As I slide the canoe into the water, the bow breaks the surface and cleaves a group of water boatmen insects into two skittering masses. They won't be separated for long; this canoe is heading into the backwaters. It's an early August morning at Indian Slough landing on the Mississippi River near Wabasha, and a light fog hangs in the still, clammy air.
Climbing aboard, I launch into a paddler's wonderland, following waterways with shifting dimensions. Some are narrow channels; others are broad like lakes. Traffic sounds fade as I move away from the landing, and the deep call of a bullfrog booms out of the mist. The water surface is bright with neon green patches of duckweed; the horizon is all grays save for dark, craggy trees that take shape as I near them. Teal and wood ducks occasionally flush at my appearance, but woodpeckers, unflustered, work the trees nearby.
It feels good to be back in the Mississippi backwaters—that is, all the waters in the river floodplain away from the main channel. Part river and part lake, these southeastern Minnesota backwaters are well known to anglers, waterfowlers, birdwatchers, trappers, and solitude seekers in the region but less so to many others unfamiliar with their rugged charms.
I first began paddling the backwaters between Wabasha and Winona decades ago as a novice canoeist, and for many years they were my main getaway whenever I wanted to escape civilization and lose myself in the vastness of the river valley. Over the years, though, I drifted away from these waters, lured to more exotic and distant paddling destinations.
I have returned to explore the backwaters more deeply and to meet some of the people who know them most intimately.
"It's a sanctuary for the soul."
Ed Lagacé has been trying to sum up just what makes the Mississippi backwaters so special, and with these succinct words he seems to have succeeded. I have sought out Lagacé, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, because he's the person who conceived and oversees a series of Upper Mississippi canoe trails (see sidebar) that offer a great entry point for paddlers new to these waters.
Between the Wabasha and Winona areas, six canoe trails are signed and maintained by volunteers for the Winona District of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The trails are, from upriver to downriver:
Chippewa River Water Trail near Pepin, Wisconsin, 6.8 miles
Nelson-Trevino Trail near Wabasha, 4.5 miles
Finger Lakes Trail near Kellogg, 6.1 miles
Halfmoon Trail near Kellogg, 5.1 miles
Verchota Trail near Winona, 11.3 miles
Aghaming Trail near Winona, 6.7 miles
Paddlers may have to enter the main channel or travel upstream on some routes. Most backwaters are open to motorized watercraft, so use caution. All canoeists, kayakers, and stand-up paddleboarders should wear personal flotation devices and carry a map and compass even if they're using electronic navigation. High water or high winds warrant caution. And remember, "There is safety in numbers," says Ed Lagacé, who oversees the trails.
More trails are accessible downriver on the Wisconsin side. Learn more about all of the trails and print or download maps on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife site.
Experienced river navigators can depart from these trails to explore more; this entire stretch of the Mississippi is itself part of a DNR-designated State Water Trail. See the Minnesota DNR page for other information and a link to river level reports.
The trails most accessible to Minnesotans, between the Wabasha and Winona areas, guide paddlers on routes that return to the original landing or, in one case, a landing a five-minute walk away. Paddlers can navigate with maps, which can be printed out old-school or downloaded as a GPS file, or follow posted signs along the route.
In decades past, I had no such resources. I recall setting out often from the Indian Slough landing with water, lunch, a state atlas, and a compass, trying to follow the landforms and remember my way back to the landing by taking mental notes of every twist, turn, and tree. Adventurous, yes, but sometimes disconcerting when I got lost in the watery labyrinth—a state of being that Lagacé prefers to call "misplaced."
"The water trails give people a proven route that is signed," he says. "We get people who want to explore and have an adventure, but don't necessarily have the skills to follow a route. This gives them security."
On my return to Indian Slough, I experience this in person while paddling the Nelson-Trevino Trail, a route that now encompasses the areas I used to frequent. Instead of worrying about where I'm going and how I'll get back, I'm able to relax and just look for the next sign around the bend. At the end of the loop, I share my printed map with a group of women who have just arrived with their kayaks. New to this landing, they are glad to have the map as backup.
Most of the time, the backwaters are a pretty safe place to paddle, says Lagacé.
"In many cases, there is no through current, and you're talking about fairly shallow waters," he explains. "And you're always close to land. On most of these trails you could land and drag your canoe [to safety]."
In addition to overseeing the maintenance of the canoe trails—which is done by volunteer Eagle Scouts and Master Naturalists—Lagacé leads guided tours of the backwaters several times a year. He never tires of introducing new paddlers to the area and its wonders.
One thing that often surprises newcomers is the clarity of the water after spring rains and runoff let up and water levels drop. Away from the current and wave action of the main channel, the backwaters can become a lens into underwater life from invertebrates to monster northern pike.
"People misunderstand," says Lagacé, "but—once the flooding's over, once the sediments have dropped—the backwaters can be crystal clear and beautiful as the Boundary Waters."
Mike Davis is in his element. The Department of Natural Resources mussel biologist is at the stern of a canoe on the Halfmoon Trail near Kellogg, paddling and spinning stories about his life on and around the backwaters. Davis grew up fishing, hunting, trapping, and exploring this area from his family's cabin on an island near West Newton.
"I had an early immersion into the river and how quiet and much more interesting the backwaters could be than the main river channel," he says as tree swallows whirl around the boat snatching insects and a pink thunderhead towers over Wisconsin in the distance.
Davis grew attuned to the ebb-and-flow cycles of the backwaters: the spring surge of snowmelt runoff; the slow draining of summer that can leave them low and clear; the fall waterfowl season when migrating ducks, swans, and geese gather by the thousands on open areas; the winter freeze that makes ice-top travel possible for snowshoers, skiers, and trappers. Harvesting wildlife and watching the seasons, Davis went on to pursue a career that involved protecting and restoring river systems and habitat. For work and for play, he still frequents these waters.
Now, as he pilots the canoe between a bank lined with black willows and a thick green bed of arrowhead, Davis points out that in many places the backwaters have been heavily engineered by humans. Using place names like Old John's Ditch and Murphy's Cut, he explains the modern hydrological history of this area—in short, a series of human interventions including dams, ditches, and dredging that have often changed the natural regime in unintended ways. The area we're paddling into, known as Halfmoon Lake, has undergone a series of shifts over years. Currently it's losing its lakelike character, proliferating with sandbars full of young willows.
This, really, is the long-term fate of much of the backwaters: They are slowly filling in, losing aquatic area. Before dams built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers divided the upper Mississippi River into a series of pools, Davis explains, "when the water would come up, it would run into these backwater areas and fill up the lakes and the marshes with water. Fish would go in and spawn, and the insects would colonize. Then when the river would go down in the summer, that water would run out of the backwaters and into the river.
"So these little side channels were two-way streets in some cases: The water would run in during high water but run back out into the main channel during droughts. Now it doesn't do that. It just runs in all the time. And that's gradually filling in some of those areas as the side channels bring in sediment and deposit it."
Looking down into a decidedly non-muddy Mississippi, Davis points out aquatic plant life that we're skimming over and past in our canoe. Football-shaped leaves of river pondweed float on the surface. Dense mats of water stargrass, its flowers like little yellow fireworks, clump along the margins. Slender shoots of wild celery corkscrew up from the bottom toward sunlight to bloom at water level. Amid a patch of arrowhead, scattered stalks of wild rice have finally stood up to start producing their fall grain crop.
On the river at dusk, Davis loves to watch hatches of aquatic insects rise up off the water and swirl into columns. During the day, he enjoys the airborne antics of damselflies and dragonflies. Peering below the water's surface, he keeps an eye out for schooling fish fry as well as larger fish including northern pike. Among the many birds he spots are herons, egrets, bald eagles, osprey, wood ducks, bitterns, pelicans, and, in increasing numbers, sandhill cranes, part of a statewide crane resurgence thanks to state and federal protections.
Motioning toward the tall, thick canegrass along one shore, Davis notes that it's perfect for hiding waterfowl hunters in the fall and for making baskets. Elsewhere on the banks he identifies the distinctive spiky orbs of a buttonbush, the intensely red clusters of the cardinal flower, and a patch of swamp milkweed attracting monarchs with its sticky sweet scent.
This time of year—early August—often finds the backwaters in bloom.
"There are really cool, beautiful flowering backwater plants," says Davis. These include two species of arrowhead—broad-leaf and narrow-leaved—that have bright white blooms; white and yellow water lilies; pickerelweed with its spike of purple flowers; and the showstopper of backwaters plants, the towering water lotus with its huge white petals cupping an alien-like seedpod and stamens.
"It's pretty fascinating to paddle around and amongst those things. If you're in a kayak, the blooms are at face level or above your head even."
We don't spot any lotuses this afternoon, but they are a must-see item on my backwaters itinerary. As we paddle back to the landing, we are treated to a couple of notable bird sightings: two startled coots that may be some of fall's first migrants, and a black-crowned night heron that slinks into the riverbank grasses like a shadow.
It's a sticky summer evening at tiny Homer Landing just downriver from Winona, and the members of the Carpe Diem Paddle Klub are gathering with their boats at the river's edge, waves lapping at the hulls as they prepare to launch. Most Wednesday evenings during paddling season—as early as April and as late as October—these friends and companions get together to paddle, socialize, and immerse themselves in the riverway. It's a loose social structure, with new paddlers sometimes joining a core group that has gone on outings since 1998, when Fountain City, Wisconsin, resident Joe Libera founded the club.
After an early evening outing on the river, the group eats a potluck meal, usually at someone's house but sometimes at a local park or even on a river island. People of many stripes join in, united by their affinity for adventure, camaraderie, and hot dish. There are no dues, appointed leaders, or rules, except for all the unwritten ones that guide safe paddling and etiquette on the water and bad jokes around the dinner table.
Tonight's group includes a massage therapist, a software developer, a couple of farmers, and several folks who meet the definition of "retired" but don't look particularly retiring as they carry their watercraft to the water's edge.
Spouses Carson Lentz and Sam Haeuser of Cochrane, Wisconsin, are crop farmers who started paddling with the club about 10 years ago after they got rid of their dairy cows and had more time for fun. Father Prince Raja, a newcomer, is a young priest serving three Catholic parishes on the Wisconsin side. Betty Kriesel, a longtime club paddler, says to him, "We're going to be seeing pelicans."
Homer Landing is not on one of the signed canoe trails, but it is just across the river channel from the Aghaming Trail, which we will skirt. The club's plan is to cross the channel and enter a backwater area between two islands where a huge flock of American white pelicans has been hanging out.
Crossing the channel reminds me why the backwaters are best when it comes to paddling. We must thread between speeding motorboats that aren't eager to shift course or ease up on their throttles. Eventually, several pods of paddlers cross safely, bobbing in the crisscrossing wakes. Once we're across, the mood mellows as the current slackens. Paddlers meander and socialize while cruising abreast. A monarch drifts past on the air. Limestone bluffs rise around us. In the far distance a huge faux paddlewheeler, the American Duchess, churns down the main channel.
"This is so relaxing," says Kriesel. "It's relaxing just being out on the water."
Ahead we see the flock of pelicans massed on a sandbar. As the boats approach, the birds suddenly lift off en masse, flapping thunderously as they fill the sky above us. After more casual exploring and more hull-to-hull chats, the paddlers make their way back to the landing and head for the potluck at member Debi Niebuhr's Winona home.
Niebuhr started paddling with the club about a decade ago. She already owned a kayak and paddled on her own, but she still didn't know her way around all the area backwaters. "The thing that keeps me going [on club outings] is there are a lot of areas I probably wouldn't have explored on my own," she says, noting that Lentz is a trusty guide. "Carson knows those backwaters like I know roads."
The connections forged in the backwaters are enduring. Club members look after one another when they need support by making meals, putting up firewood, or even going to their home and singing. Some of the dinner chatter on Niebuhr's back deck centers around next week's paddle, which promises to be special. Club members will celebrate the life of a member, Dee Cipov, who recently died. Even two weeks before her death, she was kayaking the backwaters.
"She loved to paddle," says Lentz. "She loved to go out among the lotuses. So we're going to paddle out there and scatter her ashes and drink a glass of wine."
On my backwaters sojourn I end up finding the lotuses myself, paddling right up to them in my solo canoe and marveling at their intense, ephemeral beauty.
As I think of all the new places I've explored and all the new people I've met on this trip, I feel a bit guilty about my long absence from the backwaters. I've learned that they are much deeper, figuratively, than I had ever appreciated, and I resolve to return more often.
In the meantime I find a favorite new launching spot, Verchota Landing near Winona. Heading out on the Verchota Trail one perfect summer morning, I am soon tempted to depart from the mapped route by a waterway that seems to beckon me into its shaded recesses. After a moment of hesitation, I rudder left and feel a twinge of excitement as I head into the unknown.