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Dipping their toes in the water

Cedar River Tank Tour owners stays afloat
Rick Howell and Doug Vislisel, owners of Cedar River Tank Tours, stand alongside the most recent addition to their enterprise, a party bus. (photo by Jeff Hess)

“Somethin’ ‘bout a boat
Sittin’ on the sea
Out there in the wind
Floatin’ on the free
Take you ‘round the world
Bring you back home
Gives a man hope…”
- Jimmy Buffett’s “Somethin’ ‘bout a boat.”
SOLON– Maybe the song should be, “Somethin’ ‘bout a stock tank.”
Several years ago, Cedar River Tank Tours started out as a conversation over cocktails in a garage. It evolved into a local tourism business based in Solon, growing in patrons and popularity.
Cedar River Tank Tours was the brainchild of Doug Vislisel and Rick Howell, The luxurious float down the picturesque Cedar River started as a modification of a tourist business the two saw while traveling outside the state.
“We got the idea from seeing something very similar to this, in Nebraska on the Elkhorn River, and we felt that it would be a very good fit for the Cedar River, with the close proximity of the Cedar River to Solon,” Vislisel said. “We’ve been in business for four years. We’ve sent over 5,000 people down the river.”
The business model is derived from a fairly simple equation: find a beautiful stream with that unique, get-away feel, throw in some fantastic views, add a few sandbars to play on, make it family- and party-friendly, and invite the public to come and enjoy.
The concept takes on a Midwest twist when people are loaded into a stock tank. A stock tank– adorned with bench seats around the perimeter, a table in the center on which to rest your drink, and an umbrella to provide shade from the sun­– suddenly becomes a “Midwest island-escape,” a patio floating down the Cedar River with a beautiful view.
Swing your feet over the side, chat with friends and dip your toes in the water.
The round structure will roll off most obstructions, allowing passengers to enjoy the float, as opposed to paddling. The tanks are light enough to be easily dragged back into the channel when the water gets too shallow. But the tanks are equipped with oars, in case they do get hung up on something, or to paddle to any one of the sandbars along the way for some authentic river relaxation.
The tanks float the Cedar River from Memorial Day to Labor Day, based upon reservations, with weekends seeing the highest volume. They launch from the Linn County’s South Cedar Access and land at the Sutliff Boat Ramp, near the historic Sutliff Bridge.
“It’s about a five mile trek down river that takes about three to three-and-a-half hours if you don’t stop at sandbars. Most people stop at sandbars throughout the way and it takes four-and-a-half to five hours for the trip,” Vislisel explained.
Vislisel is a native of Solon, graduated from Solon High School, and grew up playing in the Cedar River. He works as a mason when not chartering tours. His family has been active in the community for years.
Howell relocated to Solon from Columbus Junction with his family. He grew up fishing the Cedar River near his hometown. He works in construction and as a truck driver. He recently returned to technical school, which keeps him busy when he’s not captaining the johnboat that accompanies the tanks while on the water.
“We monitor the tanks as they go down the river to make sure everybody is safe and sound, make sure they are not having any issues or problems, and make sure they have everything they need to make it an enjoyable day on the river,” Vislisel assured. “We want to be present and available.”
“We just got done with the tanks for the season,” Howell added. “We’ve already started taking deposits for weekends starting next year.”
Vislisel said the business has amassed repeat customers who even plan a year ahead.
“A lot of people who went in the past want the same weekend and same days the following year. They book them right away when they are done with this year,” said Vislisel.
Although they started with just four tanks, Howell said the season that just concluded required 12 tanks to accommodate their growing customer base. Additional tanks are planned for next year. Business surged so much in the last two years, the enterprising partners decided to add a bus.
A little over a year ago, they purchased a bus, initially intended to shuttle people to and from the launch and pick-up points on the river, due to the limited parking near the Sutliff Bridge.
Customers using the bus service park at the Solon Recreation and Nature Area and are shuttled to the launch point. Following the river trek, they are picked up at the Sutliff Boat Ramp and returned to their vehicles.
Not wanting the summer season to end, the bus went through a metamorphosis, much like the business. What began as a burgundy, bowling-themed shuttle was transformed to a teal colored, tropical-themed party bus. The island theme is completed on the interior with fish netting, a palm tree, tropical decals on the roof, dock ropes as grab handles, and a flip-flop graveyard. A pair of flip-flops dies on the bus and the surviving flop gets screwed to the wall, as a reminder of the good times.
“After Labor Day, we rent the bus out for party bus services, weddings, bachelor parties, bachelorette parties, birthday parties, concerts and things of that nature. It is a fully-licensed party bus, so alcohol can be consumed on-board in transit. It has one of the best sound systems of any party bus in our area,” Vislisel pointed out.
For more information on any of the services or to make reservations, call 319-321-3593, visit the website at www.cedarrivertanktours.com, or check out Facebook for Cedar River Tank Tours.
“Our price for a standard tank is $135 that fits four people. You can add a fifth for $25 extra, but they start getting cramped at five people,” Howell said. A $50 per-tank deposit is required at the time of reservation.
Bus reservations require a $100 deposit, and the rate is $100 per hour with a minimum four-hour trip.
“I think what we like best about this business is spending our weekends on the river, doing what we enjoy doing anyway, and meeting the people we get to meet throughout the state,” said Vislisel. “And, we’ve got a lot of lifelong friends as a result of taking them down the river.”