The Big, Wide Red
Floodwaters and bucketloads of mud didn't stop us from paddling the Red River. But they certainly tried.
As we shoved off into the waters of Lake Traverse from a flooded parking lot in Browns Valley on June 9, my companions and I already knew this wasn’t going to be an ordinary canoe trip. For the past 50-plus years, ideal canoeing for us had meant crisscrossing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I had grown accustomed to the pristine waters, granite outcroppings, and dark forests of northern Minnesota. The Red River of the North, meanwhile, is hardly known as a top-tier paddling destination. In fact, I have never met a paddler who boasted about (or even admitted to) paddling on the Red. In addition, the river was currently in flood stage, with high water extending all the way from its northern end point, Lake Winnipeg, down to southern Minnesota.
The vision for this particular trip had gradually solidified itself during the course of 19 years. The three of us—Deb Stephens Knutson of Owatonna, Deb Lenox White of Rosemount, and I, Anne Sherve-Ose of Williams, Iowa—would traverse the core of the North American continent by canoe, even if it took nearly a quarter century to accomplish the goal in segments. We’d already canoed the 2,552 miles of the Mississippi River. The biggest hurdle that remained was getting from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, and because we were all retired and had the time, we thought it should be a piece of cake. Three years paddling north at the rate of one month a year should do it. Surely, we had that much left in us. The last stretch on the Minnesota River connecting the Mississippi to the Red could be tacked on anytime.
The Water Is Wide. Lake Traverse, where our paddles first split the water this summer, is unique in that the northern end of the lake flows north to Hudson Bay, while the southern end flows south to the Gulf of Mexico. As the three of us set out in our 18-foot aluminum canoe, I told the Debs to be sure to watch for the hump in the middle of the lake.
Lake Traverse was obviously flooded, but our dismay at the water levels soon turned to joy when we realized we could paddle right over the dam at the north end of Lake Traverse with barely a splash. We were expecting to enter a narrow passageway into Mud Lake, but we were in for a surprise. We had Minnesota DNR State Water Trail maps with us, but what we saw from the canoe looked nothing like what was on the map. Instead of the river being a long snake as pictured on the map, it looked more like a bloated eggplant. [See editor’s end note about paddling on high water.]
There were only a few clues that told us we were going the right way: the current, the line of submerged riverbank bushes and trees, and my compass. At the next dam, at the north end of smaller Mud Lake, the river had flooded enough to shorten the portage to about 1/10 its normal length.
At this point we entered the Bois de Sioux River. The natural meanders of this waterway had been “improved” by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The result for us, on a lovely June day with barely a whisper of wind, was that we entered a straight corridor of greenery teeming with wildlife. Dozens of pelicans greeted us, and we followed them for miles as they silently paddled downriver faster than we could. Every mile or so another bald eagle swooped across the sky above us. We saw Canada geese, mergansers, cormorants, wood ducks, and more as we settled into a paddling rhythm.
The banks of the channelized Bois de Sioux rose considerably higher than even the flooded water level. The result was that it felt almost like going through a tunnel: We couldn’t see to either side, so we had no idea what we were passing beyond the banks. These high banks were covered in big old mature cottonwoods, oaks, maples, willows, boxelders, and other trees. Every hundred yards or so, the high banks had an opening that allowed a glimpse of life on the outside, mainly flooded farm fields. In some of these openings, water flowed from the river into the fields; in others it was the reverse.
During our two days on the Bois de Sioux, the paddling was easy, the water was clear, the wind was negligible, the trees were beautiful, and there was some new example of Midwestern fauna every few minutes. We spotted deer, beavers, muskrats, otters, turkeys, turtles, and fish. At one point, we saw a mother duck with a line of seven ducklings lose one of her brood to a large fish while crossing the river. The mother immediately circled back and flapped and squawked at the place where the duckling had been, but of course it was too late. The six remaining ducklings finished the crossing, followed by the mother in mourning.
At four days into our journey, we were moving fast and ahead of schedule. We had camped in a county campground, in a lovely mowed farmyard, and on a flower-filled ledge. It looked like this would be one of our most pleasant canoe trips ever!
Muddy Waters, Muddy Land. The Red River drains the ancient seabed of Lake Agassiz, which was the largest glacial lake in North America. The fine, silty soil of the Red River Valley is great for growing crops, but when wet it becomes a sticky, clay-like mud that doesn’t wash off easily. We knew the river had a reputation for being muddy, but then so do the Missouri and the Mississippi, both of which I have paddled. We just had no idea that the mud would be so pervasive. We simply could not escape it.
As we approached Breckenridge, where the Red River officially begins when the Otter Tail River joins it, the water began to get cloudy. The riverbanks turned from wet and matted grass to mud. The sand and gravel of the Bois de Sioux completely disappeared, and it would be nearly two weeks before we even saw a rock.
Because Deb K.’s shoes kept falling off, she often went barefoot through the mud. One day she got a thistle barb irritatingly embedded in her toe. She tried to remove it with a pair of tweezers. Finally she enlisted my help and afterward said, “Only a true friend would stick her buddy’s toe in her mouth to bite out a sliver!”
The boat ramps listed on the map, usually welcome landings for canoeists, were covered with a foot-deep layer of pudding-like mud. In fact, we saw only one dock jutting into the turbid Red River the whole 456 miles of our trip, at Pembina when we disembarked.
For the remainder of our trip there was hardly a solid place to stand, let alone land. Each time we wanted to exit the boat, it was an ordeal. The chosen person would step out and immediately begin to sink. If it was only six or eight inches, we were lucky.
One day, Deb K. got out to scout for a campsite and became ensnared in mud up to her hips. She ultimately had to abandon her shoes in the mud and escape barefoot, using the canoe prow to gain leverage. Like a true Mud Warrior, she returned to the scene of the battle and nearly entombed her head as she reached down into the gunky depths to retrieve the shoes. Then she promptly fell backward into the canoe, landing on the deck plate at the bow. No harm done, but lots of laughter ensued.
The Power of the Flood. The views along the river began to change. The levees totally disappeared and the farm fields came right down to the water’s edge. Not surprisingly, none of these farm fields had been planted by mid-June. They were simply too muddy. The Minnesota side of the river consistently had more of a greenbelt between the fields and the river. The North Dakota side was almost treeless, sometimes exposing our boat to gusty westerly winds that caused us to sideslip.
The toll of spring flooding became visible as we pressed northward. We saw many wrecked docks up in the trees, along with mangled deer stands, tires, propane tanks, old cars, refrigerators, and rusty combines.
The trees were a huge source of enjoyment for me. The immensity of the cottonwoods often left me in awe. Many trees, though, appeared to be damaged by flooding, with disfiguring scars and areas of missing bark, and others had transformed into gargantuan corpses lining the banks of the whole length of the Red River. The power of a flooding river is staggering. It not only knocks down these giants, but carries them for miles and deposits them in the strangest places.
Likewise, we passed many deserted riverside farms where an upstream corner of a barn or house was bashed in. We saw grain bins that had been built far from the river’s edge long ago that were now being undercut as they tilted into the river. In many places a farmer had poured chunks of cement, rocks, pipes, or gravel into eroding land, but the river undercut the fill material and continued on its way undaunted. Living along a river like the Red must take a great deal of perseverance and acceptance.
Even though the water was high and fast and the wind sometimes pushed us around, we are all experienced canoeists, and our paddling was mostly placid and unconcerning. In one memorably pastoral scene, we followed a pair of snow-white swans down the river for miles. They paddled just fast enough to stay ahead of us.
Besides the waterfowl, we saw birds including great blue herons, hawks, blue jays, finches, and countless songbirds we didn’t recognize that serenaded us constantly with their spring songs. At dawn the cacophony was deafening, but what a lovely way to awaken! We had several periods of quiet time each day to simply listen to the birds while paddling.
Other times we passed the miles singing. Although all of us are musicians, Deb W. observed, “It sounds like we have never sung before!” In our defense, the person in the back cannot hear the other two voices being projected forward. The person in the middle hears two different tempos and pitches simultaneously, and the person in the front just sings on, unaware of the chaos behind her.
Creative Camping. Our days began with the birds at 5:30 a.m., and we were usually on the water by 7. We began looking for a campsite by midafternoon. This was a grueling process, because it entailed getting out of the boat multiple times.
For most of our journey, the river was flanked by cliffs of hardened silt, often 12 feet high or more. When we looked for a campsite, it had to be accessible (meaning the cliff wasn’t too high to scale) and it had to be high enough off the water not to be mud. Those turned out to be difficult parameters.
We were accustomed to scrambling to find a place to camp because of our travels on the Mississippi during flood stage. On the Red, some of the 14 designated State Water Trail campsites were under water, some were spaced too close together or far apart for our traveling speed, and some we simply couldn’t find. We ended up staying at some of these sites as well as at two campgrounds—at a county park and at Red River State Recreation Area—and sometimes on private riverside property where we sought permission and left no trace.
We even spent one night in an emergency shelter in Drayton, North Dakota, because of tornado threats and extended thunderstorms. We were taking refuge in a bar enjoying a homemade pizza when we learned there was an emergency shelter in town, in the old school gymnasium. We were the only people there, and we enjoyed both the solitude and the bathroom with real running water!
When we eventually found a suitable campsite each day, we would unload the canoe and drag everything through the mud to the tent sites, and then look at ourselves. Mud at least to the knees, clothes smeared, packs covered, and nothing to do about it. If we went back to the river to wash off, we would end up just the same (or worse) after our washing. I wouldn’t say it was gruesome, but it was certainly a different way to camp!
One day, about halfway through our trip, the temperature topped 100. One of the Debs got overheated as we struggled to put up our tents. Flushed and nearly delirious, she asked the other Deb to help her, saying, “Here are the tent pegs” as she handed her an apple. It was funny later, but not in the heat of the moment!
Its Own Kind of Beauty. The Red River was no Boundary Waters, that’s for sure. One of the most enjoyable parts of the BWCA experience is the omnipresent beautiful, drinkable, swimmable water. The Red River had zero of that. We hauled all our drinking water with us in gallon jugs—nearly 100 extra pounds of weight in our canoe. We carried empty jugs into town whenever we passed one to keep our supply topped off. The other thing notably missing was the BWCA’s glorious loungeable rock outcroppings.
The Red, muddy as it was, had its own unexpected upsides. What it lacked in majestic pines it made up for with those impressive stands of deciduous trees. The Red also outshone the BWCA in wildlife sightings. Around nearly every corner there would be something squawking or splashing, running or diving. Surprisingly, solitude was more available on the Red. Unless we went to a town, we didn’t see many people. We saw a total of five fishing boats during our trip, and no other canoes. The only times we heard or saw neighbors at camp were the two nights we spent in campgrounds. Beauty? The BWCA is certainly one of the most beautiful places on earth, but the Red River Valley has its own kind of beauty. I grew up in North Dakota, and it reminded me very much of home.
Another Chunk of Continent. We enjoyed our 18 days, which is in the end how long it took us to canoe from Browns Valley to the border town of Pembina, North Dakota. But it was like nothing I’ve ever done before. It was challenging, yet filled with laughter, song, and friendship. It was terrific to be back on the water with my friends. The only differences are that our knees are creakier, our packs seem heavier, and our balance is questionable.
Next year, we will begin at the border and finish the 150 miles of the Red River until it empties into Lake Winnipeg. Then we will paddle the 250-mile length of Lake Winnipeg. In 2024 we will follow a yet-to-be-determined river and finish our trip at Hudson Bay. At that point we will have canoed much of North America from south to north. As we will all be in our 70s by that time, that is as far as we go!
Editor’s note: The author and her companions are experienced expedition canoeists. The DNR does not recommend paddling on flood-stage waters. See river level information for trip planning at mndnr.gov/river_levels.