t know why you’d want to ruin a perfectly good float with the kind of exertion required by “downward-facing dog.” You’re on the water! You’ve already achieved nirvana!
Now. Where to go. I’ll start close to home.
The second of Fairfield’s pretty reservoirs, “Res 2”—just a short walk from the local college campus and connected to the Fairfield Loop Trail—is a mecca of outdoor activity: fishing, hiking, and local teens experimenting with energy drinks in the woods. But there’s plenty of room—especially on the water. Catch views of water’s-edge flora, duck your head and float under pine branches hovering over the bank, and sneak up on sunbathing turtles. Paddle north and turn back when your fin starts catching mud in the shallows. When you’ve had enough pleasantness, deflate your board and hop across the road to Fishback & Stephenson Cider House for a tart glass of their Iowa (aronia berry) Strangler.
A word to the wise. I’ve fallen off my board just once, and it was at Pleasant Lake. Chatting away with my paddle buddy, I had stopped paying attention to my surroundings, hit a submerged branch near the water’s edge, and was in up to my waist before you can say “monkey’s uncle.”
DO: wear quick-dry clothing (not cotton) in the event of an unintended swim.
DON’T: stand up on your board in the rocky shallows or near a tree-lined bank. Your friends may think it’s funny when you fall in—but you won’t feel like laughing when you bust your collarbone. Sit that sh*t down.
A small but lovely forested body of water, li’l Lacey Lake is great for a short, relaxed float and an early evening barred owl prowl. Last time I put my board in over there, I was delighted by two birds flirting with each other across the water from the tree tops: Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you-alllll? The canopy of green all around makes for an impressive echo chamber of nature noises. But maybe avoid going midsummer during prime swim ’n’ scream time at the beach. Voices do carry.
DON’T: forget your paddle! There is nothing worse than driving a half hour to reach water only to discover you can’t get out on it. Terrible tragedy.
DO: keep a thin line of rope tied to the top of your board. So when you forget to bring your paddle but remember to bring a friend, you can tie your boat to his and enjoy a leisurely tow across the lake—with a surprisingly minimal amount of drag. A rope is also an essential tool for securing two boards together when you have a hunger for a different sort of recreational activity with your paddle partner. I’m referring to open-water picnicking, you sicko!!
Put in at the docks near the campground and paddle southwest—there’s a quiet bay and marshland mini creek just beyond the public camping area that’s fun to explore. Observe red-headed woodpeckers chipping away above you on hollow trees as you float through an alley between tall grasses. But the best bang for your buck might be to start at the main boat launch close to the park entrance, paddle south, and nose your way into Honey Creek! Snack on the umbrella-shaped blooms of the elderberry bush—honeyed “umbels” that flower late spring to early summer—as you wind your way through the forest on a watery footpath. I recommend sitting down for most of this one.
DO: pack a dry bag with a field guide and bring a wild-food savvy friend along if you decide to do any forest foraging.
DON’T: get out on the water in strong winds. I put my board in at Lake Darling beach once, foolishly hoping to ride some early-autumn white caps back to the main ramp in a stunt called “downwinding.” I thought I was a strong paddler, but two seconds on that water was enough to show me I had zero control, and I got right back out again. Best to avoid wind speeds over 10 mph. Pay attention to wind forecasts, learn to read the water, and if there is any question in your mind, paddle out against the wind so you don’t risk exhausting yourself on the way back, or worse, getting stranded someplace you’d rather not spend the night.
Located south of Ottumwa, this perty state park offers trails, swimming, camping, and a ramp for small boats. I went in late May on a weekday and spent a lovely afternoon navigating freshly unfurled lily pads and jumping bluegill, and listening to a birdsong chorus as I ate my dinner in the shade of the coniferous treeline. I was delighted to discover a pair of—what I’m 99 percent sure were—trumpeter swans, once extinct in Iowa, but getting a recent reintroduction. Plump white bodies, long rust-colored necks. They gracefully entered the water and gave me a little honk: their polite request. I obliged them with an extra wide berth as I passed on by.
DO: take time to get quiet. Sit still. Listen. Some of the biggest gifts have come to me when I wasn’t in a hurry to “get there.”
DON’T: bring your phone on the water for pictures unless you’ve got a reliable, waterproof case. I know, I know, it’s hard not to want to capture the moment, but sometimes the moment is richer when you’re not fretting about the perfect shot.
Simply put, it’s a big fat party lake. And wide waters can mean stronger winds and choppier waves, but I did find some put-ins away from the loud motor boats, and there are beautiful bluffside views to be had at sunset when the day-drinkers and family-circus pontooners go home for dinner. Get a free map at the boathouse gift shop and pick a spot to put in out west!
DO: wear your leash—that fancy little black anklet that attaches you, telephone-cord style, to your raft. If you find yourself on big water, and a speedboat (or yacht!) cruises by, you’ll be glad for a little assurance that if you get rocked off your board, it won’t go shooting away from you. You dropped a couple hundred for that thing, I assume you’ll want to keep it.
DON’T: forget to bring plenty of water. Get yourself a sturdy bottle with a loop cap so you can hook it with a carabiner to the elastic webbing atop your board. If your SUP flips, everything is going with it. Best if it’s all attached!
Deep Lakes Park
As I reached the park entrance amidst abandoned industrial towers and a nearby smokestack belching white shmutz into the sky, I was dubious I’d even want to get on the water of this former sand and gravel quarry adopted by the Muscatine County Conservation Board. But what I thought might be the armpit of this Mississippi River-town turned out to be a truly lovely place to spend an afternoon. Lake Chester, the largest in this network of mini lakes, won me over with its sandy banks, clear waters, schools of fish, cottonwood trees, bankside lambs ears, and a gorgeous, very brave loon fishing for its dinner a mere twenty feet away from my craft.
Des Moines River at Keosauqua
Try a lazy float ’round the river’s “big bend,” Austin Park to the Keosauqua bridge near Hotel Manning. It’s a three-hour excursion at most, and you might hit bottom a few times if we’re having a dry spell, but it’s otherwise an easy float and fun with a small group. You’ll need a couple cars for this one—for the start and finish points and the short taxi in between.
From Turkey Run (off Highway 1 south of Fairfield) to Round Prairie (three bridges east downstream), Cedar Creek offers a leisurely half-day paddle—if you’ve got a little moving-water navigation savvy and some shoes you don’t mind getting wet. Enjoy lots of shady passages, a curious little waterfall trickling over orange-colored stone, and hawk, deer, snake, and owl sightings. And getting stuck once or twice on a couple patches of mini rapids was actually rather fun. As my new paddle buddy Eric said (and I think this applies to almost any Iowa public waterway), “It may not be epic, but it’s ours.” Speaking of epic …
DO: invest in an ample-sized dry bag, and indulge in some gourmet snacks for the ultimate getaway. Sourdough crisps, dried peaches, and brie? Do it up. I maintain there is almost nothing finer in life than crafting the perfect bite … on a boat. Bring a little knife, a real napkin, and in good company, dare I say (don’t tell the park ranger) some summertime suds? In moderation, people! We don’t need to be calling search and rescue on your sorry self.
DON’T: be the numbnuts who leaves his beer can in the water. Just. Don’t.
I hesitate to include this one, but only because I selfishly want to keep her under wraps. So please don’t tell all your cousins. This 574-acre lake just a few miles south of Lacey-Keosauqua was formerly Indian Creek but was dammed up in 1992 to create “a fisherman’s dream.” She holds a gooey place in my heart and possesses an eerie beauty you’ve got to see up close to fully appreciate. And by “up close,” I don’t mean from the fishing dock.
This large lake features plenty of wide-open water, a bevy of quiet inlets, so many long fingers I have yet to paddle into all of them, and even a few tiny islands. But her majesty Sugema boasts another feature that has stolen my deep affection. She is endlessly peppered with groves of half-submerged dead trees that command awe and demand caution; a stump hiding just below the water’s surface can bring your board to a sudden full stop—a bump you’ve got to wiggle off of if you haven’t already careened into the water. So go nice and slow on Sugema. You’ll want to anyway. Her half-submerged forests make for the most spectacular visuals I’ve seen the likes of on Iowa water. As you float quietly through the stoic statues of this lake, you’ll understand: they’re the stuff of moody, macabre movies and poems by Edgar Allen Poe.
Explore Sugema. Find a big tree, nose your board into the crook of its lowest branches, and bust out the Prairie Breeze cheese as you thrill in sighting a blue heron fishing in the shallows. Witness a pregnant plump of geese exploding into a sudden cacophony as it peels out of the water. Or bring a friend, stay late, and watch the Perseids shoot across the summer night sky.
Sugema. I wrote her a poem.
I push off from the dock
and am weightless again
I fold my feet under and paddle Sugema soft
making baby tornadoes in my wake
mesmerizing the fish
On still days near dusk
print themselves in reverse below me
with the edges of the sun
My board and body
hold the two heavens together,
a tiny needle riding the seam
of space and time
I thread myself through a
graveyard of blackened trees
hovering gracefully in the glass
Her skeleton forest is a haven for the heron
and wings himself away
The satin sheet of daylight
slips off of the sky
I walk on the water
and float right under the moon
I’ve only had my SUP for a year, but have found every excuse to get out for a paddle—including on last year’s balmy, 64-degree Christmas Eve Day. I figure being on my board is the closest I’ll ever get to feeling like Jesus, walkin’ right across the blue and into the sunset.
My name means “protector of the sea,” but I think the sea—her inland sisters, anyway—are actually saving me. I haven’t thrown my paddle a single time.
If you’re an SUP or kayak paddler and have recommendations for low-traffic, quiet spots in Eastern Iowa, send word about your favorite put-ins. Lake McBride? Red Rock? We’re all ears. Email Sourceoffice@lisco.com.