June 6, 2013 | Volume 118, Issue No. 23

Get into nature with a canoe trip

Going Nature's Way

Several weeks later than planned we have finally begun canoeing the uppermost part of the Mississippi River. Mike had hoped we’d start at the end of April, but I knew "the winter that wouldn’t quit" was going to make that impossible. Most of May wasn’t much better weatherwise, and even though the forecast called for continued chance of rain this week, we decided we couldn’t wait any longer.

Along with our neighbor Dick Glattly and another friend, we put our two canoes in the water just 50 feet from the line of low rocks people love tiptoeing over so they can say they’ve walked across the mighty river. When we arrived at the famous spot, there was much splashing and squealing coming from the water as a large group of middle schoolers braved the chilly temperatures in the exuberant freedom of a spring field trip.

The four of us set our boats in the stream, donned our life jackets and set off into the unknown. We could only see portions of the river, which is about the size of a small creek at the Headwaters, from the trail and I was apprehensive about "sweepers." This is the term used by canoeists for trees that lean out over the water and can easily catch a canoe and sweep you out of it. Mike and I have been paddling companions for 27 years and work as a well-oiled team, listening to one another’s suggestions and commands. This came in very handy throughout the rest of the day.

Dick and Jim were together for the first time and did not have the benefit of knowing one another’s styles or abilities. Because the stream is narrow at the beginning, it also is fast, and combined with sharp turns and wayward branches it was a very challenging start. In fact, the first bridge we came to was part of the walking path and I didn’t think we could fit underneath it. Mike and Jim were confident, but we all had to bend as low as possible to fit beneath it. A group of people stood above peering down to see if we would make it.

Shortly thereafter there was another bridge — much higher than the first, but the speed of the water picked up after it and then there was a sharp turn to the left, where a fallen tree waited patiently. We managed to get around it, but Dick and Jim were not so lucky. We watched helplessly as their canoe went over. It’s an awful feeling to be in a canoe at a moment like that. Panic morphs into frustration. The water was not deep, so they were able to stand and right the canoe quickly, but they still had wet gear to deal with. We waited in an eddy downstream as they reorganized themselves and dumped the water out of the canoe. Then we were off once again.

The river slowed and opened into a wide and winding marsh. For the next two days most of our canoeing would be in this type of vast marshland of cattails, phragmites grass, willow shrubs and alder. If you look at a small scale map of the Mississippi River you will see that at the beginning and end it winds and twists like the hairdo of Medusa. In this far northern section of the great river, you can paddle in all four cardinal directions in less than a half mile of river. Back and forth we went, sometimes on turns that were 170 degrees. I can’t say for sure, but it seemed as though we were paddling the length of a football field to make 100’ as the crow flies. Patience is something a river teaches you.

It also reminded me of the popular phrase, “Be in the moment.” Canoeing is one of the activities that I find to be almost meditative. You get into a metronomic movement of arm and torso, lifting and pushing, over and over and over. It’s not hard on the body, once you have done it enough to know the proper stroke and position. When you do get tired, you just switch the paddle to the other side. It can become a comfortable, well-rehearsed dance between long time canoe partners. And it gives you the chance to just dwell on the scenery around you.

I looked out at that vast expanse of low vegetation, still mostly flattened from the heavy winter snow, and off into the distance where the aspen trees were glowing as they only do for a short period of time each spring as their tender leaves unfurl. All around us, for every hour of each day we were serenaded by red-winged blackbirds, as well as thousands of other songbirds. Trumpeter swans smacked the water with their feet as they ran ahead of us to get airborne. Common merganser pairs and mallard drakes and hens erupted from the edge of the marsh as our canoes drew near. American toad trills were the background music. Beaver, porcupine, muskrat and white tail deer were seen, but were as rare as other humans on this stretch of river.

I was somewhat reluctant to begin this adventure, mainly because I hate to leave home just as spring is getting underway. It is a form of inertia that I think we all experience at times, surrounded as we are by the familiar and comfortable, but what I would have missed by not going on this trip is sad to contemplate. I have seen a stretch of wild Minnesota where the waterfowl and other birds exist as nature intended, where the marsh and river meld with one another as they have for centuries and where we humans just pass through as very lucky guests.

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