Meryl Streep was on my mind much of the weekend we spent canoeing Iowa’s Middle River.
In “The River Wild,” as she maneuvered a mean Kevin Bacon down a river in Montana, was Meryl Streep wearing gloves? Surely she was wearing gloves, because my hands were slipping on the wet paddle and my river wasn’t nearly as wild as hers.
But, I thought smugly, I had one up on Meryl Streep. She might have received an Academy Award nomination for starring opposite Clint Eastwood in “The Bridges of Madison County,” but I was seeing those famous covered bridges in a manner that the three-time Oscar winner never has.
The Middle River aptly flows through the center of Iowa’s Guthrie, Adair and Madison counties. A rather shallow waterway most days, the Middle has a history of getting deep and wild, as evidenced by its sharply cut banks, gouged watermarks and fallen trees. The river’s two weather-protected covered bridges were built in the 1880s.
A canoe or kayak provides a fascinating look at the Roseman and Holliwell bridges — two of Madison County’s six covered bridges. The 42-mile Middle River Water Trail (madisoncountyconservation.org/water-trail) makes this experience much more accessible for everyone fascinated by the bridges and the pleasant countryside of Madison County.
Paddling the Middle River is nothing new to Matt Hupton, a native of Des Moines. Hupton’s grandparents lived a stone’s throw from the Middle River, so he spent a lot of time fishing and splashing in its muddy waters. Hupton eventually moved to Minneapolis, where he worked for a coffee importer for 18 years. His wife, Naomi, a Minneapolis native, worked in child protective services. Together they have three children.
But after camping at his grandparents’ farm on Memorial Day weekend 2017, the Huptons decided the small-town amenities of nearby Winterset were what they wanted for their family. By August, they had relocated to the farm, and were remodeling a long-vacant house and making career plans that included roasting coffee in the barn and renting canoes, kayaks and tubes under the name Middle River Rentals (middleriverrentals.com).
We learned all of this in the few minutes it took Matt and Naomi to pick us up at our overnight accommodations — a yurt in Pammel State Park — and drive us to the Roseman Covered Bridge, otherwise known as Access No. 71.
More energetic paddlers, or those with more time on their hands, could have started at the trailhead at Middle River Forest Park in Adair County. That would have added almost 17 miles to our trip and we simply didn’t have the time.
And Matt Hupton said the 8.7 miles from the Roseman Bridge to Pammel Park Ford is his favorite part of the river, so we felt good about our choice.
To the ford
As we put in at the Roseman Bridge, our first act was to paddle upstream to get some photos from that wonderful angle.
It had been a few years since my husband and I had shared a canoe, so it took more than a few strokes to get our rhythm going. We were going against the current and trying to turn around and, well, it wasn’t the most graceful of beginnings to this river adventure.
We didn’t dump, but we were hoping that Matt and Naomi, or any other visitors, weren’t watching from the bridge.
Matt said our first stretch to the Pammel Park Ford should take about four hours. Naomi told us to be on the lookout for a friendly golden retriever that often greets paddlers at the old Bailey Bridge, a rusted yet sturdy truss bridge about 3 miles into our journey.
We were disappointed that the dog was nowhere to be seen, but Google Earth shows a farmhouse nearby, so maybe the golden retriever was napping on the porch.
We wouldn’t have had time to play anyway, because our hands were full. Although central Iowa had received considerable rain in the week prior to our visit, the river level had dropped quickly and we encountered more than a few gravel and sandbars that required us to walk the canoe almost as much as we paddled it.
When we were paddling, there were plenty of boulders and snags to maneuver around, which kept our attention on the water. But occasionally, a deer bounded across the stream in front of us and wild turkeys gobbled from the grassy banks.
On those stretches where we could rest our paddles and our shoulders, the peace was all-encompassing. Fluff from cottonwood trees floated around us as a turtle scooted into the water and a great blue heron, unhappy with our approach, took flight above us.
Sooner than we expected, but four hours and 10 minutes after Matt had waved us off, he was waving again from just above the Pammel Park Ford.
As we pulled the canoe out of the river, children and adults waded in the shallow water covering the road. Although Winterset is home to a comprehensive public aquatic center, cooling off in the Pammel Park Ford is a summer tradition in Madison County. And it looked delightful.
The next morning, Matt dropped us off at the Middle River County Park for a quick 4-mile paddle to the Holliwell Bridge. It had rained overnight, just enough that the river was a couple of inches higher.
We floated at a leisurely pace, gently working our paddles and regretfully interrupting a doe and fawn drinking at the river’s edge. A momma Canada goose entered the water with three goslings, as daddy goose honked at us to keep our distance.
All too soon, the rust-red Holliwell Bridge appeared before us. My husband and I edged up to the takeout point like seasoned pros, and Matt slid down the bank to help us with the canoe, right on time.
What a wonderful weekend getaway. We totally nailed it. I’m sure Meryl Streep couldn’t have performed better.
Where to stay
Pammel State Park has two air-conditioned and heated yurts that sleep up to eight people, as well as 36 modern campsites and five tent sites. Reservations may be made at madisoncountyconservation.org.
Otherwise, several types of lodging options are available in Winterset (madisoncounty.com/accommodations).
Where to eat
Pammel State Park does not have a camp store, but several convenience stores, grocery stores and restaurants in Winterset provide eats. Additional treats are available at the county’s four wineries, brewery and cidery (madisoncounty.com/wineries-spirits).
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a travel writer based in Kansas City.