Seeing Minn. by water via DNR trail system

Published 12:08 pm Saturday, July 13, 2013

By Ann Wessel

St. Cloud Times

PINE CITY — Alligators. Seems like there should be alligators, the photographer said as we found the Snake River current that would take us eight miles downstream to Pine City with minimal paddling on our part.

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The rain-swollen river, running more than 2 feet higher than average for late June, left the maples that shaded its banks standing in water. The resulting landscape resembled a Florida swamp — and meant we wouldn’t venture ashore until we passed under the Interstate 35 bridge and reached the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources boat launch.

The DNR’s state water trails program turned 50 this year. What started as a local effort on the Minnesota River has grown to 33 trails — including the Snake — covering 4,529 miles.

“When people think of Minnesota and canoeing, they have a tendency to think of the Boundary Waters because it’s this iconic, highly visited destination for a vacation that’s typically between three and 14 days long,” said Erik Wrede, the DNR’s St. Paul-based water trails coordinator.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness attracts paddlers from around the world. But not everyone has that much time or money to spare.

“That’s the beauty of the water trails system, is it’s right in everybody’s back yard. There’s a state water trail within an hour of most people’s homes in Minnesota.”

Obvious choices for St. Cloud include the Mississippi and Sauk rivers. I wanted to explore something new within a two-hour drive. Something matched to rusty paddling skills. Something scenic. Slow moving. With an outfitter that provided shuttle service.

Sauk Rapids DNR staff extolled the beauty of remote campsites overlooking Class III and IV rapids on the Snake River, then recommended a segment of flat water that remains relatively undeveloped. Wrede, who routinely fields requests from trip planners, confirmed the choice would fit the bill.

So on a recent Thursday morning, we met Eric Bakken at the launch. When he’s not on duty as a St. Louis Park firefighter, he helps run the shuttle for Snake River Outfitters. He advised us that we’d have to float the canoe a ways down a flooded road if we intended to stick with the Little Walleye put-in point. We did. He waited until we started paddling before he drove out of the mosquito-infested woods.

On the water, we left the mosquitoes behind.

Bakken said the wildlife we were most likely to see along this stretch of river included deer, raccoons, bald eagles and possibly otters. Black bears and bobcats live along the more forested stretches bordering the Snake River.

On this trip, dragonflies skimmed the river’s surface, occasionally snatching winged prey. Shimmery blue damselflies hovered above insect-perforated lily pads. Songbirds called from the dense maple canopy. The occasional great blue heron circled overhead, feet extended back as if posing for a mobile. Blue morning skies cleared the way for the sort of puffy white clouds that spell out summer.

Pontoons and fishing boats remained tethered; we had the river to ourselves. The only other paddlers were Canada geese and, keeping close to the shaded shore, a mallard hen leading a line of ducklings.

Even with a diversion to see lily pads up close, higher, faster-moving water shaved about 30 minutes off what is usually a four-hour paddle.

Bakken saw us pass under the bridge. He was waiting at the public access.

Maintaining the 662 public accesses, 411 campsites and 337 rest areas along Minnesota’s water trails accounts for most of the program’s $600,000 annual budget.

Canoe and kayak registration generates about $630,000 a year for the fund that pays for the water trails program.

According to the DNR, nearly 192,200 canoes and kayaks are registered in Minnesota — accounting for 23 percent of all watercraft registered in the state. In particular, the popularity of kayaking continues to increase. Wrede has seen kayak registration in Minnesota increase 56 percent in the past five years.

Water trail designations can bring attention — and dollars — to communities along the route. Statewide, outdoor recreation generates $11.6 billion in consumer spending, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

“There has been a major shift in how river communities view their river. In the past, communities would tend to view it as a dump for their garbage or for transporting their goods. They might view it as a source of hydropower,” Wrede said. “Now communities are turning toward the river as a central point to bring the community together.”

Requests for new water trail designations — something that ultimately requires legislative approval — continue to stream in. But Wrede isn’t looking to add more.

“I’m feeling like we’re at or beyond capacity,” Wrede said.

With a staff stretched thin, the program increasingly relies on paddlers to alert workers when an area needs attention. The specialized work requirements — operating a chain saw from a boat requires a great deal of skill — limits the use of volunteer labor.

Instead of more state water trails, Wrede would like to see local efforts to promote and maintain new stretches of river — the sort of grass-roots efforts that started the state system.

“We get a lot of requests for what does it take to be designated,” Wrede said. “It’s not something that they can’t do on their own.”

For example, he said two or three cooperating counties could develop and maintain access points and campsites.

“It’s literally those people who are passionate about rivers, whether they live on it or recreate on it or just love that it goes through their town. That’s the future of river stewardship in Minnesota. It’s people realizing the value of having a river in their community or near them,” Wrede said.