It was the kind of trip Huck Finn would have loved…the kind of trip that conjures images and sounds of banjo-guitar battles….the kind of trip that seems to hold some type of spiritual awakening….the kind of trip that makes one truly respect the extreme goodness of the cheeseburger.
It was a trip suited to two self-proclaimed adventurers whose business counts on their experiences and how they can pass them on to their customers, whether it be through adventures of their own or through the cathartic effect of wearing adventure inspired clothing, or using adventure inspired equipment, or displaying adventure inspired themes.
The owners of Driftless Area Guide Company, Clay Lieb and Jake Dale, will probably never have to feel that they need to take a backseat to anyone in the Northeast Iowa area when it comes to outdoor adventure after kayaking four days and three nights, covering over 100 miles and following the Volga River from near its source to where it joins the Turkey River and ends up in the Mississippi River. It was certainly a trip up close and personal through the heart of their business’s inspiration, The Driftless.
Jake and Clay are Upper Iowa University soon to be grads who started their business last year, offering clothing items such as t-shirts, hoodies and hats, koozies, stickers and other gear items, all emblazoned with original label artwork, that Clay and Jake designed themselves.
They also offer seasonal guided trout fishing and backpacking trips throughout the “Driftless” region. The driftless, the land the glacier forgot, stretches from the southern corner of Minnesota down to the northwest corner of Illinois. The heart of it runs through Northeast Iowa. The center, almost directly where their shop is located, in the town of Fayette.
Not that they were trying to prove anything to anyone, but now the self-proclaimed lovers of the Driftless can say they got to know it on a level that few have or will.
“It wasn’t something that we had thought about for a long time, or something that we really did a lot of planning for. At first, after kayaking parts of it, we joked about doing it. But then after looking at maps of where all the trout streams ran into it, we thought, ‘we can do it.’ To our knowledge no one has ever done it before,” Clay related.
About the only planning that took place was finding campgrounds along the Volga and determining which one would be their destination for each day. Originally the two had given themselves five days to reach the mighty Mississip. In the end, they made it in four, inspired they said by hot cheeseburgers waiting for them at the end of the day at taverns and burger joints along the way.
The two knew they had a break in classes coming up in the fall and that that would be the time to go.
“We didn’t really look at the weather. We knew we had to go rain or shine,” Jake related.
And go they did, taking off on Oct. 17 from outside of Maynard. What was one of the hardest days of the trip, they only made 10 miles, having to drag their kayaks most of the way.
“The days always seemed to change as far as distance went. We were lucky cuz the river was high because of a lot of rain. Our best day was 34 miles. A lot of the times you could just let the current take you,” Clay said.
Although there had been lots of rain the days prior to the trip, the pair said it only rained one day, for about four hours and that was it.
One thing that they hadn’t expected to its full extent was the cold.
“It got really cold at night. I wished my sleeping bag had been a little bit heavier. My feet got pretty cold,” Clay pointed out.
The pair both agreed that the trip was a great experience.
“It was good to get out and feel how a multiple-day trip went. When we started out it (the river) was 10 feet across. By the time we got to the end, around Millville, it was like a lake,” Clay said.
“We ate a lot of canned food, chili, and Pop Tarts,” Jake said with a smile. “It was nice when we stopped for hot meals,” he added.
Barney’s in Wadena, Anchor Inn in Garber and Bootleggers in Millville were all cheeseburger stops along the way. Barney’s got the best rating, a 7.2 on the scale of one to 10. Talking with them one got the feeling that all of them were probably a 10 in reality.
When asked what were the highlights of the trip for them, Jake answered, “The eagles. When we went through Volga Park (Volga River Recreation Area) they were everywhere and they followed us down the river.”
“For me it was just the scenery. I’d have to say that the Volga is one of the most scenic rivers there is. I didn’t realize some of those places existed, like the rock ledges just before you get into Klock Island Park (near Fayette). Sometimes you felt like you were in the remotest place in Iowa. Actually it didn’t even feel like Iowa. There were no houses, no sheds, or anything. As a whole, we got a better picture of the entire area,” Clay said.
Although both athletically fit (they are both members of the UIU baseball team) they said some of the muscles they used were new to them.
“We had lots of blisters and sore shoulders. It was a movement we were not used to doing, especially for that far,” Jake said.
“Every day we went as far as we could. We never stopped because we were sick of it,” Clay added.
“The food at the end just kept us going,” Jake laughed.
Now with a trip of gigantic proportions under their belts, they are not ready to sit on their laurels.
“Now we’re talking about doing even bigger trips, not smaller,” Clay said, but he was not without his scares as he related snapping his paddle in some rock rapids and being carried into tree.
“That was scary. I had no control. I had to splint my paddle together with tape and go on. It worked the entire trip,” Clay said.
The two said they would be open to long trips with clients but they would make them understand it’s not an easy trip.
The two will be moving out of their storefront on Fayette’s Main drag soon. Opening in September, they had a short time, low-rate lease agreement with the City, who owns the building the store is in, right next to City Hall.
The store will be closing the end of November, but the company will go on as it started through mail orders and setting up at different events throughout the area.
Jake and Clay will be going on too. They both graduate this coming spring. Clay will be entering the business field and Jake hopes to be a conservation officer, both areas they are familiar with through their current endeavor.
What will happen with the Driftless Area Guide Service? The two said it will go on as it did before entering into their experimental storefront. No matter which direction they head after graduation, the two assured us, they will always come back to the Driftless.
(Editor’s note: This article featuring UIU senior accounting major Clay Lieb and senior conservation management major Jake Dale is posted with permission of the Fayette County Newspapers and news/feature writer Jack Swanson.)