Day 1 (5 miles, 2.5 hours on the river)
July 28, 2003
What a beginning to a canoe trip down the Mississippi River! The canoe rolled in the car’s rear swiveling support and the end of it was now sticking through the back window of my Dodge minivan and the glass itself now lay all over the interior of the car in nice, tinted squares. Shouldn’t have parked on a slope, that’s for sure!
Crap! For a nanosecond my mind was saying What Now?
And then my tabloid training kicked in: Throw money at the problem. It will go away.
With that in mind I continued with the task of getting the canoe into the water and the stuff packed in and put the broken window out of my head.
Helping me was friend Jim Bogdan, who’d driven with me to the beginning of the river at Lake Itasca so he could drive my car back to Bill Melby’s farm near Minneapolis for safekeeping.
And, as I had decided to do in that split second just after the window broke, I handed Jim a blank, signed check and asked him to ask Bill to get the window fixed. Then we had our final handshake and I set off.
On the drive up the day before, Jim and I had passed through many of the small towns I would be paddling through in the coming weeks. I recognized the names from the maps I had looked at.
Although a friend of only a couple days’ duration, Jim was pretty good at using the occasional comment in the car that would get me talking about the trip if I needed to, or wanted to. I didn’t. I appreciated his effort, but I was pretty focused. I was eager to get out of the car and get onto the water. I didn’t want to talk about it.
We stopped at the visitors’ center in Lake Itasca State Park, obviously filled with all things Mississippi River. A woman there said she’d heard the mosquitos were awful this year. Glad I didn’t listen and fret. I had no problem with mosquitos.
On trip’s eve, he and I stayed at the Lake George Pines Hotel, a nice, cheap ($35 to $65), pleasantly run down old place with cabins a couple miles from the river’s start. Margie Bridgman and husband Larry were in charge. Her father came from Norway to make a better life for himself long ago.
We ran into Baron Von Raschke (The Claw), professional wrestler of some repute. He and his wife were staying there. Big bear of a man of few words with mashed up ears that could tell a lot of great stories if ears could talk.
Dinner the night before the trip was at Diggie’s in LaPorte, MN, accompanied appropriately enough by country karaoke and a very sparse crowd.
It was 11 a.m. by the time I shoved off, leaving Jim behind with the gaping hole in the back of my minivan. I was finally on the Mississippi Headwaters River Trail, in parts federally-designated Wild and Scenic, in other parts just Scenic. A nice feature for the next several hundred miles would be designated campsites, most of them built in the Civilian Conservation Corps days. Their locations and the distances from one to the other are clearly shown on a great series of small maps I got from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The Trail would lead me through wild rice swamps, river valleys, and large lakes. It would be desolate at times and teeming with humanity at others, much like the entire river itself.
While still in the park, I encountered my first beaver dam. It was across the entire 10-foot width of the river and three feet plus above the waterline. With a lot of hard work and cursing I dragged my cargo-laden canoe over it. I didn’t bother taking photos. I was assured by the maps I had that they would be a normal sight for the next few days. I never saw another one!
A few minutes later the water got very shallow and I had to get out and walk three or four times. With the beaver dam and the shallows I was having flashbacks to tough times on the Loxahatchee River in Florida. At least I didn’t have to worry about alligators in Minnesota.
I crossed under state highway 200 at Gulsvig Landing, just outside the park, and said my final goodby to Jim, who’d driven around there from the park for some more photos and a farewell wave. As a going away treat he tossed me a package of pickled herring.
I was on my way. I had plenty of paddling experience, but it had been years since I’d really pushed myself, so I’d decided early on to take it easy in the beginning to avoid the strains, pains and even injury that would make this trip miserable. My first day, therefore, was only a planned five miles to Wannagan Landing, some two and a half hours of paddling, instead of pushing on to the next camping place, six hours further down. I’d have plenty of opportunities for long, tiring days in the coming months.
The channel was narrow, 10 feet or so, but for today at least it was clear of vegetation. I was going north, so the wind was pushing me along, but I couldn’t get up any speed. The oxbow-like switchbacks were too close together and sharp to get around pleasantly if going fast. So I just ambled along. The current through the swamp was visible, but not that helpful. It was the wind at my back that provided the help. In the coming weeks and months I would be longing to have the wind at my back.
Though the open channel was narrow, the wild rice swamp itself is huge, so the trees on the highland areas were only lines on the horizon all around me, unless one of the huge S-turns of the open channel in the swamp took me closer to one side of the marsh or the other. I was glad I was sticking to the established campsites on the maps. I certainly did not want to try sleeping in the canoe in the middle of a swamp!
Along the way I picked up a blue heron, who stayed about 25 yards ahead of me, along with a collection of dragonflies, deerflies, blue-nosed flies and a yellow butterfly. I saw some otter, but only briefly, and lots of grass frogs. It was a nice selection of wildlife I would see repeated for many miles.
Wannagan Landing was pretty typical of the campsites I used on the Headwaters Trail. Usually a picnic table, a couple times a lean-to of sorts, maybe a hand-cranking water pump, and sometimes dirt road access and a latrine.
Sucker Brook enters the Mississippi just upstream from the campsite, and supports trout, according to the map, but I didn’t explore it.
My inaugural set up of the house and bed and kitchen went well and I slept soundly my first night on the river.
Day 2 (11.5 miles, 12 hours on the river)
July 29, 2003
In a routine I would follow the entire trip, I was up early today and ready to move at first light. The drill was simple; before even leaving the tent I packed up the sleeping bag and all the stuff inside the tent and set it outside the tent. I dismantled the tent and packed it up before doing anything more. Then I did the ‘toilette,’ packed the canoe and left. Early morning fog didn’t bother me this far upstream because the fog hung thickest over the open water and helpfully guided me down the channel. Downstream, the fog would delay me quite often.
For the first few miles this day I was really in a zone. It became all about the canoe, guiding it and watching it go where I wanted it to go. There was no urgency. I knew where I was going and I had all day to get there.
As I rounded a corner today I encountered a mother duck and some chicks about 25 yards ahead. She squawked loudly and all the chicks disappeared into the dense wild rice at the side of the channel. She then proceeded to put on a terrific show for me. Feigning injury, she started her job of luring me down the open channel past where her chicks were hiding quietly, flopping a wing in the water to great effect as if it was broken. Every time I slowed down, especially as I neared the spot where she’d stashed her children, she got up closer to me, flopping around like she was near death and making horrible sounds. Finally after about 15 minutes I allowed her to finish the play and take her curtain call. I paddled past the chicks and on down the river. I saw her disappear into the rice in front of me and reappear behind me and head back upstream to where the chicks were, and they all gathered around her once more in the open channel.
Today was frustrating. I paddled up dead ends a couple times. The current continued, but the open water didn’t. Dense swamp blocked clear passage. I backed up (or walked back in one instance) and found another path that lead to more open water. The map along this stretch warned me: “Finding the channel can be a challenge in low water conditions.” It wasn’t kidding, as I was to find out!
I lost a pair of glasses today as I pulled the canoe through shallow swampland. More about that when I get to Bemidji.
And then I came to the damn dam. It’s called Vekin’s Dam, a wooden structure built in the early 1900’s to assist moving logs downstream. According to the map, portage was to the left, and by golly there it was, a very narrow, almost invisible and overgrown path through the woods and down to the water’s edge below the dam. I scouted it. Fifty yards long, a narrow path with a tangled mess of vegetation that was hard even to walk all through with no cargo. Absolutely no use of the wheels here, that’s for sure.
No choice but to move forward. It took me eight trips and a full, exhausting hour plus to get around it. I hadn’t tried to yank the canoe up onto my shoulders in years, and I didn’t feel like injuring myself trying to do it now, so I dragged it the 50 yards, muscling it through the tight turns in the woods. It wasn’t pretty and I scarred a lot of trees, but it worked.
Downstream from the dam the river left the wild rice wetlands and went through a narrow valley. The map promised Class I rapids for the next four miles. Because the water level was so low it just meant more work for me. I walked through most of the ‘rapids.’ Fortunately there was enough water to float the canoe. I have never had a fun experience in rapids anyway and was happy they weren’t serious ones, but would’ve have been happier with a bit more depth.
I stopped for the night at Coffee Pot Landing. It had a lean-to. I remember that because I checked it out and promptly broke my SECOND pair of glasses when I hit my head on one of the low beams (again, I promise more on the eyeglasses saga in the Bemidji section below).
My end of the day routine set in: Set up the tent, toss the bedding inside and relax. I had been on the go from 6:30 am to 5:30 pm. I was totally drained from the summer heat and the rigors of the portage and the walking up and down the dead ends and the ‘rapids.’ The rocking chair and a cup of coffee hit the spot to help me relax before making dinner. I was asleep way before the sun went down.
Day 3 (18 miles, 8.5 hours on the river)
July 30, 2003
Every part of my body hurts today. I kept hitting the snooze alarm and finally got up in time to shove off at 8:30 a.m. The portage and all the energy-draining dead ends of yesterday were catching up to me.
The rapids I had been promised on the map today were sweet; fast and not a bother. And then I found myself in a swamp once again, pushing weed bogs out of the way to stick to the channel. At one point I lost the channel and wandered around in the weeds. I got a bit disoriented and unnerved (pretty close to panic, actually) but somehow found my way back to a channel. (Didn’t know then that I had learned a lesson that would serve me well the next day.)
I encountered a bridge and just to reassure myself that I wasn’t totally lost I clambered ashore and took a look at one of the signs that motorists saw as they drove down the narrow, two-lane road. “MISSISSIPPI RIVER,” the sign proclaimed, and I knew I was still on the right path. Whew!
Wild rice looks similar to the sawgrass of the Everglades I was familiar with—so tall that even standing up in the canoe gets you little view of what’s around you—but minus the saw-toothed leaves, so at least my arms weren’t getting chewed up.
Today brought a drop in temperature and a half hour of rain, but everything in the canoe stayed dry as planned and I welcomed the cooler air.
Plus, I was still heading north, so the wind was behind me. Standing up in the canoe gave me a nice sail.
Bear Den Landing was a pleasant site for the night–nice high ground as the channel swung to the tree horizon on the left of the swamp, lots of woods and shade, a rustic boat landing of sorts, views both back where I’d come from and where I would be going, and a dirt road. Knowing the dirt road was there would become very important to me the next day.
Day 4 (zero canoe miles, 9 hours on the river)
July 31, 2003
Today was really frustrating . I paddled all day and ended up where I began. Or, to be truthful, way far ahead, but not by boat!
The beginning was pleasant enough. Nice fog hanging over the channel, pretty, dew laden spider webs everywhere (one of which would prove crucial to me later in the day), and deer all over the place tramping noisily through the shallow water, showing as a brilliant brown against the green of the wild rice.
A mile or so down I went past the Fox Trap campsite, which I was glad I hadn’t tried to reach the night before. It was a good hundred yards through the dense growth of the swamp from the open channel and sat up on a high bluff. I had to look at the clearing through my binoculars to see the signpost.
I pushed on all day, the path becoming narrower and more weed-clogged with every mile and what there was of it getting shallower and muddier. I walked up many a dead end and pushed through lots of weeds to stay on track. Finally I hit a total dead end, just as the map had warned. I stood up in the canoe, and as far as I could see in every direction over the wild rice plants, there was no open water. The trees that signal the presence of high ground were only a distant line on the horizon all around me.
I remembered my lesson from yesterday: Take no chances, don’t get panicked, keep yourself safe. Being close to being disoriented and lost in the middle of acres of swamp yesterday was enough for me. I had with me a hand held GPS (bought, along with lots of camera memory cards with the very generous going away gift I had received from my friends at American Media only weeks before). I had played with it before but never really seriously needed it until now.
I used the GPS to set the position where I was (at the end of an open channel) so I could strike out in various directions, pushing slowly through the weeds in search of open water, but still know that I could find my way back to the end of that open channel, which I knew would lead me back upstream to Bear Den Landing and that dirt road, where I had camped the night before.
I spent several hours doing just that, slogging my way through tall, dense vegetation in search of a channel. I used the GPS to keep myself in a straight line in my explorations and then to get myself back to the end of the open channel so I could go exploring in another direction. It was tough going. With each stroke I moved ahead just a couple feet. There was no gliding in vegetation this dense. The water was too deep for me to get out and walk.
I never did find open water.
So I headed back upstream to Bear Den Landing. I did not want to spend the night in my canoe. I would get a decent night’s sleep and sort it out in the morning. I was guessing I would have to walk back up that dirt road and find some help.
Going upstream sounds easy, but if you’ve ever done it in a swamp you’ll understand it isn’t. When traveling downstream in a swamp there are lots of side streams coming in to join the main stream, but it is always pretty easy to keep on the main stream going with the current. Try that going upstream on an unfamiliar waterway. Suddenly all of those downstream pathways look equally good.
I managed to make all the right decisions until one particularly enticing path, which looked better than the one I needed to take. Fortunately, on the way down in the morning I had noticed an interesting spider web and taken a photo of it. As I turned and headed up the wrong path, I happened to look over my shoulder and spotted that very same web. I backed up the twenty or so feet of the wrong path and got myself on the right one.
Back at Bear Den Landing, I started unloading the canoe, but just then an old Chevy sedan came down the road and stopped at the dead end. I walked over and said hello. George Weidig and Dean Jones, both of nearby Solway, MN, were in the car. After salutations they said they’d come down after work to do some fishing. I told them I was traveling the river and hit a dead end and had come back to this place for the night.
The offering of a beer quickly cemented whatever new, minutes-long friendship we had going, and I spread the map out on the hood of their car and showed them where I wanted to go.
No way, they said. The whole way from where I was to Bemidji was clogged with vegetation because the water was so low. (Oops, I guess the map warning was right—as I was to learn later on above St. Cloud, the warnings are sometimes to be heeded) I was 28 river miles from Bemidji—three or more days’ paddling in ideal conditions, and about 10 miles as the crow flies.
Dean said he had a pickup truck at his house and they volunteered to go get it and come back and get me and my stuff and take me to Bemidji. I accepted the offer, glad to have the help.
As they drove off, a Minnesota wildlife officer arrived and I explained what was going on. If he’d been the first one to arrive I’d have enlisted his help, but George and Dean and the beer had him beat, that’s for sure. So I assured him the two guys in the car were going to help me and off he went. I certainly hoped he wasn’t going to stop my Good Samaritans and check for fishing licenses or something.
It had started to rain, so I put the rain jacket on, hoping my faith in them was well-placed as the minutes ticked away. The longer it rained the less I wanted to entertain the thought of setting up my tent for the night. Visions of a hotel room with a hot shower were now dancing through my head, and they were pleasant.
They arrived back as promised and in a light drizzle we packed my canoe and stuff in the truck, tied it securely and set off.
On the way to Bemidji Dean detoured down all the back roads that lead to bridges across the river so I could see for myself that it was all totally clogged and there was no way I could have made it through with my canoe. They said they just wanted to show me that it’s OK, you skipped this bit, but you had no choice.
In the still drizzling rain, we pulled into the Midway Motel ($40 for the night) on Paul Bunyan Drive South, right across the street from Lake Bemidji, through which the Mississippi River runs. They waited to make sure I got a room and helped me unload my stuff. I gave George and Dean some much-earned beer money for their troubles and waved goodbye. (A note I received from Gayla Weidig years later about George is here.)
Today was only my fourth day on the river and I had already had been through more than I’d expected. I was dog-tired. There was a fast-food restaurant down the street and I bought a couple cans of beer at the convenience store by the gas station and went back to the room for dinner. The hot shower was terrific. I called my wife, parents and daughter to let them know I was OK. I knew from the maps I was done with the wild rice swamps and for that I was grateful. I’d be stressed and exhausted in the coming months, but I wouldn’t again face the spector of being totally lost.
Day 5 (In Bemidji)
Aug. 1, 2003
Happily slept in until 8. Nothing like a night in a real bed after a few days in a tent. I knew this was going to be my regroup day. I needed to deal with the glasses. I had started the trip with two pair of nice, recently purchased, prescription glasses. They were the kind that went dark in the sunlight, had necessary correction for close stuff (which I really needed for the maps and other reading) and some slight correction for far vision. Because I didn’t need them for far vision that much they were usually on the top of my head. Not a good thing. I lost the first pair when I took off my T shirt during one of the many dead-end explorations on Day 2. I realized it pretty fast and searched round a lot, but couldn’t find them. So I donned the second pair. Later, at the campsite, with the second set of glasses on my head, I stood up inside the lean-to and hit my head and glasses and popped the nose braces off of them. Fortunately I knew right away what had happened, looked in the grass and actually found the broken pieces and put them in a plastic bag.
So I needed a new glasses plan. (Please don’t ask why I didn’t figure that out with the loss of the first pair!) I walked the short ways into downtown, past the statues of Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox, and found an eyeglass shop where the proprietor happily fixed the surviving pair of glasses, for free! I also hiked a couple miles to the Paul Bunyan Mall on the outskirts of town. A dollar store there that George and Dean told me about had lots of sunglasses and reading glasses of varying magnifications. I bought four pair of each. I packed the one remaining pair of good glasses away, only to be brought out if I was on shore. The reading glasses and the sunglasses served me well the rest of the trip. I bought a bent-shaft paddle at a sporting goods store in the mall too, but ended up not using it as much as I thought I would. And then I treated myself to a taxi ride back to the motel.
It was a productive regrouping day and I went to bed that night energized and ready to get back onto the river.
Day 6 (19 miles, 11 hours on the river)
Aug. 2, 2003
I was up and ready to go at 7 this morning. Leaving the hotel was easy. With the canoe on its wheels I packed everything in and rolled it across Paul Bunyan Drive South and down the sidewalk to Nyla Lakeside Park and set off (still going north) through Lake Bemidji. I was looking for a channel leaving the lake about half way up the eastern side. Bullrushes tried to hide the entrance, but the railroad bridge in the distance gave it away and I pushed through the thin, low vegetation to find myself in a very nice river. As I cruised along I even sniffed that ‘fresh river smell’ that I had experienced at other times on northern rivers.
It was still cloudy today, and I encountered rain on and off. The day would also bring me a mix of forest, marsh and some of the lake paddling that would be a regular part of most days.
The wildlife was great. I saw an eagle and an osprey battle for a fish and listened to many very angry kingfishers as I disturbed their day by simply paddling by.
About five miles after starting off, I passed through a small body of water called Stump Lake and was joined by a kayaker. Dana Baumgartner explained that he worked and lived in Minneapolis and had a summer place on the lake. He’d built the wooden kayak he was riding in and also a 17-foot canoe he used on the lake. As we paddled along and chatted I was happy to learn that he and others who lived on the lake, and indeed even the county itself, have been taking measures to reduce pollution runoff in recognition that this is the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
Stump Lake existed because of the Ottertail Power Company Dam at the lower end of it. I can imagine it got its name when the dam was built in 1909 and the rising water level behind it created a lake of stumps (dead trees). The dam originally provided electricity to Bemidji, but in 2003 its output was less than 1 percent of the needs of its customers. I suspect it’s still there today because there simply needs to be a lake for lakeside homes and lakeside parks and access points. Whatever the reason, the lake and the dam seem to fit into the texture of the river along with all the other lakes and dams I would encounter.
Stump Lake was also a bit of a milestone because it is the northernmost point of the Mississippi River. From Lake Itasca I’d been headed northeast. From now on I’d be headed southeast and eventually due south.
The portage at the Ottertail dam is a couple hundred yards on the right on a decent path. Dana stayed with me to the dam and helped with the portage. His help was valuable because the path was loose sandy dirt and not paved. On my own I would have had to do it in at least two trips. The two of us muscled the canoe and all its cargo up the slope and back down in one trip (and I made a mental note to put air in the canoe tires at the next opportunity—who knew they’d need air!).
The current was good downstream from Ottertail. It’s amazing how a bit of current and open water can lighten my mood. When the canoe’s happy I am happy.
Signs of civilization were around many corners in the form of docks and lakeside homes and the occasional collection of small cabins, signaling a resort. Gone was the desolation of the swamps above Bemidji. The fisher folks I chatted with talked of abundant muskie, northern bass, perch and walleye. I have never been a fisher person, so never gave a thought to bringing tackle along.
The first lake of any size (Stump Lake was really just a wide spot in the river) was Wolf Lake. Fortunately, as I could see on the map, the river came into the lake at the very north end and exited in about a quarter-mile later on the east shore. A simple stick-to-the-left-shore maneuver.
As I neared the exit from Wolf Lake, I saw a resort on the right point. Ron Platz, the owner of River Lake Resort, was out by the dock. He said he’d seen one other through-paddler a week before. And he told me of two Frenchmen who’d tried to cross the upcoming Lake Winnibigoshish in their kayaks and got caught in a storm and were found dead, floating in the water with their lifejackets still on. It was a story I had heard once before already and one I didn’t want to hear again. The warning on my map was pretty clear: ‘Caution: High wind and boat waves may cause hazardous conditions. Paddling across the river is not recommended.’ I would deal with that a day or so down the road.
As I paddled from Ron’s up the channel on the way to Lake Andrusia I had to give a guy in a bass boat a lesson in courtesy. I saw him coming my way down the 40-foot channel and I stuck near the middle of it. He waited until he got about 50 feet from me and he backed it off plane and as the boat settled in the water it pushed ahead of it some huge four-foot waves. I just stayed in the middle and as he neared I waved him down. As I sat there in the canoe, bobbing up and down violently in his four-foot waves I explained to him as civilly as I could that if he had backed off of plane before getting right on top of me and come through on idle, or even come blazing past me on plane, I wouldn’t now be bobbing violently up and down in his stupid four-foot waves. He seemed to understand, but even if he didn’t, I had fun. Later on I would have to remind a bunch of cabin cruisers roaring out of a lock further downstream to also mind their manners.
Lake Andrusia is big, but I only had to traverse a bit of the southern portion. It was a short paddle to the right after entering the lake and I was in a narrow waterway leading to Allen’s Bay, which opened onto the larger Cass Lake, another one of those places the map said I shouldn’t try to paddle straight across.
I hadn’t planned to deal with the big part of Cass Lake today anyway. Star Island sits in the western part of the lake and on the southern side of the island was a campsite, according to the map. I figured I would stop there and tackle the lake in the morning. So I stuck to the southern shore of the bay until it opened up into the lake and I could see the island and where I wanted to go.
As I paddled along I saw a few houses, and what looked to be a couple old resorts, and then I came across the entrance to the Marclay Point Resort. Who could resist paddling under that sign into the haven that awaited? To hell with the primitive campsite, this looked way more interesting!
At the registration building I met owners Steve and Pati Lang. He was a former medical technician who’d decided in 2000 at age 50 to buy a fishing camp/resort. It was working out for them, a nice family place with lots of waterfront campsites. The clientele were nearly all RVers. For $26 I had a plot to put up the tent next to the little harbor where I could dock the canoe.
Mostly a fishing camp, it was near an Indian reservation with a casino, which seemed to provide the local nightlife for those who wanted some.
I happily set up camp and took advantage of the hot showers in the bathhouse/restroom area. The Langs had a small restaurant/bar and the beer and the hamburgers were great.
That evening I’d learn again what a small world it is. The campsite next to mine, as well as a couple of others nearby, were occupied by an extended family from Wichert, IL, a scant 13 miles from Kankakee, IL, where I had lived from age 12 to adulthood. The patriarch was a judge in Kankakee. The offspring were farmers in the Wichert area. They’d been coming to Minnesota annually as a family for years and years and took advantage of the fishing and the casino. We visited that evening and again in the morning over coffee.
Day 7 (18 miles, 9.5 hours on the river)
Aug. 3, 2003
I was up and ready to go at 6, but didn’t leave until 8. The fog was too thick (and to be honest, the coffee those Wichert folks made was awfully good). I needed to at least be able to see Star Island before setting out as I intended to cross to it and follow its southern border around and to the north and then cross Cass Lake where the island is closest to the eastern short of the lake. It took me until 10 to get to the northeasternmost point of the island and then until noon to get to my next portage, the Knutson Dam Recreational Area, an Army Corps of Engineers facility. Fortunately there was very little wind today.
The portage was on the right and about 400 yards long. It was typical: Pull up to the bank. Get out and take everything out of the canoe. Carry everything up the bank, generally a steep incline from 10 to 40 feet in length. Once up the bank, put the canoe on the wheels and pack everything back in.
The path was hardpacked and straight, but the slope up was long, so I decided to do it in two trips (and then I still had those tires that needed air—Steve Lang would’ve helped me with that I am sure, but I hadn’t thought to ask). Working steadily, I was done in a half hour and back on the water.
Downstream from Knutson a truly delightful five miles awaited me. The gentle river wound through hardwood forest and past mostly publicly owned, undeveloped land. Every time I looked up I saw nothing but a beautiful scene. I soon realized that if I stopped long enough to enjoy every pleasant vista I’d never finish this trip. It’s times like this when being in a canoe carrying everything you need down a river that’s nothing but beauty at every turn is when you realize you’ve hit a moment you never want to end.
The so-called ‘Mississippi Meadows’ area brought me out of my reverie. The river widened and got marshy and the current disappeared. It was a long hard slog against the wind for the next four miles to Lake Winnibigoshish, Minnesota’s third largest inland lake. I was aiming for the Governors Point Campsite, shown on the map as just to the left after this marshy section enters the lake.
The warnings on the map about Lake ‘Winnie’ grew more strident: “Caution: Do not paddle across Lake Winnibigoshish. Portage from Reese Landing by car to the Winnie Dam Recreation Area on the east side of the lake. If you must paddle, do so only in warm weather and stay within swimming distance of the shore.”
I may not have found the actual Governors Point Campsite, but I did find a nice place for the night. I spotted a small path leading up the hill from the lake shortly after I entered it and headed to the left. At the top I found a nice clearing with a great view of the lake, and where I would be going the next day. I was happy with it and ready to stop. I was saving Winnie for the next day!
Despite all the warnings on the map and the story I’d heard about the French paddlers, I had pretty much made up my mind to go straight across Winnie. The weather had been clear for days. I’d been asking fisher persons I had encountered if any rough weather was on the way. The answer was no. And I was certainly confident about being able to simply paddle all day long. So I went to bed with that plan in my head, subject to what things looked like in the morning.
Day 8 (14 miles, 7 hours on the river)
August 4, 2003
I was up, packed and ready to go at 7:30. The fog had lifted, the wind was light and I could just barely make out on the horizon the ‘point’ I would need to go around to make the southeastern stretch that would get me to the Winnie Dam Recreation Area, another Corps facility. It would take me 7 hours to go the 14 miles from my campsite to the portage at Winnie Dam.
I don’t mean to make it boring, but in a way it was. Just paddle paddle paddle against a light wind while trying to keep a steady bearing that would get me where I wanted to be. I started calling the ‘point’ I was aiming for the ‘vanishing point,’ because every time I looked ahead it never seemed to get any closer. Remembering the dire map warnings, I kept an eye on the sky, but it stayed blue with some soft white clouds all day long. I got lucky.
Lakes are a problem for a paddler. If you go straight across you risk weather and you also have the feeling that you’re not getting anywhere because there is nothing to gauge distance by. Staying close to the shore takes far longer, but at least gives you the satisfaction of movement because you can see things pass by. My attitude with Winnie was that I just wanted to be done with it.
Once I made it around the point that I needed to clear to take the southeasterly path to the dam I was pleasantly surprised to feel the wind at my back and a bit of a current. It was like Winnie was rewarding me in the final couple of miles for having made it across.
On the way to the dam I saw a deserted looking High Banks Resort on the shoreline. There were several buildings and some docks, but no sign of life and all the signs of decay. Must have been a great place back in the day.
From the take-out place to the campgrounds at the dam’s recreation area took me a couple trips with the canoe again. There weren’t showers, but I wanted to cool down. It was a bit too public a place to bathe in the river, so I used the fish cleaning house. It was enclosed except for a screen above chest level and clean and empty and had a hose and running water.
I had a campfire that night, but only because there was firewood right there and available. I had decided early on I was not going to spend energy looking for wood to have a campfire, but Hey, if it’s there…..Who am I to be rude and turn it down?
I learned today that Minnesota mosquitos have manners. They are way more polite than the ones we have in Florida. They don’t go for the ears, they don’t go up your nose and they sit on your skin for a few seconds before biting, giving you plenty of time to shoo them away, or smash them if you’re so inclined.
Did some math before I went to sleep tonight. I’ve gone 114 miles in 8 days. That’s 14 miles and change per day. I think I have slowed down my life.
I had some thoughts about the canoe tonight too. I actually have a 65-square-foot sail rig that came with it when I bought it in 1973. I did not bring the sail rig along on this trip. It takes up a lot of space and I didn’t even think I would need it. After the trek across Cass Lake and Lake Winnie I realized that I could have used it, if even to just save myself some paddle strokes. I would’ve had to do some long tacks, but I also might have saved some time with it. On balance, after thinking about this even after I finished this trip, I could have packed differently and taken the sail rig. It would have been a very different voyage in several ways, but one just as fulfilling as the one I had.
Day 9 (18 miles, 7.5 hours on the river)
Aug. 5, 2003
Starting to get lazy. Alarm goes off. Oh, do I have to get up? Do I have to keep paddling? The answer of course is YES.
Paddled from 7 to 2:30 today. The summer heat is really taking its toll on me and by mid-afternoon I was ready to call it a day. I went from Lake Winnie to the Leach River Access (fancy name for a dirt boat ramp. Went through Little Lake Winnie, but that was no big deal. It’s a small body of water and I came into it from the south, took a right turn and a short ways down was the channel leading out of it.
It was mostly cloudy and not windy today. There was a visible current that pushed me along slightly. Went through mostly forest, with some marshes. The canoe was very happy and I enjoyed the beauty of it all. It was great to hear the sound of ripples hitting the front of the canoe and knowing they were because I was moving along and not because of waves created by a headwind.
I also had some fun threading the tip of the flagstaff through the branches of overhanging trees. Games are games!
There were signs all around of a river in progress, which is certainly what the Mississippi is. On the outward sides of the oxbows, the sandy, four-foot banks were being eroded. I could see trees that had toppled in through the years. Downstream the effect of the current and the annual high water events on this river would be even more evident.
I loved the sounds today: The thundering of deer hooves in the woods. The machine gun chattering of kingfishers. The honking of blue herons. The buzzing of flies. The plop of a turtle. The flap of a fish. The ratatatat of a woodpecker. The splashes of otters playing on the bank. The rustle of raccoons in the weeds. They were with me all day today.
I also heard a jet today for the first time this trip. Didn’t see it though because it was too cloudy.
Leech River Access was on a small bluff overlooking the river. It was a beautiful setting. It was one of those places you’d like to build a house on and just freeze in time.
Day 10 (19 miles, 7 hours on the river)
Aug. 6, 2003
Shortly after I left the campsite this morning I passed under a bridge. Someone had taken advantage of the nice white concrete canvas and had written “All is Well!”
And indeed it was. Most of the day was just a great canoe ride. There was little wind and a nice current and a cool, pleasant flower smell in the air. I smelled pine for a half hour on one of the runs through a forest and even when the river hit a marsh the wide channel and oxbows were a pleasure to paddle through. A slight downside was that the mosquitoes seem to have lost their manners, but a balancing point were the 20 or so otter I spotted along the way, snorting and gathering weeds.
I can feel my body starting to get used to all this paddling. I went from full-time desk jockey to full-time paddler and the muscles are catching up. Today was the first day the paddling became totally secondary. I was finally getting strong enough that the constant paddling was totally automatic.
I saw some smokestacks in the distance. It would be three days before I got to them. A factory of sorts along the way today gave me a nice, rhythmic, mechanical clanking sound as a backdrop for about three hours. And a raccoon hanging precariously in a berry bush going for the very last bite provided some amusement.
The last hour today was a bit rough. The current disappeared and the wind picked up considerably. I looked around thinking there was a storm moving in. I saw nothing, but something was not right about this wind. When I saw a nice wooded plot at the edge of a cow pasture with a sheltered place to pull the canoe into out of the wind I decided to call it a day. I was glad I stopped. The wind kept getting stronger and a couple hours later a fast rainstorm moved through.
Day 11 (9 miles, 4 hours on the river)
August 7, 2003
From my cow pasture campsite, I started out with a sluggish current and the wind in my face, headed generally east.
I was coming up on Grand Rapids, MN. There are two dams there; the Pokegama Dam on the upstream edge of town and three miles down in the middle of town the Blandin Paper Company Dam. I wasn’t planning to stop in Grand Rapids. It was a little big to be manageable on foot, and there were other, smaller and more interesting towns, downstream.
Pokegama looked to be a quick simple portage of just 44 yards. Blandin, on the other hand, promised to be a long, time consuming process. It was 1,200 yards long (twelve football fields!) on the right, and according to the map one had to call the paper company from a riverside phone upon arrival for assistance.
I planned to portage past Pokegama and stop today at a city park just above the Blandin Dam (only 13 miles ahead) and deal with the Blandin portage in the morning. So when I got to Cohasset, just an hour’s paddle upstream from Grand Rapids, and saw the welcoming little dock at the tree-shaded park, I knew I had time for a nice long break from the heat.
Just across Route 2 was a large convenience store with an A&W Root Beer counter inside. My granola bar stash was getting low so I stocked up on two of nearly every kind they had and headed to the A&W section hungry for eggs (I hadn’t had a fried egg since starting this trip). No fried eggs, no egg sandwiches, said the lady, but I can make you a small egg and bacon pizza. (No, I didn’t ask the obvious—you have the eggs and bacon, you can make a pizza, why can’t you make a sandwich? I just didn’t want this keeper of the eggs to get mad at me. To me, in my weakened, egg-crazed state, she had the bearing of the Soup Nazi and I did not want to piss her off)
The pizza, washed down with my long-time favorite root beer, hit the spot and I headed back to the canoe, full and drowsy. After packing up the fresh supply of food I took a nice nap in the shade.
When I got to Pokegama an hour later, my portage plan was pretty much made up for me. A large sign informed me that I could call for portage assistance from there all the way around both dams. So I decided to spend the night at Pokegama, right next to the railroad tracks and busy Route 2. To get away from the traffic would have meant a trek downhill to the main campsite and then another trek back up the hill in the morning. It was the noisiest night I had had so far, and a harbinger of the future.
That evening I chatted with a fellow camper named Dimitri, who was bicycling from Washington to Vermont. I felt like a lazy bum. I didn’t have any mountains to contend with and most of my journey was among trees and wildlife. He was out on the highways all day every day!
I called the number on the sign to book portage help and was assured a taxi with a boat trailer would be around to pick me up in the morning. How civilized!
Day 12 (29 miles, 9.5 hours on the river)
August 8, 2003
As promised, a red Dodge Caravan with a Rapid Taxi sign on the top arrived at my campsite this morning to pick me up. Driver Scott efficiently stowed my canoe and cargo on his canoe trailer and even stopped at Wal-Mart for me on the way through town and past the dams to Steamboat Park in Grand Rapids.
It was long paddling day today, but a great one. The current downstream from the Blandin Dam was good, the water was a nice coppery color, the canoe was happy and the path was perfect—thick lush forest the whole way.
Hard to imagine there would be a day in my life when I would celebrate breaking the three miles per hour barrier!
I found it impossible to see everything. If I watched the water line for a turtle or an otter I missed the deer and the eagles. It was a Bambi kind of day. And I seemed to be finally out of the wild rice swamps. Maybe burning the rice at dinner last night paid off!
The big news today was that I went more southward than I did eastward. At some point I was going to have to go south to get to New Orleans and I seemed to have turned a corner in that regard.
I stopped for the night at Swimming Bear campsite. It was on a bluff and difficult to climb up to, but it was a great setting and worth the effort.
Day 13 (28 miles, 9.5 hours on the river)
August 9, 2003
Wow! Still headed south today. That’s progress. The surroundings were woods and farmland and occasional houses. Just perfect.
Another Bambi day: Eagle, deer, otter, small birds galore, etc. It would be that way for several days and I was enjoying it immensely. The only negative were the deerflies. They hurt when they bite. I could put a hat on and keep them off my head, but my arms and legs were exposed.
Mating dragonflies were everywhere. They seemed to be having a very good season.
The river was a real river, snaking through the woods, about 200 feet wide. I love this kind of canoe travel. For me it’s all about efficiency of paddle strokes. I hate to waste them by having to slow down or rudder too hard around corners. The day for me was all about guiding the canoe in the most efficient manner down the straights and around the curves, without dampening the momentum.
I passed through Jacobson, MN, watching for a red flag on a dock on the left just past the Route 200 bridge. A fisherman I had chatted with a couple days ago told me he had a house there and if he was back from his truck driving job he’d hang a red flag on his dock, my signal to stop in for a beer. There was no red flag.
I stopped for the night at the ominously-named Ms Kito Campsite. I was plenty ready to stop. I certainly wasn’t planning on another nine-plus hours of paddling today, but I had missed the campsite at Willow Wood, six miles upstream.
Day 14 (21 miles, 6.5 hours on the river)
August 10, 2003
It was a sluggish current today, but I wasn’t going to paddle for nine hours as I had been doing so that was fine. It was nice I could count on a steady 3 mph. It helped with planning which campsite to head for at the end of the day.
Thick forest all day again today, with a few farms and houses mixed in. The display of nature continued. I was constantly surprising deer resting in the tall weeds on the bank. A pair of eagles kept up with me most of the day—incredible to think we were well on the way to wiping them out years ago. I even saw a couple of brown fox. (My wildlife pictures are disappointingly few and far between because I didn’t like the idea of leaving the camera out, and vulnerable, while I was paddling along. It was new and expensive and I was nervous. Wish I had a do-over on that.)
Gone was the light copper colored water of the past few days. Today the river began to resemble the famed Big Muddy in color and I could see where the muddy residue clung to tree trunks and bridge pilings. (At the end of this trip I had a mud ring at the waterline of my canoe that is still visible years later)
A five-minute rainstorm provided welcome relief from the hot sun today. Too bad I can’t order up one of those whenever I need it to cool off. There’s only so much that soaking the hat in the water and putting it back on my head can do.
Lately the mosquitoes were getting pushier on land and the deerflies were a definite problem in the boat. For the mosquitoes I started being more careful about keeping the screen on the tent zipped up and I started wearing the head net I had brought along to keep them out of my face. I also started
wearing a long-sleeved shirt. For the deerflies, the long sleeves helped and I draped a towel over my bare legs in the boat.
Also on the insect front I saw a dragonfly, dead flat on his back in the water. Spent I guess.
Tonight I camped at Scott’s Rapids Campsite, another of the ‘river access only’ sites that I favored. No sense inviting trouble by camping out where there is vehicle access. I will have plenty of that further on.
Before dinner I checked the cell phone and found I had reception. There was a message from friend Jim Bogdan, who’d dropped me off at Lake Itasca. He’d been talking to Bill Melby in Minneapolis, who was looking after my car, and they proposed we all meet up at the (apparently regionally renowned) Harbor Bar at Hagar City, WI, just across the river from Red Wing. Sounded great to me and I called him back to tell him I would call when I had a decent ETA.
Day 15 (23 miles, 7.5 hours on the river)
August 11, 2003
Decent current and a good wind at my back most of the day today. When it got gusty and in my face I just relaxed and waited for it to change. Deerflies had no problem keeping up with me though, no matter where the wind was coming from.
As I paddled along I was again thankful for these established campsites, maintained by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It would be tough camping elsewhere on this stretch. The banks were steep and very muddy and the grass a foot and a half or more tall. Nice for the deer, but lousy for setting up a tent. I noticed at several of the sites I passed in recent days that the maintenance work on these sites includes ‘steps’ made of logs, railroad ties or rocks to assist in climbing the banks.
The dense woods continued. Eagles were fewer, replaced by blue heron and osprey. Deer were plentiful again. I dodged around several trees that had toppled into the river because of erosion of the bank. A ‘strainer’ is a bad word for a canoeist. You don’t want to get tangled up in all the branches of a fallen tree so best to plan well ahead of time to stay clear of them. You don’t want to be the limp spaghetti left in the bottom of the strainer.
The river took me alongside a two lane highway again today and when I saw a semi coming along I stood up in the canoe and pumped my fist up and down (I guess you’d have to have been a rural child in the ‘50’s to understand that). The truck driver must have been a fellow old fart because he blew his horns long and loud for me. Couldn’t see his face but I bet he was grinning!
For some random reason I had some thoughts today about cities I’d like to canoe into. Paris, London and Venice came to mind. If I could just snap my fingers and be a week from one of these cities by water….
Saw an old junked car in the river today. The past few days have yielded some urban junk, a couple water heaters, a few washing machines.
I passed by a couple pleasant looking rural Minnesota county park/campgrounds today. They seemed to be well used, including one that had a family that had 5 ATV’s parked at their site (Yes, the river access places were the best).
I also paddled past Palisade, MN. It’s a smallish town, a small trek from the river. I planned to stop tomorrow for an R & R day at Aitkin, MN, so I didn’t pause at Palisade. Aitkin also had a campsite on the river and the town was a good hike away, but it looked like a larger place. It didn’t disappoint.
Stopped tonight at Willow River Campsite, another river access only site.
Day 16 (24 miles, 8 hours on the river)
August 12, 2003
Made it to Aitkin tonight. The forest corridor along the river was narrower today and the farm fields beyond it more visible than before. Still saw several eagle and deer.
It was chilly, damp and foggy this morning. Kept the long pants and shirt on until about noon. It even seemed a bit chilly for the deer flies. That’s a good thing.
For days I had been hearing a god awful deep raspy sound in the woods, both while I was paddling and at night in the tent. I’d been figuring it was a bird of sorts that I never did see. Sometimes it happened in a place conducive to great echoing and it seemed like it was coming from everywhere.
Today this mystery was solved. I heard the sound and started looking around. I saw the deep brown of a deer at the line where the forest met the tall grass. I looked through the binoculars and I could see his neck move as he made the sound. I never knew before this that deer even made sounds. I’d never heard one.
My path took me close to roads again today. The sight of cars and trucks whizzing along at 70 mph or so caused me to think a bit. Here I was, plodding along at my steady 3 mph (speedy for me, actually), hour after hour, day after day. And I wasn’t even going in a straight line, just zigzagging one way and another as the river guided me along. I can understand that what I was doing wouldn’t make a lot of sense to most folks.
On the one hand what I was doing was incredibly boring, and a part of my brain sometimes agreed. On the other hand, and that was the hand that fortunately kept playing the cards for me in my brain, it was just damn interesting to see what I saw along the way and enjoy the ‘someplace elses’ I came across daily.
The wind was against me pretty hard the last couple of hours today, but the river was narrow, 40 or 50 feet, so it was easy to hug the downwind shoreline around the bends.
I was happy to see the boat ramp at the county campgrounds in Aitkin come into view. I chose the campsite closest to the ramp. It had electricity for recharging the phone and fresh water to take a bath and fill up the containers. The cost was $9, put your money in an envelope and put it in the drop box. Some guy in a pickup truck came around in the early evening to check the box.
I had one fellow camper. An old (20 years maybe) motorhome pulled in shortly after I did and took a space several slots down from me. Later on, when I saw someone stirring I wandered over to say hello.
His name, believe it or not, was Joyce Kilmer. At 79 years old he had been a long time employee of Mountain Bell and only a year previous had finally ‘retired’ from a career of consulting work for several communications companies who needed his services as an expert in right-of-way acquisitions for power lines in rural areas. He was in Aitkin for the 60th reunion of his high school graduating class.
I guess my disbelief registered on my face when he told me his name, because he quickly said, yes, his mother had aspirations for him. He had actually written a book about his job and life experiences. Self-published, it was called, “Just a Few Lines,” and he had a box or so with him so I bought one. Not the most riveting story ever told, but certainly a good account of a life well and honestly led.
The shower house at the campsite was full of biting flies, so I took advantage of the running water at my site and no one nearby to use a bucket to drench and bathe and otherwise cool off in some clean water.
Went to bed relaxed and looking forward to my ‘vacation’ day in Aitkin.
Day 17 (in Aitkin)
August 13, 2003
I’d had a plan in mind at the outset to someday use my walking stick and the canoe wheels as a cart to deal with laundry and groceries if a trek was involved. From the map I had of Aitkin, there was a trek involved, maybe a couple miles to town center.
So, with my ‘cart’ behind me, loaded with dirty clothes, I set off for my day in town. I was still dreaming of fried eggs over easy, bacon, hash browns and toast, as only the Midwest could produce them!
Downtown Aitkin was all I could wish. The small Rialto Theatre with the marquee hanging over the sidewalk actually featured a current movie. There was a True Value hardware store and a Penny’s Catalogue Store and many many other businesses. I bought a ‘Gone Fishing in Aitkin’ bumper sticker for my canoe at the sporting goods store/bait shop. For a small town Midwestern boy, stuck in urban southeast Florida for decades, this was nirvana.
What really drew my eye as I walked down the sidewalk was the vacant table at the window of Burnside Restaurant, a window with a terrific view of the comings and goings of downtown. I parked my cart outside and claimed the table, ready for a great experience. I wasn’t disappointed. My breakfast order was done to perfection and I savored the sites of downtown from my perfect perch. How could I possibly think the trip was boring when here is where I ended up today?
After breakfast I found a grocery store, a laundry, an ATM, a post office and a gas station to (finally) put some air in the canoe tires.
I also found the restored Aitkin railroad depot, which was now called the Depot Museum. Volunteer Joan White was on duty and she gave me a tour. Down a hallway I noticed there were a few large composites of graduating classes at Aitkin High School from years ago. There on the wall I spotted the nicely framed composite for the graduating class of 1943, and there, in all his slicked-back sides and high pompadour glory looking right back at me was a young Joyce Kilmer! Now there was a full circle! I told Joan he was in town and would be attending the reunion and she was thrilled. Later that evening at the campgrounds I told him what I had found.
By afternoon I was ready to find a place for late lunch and a beer and some relax time before heading back to the campground for the night. I hadn’t seen any bar-restaurants downtown and my travels took me to the eastern edge of town where I found the Riverside Pub and Package Store. It was nowhere near the river, but it was next to a creek of some sort so I guess that filled the bill. The bar area was pleasantly large and mostly empty—the perfect place to set up camp at a table and have some lunch and a few beers and write some postcards and make some phone calls without getting in anyone’s way.
One of my calls today was to my parents in Ocala, FL, who were following my progress on a map. Do parents every stop following your progress? My dad had been informing relatives I barely knew existed of my trip and one of them was a cousin of his, Lois Froebel, who lives in Brooklyn Park, MN, which is very close to Coon Rapid Dam, just below St. Cloud, MN. She and her husband wanted to meet up with me when I passed through. I called her and said I would touch base again when I was closer.
At the end of a perfect day I headed back to the campsite to get a good night’s sleep so I could be on my way in the morning.
August 14, 2003
The morning’s paddling was about as perfect as yesterday’s town visit was. It was cool and calm and the air was filled with a blossomy scent. The canoe was happy. I was happy. Late in the morning I picked up a little tailwind. A bonus! (or maybe because the river had turned north again?)
I saw an eagle catch a fish and drop it. It plopped back in the water, stunned or dead, I don’t know, but it just floated there. I thought the eagle would go get it but he didn’t. I enjoyed the ‘peep peep’ of the little white shore birds and I saw four fat farm geese waddling along the bank. Later on I saw a flock of the wild variety flying overhead.
About noon, the course of the river took me southwesterly and the wind picked up, now coming straight at my face. I have a word for the last couple of hours today: a ‘slog.’ Just keep paddling along. By the time I hit Lone Pine Camp, another river access only site, I was tired and hot and ready to stop for the day.
Day 19 (17 miles, 7 hours on the river)
August 15, 2003
The pattern of yesterday continued. The first three hours were great, a bit of current and no wind. The last four hours were a slog. There was an helacious headwind and to stop paddling meant going backwards (little did I know then that what I thought were helacious headwinds would be nothing compared to what I would face in the future).
On a brighter side I was entertained today by several osprey fishing, nearly all day.
I missed the Half Moon Campite (another of the river access only sites) and ended up for the night at the Half Moon Boat Ramp. It was like many rural boat ramps along the way, dirt road, not fancy, and not used much. The only person I encountered was a fellow who drove in to exercise his dog.
We chatted. He had two concerns: As a deer hunter he had found the areas he used to hunt were becoming scarce. Nearly all the land around here is in private hands and landowners were starting to limit access. As a result he and some buddies actually lease 240 acres to go deer hunting on. He also talked about the rising prices of waterfront property, along lakes and especially those lakes on the river that have been created by dams. The closer to major metropolitan areas one gets the higher the pressure (Remember, even Dana, the fellow I met a while ago on Stump Lake, lives and works in Minneapolis). He said his mother had a house on a lake that had been in the family for years, but anymore they could barely afford the property taxes on it.
Day 20 (20 miles, 6 hours on the river)
August 16, 2003
I paddled 13 miles to the Potlach Dam this morning, arriving just after 10:30. I was approaching, and would go through, Brainerd, MN, today. The map said that the river as it approaches Brainerd enters a defined valley for the first time in its 300 river miles. As it did so, the forest type changed (I hadn’t noticed) from lowland hardwoods to red pine and mixed hardwoods, and the banks were higher and more defined (that I saw).
The Potlach Dam, just a bit upriver from Brainerd, was a 200-yard portage on the right, on a paved path. It was really hot, so I took a lot of breaks and completed it in about 90 minutes.
It was a very good paddling day. I passed through several smallish lakes on the way to the dam. They were marshy, with weeds well out from the shorelines. It would have been a brutal ride with headwinds, but I didn’t have any.
A fisherman I had chatted with early this morning told me there was a Dairy Queen up on the left bank on the downstream side of the Route 210 bridge in Brainerd. My brain was trained on it like a laser all day.
I pulled to shore under the Route 210 bridge, tied the canoe up and grabbed the backpack with the valuables. The bank was steep and wooded, but there was a path of sorts alongside the bridge.
I struggled up the path and emerged at the top, smack in the middle of the outdoor seating area of the Dairy Queen. I don’t think I have ever seen so many panicked people. The seating area was full of several mothers and their children enjoying a midday ice cream treat. They were certainly not expecting someone to pop up out of the woods, especially someone looking as scruffy as I did, and I could see them all making sure their children were close to them and safe. I said hi and smiled and made my way to the window to place my order.
I thoroughly enjoyed my cone and then I spotted a Wendy’s across the bridge. I had a great, indulgent, hour-long fast food and ice cream stop at Brainerd. I set off again at 2 p.m. and arrived at my home for the night, Baxter Campsite, about 4 p.m.
At the campsite I notice a large constant roar in the distance, the sound of loud engines. I had a battery radio with me. I had rarely used it because I relied on the sky and the folks I talked to along the way to keep me informed about major weather and I didn’t really care about the news. I turned the radio on and found a strong local station and realized from the constant advertisements that the National Hot Rod Association was having a weekend meet in Brainerd.
That would explain the noise, even five miles away. And that would probably explain the frequent helicopter I’d seen today on and off over my head. I somehow didn’t think it would be my good friends at Lantana Airport following me around the country (inside joke, sorry).
Day 21 (14 miles, 6 hours on the river)
August 17, 2003
My great paddling luck didn’t hold. Today was all day, every stroke, against a hard headwind. In six hours I went 14 miles. At 1 pm I stopped, as exhausted as I was after the slog across Lake Winnie.
I took a break today at Crow Wing State Park. Its boundaries include the site of the old settlement of Crow Wing, which was a huge trading hub in the midst of Indian territory until the railroad got built and it withered. On my wanderings I saw a sign for a ‘Catholic Mission’ and another for a ‘Lutheran Mission.’ Those two must have had a great time battling for the souls of the Indian ‘heathen’ back in the day! I also helped a kid out for a bike ride with a friend. He’d turned his handlebars and front wheel around so many times doing tricks that there was too much tension on his brake cables and his wheels wouldn’t turn. Basic to me, but it was a learning experience for him.
Continued to see lots of deer today. The population is plentiful, the deer hunter at the boat ramp upstream told me.
Camped tonight at Fort Ripley boat ramp, where the Nokassippi River joins the Mississippi, on the left bank. On the right bank along a nearly 20-mile stretch, from Crow Wing Park down to Route 115 is the Camp Ripley Military Reservation, and the no trespassing signs are plentiful.
Day 22 (20 miles, 7 hours on the river)
August 18, 2003
Paddling was way better this morning, nice current, with lots of ‘rocks and riffles,’ as I had taken to calling the occasional rapids. My luck held until I got close to the dam in Little Falls and the river became a series of small lakes. The wind picked up and the last few miles to the dam were another slog.
As I was learning, the best paddling time was in the early morning, before the wind picks up. I hit the water at 6:30 this morning and that was a pattern I would continue; get moving at first light and quit when the heat and work got to me in the early afternoon.
There were lots of small islands in the river today. The map explained that there was a massive, ‘world’s largest’ logjam on the river around 1893 that stretched six miles long, a half mile wide and 30 to 60 feet deep above Little Falls. It took six months to break up, but many logs remained and gathered sediment that eventually formed islands.
I was surrounded by lots of turtles, geese, black squirrels and deer today. From a distance the deer look like dark brown refrigerator boxes walking around. The geese were fun. I could hear them honking from a distance and then soon they’d all be landing in the water.
Civilization was becoming more and more obvious as I continued southward in Minnesota toward increasingly larger towns and cities. Large riverfront homes were frequent. I was already getting tired of the “Where Ya’ Going?” question, but the friendly waves and cheers when I shouted back, “New Orleans” were heartening to receive.
The 45-minute portage at Little Falls (325 yards on the left) was a real pleasure, thanks to four young Good Samaritans. Brothers Mike and Steve Clasemann and their friends Matthew Otremba and Collin Backowski rode up as I was sorting things out at the pull-out point, hopped off their bikes, and asked if they could help.
Together we unloaded the canoe, got it on its wheels, loaded it up and paraded along the paved path through the riverside park to the put-in point below the dam. They even filled up my water jug for me at the park’s restroom.
After collecting their addresses so I could send them postcards, I set off and they followed me, running along the path and waving goodbye until I left the park boundary.
This encounter kicked in some thoughts I’d had about security on this trip. Before I set off I’d read some accounts from folks who thought one should be armed to the teeth to ward off evil if alone on the river. My thoughts took me in the other direction: I was pretty trusting of people, I didn’t have a lot to steal that was worth anything and I figured I would attract good people not evil people. And besides, I figured, if one’s that scared, why even go out of the house?
All that said I do have to admit that moving along this river into more and more urban areas was putting my antenna up, and I also must admit I had a flash when these four boys pulled up, along the lines of “Yea, just what I need today after a hard slog to get here is to be hassled by a bunch of teens on bicycles.”
Even under the bridge back in Brainerd to get the ice cream cone I thought twice about the danger of leaving the canoe alone.
But what’s the answer? Yes, I have a chain and a lock to secure the canoe if I want to, but what about the stuff in it? No way can I drag all that with me when I leave the canoe, and a large part of this trip for me is leaving the canoe and exploring.
Here’s my answer: You have to have some trust, and I am happy to report that during my long and fun trip in various rural and metropolitan areas, no one disappointed me.
I stopped for the day at Lindberg State Park, a couple miles south of Little Falls. I had to paddle a mile up Pike Creek to some river-access-only sites but the setting looked worth the effort. It was. I was all by myself. I took a nice bath in the creek and chilled out. A couple of guys had pulled up in a canoe shortly after I got there, but they said they were going to camp somewhere else for the night and they soon left.
Day 23 (17 miles, 6.5 miles on the river)
August 19. 2003
At 7 am today the wind was already up, though not as strong as it would become. It took me 3.5 hours to go the 7 miles to the portage at Blanchard Dam, against a headwind. (Yes, one can walk faster, but I don’t want to hear it!)
The portage at Blanchard Dam seemed not too bad on the map, a mere 125 yards on the right. The reality was horrible, a real insult to through paddlers. First there was a steep, 25-yard path up the bank from the river. It was hard enough to climb up on my own, much less with all my stuff. I huffed and I puffed and got all my stuff and the canoe up to the path at the top of the bank and took a look around.
I was appalled at what I saw. There was a very steep, downhill, 50-yard, packed gravel path down the other side and another 50 yards of large boulders and huge chunks of concrete beyond that to a place where one could launch a canoe. The path was so steep I could hardly walk down it without sliding and then I had to jump from boulder to boulder to get to the put-in point. I barely felt safe getting myself down the path and across the boulders and chunks of concrete and I did not want to even try carrying anything, much less my canoe on my shoulder.
There was a sign there, posted by the owner of the dam, Minnesota Power, and there was a phone number for the company. It was still early afternoon on a business day, so I figured I would call the office and insist on some assistance in getting past their woefully inadequate portage (owners of dams along the river are required to provide a safe portage route). And in my plan in my head, when they gave me a brush-off, my next call would be to 911.
Well, lucky for Minnesota Power, the stars had lined up. While I was rooting around the backpack for my cell phone a pickup truck with the Minnesota Power logo on the doors pulled up. Inside were two very nice young men. They said they were there that day to scout out new routes that would make the portage easier. They couldn’t have arrived at a better time!
They got a real taste of what a truly inadequate portage route is by hauling all my stuff and my canoe down to the put-in point. (I decided asking them to carry me around might be a bit much) Actually they were very understanding and helpful and said they would certainly pass along my sentiments to their superiors.
Downstream of the dam I had a bit of current on and off, but the wind kept up and I was wilting from the heat. That and the fact that I was moving at just over a mile an hour didn’t help my morale one bit today.
There were more and more houses and docks and boats along the river today. Every house seemed to have a small pump pulling water from the river to keep the grass green. What a waste of water and what a lousy noise to have serenading me as I paddled along.
I stopped for the day at 2:30 p.m. at Two River Park, a private campground at the point where the Platte River joins the Mississippi. There is an upper level and a lower level to the park. The lower level was just six feet or so above the current water level and floods often, Al, the maintenance guy told me. On the weekends in the summer, this place is full because of the popularity of tubing on the Platte River, and the proximity to Minneapolis-St. Paul, but I was there on a Tuesday and had the huge lower level to myself.
Before dinner I hiked up the hill to the upper level for a shower and a couple of cans of ginger ale from the machine at the registration desk/store.
Day 24 (18 miles)
August 20, 2003
With a major assist from a Good Samaritan who went above and beyond the call I made it in one piece today to the home of Jim and Carol Otremba in St. Cloud, MN.
The ride in the morning down to the Champion Dam at Sartell was totally against the wind. The 300 yard portage was mostly along a paved path, but there was a steep hill up at the beginning and a steep hill down at the end. I did it in one trip. Fully inflated tires on the canoe wheels make all the difference in the world!
As luck would have it there was a bar a block or so from the put-in point so when I got all my stuff there and packed back into the canoe and ready to go I treated myself to a beer and a sandwich and some air conditioning.
Sufficiently filled and chilled I continued on my way. As I pushed off I noticed a nearby fisherman on the bank and gave him a wave. I didn’t know it then, of course, but in another hour or so that guy would save my ass.
I knew as I paddled along I was closing in on St. Cloud, where I would meet up with a couple of kindred spirits. Jim and Carol Otremba had paddled from Lake Itasca to New Orleans a few years previous and written a book about it: “A Journal of a Mississippi River Canoe Adventure: It’s a Long Way for a Beignet”
I had found them in my internet research prior to my trip. We connected then and have been in email and phone contact. They knew I was arriving today and I figured I’d pull up at Wilson Park in St. Cloud, near their house and give them a call from there.
But there was a plan I didn’t know about yet. As I paddled into the town of Sauk Rapids (just above St. Cloud) and the stretch of rapids of the same name, I heard someone calling and saw on the left bank the same guy I’d seen fishing back at Sartell. He was waving furiously, about two-thirds of the river’s width from where I was. The current was picking up and I was inclined to just keep going but I decided to alter course and paddle over to him. He was obviously trying to get my attention.
As I neared shore he started asking me about the rapids ahead. Was I aware of them? Had I scouted them out? Yes, I was aware of them, and aware of the warnings on the map and no, I hadn’t scouted them. I had decided to disregard the warnings on the map, as I did successfully further upstream, and assumed the low flow would mean simply more pleasant ‘rocks and riffles.’
He said I should definitely scout them out and even more, he offered to drive me and all my stuff around them if I chose not to paddle through.
As we walked along the path and looked at the rapids it was obvious to me that these were serious rapids and I would be way over my head trying to paddle through, both literally and figuratively. I was a solo paddler with all my stuff packed in a canoe that is designed to be paddled in a straight line, and had no white water experience (well…there was that one time in Iowa in the 1970’s that resulted in a bruised ego, a huge dent in the side of my canoe and a soggy sandwich).
Neal Pearson was his name and I took him up on his offer of a lift around the rapids and he said he would be happy to drive me to the Otremba’s in St. Cloud, a few more miles along.
During the drive he explained that he’d seen me at the dam in Sartell and he wasn’t sure I was aware of the rapids at Sauk and decided to give me a heads up. He’d even stopped at a boat ramp a little further up and watched for me but when he didn’t see me he figured I’d already passed there and so he hustled down to just above the rapids—just in time to intercept me.
As he told me all this I just didn’t know what to say. What can you say to a complete stranger who’s gone way out of his way to be so helpful, but thank you, over and over again?
As we drove I called the Otremba’s and alerted them I was soon to be at their house. I said my final thanks to Neal and we exchanged contact info when he dropped me and my stuff off at the Otremba’s.
Jim and Carol and their son, Justin, were great hosts and it was really relaxing to be in the company of someone who had done what I was doing. Dinner was fabulous and I am afraid I made a pig of myself.
That afternoon and evening with Jim and Carol brought back a feeling I hadn’t had for years. I used to travel solo a lot and go weeks and sometimes months meeting only strangers. I always found it really relaxing when I met up with someone who knew me. Hanging with a stranger for even a day or a week means there is a certain amount of your history you need to talk about to put yourself into context for that other person. Not so when you meet up with someone who knows you. It just takes a lot of work out of the social interaction. It was that way with Jim and Carol. They hadn’t known me long or in that much depth, but we’d already communicated some basic stuff through email and they certainly had an understanding of what I was doing. That made for a very nice, relaxing visit.
Day 25 (29 miles, 7 hours on the river)
August 21, 2003
Wow! Broke the 4 mph barrier today!
After a delicious pancake breakfast, Jim took me to the boat ramp at Beaver Island Access, just below the dam at St. Cloud. Fortified with a lot of good cheer, good food and a huge goodie bag filled with treats from Carol, I set off from the boat ramp at 9 am.
The current was good, the rocks and riffles made the ride interesting and the slight wind was at my back. Even an aluminum canoe paddle on a cool morning feels warm in your hands when everything is going so well. The canoe was happy and it was one of those days one wants never to end. This was certainly the kind of ride I thought I was going to have all the time when I first started thinking about paddling the Mississippi River.
Saw lots of osprey and turtles. Rock and riffles are good for both of them, I guess. The osprey for the fishing and the turtles for the sunning.
Setting a trend that would last a couple days, I snacked out of Carol’s goodie bag all day.
The only discordant note today was a huge, diesel-powered pump that was pulling water from the river for some reason, probably agriculture. I heard it way before I got to it and I heard it long after I’d passed it.
I stopped about 4 pm at Monticello. I found a nice spot just before the Highway 25 bridge on the right bank. There was a low and level bank right next to the river to put the tent on and up the bank a bit further were some townhouses and a city park with a bathroom. A few residents of nearby neighborhoods wandered by in the early evening on strolls along the river, but no one seemed bothered by my being there.
Day 26 (23 miles)
August 22, 2003
It was pretty good paddling again today, with no wind and a decent current. There were a lot of seeds in the wind today, something was certainly going forth and multiplying.
I also saw a bunch of geese ‘falling’ into formation. That’s the only way I can describe it. There were a whole bunch of them flying randomly around, and then all of a sudden they started wheeling around and pretty soon there they were in the very recognizable V formation.
The loud, obtrusive and discordant note of diesel engine water pumps continued today.
I decided to take a break in Elk River, a nice looking small town. I pulled to shore behind a bank and clambered up the large rocks being used as rip rap on the shoreline. Main Street was a block up from the river and ran parallel to it. ‘Minnesota’s Oldest Barber Shop’ was right there on Main Street.
I stopped at Peninsula Point Park at Anoka tonight. It’s right where the Rum River joins the Mississippi. The very welcoming floating aluminum boat docks were too much to resist. As I found over and over again, nearly all of these river towns offer courtesy boat docks. They aren’t there just for through paddlers like me, as there aren’t enough of us to justify that, but for all water travelers and there are many of them in the nice weather.
I found the park to be pretty manicured, cut grass and all, and no woods to camp in, so I set up my tent in the grass between the docks and the paved path that circumnavigated the park. After I got set up and settled into my rocker with a cup of coffee I noticed some folks at the picnic tables up at the covered pavilion.
A man came over from there and introduced himself. His name was Kent Steiner and he was there for his Anoka Baptist church group and was setting up for their pot-luck dinner in the park, a regular occurrence. We chatted and he invited me to come up for dinner. He said he’d call when it was ready.
Dinner with the group was great. It included hamburgers and all the nice salads and hot dishes that show up at pot-luck dinners in a park. There were about eight people there and I had a very nice time.
That night I was awakened twice. Once by a drunk asking if I wanted to buy a fish he’d caught. No Thanks! The second time was by a rhythmic noise of something hitting the tent at regular intervals. Turned out the park had a sprinkler system. I never thought to check for that! Good thing I camped out on the edge. The water was just hitting one corner.
Day 27 (11 miles)
August 23, 2003
It was a tough slog against the wind today and the going was slow. There were lots of docked boats and seawalls and houses along the shoreline. I was getting very close to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.
I portaged at Coon Rapids Dam about five miles after Anoka. It was a pretty easy portage on the left and I met up there with my dad’s cousin Lois and her husband Chuck. We had a nice break at a picnic table in the park at the dam and they helped me pack up and shove off.
I camped tonight on an island just a few miles above the first lock and dam on the river, Upper St. Anthony’s in Minneapolis. All I could hear was the wind in the trees. It was a nice quiet break after the urban camping at Anoka and Monticello and the major metropolitan area I would be in tomorrow.
There are three sets of locks in the Minnneapolis-St. Paul metro area, the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis and Lock and Dam No. 1, nearly six miles downriver on the northern edge of St. Paul. I planned to make it through all of them in one day and then find a quiet place to camp out before heading through St. Paul the next day.
Day 28 (20 miles)
August 24, 2003
I got up raring to go today. I couldn’t wait to actually lock through a dam instead of trudging around it.
I’d done some reading about them, so knew the basics: Pull the signal line at the upper end of the lock wall to let the lockmaster know you’re there. Watch the gates and the signal lights to know when it’s OK to enter the lock. Towboats and their barges have priority and get locked through with no other watercraft in the lock. All other boats, including me, come second. Most locks have mooring lines hanging down to help boaters keep their craft from moving around in the lock. You just let the line trail through your hand as the water lowers. Some of the locks I encountered had floating bollards that one could tie off to or hang onto. They were part of the sidewall of the lock and floated up and down with the water level. The Mississippi flows downhill all the way, so I was always being lowered from an upper level of the river to a lower level.
As I approached the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock I could see there would be a wait. The signal light was red and there was a towboat with several barges just entering. It would take some time for the cycle. Once in, the water had to be lowered, then the lower gates opened and the tow exit and then the gates closed the water level brought back up and the upstream gates opened for me. It was OK. I had some company. There was a riverside walkway on the right bank, where I waited, and lots of folks stopped to chat.
Finally the light turned green and the gate opened and I paddled into the chamber of the lock. Lockmaster Cheryl came over as I floated there. She introduced herself and asked me if it was my first locking experience. When I said yes, she explained the procedure in detail, made sure I had a hold of one of the mooring lines, and threw me a packet of information.
She also told me I’d be dropping a whopping 48 feet! The maximum drop at that lock was 50 feet and it has the greatest drop of all the locks on the Mississippi. Visions of a bathtub drain and a whirlpool danced in my head of course, but the reality was way more boring. The level just dropped, slowly and without discernible turbulence. And eventually the doors at the downstream end of the 400-foot-long chamber opened and I paddled out into the real world again, under an historic stone arch bridge and right up to the entrance to the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock, where the drop was a mere 25 feet.
Once past there I paddled though Minneapolis and around the big bends on my way to Lock and Dam No. 1. Along the way I saw a flock of geese that looked like they were going to crash into a bridge. Half the flock went over it and the other half went under it.
After L&D No. 1, I was ready to stop for the day. Getting through three locks and doing 20 miles made for a very full day. There was a long beach area on the right bank. I could see lots of people and lots of dogs running around—the local dog beach. I drifted past that area and stopped further down where there were no dogs, just a few boaters scattered about who’d pulled up to picnic. It was a nice spot to spend the night.
After setting up camp I decided to take a hike for a beer and early dinner and ended up at Rick’s Loft on Minnehaha Avenue off of East 54th Street, in what was either Minneapolis or a southern suburb thereof. As I sat at the bar and wrote some postcards I managed to polish off two hamburgers, a bowl of clam chowder and three beers. Nothing like a little exercise to get the appetite up!
Day 29 (17 miles, 7 hours on the river)
August 25, 2003
The approach to St. Paul this morning was terrific, with a great view of the tall buildings of downtown. Once south of downtown, though, it was pretty depressing. Miles and miles of docked barges and lousy smells and lots of dust. I was glad when I was past it all.
My lovely little river had suddenly grown wider and changed character. It was no longer a pleasant paddle through the woods. It had become a valley of commerce. Towboats pushing barges plied the water and long freight trains ran along the banks. The tows were for the most part quiet unless they were close by, but the trains blew their whistles at every crossing, no matter how small or remote, and that sound echoed loudly from one side of the river valley to the other.
I spent a not so quiet night listening to the urban sounds on an island near mile marker 828. River miles are counted upstream from where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi at the tip of Illinois and from there to New Orleans are counted downstream. Lake Itasca is at mile marker 1347, so today marked my 519th mile, about a quarter of the way to New Orleans.
The amenities on my little island were evidence of the urban area I was in. It was obviously a destination for boating day-trippers and overnighters. The ground was well trodden in the open area, there was a table and some shelving made out scrap wood and even a latrine at the end of a path leading into the woods.
An ominous signal today: The sign next to the opening of a large pipe, “Wet Weather Sewage Discharge.”
For the first time today, the size of the river bothered me a bit. I had to get that under control; this river wasn’t going to be getting any smaller! The solution for me was to just make the river the size I wanted it to be. For me, it was just a body of water, albeit a wide one, that I was using to get from one place to another and make interesting stops along the way. I could go anywhere I wanted on it to see what I wanted to see, no matter how big it got. It would just take me some time. I owned the river.
Go HERE for the Minneapolis-St. Paul to St. Louis portion of the trip.