The Last Great River Rumble – 25 Years In The Making

Although I’ve done this trip many times over the years, for some reason I never quite found the words to sit down and write about it here.  Since I, along with many, many “Rumblers”, am bidding a fond farewell to the trip this year, I didn’t want it to paddle into the sunset without the d’aventures treatment!  Bear with me -this d’aventure report is going to be a bit different.  I’m writing the background story and then will mainly just post pictures in a somewhat random order.
First some history:  The first time I saw a kayak was in 1986 on a National Outdoor Leadership School course in Baja, Mexico.  The “class” traveled down the coast of the Sea of Cortez for nearly a month learning how to paddle, camp and survive outdoors in a desert environment.  I’m pretty sure the first words out of my mouth when I got home were “We need kayaks!”
Once we had kayaks, we enjoyed outings on local lakes and rivers, but I had something bigger in mind.  As many of you already know by now, I have a fascination with the Mississippi River.  More the idea of the Mississippi really- the history, literature…the mystery of it. So I was a bit (OK…a lot!) obsessed with the idea of paddling on the Mississippi, but wasn’t sure how to go about it.  How do you get through the locks?  Where can you camp?  What part of the river would be best? I bought the Army Corps of Engineers map book for the river and continued to dream about it, but never felt brave enough to try to plan my own d’aventure.
It wasn’t until 1991 that I discovered an organization that held an annual paddling trip on the Mississippi River and wasted no time in signing up for it.  That first trip is a story for another time (it didn’t go well for Mike), but it was the beginning of what became years of annual paddling trips on the Mississippi or a tributary river.
In 1995, the Great River Rumble replaced the earlier organization.  The Rumble was a non-profit group interested in promoting paddle sports. The routes (and sometimes the rivers) changed each year. The trips could never be considered “wilderness” trips.  They were often quite urban.  Because of the good reputation of the group, we were often allowed to set up our traveling circus in city parks and other places where camping is usually not allowed.
Organizing the Rumble was a huge job.  It couldn’t have happened without countless volunteers that stepped up to help in countless ways. Rex, the Chairman, once told me that the planning was pretty much a year-round thing.  So, it is not really a surprise that in 2020 as they approached the 25th year of the Rumble, they decided to go out on top and call it quits. Thanks to Covid we had to wait until this year to officially say goodbye to the Great River Rumble.  What a fantastic 25 years it was!  So many wonderful people were part of the trip over the years. Rumblers came from all walks of life and from all parts of the country.
This year they gave out little buttons with our names and how many Rumbles we have to our credit. Mike and I paddled the Rumble together in our tandem until 2004. That year, he decided he’d had enough paddling, so in 2005 we showed up with his golf clubs and my single kayak.  He still had to register for the Rumble to travel with the group -even though he stayed on land..
It might have been more than 17 trips if I hadn’t disliked the route for some years and if life hadn’t gotten in the way on other years.
I don’t know the total miles I’ve paddled in all 17 trips, but I can say that I’ve paddled every mile of the roughly 750 miles between St. Cloud, Minnesota (North of Minneapolis) to St. Louis, Missouri – and many of the miles between the two cities a lot more than once!  The group never went further north than St. Cloud or further south than St. Louis.  I have also paddled sections of the Wisconsin, Cedar, Des Moines, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri Rivers, thanks to the Rumble group.
Now…. as I start to add pictures, I have to make a disclaimer -I didn’t know my waterproof camera wasn’t working right until it was too late to do much about it.  So some of these pictures are a bit blurry because I didn’t have much to work with.  (PS – replacement camera has already arrived and will be ready for the next watery d’aventure!)
So here we go!
This year’s route was a short one (none of us are getting any younger!) starting at Mud Lake Park just North of Dubuque, Iowa and ending about 100 miles South in LeClaire, Iowa which is just north of the Quad Cities.
The group organizes a shuttle on the first day of the trip.  Paddlers arrived in LeClaire at the arranged parking area and put their gear on one of the cargo trucks.  I believe this year had the most paddlers in Rumble history – around 250 people signed up, but not everyone is on the river for the entire week.
The kayaks and canoes got loaded up on Winona Canoe’s giant boat trailer which was with the group just for the shuttle.  There were other smaller boat trailers that were on the trip all week with the road crew to take the overflow.  There were so many boats this year, I think they had to put some of them in the cargo trucks!  Next, the paddlers boarded buses for the trip to Mud Lake.
I didn’t get to count the boats on the trailer this year, but two years ago, I counted about 70 boats on this trailer plus on the truck pulling it.
Since Mike golfed during the day while I paddled, we kept our car with us all week.  We met the group at Mud Lake.
Once the buses, cargo trucks and the rest of the traveling circus arrived – the next thing was to get the boats and the trucks unloaded so everyone could set up their camps and get organized for the first day of paddling the next day.
These were just the boats that fit in the camera shot – there were so many this year!
At parks like this, the paddlers just throw their tents up wherever they find room for them. Once everyone got sorted out, it was time to check-in and pick up the T-shirts and trinkets for the year.  After that, the organization holds an orientation meeting to go over the general rules of the trip and introduce the people that would be instrumental in getting everyone down river.
The Rumble banner appears somewhere at each stop.
From that point on – each day had a similar routine.  Cargo Master Jim provided a musical wake-up call for the group each morning.  Camps got packed up and gear loaded onto the trucks.  Breakfast sorted out (sometimes at a restaurant, sometimes catered by a local grocery store or a local group doing a fundraiser), boats prepared, a morning briefing just before launching to go over the day’s ins and outs.  Then the call… “Load ’em up!”
Launching the first morning.
We started out going down a backwater slough for about 2 miles before entering the Mississippi.
Just getting to the Mississippi
Finally out of the lily pads and on the river.
Out on the river, there was the lead canoe -always Rex and his “partner-of-the-day”.  No one was allowed to pass the lead canoe.
Also, there was a “Sweep” paddler.  The sweep swept up the stragglers and kept them moving.  This trip wasn’t a leisurely float down the river.  The pace was actually quite fast -sometimes to the shock of newer paddlers.  It wasn’t the type of trip where you could spot something “over there” and paddle over for a closer look…you would have been left in the dust if you tried that!  Rex and the Sweep stayed in constant contact to make sure the group didn’t get too spread out on the river.  The Rumble also had several volunteer power boaters to assist the group in intercepting other boaters who might not realize what was going on, as well as helping to fish any dumped paddlers out of the water.  They also communicated with the locks and dams to find out the timing of us getting locked through.  Barges have the right of way with locks and dams and in past years we’ve been stuck waiting -sometimes for hours- for our turn.  This year, everything went quite smoothly with the locks and dams.
We passed through three locks and dams on this trip.  The first one was about an hour after we launched on the first day:   Lock & Dam #11 at Dubuque.  Here’s something I just learned while writing this:  I never knew that the Locks & Dams were named anything but their number.  #11 is named for General Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame).
On our way to Mud Lake the day before, Mike and I stopped at an overlook -Eagle Point Park- and I took a picture of the lock and dam.
Our start point wasn’t far upriver from the dam.
This is the view of the river after the lock and dam
The Rumblers approaching the lock and dam:
Inside the lock, the group has to raft up.  The first ones next to the wall hold onto ropes dropped by the dam staff.  Then 3 to 5 boats (or more) raft up and hold onto each other.  As you can imagine, the lock had to drop lots of ropes!
Sometimes the lock & dam will allow us on both sides -sometimes just one. We were on both sides in #11 and that was a bit less crazy (imagine bumper boats).  The below picture is to show how far we dropped.
During the day, there were somewhat frequent stops on the water to group up -which gave me time to drink some water. On shorter days, only the lunch break was on shore.  On the longer days, depending on our progress, we might have had one to two shorter shore breaks too.
Landing at our next stop was often another occasion where “bumper boats” happened, so I tried to be one of the first ones to land -or failing that, one of the last.  Anything in the middle was chaos to me!
This picture actually looks pretty orderly – not always the case!!
After landing and getting the boats to the spot set aside for them to be left at for the night, it was a mad rush to find the camping gear and get a camp set up.  Early bird gets the shade!
This isn’t nearly anywhere near all of the gear unloaded -camps were already being set up.
After setting up camp, most people want to know where the showers are.  The Rumble often was able to organize showers at a local school or swimming pool.  If no showers could be arranged, they had something called the “Rumble Shower”.  It was basically a rigged-up water hose with some tarps strung up around it.  Next priority: food and supplies.  Most of the time the landing was in a small town and everyone just ate at restaurants and were able to walk to a convenience store for odds and ends.  Where that wasn’t possible, it was arranged for a local grocery store or a fundraising group to provide a dinner.  Ice (very important!) was delivered at each stop.
So that is what a basic day of the Rumble was like.  Sometimes we were so busy just taking care of the basics that we didn’t really get to see much of the towns we were in.  Often, the towns would provide some entertainment and often we’d provide it for ourselves as we had quite a few musicians among us.  Sometimes everyone just went to bed early because they were tired.
The rest of my pictures are just going to be ones I liked enough to share -but they are not in any particular order.
I liked the sun shining on the water for this one.
At Bellevue, Iowa we went through our second lock & dam.
It was coming out of this lock that the local newspaper had a drone up and caught this picture that I am in.  There’s a yellow, red and green boat almost in a line.  I’m in the boat just left and behind the green boat -almost in the middle of the picture.
We landed just around the end of the lock wall and all the boats were left along the side of the parking lot there.  A Rumble volunteer stayed overnight to watch the boats, while the rest of the group was taken in tractor-pulled carts to a nice park several blocks away.  The town provided their tractor version of Uber, taking the Rumblers back and forth from the camp to the main street/restaurant area for several hours.
Bellevue wasn’t hopping the night we were there.  They closed off one of the side streets for the Rumble band.  There was a dance party.
All of the towns seem to try to celebrate the river and their history.  There’s usually some vantage point looking to the river with benches and statues.
I don’t know what the Lions were all about.  Many times we’re so busy running around taking care of the basics that we forget to take pictures and stop and smell the roses.
Just headed down the river one day.
The river has mile markers and other navigation signals. The channel is marked by red and green buoys.  Going downriver, the red is to the left and the green is to the right.  These aren’t buoys -they are the mile markers.  The channel often winds back and forth -it isn’t always right down the middle.
At Savanna, Illinois, the group had to put the boats on a gravel patch in a very small area away from the river for the night -it was a bit of a hike to carry them that far.  As you can see by the train in the background, the campsite (behind me as I stood to take this picture) was very close to the tracks.  A lot of comments were made the next morning about the trains passing through all night.  And they do go all night.
The next morning they had to move them all back to the boat launch….
If we were lucky, a shore break was on somewhat sandy, firm land.  There are some great sandbars along the river -but there are also some areas where we weren’t so lucky.  Here, we were back in a slough and most of us just got out where our boats got stuck on the mud/sand bars just off shore.
This stop (on another day) was a lot nicer!
A sandy spot we didn’t get to stop at!
Paddling down a slough
Pelicans!  There are pelicans on the Mississippi River.
I’m not sure what these were.
We did see bald eagles.  One day we were paddling by a levee just covered with rip-rap (big rocks) and there was a huge eagle perched among the rocks.  I have a blurry picture of him!  Sadly, too blurry to share.
People paddling.
About halfway through the trip, my foot peg/rudder pedal broke.  I didn’t paddle the 3rd day because it is hard (but not impossible) to paddle without a foot peg (used for bracing).  Mike used gorilla tape for a temporary fix -it looked like “The Mummy’s Revenge” in there, but it held good enough to get me the rest of the way down the river.  I knew that the town they were arriving in that day had a nice State Park with a look-out point -so I wanted to see if I could catch them coming down the river for a picture.  I was too late for that, but I love the picture I took from up there.  The group was already passing under the bridge in the picture.
We didn’t see too many barges this year.  We were often on shore or behind an island when they were passing us.
One of the towns we stopped in was Clinton, Iowa.  We’ve been there many times.
We had to pass through a water gate that would help block high water from the river in times of flooding.  We landed at a boat launch and the group camped at a huge city front park a block or so away (on the riverfront) next to their minor league stadium.
The next morning, as we left Clinton, we were going to pass under a few bridges:
The lower one is a railroad bridge with a swing bridge part.  The woman operating the swing bridge sent a few pictures of us passing by.  She said it made her day a whole lot less boring!
Another stop was at Thomson Causeway on the Illinois side.  The person in charge of our stop there was able to convince the rangers to close off the day-use area of the park and let us have it for the night.  The funny thing that happened there was that we had 4-5 port-a-potties delivered and early on they found out there was a skunk hiding under one of them – of course the jokes went from there (like how could we tell?).  The next morning was “crazy hat day” and someone had a skunk hat and we joked that he’d only made it the night before.

I like the benches with a view!

The landing there was basically a wide muddy spot on shore off to the side at the edge of some woods. We had to move the boats through this wooded area into the park beyhond. Every day there was always someone offering to help me carry my kayak to wherever it needed to be.  Usually, I’d go back several times times to help those landing behind me carry theirs.  It was the Rumble way -everyone was helped and some point and paid it forward where they could.
The night before the trip ended was spent at a marina/rv park called Rock Creek County Park.  We had to paddle up into a slough to get to it.  Mike got this picture of the group starting to arrive.
A good picture of our traveling circus.
Part of a sculpture at the nature center attached to the marina/RV park.
We had headwinds for the last 3 days of the trip.  That makes paddling quite a bit harder.  The Mississippi only has maybe a 4 mile an hour current -but you need to factor in the fact that “pools” form behind the locks and dams and they can feel like you’re dragging an anchor behind you when you paddle through them.  So most of the time- you’re mostly getting down the river under your own power.  The Clinton pool is the biggest pool on the river -it is 3 miles wide in parts.  This is the bottom half of the pool on the Corps of Engineers map.  At the bottom of this map picture, you can see how the river narrows back down after the lock and dam.
Due to headwinds, the last day was a bit more work than we’d hoped for.  Along the way we saw this sight-seeing boat which operates out of Le Claire, our final stop for the trip.
Mike was waiting for me at the landing – he got this picture of me arriving.

After I got out of my kayak and we moved it out of the way, I took this picture of some of the group still heading in for the landing:


Then I took a picture of the landing spot:

After the final landing, everyone was transported to their cars, then they drove back to load up their kayak or canoe.  Next, we all went to get cleaned up for the farewell banquet.  The banquet was nice, but it was sad to realize that this might be the last time I see some of these people -people who I’ve seen many, many times out on the river with me over the years.  Some of us will stay in touch because many good friendships were formed on this trip.  We say some of the best people we’ve met were met on the Rumble. We are hoping that another generation of paddlers steps up to organize a similar trip.  I think if someone goes for it – they won’t have any trouble getting enough people to go!
My final picture…….
Obligatory selfie!
And that’s the end of the Great River Rumble!

Categories: The Great River Rumble 2021

8 replies

  1. Thanks for sharing Terri, Isabel & I have enjoyed paddling with you!

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful group of pictures, and some history of the River Rumble.

  3. Well written story leading up to the end of the rumble. Thank you Terry.

  4. Wonderful pictures. You are so lucky to be able to be a part of the Rumble. Looking forward to your next adventure.

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