Traffic jams in Hokah are rare, unless you were one of the 212 paddlers converging on the boat launch Monday as part of the 22nd annual Great River Rumble.
Hokah was the third stop on the nearly hundred-mile float trip that began at Rushford and ended at Prairie du Chien.
Kayaks and canoes quickly queued up at the boat landing like Chicago traffic in rush hour. Trip organizer Bill Schoon, 84, along with Greg Stark, both of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, directed traffic. Boy Scout Troop 33 and the Houston High School Girls basketball team along with coach Dale Moga provided the muscle, working for over an hour to pull boats from the water.
“At Houston, we landed in a sand pit – twenty boats at a time,” said Schoon. “It’s not really often we go one boat at a time.”
But he was glad for the turnout of helpers.
“Hokah has gone all out, and we’re very appreciative of that,” said Schoon. “When you paddle twelve miles in the sun and have to carry your own boat up,” he broke off. “This is outstanding.”
According to Schoon, paddlers come from all over the U.S. to take part in the weeklong event. In the past, people have come from as far as France and Russia. Unofficial runners-up for the farthest travelers this year were Andy and Angelina Moretti along with their daughter from Bellevue, Washington.
Moretti said his brother-in-law, an Iowegan, had been urging them to try the event for years, and they finally relented.
“It’s been a good bonding trip,” said Moretti. “A great group of people.”
Moretti who graduated from Winona in 1986 also said he missed the friendliness of Mid-westerners.
“How sweet of the community to come to help out,” added Angelina. “It made the landing better.”
Ted Robinson and his son Michael from Eldon, Iowa, returned after their first Rumble four years ago.
“It’s relaxing, fun, and we meet people from all over,” Robinson said.
Except for some debris in the river on Sunday that took some maneuvering, he thought the trip had been perfect.
Hokah became a port-of-call this year because it was part of a route chosen by club members at a meeting in the Quad Cities last November. “Three or four routes were presented and the members voted on the Root River,” said Schoon.
All routes end in the Mississippi.
The Rumble isn’t just a club activity, but allows communities the chance to bond around a common event and join the fun as well. Months before paddlers waded ashore, Hokah co-coordinator Rebecca Albrecht already had their evening planned.
After catching a shuttle to the Hokah pool for a little relaxation, paddlers could take an optional tour of the Union Valley Vineyards or visit to the farmer’s market. At mealtime, the Hokah Fire Department offered a spaghetti supper. Albrecht also hired a band for the occasion, but she explained that the group also carried its own cadre of musicians for impromptu jam sessions.
Jack Looman of Winona, a veteran of eight voyages, was sitting this one out due to health issues, but remembered past trips, especially the stop at Harper’s Ferry where nearly a hundred golf carts shuttled paddlers around town. He also remembers the bands, the Department of Natural Resource lectures and the horse drawn carriages.
With paddlers ranging in age from teens to the eighties, trip organizers put a high priority on safety. Distances in-between stops range from a manageable 8 to 17 miles, although one year included a 32-mile leg. And they never paddle in lightning.
According to Schoon, the group uses a lead and a sweep boat, both radio equipped to monitor the paddlers. They also carry a handful of certified EMT’s.
“We really cover all the bases,” said Schoon.
And when they hit the Mississippi, they take special precautions.
“We have two motor boats to make sure that the big cruisers know there’s a hundred kayakers coming at them around the corner,” said Schoon.
As the last of the paddlers climbed ashore, most had already grabbed a shuttle, heading to the pool or to set up their tents in the adjacent park.
“It becomes a community,” said Looman. “We keep in touch over the winter. You don’t stay for the paddling, you stay for the people.”