May–June 2021

Bucket List

Paddle the Way Upper Mississippi

Seeking solace on a peaceful stretch of the river

Keith Goetzman

On a mild spring morning, about 15 river miles downstream from the Lake Itasca headwaters of the Mississippi River, photographer Richard Hamilton Smith and I readied our solo canoes at Coffee Pot Landing. We had already left a car six miles downstream at the Forest Road bridge just below Stumphges Rapids, and we would paddle toward it over the next several hours. The creek-sized river was still running high from spring rains, but not too high—perfect conditions for canoeing or kayaking this stretch, where rocks can make low water a slow and bumpy ride.

The landing was much quieter than the bustling headwaters area at Itasca State Park next door, but the silence was briefly broken by a boombox bungeed into an aluminum canoe passing by. The shaggy, grinning paddler at the helm told us he was going all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. His gear and manner suggested he might not make it, but we would never know. Instead of an epic journey, we were out for a half-day paddle, sans boombox. Our soundtrack would be burbling water, rustling cattails, and spring songbird calls on this remote, peaceful stretch of the not-yet-mighty river.

Over the course of the next three-plus hours—with a couple of breaks—we lost ourselves in the beauty of the far upper Mississippi. The river here meanders a broad valley rimmed by pine-topped bluffs, abutting the La Salle Lake Scientific and Natural Area at first and then entering the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest. It’s refreshingly unspoiled and uninhabited, and the only other people you might see are long-haul river trippers or locals who know the charms of this wild upriver country. We saw no other paddlers, just expansive views and close-up glimpses of the famous river.

As we pulled out at Forest Road, I had no doubt that I would be returning to paddle this piece of the Mississippi again.

 Planning Your Paddle

  • Coffee Pot Landing to Forest Road bridge is about six river miles, taking about two to three hours to paddle depending on river flow, wind, paddling speed, and how many stops you make. More ambitious paddlers can plan a longer daytrip or even an overnight with a stay at a riverside campsite. 
  • Spring or early summer is often the best time for this trip. Before going, check water levels near Vern and Wilton at or call Itasca State Park (218-699-7251) or the Parks and Trails area office in Bemidji (218-308-2372). If the water’s too low, this stretch can be a boat beater; too high, and it can be a trickier route best run by experienced paddlers. In optimum conditions it’s good for paddlers of all abilities, including the small Stumphges Rapids near the end.
  • There are not a lot of places to land along this route, especially in the cattail-lined sections, but keep an eye out for spots to step out for a break or a view.
  • Later in summer and fall, when water levels can be too low for paddling from Coffee Pot, consider heading downstream and going from Fern Lake Road to Lake Bemidji—a less remote but more reliably paddle-able section. This shady, winding route is often bracketed by silver maples. Just be careful crossing Lake Irving if the wind is up.
  • Camping is available nearby at Itasca State Park, La Salle State Recreation Area, and Lake Bemidji State Park.