Keokuk’s bluffs are visible from Nauvoo’s hills. The two towns are close to each other, but today they feel light years apart. Even after paddling for ages, I seem no closer to my destination. The river is wide here, which makes judging distance more difficult, slows the current, and adds extra chop to the water on windy days – and today is windy. Fortunately it is mostly tailwind, which is better than headwind, but to me is worse than no wind at all.
When the river surface is calm, my kayak paddle strokes are long and smooth, the cadence is steady, the boat glides, and I make time. On choppy days, water sloshing against the boat creates more friction, plus my paddling strokes devolve into a hacking motion. It’s not a huge deal, but it leads to my premise that, in canoeing as in golf, the wind is rarely your friend.
Approaching Keokuk, I ponder my options. The initial plan was to paddle through the lock to a spot that, on my phone map, looks to be a viable campsite. But it’s getting late and, given my track record, I will surely be held up at the lock by an upriver barge. I pass a man and woman lounging in an idling boat, sipping icy drinks. We chat and they suggest visiting nearby Keokuk Yacht Club, commenting that the members welcome river travelers like me. Sold!
A peaceful moment at the Keokuk Yacht club – with boat slips to the left, boat houses to the right, and the clubhouse and covered storage behind me. The platform front and center is for launching boats. You wheel your boat from storage out onto the platform, and together they roll down an incline into the water.
Turns out the Club Commodore, Tom, was there with his friend, Lorraine. They made me feel very welcome, as did Lacey the bartender in the background. And Lacey is not only gifted at keeping the patrons happy, she’s a helicopter pilot.
Loraine and Mary, primping in anticipation of me taking their photo. But as usual, I prefer this one over the posed one.
Charlie and Dave took me under their wing. These two retirees are a cards. Charlie was a High School Science teacher, and Dave an engineer who spent half his career in the private sector and half as Department Chair at a University. Now they come down to the Club most days to hang out, then run errands around town – errands which frequently include visiting with friends at any of several local watering holes.
Holding court in Dan’s boathouse. Dan befriended me the first day. We went for a burger and saw a few sights. He mentioned twice how travelers often sleep in his boathouse, and after the second time I asked to do the same, and slept in the boathouse for two nights. What a treat: a fridge, fans, a sink, and even an executive bathroom. There was no shower, but the Club has one and a washing machine nearby. I tried sleeping on one of the boat settees, but the gasoline fumes were too strong. So instead placed my air mattress by one of the screen doors, aimed a fan in that direction, and slept great. The second boat belongs to a family member.
Always wary of overstaying my welcome and realizing I’ve paddled only one day out of the last nine, it’s time to go. But I’ll miss Keokuk Yacht Club. The sense of community here is palpable. The average age of this group seems higher than some other clubs visited, and the members look out for each other in ways that reflect that. It strikes me that part of the beauty of smaller towns is that as people get older, more frail, and forgetful, the slower pace of life and the safety net of friends allows for a fuller life than might be possible in a larger city.
Unlike most of the 26 locks, which exist only to regulate water levels, Keokuk has a hydroelectric power plant built in 1913 and which uses much of the original machinery. The water level drop here is greater than any of the locks since Minneapolis, about 40-ft versus the more typical 4-ft to 10-ft drop.
Southside Bar and Grill. Charlie and Dave took me for the lunch special at Lucky’s, an old tavern that felt straight out of the 1930s. Then we came here for a cold one, sat at the bar awhile to chat up the cute bartender, shot a game of pool, then sat outside at a table to shoot the breeze with the boys – a perfect afternoon of carousing.
Canton was next. As usual, when I reached the lock there was a barge in it, which meant a long wait in the hot sun. But I noticed the river was flowing freely between the dam piers, which meant I could too. They were open! Wanting to be discreet, and wanting to go through at the safest place (you never know what obstacles may be trapped in the openings, and the currents can be vicious) I paddled across to the far bank which was on the inside of a bend (slower current) and away from the lock master’s eyes (passing through anything but the lock itself is verboten. I don’t think the lock masters much care, but no need to throw it in their face). The current was slow and passing through was easy, but it was a bit of work crossing back over to the campsite as the current picks up after the dam and wants to send you downstream. But at the end of the day, with camp in sight, a paddler is like a horse seeing the barn – hell bent for leather. I pitched tent under these cottonwoods, seeking shade and cooler dirt, first checking for branches up high with my name on them. The weather forecast was for a calm night.
There once was a ferry here. Don’t know if that old barge is connected, but it is a work in progress – with new iron walls inside. About a half-mile walk down the levee and then a quarter-mile into downtown, on Lewis St, are several local eateries and a public library. Good food and good wifi. Next stop: Quincy, IL.