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Image of canoeists and kayakers.

The State of Paddling

Many Minnesotans have yet to discover the nation's largest network of mapped water trails.

by Keith Goetzman and Javier Serna

The classic Minnesota paddling trip is a journey by canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, complete, if expectations hold true, with wild blueberries and loons. But the state of paddling in Minnesota is far more varied—and often closer to home—than many people realize. And paddlers can travel many of these waters without portaging.

Float Down the Big Fork

image of a the Big Fork River

See more images from the Big Fork River.

Plan Your Route

image of a map

Find information and printable maps for all 33 Minnesota state water trails.

50th Anniversary Celebration

Paddlers of all ages and abilities are invited to travel one of the first state water trails, the Minnesota River, Saturday, May 18. This event begins on the river walk in Granite Falls and is part of a series of events May 17–19 celebrating the 50th year of the Minnesota water trails system.

Shuttle your own watercraft and shoot rapids newly exposed by the removal of the Minnesota Falls dam, or sign up for a $10 seat in a Wilderness Inquiry voyageur canoe for a historic theatrical performance that will be woven into a placid paddling route. Learn how to register for this event.

Some 4,500 miles of state water trails, managed by the Department of Natural Resources, fan out across Minnesota. These mapped routes on 33 state waterways offer a wide range of experiences to all sorts of water travelers. Small, placid rivers give canoeists a chance for a day of fishing and nature watching. Frothing rapids attract whitewater kayakers. The sealike splendor of the Lake Superior Water Trail calls to sea kayakers. Some state water trails are well suited to multiday camping trips; others are perfect for a float on a lazy summer day. Big, wide waterways have room for cabin cruisers and barge tows alike.

"There's a state water trail within an hour of just about anyone in Minnesota," says Erik Wrede, coordinator of the DNR state water trails program.

This year, the nation's first water trail system celebrates its 50th anniversary. It began in 1963 with the state Legislature's designation of the Big Fork, Little Fork, St. Croix, and Minnesota rivers as "canoe and boating routes." New routes have been designated over the decades, and in recent years, they have all become known as state water trails. In fact, water trails have existed for centuries. American Indians canoed water trails. Later, European fur traders and loggers plied these water routes for commerce.

Today's state water trails have convenient accesses and designated campsites. In spite of these amenities, water trails are often underused resources, says Wrede. Many Minnesotans are simply not aware of them. With a series of events planned across the state, Wrede hopes to see more people try these routes for day or weekend trips.

State parks, paddling clubs, and private outfitters can help paddlers plan and pull off their trip by offering expertise, gear, and shuttle rides. Wrede has a tip for the time-strapped canoeist or kayaker: Paddle upstream, then ride the current back down to your starting point. No shuttle needed.

Whatever the length of your trip, once you're on the water, you'll nearly always find that the effort you took to get there pays off. "Not knowing what's around the next bend is really a cool part of being on a river," says Wrede.

Families especially can benefit from getting together and going with the flow, he says, speaking from firsthand experience. "When we're paddling together, and when we're camping together, life is simple," Wrede explains. "Families tend to shed their baggage and their distractions quickly on a paddling trip. It comes down to reconnecting. And that's why it feels good. It feels soulful."

The following three accounts of river trips show some of the possibilities for paddling state water trails.

Canoeing in Corn Country

Blue skies, brown water, and corn-fed catfish make for a fine day on the Minnesota River.

by Keith Goetzman

I was deep into my second helping of fresh-caught, deep-fried catfish on a gloriously sun-drenched sandbar when I began to think that the Minnesota was a pretty darn good river to paddle after all.

image of Minnesota River

I hadn't been easy to convince. As a canoeist who's lived in the Twin Cities area for most of my life, I had my own ideas about which of the state's waters were worth paddling. The Minnesota wasn't on my list. Flowing through the metro area before joining the Mississippi, the Minnesota often seemed uninviting—a brown strip of silty water coursing through a jumble of deadfall trees on eroded banks.

On this daylong, guided trip, I traveled far upriver to paddle a very different seven-mile stretch of this state water trail near Olivia in south-central Minnesota.

While the water's brown color—partly a result of the region's farming—had not changed, the character of the rural river certainly had. Lush bottomland forest lined the waterway, bird life flourished, channel catfish all but leapt onto anglers' bait. On some stretches, huge boulders along the banks made the riverside look like the rocky wilds of northern Minnesota.

"You wouldn't think you're in the middle of corn country down here," said Tom Kalahar, one of two guides with Minnesota River Adventures who led our group of 10 paddlers in four canoes and two kayaks. Our half-hour shuttle upstream translated into six lazy hours on the river, thanks in part to the Minnesota's snakelike meander and a slow current caused by drought.

Kalahar, a technician for the Renville Soil and Water Conservation District, spoke bluntly about the waterway's health problems, especially the region's extensive agricultural drain tiling that causes erosion and sedimentation. He and his guiding partner John White belong to the conservation group CURE (Clean Up the River Environment). During our float they boasted of the river's 3.6-billion-year-old gneiss outcrops, showed the anglers in our group how to reliably land catfish, and gazed in wonder at a flock of pelicans wheeling elegantly in the deep blue sky. Before long, their love and knowledge of this place infected all of us.

Visitors from afar sometimes get to know the Minnesota River better than its own neighbors, White noted. "There are people who live right next to the river who've never really seen it," he said. Among our group were two sisters, Sandy Carlson from nearby Morgan and Nancy Carlson from Washington state, who for a couple of years had wanted to canoe the Minnesota together. Kin Hang Lau, an exchange student who had arrived from Hong Kong only days earlier to stay with White, was kayaking and catfishing for the first time.

The paddling was easy, with the river near record lows because of the drought. "If you get stuck, get out," Kalahar advised. "If you tip over, stand up."

In keeping with the leisurely pace, we took an extended lunch break on the sandbar. While White set up a folding table, fired up a fry vat, and served up delectable cornmeal-breaded fillets paired with white wine, many paddlers combed the ground for treasures revealed by low water. We found natural artifacts, such as prehistoric bison bones (illegal to remove) and agates, as well as river-worn glass bottle ends and other human detritus. We saw a dazzling variety of native mussel shells with opalescent interiors and colorful exteriors of mottled blue tones, leopardlike spots, and rusty ridges. The Minnesota once had 40 native mussel species; 20 remain.

Despite the natural delights of the river corridor, it had been impossible during our paddle to escape the occasional reminder of our agricultural surroundings. Cornfields were sometimes planted right up to the tops of eroding banks, where raccoons dragged entire stalks down slidelike trails to the water's edge. One of our catfish even had corn in its gut from eating the leftovers. And where else in the world could you catch corn-fed catfish?

Well sated by the scenery and the meal, we continued paddling for another couple of hours, wrapping up as the golden glow of a late-summer afternoon settled upon us. That night as I drifted off to sleep, I still felt like I was floating along, down the beautiful Minnesota River.

Snake River Getaway

Not far from the city, this river has some wild waters and wild shores.

by Javier Serna

Immediately after launching on the Snake River, our group of paddlers in 14 kayaks and a canoe approached the first set of rapids. The boats lined up close to single file. Then one by one, each paddler navigated swift water through a maze of rocks scattered across the river.

image of Snake River

This early taste of whitewater offered an adrenaline rush and a preview of rapids to come. On a cool, sunny Saturday in April, I had joined the River Ramblers, a Twin Cities–based paddling club, for an annual 12-mile float on this state water trail.

The 102-mile Snake River originates east of Mille Lacs Lake in Solana State Forest. Its upper reaches are a popular spring destination for whitewater paddlers, thanks to several rapids rated as high as rollicking Class IV. The middle portion is a much calmer stream, before it shifts back to swifter water with numerous Class I rapids. We were paddling this brisk lower stretch from below the Pine City dam to the Snake's confluence with the St. Croix River.

Just over an hour's drive from the metro area, the lower Snake is a natural draw for many paddlers. "Anything within two hours of the Twin Cities gets a fair bit of use," said Erik Wrede, state water trails coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources. "And the Snake even more so, because it's got a little whitewater on it."

Trip leader and River Ramblers president Laura Huberty had consulted the DNR online river-level report before the trip. "That way, I know what to expect," she said. In this case, she found water levels just below average for spring, meaning a slightly slower pace and gentler rapids.

Big Drops. The Snake drops 440 feet over its entire length, and 136 feet in this final stretch alone. Dramatic dips left no doubt we were heading downhill. In one spot, the stream bends abruptly in front of a granite ledge. Again, the paddlers lined up to make the maneuver one at a time. This and several other spots were challenging for some in the group, but even novice paddlers made it through without incident.

On quiet stretches, we noticed little things—the trill of a red-winged blackbird, the whistle of a drake mallard taking wing, the cackle of a belted kingfisher. The river valley is rich with wildlife, including wolves, deer, foxes, bobcats, and ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse.

Wild stretches of mature hardwood forest are interrupted by pockets of development along this stretch of river. White and red pines are also present, but gone from the Snake River valley are its stands of old-growth white pine, cleared by loggers more than 100 years ago. The valley's pinery was one of the richest in the St. Croix watershed, and the Snake River was the conduit to send logs down to the sawmills near Stillwater.

"It was one of the first places commercial loggers went to," said DNR forester Jeremy Fauskee, noting that a few pockets of older pines persist along the upper reaches. The last three miles took us through the southern edge of the 29,000-acre Chengwatana State Forest where, according to Fauskee, there's enough wilderness for a pack of wolves to feel comfortable.

Fish Passage. At one bend in the river, a fisherman watching a bobber from a small rowboat said he was fishing for smallmouth bass. The fishery is also known for walleye, northern pike, and catfish.

Someday the Snake could be once again known for lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), currently listed by the DNR as a species of special concern. Because of restoration work, the river could experience a revival of its sturgeon population. This past winter, the DNR completed a project to modify the Pine City dam at the outlet of Cross Lake. The dam, once a barrier to upstream migration, has been converted into sloping rapids, which will restore fish passage and provide spawning habitat for lake sturgeon.

"It may not fully recover in my lifetime," said Roger Hugill, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Hinckley. "But it's comforting to know that they can come and go as they please now."

Last Drop. As we made our way to the river's terminus on that April day, each step down the succession of rapids delighted me. On the last mile, just when I thought the whitewater fun was over, we hit a stretch of flatwater. The streambed dropped in a swift course through the river's delta, with multiple braids winding around a series of small islands.

Then, and only then, were we ejected into the wider, calm St. Croix. The trip had taken three and a half hours, compared with two hours for the Ramblers the year before in high water.

As Huberty told us, the Snake just isn't going to be the same day to day or year to year.

Small Pleasures on the Big Fork

This northern river is long, scenic, and ever surprising.

by Keith Goetzman

The pleasure of meandering with a new river is very peculiar and fascinating. Each few yards brings a novelty, or starts an excitement. A crane jumps up here, a duck flutters there, splash leaps a gleaming trout by your side, the rushing sound of rocks warns you round that corner … .

—J. MacGregor, A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe

River canoeing is inherently more of an adventure than lake-country tripping is, for the simple reason that you never know what's around the next bend. The more winding the river and the brisker the current, the greater the paddler's sense of perpetual surprise. The Big Fork River in north-central Minnesota offers up a steady succession of wonders, though perhaps the most surprising thing about this state water trail is that more paddlers don't flock to it.

image of Big Fork River

The Big Fork has rapids of many sizes for those who crave whitewater. It has campsites roughly 10 miles apart, or half a day's paddle, down its entire length, enabling multiday trips. It's an epic 171 miles long, providing more than a week's touring for even a hardcore paddler. And it has a remote and rustic feel through most of its length, coursing through a national forest and several state forests on its way to its confluence with the Rainy River on the U.S.–Canada border.

Over the years I had heard other paddlers' tales of trips on the Big Fork and its nearby sibling, the Little Fork. Last August two companions and I finally took time to canoe the Big Fork on a four-day trip. It was as mind clearing and rewarding as any Boundary Waters trek I've taken.

We left the Twin Cities at 7 a.m., and by 2 p.m. we launched our canoe and kayak onto the river at the State Highway 1 landing, 14 miles downriver from the town of Big Fork—a starting point we'd settled on after poring over options on our DNR water trail map. We had arranged with Bigfork Outfitters to drive our car to our take-out 32 miles downstream at the State Highway 6 bridge.

On this muggy day, with temperatures nearing 90 even up north, the mere sight of the cool, extraordinarily clear waters of the Big Fork was rejuvenating. Slender pondweeds undulated in the current, the surface reflected puffball clouds overhead, and a sandpiper pranced on matted vegetation atop the water, noodling around for bugs.

There are three hemispheres of scenery visible to the traveller who voyages … in a boat on the river. First, the great arch of sky, and land, and trees, and flowers down to the water's brink; then the whole of this reflected beautifully in the surface of the river, and then again the wondrous depths of the water itself … .

—J. MacGregor

While my companions manned the canoe, I paddled my kayak. The low profile of the kayak gave me a front-row seat to the aquatic life on and under the water surface.

The Big Fork's underwater plants and algae became a soothing backdrop for the entire journey, their billowing forms drawing the eye and creating a sort of living wallpaper. As we drifted along, we saw hairlike masses of algae attached to rocks and the many deadhead logs that hark back to the river's log-drive days. These deadheads lurked in the water like goony corpses, their floating mop tops swaying to and fro.

The super-clear water was something of an anomaly for this river, partly a result of the state's extended drought. With a low, slow flow and no fresh infusions of rainwater runoff, the river impressed everyone, even locals who we encountered, with its clarity. Soon it would turn a seasonal root-beer brown from falling leaves.

Though the lack of turbidity allowed glimpses of fish darting for cover, it made angling—a prime pursuit for many on the Big Fork—a challenge during our trip.

When the scenery is tame to the canoeist, and the channel of the river is not made interesting by dangers to be avoided, then he can always turn again to the animals and birds, and in five minutes of watching he will surely see much to please.

—J. MacGregor

Several times on our journey, we rounded a bend and startled deer. Once a doe and her fawn bounded across the river in a fury of spray. Bears, bobcats, lynx, moose, and wolves eluded us, though all inhabit the area. For a while, I seemed to be chasing a green heron that kept flushing and flying around the next bend, only to be startled again as my kayak reappeared.

Other wildlife highlights included a magnificently mud-caked snapping turtle as big as a pizza pan. A bald eagle with its white tail feathers spread like a geisha's fan took wing right over our heads. One night, a mass of delicate white mayflies gathered on our lantern during a snowstormlike hatch. Another night, a flying squirrel sailed through flying embers high over our campfire—a daring stunt worthy of a YouTube video.

In going down a swift reach of the river there is the same sensation about one's midriff that is felt when one goes forward smoothly on a lofty rope swing.

—J. MacGregor

Paddlers on the Big Fork should be prepared to run the river's occasional rapids, though all can be portaged if necessary. Most of the whitewater stays in the easy to moderately difficult range of Class I to Class II.

We knew from checking an online river-level report that low water would probably take some of the oomph out of the rapids. But we were still surprised at how tame the river was. In fact, we didn't even recognize the first few Class I rapids, which had hardly a riffle and certainly not a roar.

Our first day's nine-mile paddle had the longest Class II stretch, the half-mile Muldoon Rapids. Due to the waterway's diminished level, it was more like a Class I, easily runnable by a novice paddler. However, running the rapids was exciting enough to cause us to miss the water-trail campsite sign. To get back to the site, I paddled and waded and pulled my kayak upstream. My companions practiced the art of lining a canoe, putting their boat on a short leash and pulling it along as they waded or walked along shore.

Though the Big Fork's surrounding topography is relatively flat, the Muldoon rapids area is an exception. The campsite, perched on a steep granite rise under a canopy of birch and balsam, requires some gear lugging, but we found the climb well worth the effort for the scenic vantage. As we headed to our tents, an orange quarter moon sank behind the spruces across the river.

The movement of the paddle … became involuntary, just as the legs are moved in walking, and the ordinary difficulties of a river seemed to be understood by the mind without special observation, and to be dealt with naturally, without hesitation or reasoning as to what ought to be done.

—J. MacGregor

Over the next couple of days, we settled into the rhythm of the river. We ceased overcorrecting our boats and began going with the flow rather than fighting the current. We began to point out wildlife with subtle gestures instead of voices. Learning that good landing spots were hard to come by, we seized the chance to stop at most any beach for a snack or a stretch.

As we got further downstream, deeper fishing holes began to appear between sets of riffles. The Big Fork has plentiful walleye, smallmouth bass, northern pike, and trophy-worthy muskie, but you wouldn't have known it from our empty creels.

In the end, our lack of fishing success and the tameness of whitewater only gave us a rationale for another trip when the water is higher and the bite is on. When we spotted our take-out landing and contemplated our imminent return to the hot, noisy city, it was clear from our grumbles of disappointment that given half a chance we'd have run that river all the way to the end.

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