By Michael A. Kallok
Until recently, paddlers attempting to float the entire length of Rice Creek in the northern Twin Cities metro area might have landed in hot water with Uncle Sam. Since World War II, when the U.S. Army set up an ammunition plant in Arden Hills, roughly one mile of the creek was off-limits to the public. Traversing this stretch became legal in 2008, thanks to the efforts of Ramsey County and the National Park Service to purchase 112 acres of Army property bordering the creek.
The land deal allowed Ramsey and Anoka counties along with the Rice Creek Watershed District to establish the Rice Creek Water Trail. At 22 miles, the water trail is a good day trip in a canoe or kayak. It begins at the outlet of Peltier Lake near Centerville and ends at the creek's confluence with the Mississippi in Fridley.
Watch a video from the author's canoe trip on the Rice Creek Water Trail.
Here urban explorers can lay claim to dipping a paddle into water that has seen little boat traffic during the past 70 years. Remarkably undeveloped areas exist along this metro riparian corridor, which meanders through 14 Anoka and Ramsey county parks. Wildlife watchers will find opportunities to spot owls, hawks, eagles, wild turkeys, and white-tailed deer. And thrill seekers will get their adrenaline fix on the lower river as they navigate tight bends and moderate whitewater plunges, including a standing wave beneath the University Avenue overpass.
In 2009 Anoka County Parks added signs with road names, visible from the water, to most bridges, so paddlers can mark their progress along the water trail. This spring Rice Creek Watershed District plans to cut or remove any downed timber blocking the creek.
The first six miles of the journey leads paddlers through a chain of four lakes. Pike and bigmouth buffalo (a native fish that resembles carp) swim in these waters, as do nonnative carp. Much of the shoreline inside the Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Regional Park Reserve is wild. This metro hotspot for birding has sandpipers, black-crowned night herons, black terns, red-headed woodpeckers, and a wide variety of waterfowl. Plying the lakes is suitable for paddlers of all abilities and is possible throughout spring, summer, and fall, though low water levels and emergent vegetation in late summer can present difficulties.
As the creek leaves the chain of lakes, it winds through housing subdivisions, parks, and the former Army land. Near a pedestrian bridge, paddlers can see remnants of gates that once blocked passage into this stretch. Here glimpses of old arsenal buildings, visible behind tall chain-link fences, create a sense of paddling through a forbidden zone. Paddlers can see traces of oak savanna and prairie along these gentle but sinuous 10 miles of creek that lead to Long Lake in New Brighton. Here, wildlife watchers might glimpse a trophy buck along with more common sights like a gray catbird. Swifter current during high water can make navigating tight bends with downed trees tricky. In low water, canoes and kayaks might have difficulty passing over a concrete obstruction immediately downstream of Old Highway 8.
After a short jaunt across the north end of Long Lake, paddlers pass beneath Long Lake Road and begin the final leg, which ends at Rice Creek's confluence with the Mississippi. Rice Creek drops 64 feet in these last six miles as it flows over a rocky bottom. Here high banks and woods screen paddlers from the suburban development above. But don't get too caught up in the scenery. Class I and easy class II rapids in high water are scattered throughout this section, and tight bends with downed timber offer challenges for intermediate and advanced paddlers. Running this section may be impossible in low water. It's a good idea to scout the culverts by road before paddling this portion.
Check gauge. Find stream height at the USGS site for Rice Creek. If gauge height is below 8.5 feet, running the steepest and rockiest final six miles might require dragging boats across shallow areas. If gauge height is higher than 9 feet, use caution near box culverts to ensure adequate clearance.
Take-out. Parking is available at Manomin County Park in Fridley on East River Road. Portage on the right side of the dam at the outlet of Locke Lake. Use the East River Road pedestrian underpass and follow the trail to the parking lot. Or continue downstream of the underpass and paddle the final few hundred feet of the creek to the Mississippi—doing this will require a short paddle back upstream to the take-out.
Planning. Depending on wind speed and water levels, expect the entire trip to take roughly eight hours. Allow an additional hour for shuttling a vehicle to the take-out at Manomin County Park. Information. Call Wargo Nature Center, 651-429-8007. Visit Anoka County Parks or Ramsey County Parks or Rice Creek Watershed District. Rent canoes and kayaks at Wargo Nature Center for use within the Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Regional Park Reserve.