There’s a place called as the Sycamore Trail. It’s a rather grand name for about 130 acres of untended old-growth woodland tucked between the Des Moines River and a soccer pitch. The ‘trail’ is a 6.5 mile loop, a narrow dirt path for mountain biking. It’s linked to the High Trestle Trail — a paved 25 mile stretch of bike path that follows an old Union Pacific railroad line (including the old half-mile-long trestle bridge that crosses about 130 feet above the river) — which itself is part of a 100 mile loop that connects with an even longer set of trails, which is…never mind. You get the point. Iowa has a metric buttload cycling trails.
The thing is, the Sycamore Trail goes through the woods. On a weekday, it’s generally deserted. On a weekday in December the only folks in the woods were my brother and I. We were out…let’s call it sylvan geocaching. That sounds so much more adventurous. I mean, sure, basically it’s just walking in the woods and using a GPS device to look for some sort of container that somebody stashed for no practical purpose at all except to give other folks a reason to go walk in the woods. But that sounds moderately ridiculous, to let’s call it sylvan geocaching.
So my brother and I, we were out sylvan geocaching, right? In the woods surrounding the Sycamore Trail on a singularly lovely day for early December. Almost 50F, sunny, not much of a breeze. Couldn’t ask for a better day to be
noodling around in the woods sylvan geocaching. We didn’t stay on the trail, of course. We wandered through the flood plains, we slumped around the marshy oxbows, we pushed our way through the dry brambles, we clambered over the levee.
A levee, if you’re not familiar with the concept, is a dirt embankment intended to protect the land from flooding. This levee was about 15 feet high and anywhere from 30 to 50 yards from the river.
Flooding is pretty common, which accounts for both the levee and the oxbows. It also accounts for all the downed trees and the odd bits of debris we sometimes see stuck up in the trees.
As we were
noodling around sylvan geocaching, we noticed the outline of some sort of structure in the woods. It’s not uncommon, when you’re in the woods, to find the remains of sheds or the brick and mortar foundations of abandoned farm buildings. But it’s rare to find something that’s still standing. So of course, we went to investigate.
As we got closer, we realized it was bigger than we’d expected. Bigger and stranger.
One of the reasons my brother and I go geocaching is because it takes us to places we wouldn’t ordinarily go, and we see things we wouldn’t ordinarily see. Things that are often completely unexpected. Like a 35-foot houseboat in the middle of the woods.
How did it get there? I mean, it was about a third of a mile from the river. Say 600 yards from the levee. That’s half a dozen football fields. How in the hell did it get there? We found a clue. The boat registration was still visible. It was dated 1993.
It’s called the Great Flood of 1993, but it actually began in the winter of 1992, when the American Midwest experienced heavier than usual snowfalls. The spring melt was followed by what the National Weather Service called an ‘extreme regional hydrological event’. In other words, it rained like a motherfucker — and it did it for a long time. There were persistent, repetitive storms that hovered over the Midwest. Between April 1 and August 31, the region experienced rainfalls that were 400–750% above normal.
In the end, the flood covered about 400,000 square miles over nine states. In some locations, the floodwaters stayed for nearly 200 days. Almost 55,000 people had to be evacuated; around 50 people lost their lives. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Seventy-five towns were completely inundated; some small towns have actually been relocated — some were just abandoned. And at some point, the flood yanked this 35-foot houseboat from its mooring and deposited it at the far western edge of what would eventually become Sycamore Trails.
The floodwaters receded, of course. Trees grew up. Twenty-six years went by. We’ve had more floods since then, though not quite as bad. Floods that are called ‘once in a hundred year’ floods, or ‘once in 500 year floods’ take place every couple of years now.
Finding that houseboat in the middle of the woods was incredibly cool. But it’s also incredibly sad. It’s sad because of all the suffering that took place. And it’s sad because the President of the United States, despite all the science and all the evidence, says climate change is a hoax.
The good news? A decade after the Great Flood of 1993, Greta Thunberg was born. So there’s that.