The Skunk River flowed through our acreage south of Story City. It offered lots of interesting and fun things to do all four seasons of the year. We caught and ate fish from it, though some were pretty small and bony. We trapped muskrats and learned to skin them in late fall and early winter. We skated on it in winter; sometimes for several miles when we were older. We built dams out of stones and little fish holding pens for minnows we caught during low flow periods of the summer. Its water was one of our primary escapes from the heat of summer long before our house became air-conditioned.
One of the best things my dad built for us was a small rectangular green boat. It had 12” sidewalls and the “cargo hold” was about 4’x8’ in size. There was a fixed bench seat on each end, and there was no way to tell which end was the bow and which was the stern. It depended on which direction you were paddling. There were no oarlocks, so we use canoe paddles. It fit in the back of our station wagon, an important consideration once I had my driver’s license. The boat was hardly efficient water transport, but it opened a whole new realm of opportunities to experience the waters of the Skunk and nearby small lakes.
One summer evening, our neighbor invited us to go to Little Wall Lake south of Jewell to help him try out a new little sunfish sailboat he’d just built. There was only room for two on the sailboat, so I convinced Dad that we needed to take our boat along, too. I planned to fish while others were taking turns on the sailboat. I set off by myself, paddling to where I thought the lake might be deep enough to hold some fish. The lake hadn’t been dredged back in the mid 1960s to the extent that it now has. I found a small weed bed and dropped anchor (a coffee can with concrete in it). Our old metal tackle box had been my grandpa’s, and had only a few lures, weights, hooks, bobbers, and, of course, a stringer for all the fish we hoped to catch. I tied on a small jointed minnow lure with a green back and silver sides and began casting along the edge of the weeds. A very nice crappie hit on maybe the third cast and I put it on the stringer, very pleased with myself. A couple of casts more and a very nice large-mouthed bass joined the crappie. My brother was on the sailboat, but could see that I was catching fish. The sailboat soon dropped him off at my little fishing hot spot and we got to work catching more fish. The stringer soon had seven nice large-mouths and the crappie. Others had noticed the two boys in a tiny boat catching fish, too. Some couldn’t believe our parents let us head into the middle of the lake in such a small boat. It wasn’t long before the park ranger’s boat motored up alongside us, or maybe it was the State Conservation Officer. We must have been within our limits, because he just smiled and motored off. We tried to return the next evening for more fun but there were so many fishing boats around that little weed patch that there wasn’t room for us.
The boat served as a barge to float rocks to a spot where we built a dam across the river. The water was maybe 18” to 24” deeper behind the dam, which held together for at least a couple of years. Remnants of it are still there. The boat carried a friend and me from Story City to our acreage. We had no idea how many times that stretch of river meandered back on itself, and it took us much longer than expected. I think we walked and dragged the boat nearly much as we paddled, and it was evening before we pulled out. It even took us out on the quiet waters of McFarland Lake, years before the area became my home as the new park ranger for Story County Conservation. A flood washed our boat away about the time I left for college. We later found her mangled remains in a log jam. What wonderful memories that little boat gave us!
Steve Lekwa is a former director for Story County Conservation.