On a summertime swing through my home state of Iowa, I spent some time in my hometown of Dubuque before making a stop in my second Iowa home: Coralville.
Adjacent to Iowa City, home of Iowa’s major university, Coralville enjoys a nice economic and academic spillover; its small population enjoys top-notch municipal services and cultural events as a result. After living there for six years and being away for two, I visited as a tourist—more specifically a travel writer—to see if my memories measured up.
My favorite local attraction as a resident and, indeed, again as a tourist, was the Iowa River. Being an urban nature nut, I could never get enough of the big river on my doorstep. Walking and biking the banks, fishing, and simply watching the carp swim lazily in the slow current of the tributary Clear Creek occupied many a summer day for me.
I was always impressed with the riverside and creekside development, but was very surprised with the extensive improvements made since my last sad stroll in the city that would always be my home at heart. On my return visit, I retraced my steps through my old favorites to rediscover my former home as a tourist on foot.
I started my nostalgic journey at the Coralville Public Library parking lot (the best free public parking this side of the mall!) and walked around the pond/fountain at S.T. Morrison Park. The water feature at this largest and most central of Coralville’s green spaces was once stuffed with bullheads (a small family of North American catfish) destined for my clumsily prepared meals—including an ill-fated bullhead-and-bean soup—before being stocked with decorative goldfish. I was happy to see on my return the fry of native freshwater fish in the shallows, making bullhead soup a possibility for central Coralvillians once more.
In addition to my old fishing pond, I walked by the new human-made excitements in the center of town like the Center for Performing Arts and its upscale retail and high-class condos. Down the street, I cursed my rotten luck as I saw our local supermarket’s massive expansion—including a new craft beer bar! We moved just in time to miss the chance to enjoy a local brew before stocking up on SpaghettiOs?
Clear Creek Trail
What is better than bullhead soup? Carp, smoked in a cardboard box. Some of my favorite autumn Saturdays were spent with the University of Iowa football game on the radio, a beverage in my hand, and carp filets smoking away in my homemade paper smoking rig in the yard. I procured all the carp flesh I could handle—and much more—near the confluence of Clear Creek and the Iowa River. There, under bridges with the high-functioning drunks chugging a tallboy on their lunch break, I pulled in carp by the coolerful.
It was bittersweet to revisit the creek and see the impressive development and expansion of the creekside trail. This once segmented, disparate walking and cycling path was now connected into one unbroken trail; miles of uninterrupted “urban wilderness.”
[RELATED: More of my thoughts on the ever-expanding riverside trail system in Coralville on Travel Iowa]
I snuck uphill into Mormon Handcart Park, a nature preserve and historic site dedicated to the Mormon pilgrims who camped on this hillside on their great trek to the west. This is the most densely wooded section of the trail, and I slowed my pace to enjoy the shade and quiet of the trees.
The Iowa River
With the Clear Creek Trail now connecting to the Iowa River, I could walk on the waterside all the way to the Iowa River Power Dam. This impressive low-head dam was originally built to power a series of riverside mills, but today it is a beautiful local asset, with a footbridge providing easy access to the parkland on the other side of the river and providing some scary, don’t-look-down views of the crushing waterfall below.
I poked around on the same concrete dike on the opposite side of the river, remembering how much different things looked here during the historic Iowa River Flood of 2008, which struck in our first year in town.
Iowa River Landing
The Iowa River Trail, which once ended at the dam, now extends all the way to this post-flood development project. Behind the commercial properties, I explored the Iowa River Landing Wetlands Park, a can’t-miss wetlands demonstration area with raised walkways allowing visitors to keep their feet dry as they explore this important habitat and flood buffer. I spied a few more monster carp sunning their backs in the shallow water among the cattails.
As I continued my Iowa journey and left Coralville in the rearview mirror, I thought about the carp, the recurring theme of my adolescence and early adult life. This lumbering fish was the symbol and best memory of the long, hot Midwest summer days of my youth, and seeing them instantly transported me back. To my home state; to my home town; to the home of the carp. Famed naturalist Izaak Walton said, “The Carp is the queen of rivers…” Who am I to disagree?