Urban paddling

Canoeing down a Minneapolis stretch of Minnehaha Creek

Squeezing a disposable cup of coffee between my feet while pounding through rocky whitewater in a canoe might not have been the best idea.

Drinking from that cup after the Minnehaha Creek doused it might have been a worse decision, but hey, it was part of the experience.

“This is urban canoeing. You’ve got to have your vices,” said David Saddoris, a Kingfield resident and experienced paddler who did most of the work guiding us down a South Minneapolis section of the creek Memorial Day weekend.

I had wanted to paddle the creek since moving just south of it last fall. At the time, I was surprised to learn the narrow stretch of winding water that slices through south Minneapolis was big enough for any vessel.

Then I saw people floating by in tubes, kayaks and canoes. And on a warm, sunny, perfect May Saturday, I set out on my own Minnehaha excursion.

Saddoris and I rowed his well-used, hand-me-down aluminum craft from just west of 54th Street and France Avenue to Cedar Avenue and Minnehaha Parkway — a roughly eight-mile trip that took a little less than three hours to complete.

Minnehaha Creek in its entirety stretches from Gray’s Bay off Lake Minnetonka all the way to the Mississippi River. That’s a 22-mile journey that the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District says takes six-to-nine hours to finish.

Being a canoe novice without a full day to spare, I wanted to stay in the Minneapolis portion of the creek. We launched from Utley Park in Edina and quickly entered a wetland area about 20 feet across. That was the widest section of the creek we would see, as the creek’s width quickly shrank to about 10 feet and rarely got larger.

The creek was docile for the most part, except for a section not five minutes into the trip where the water rushes down a steep, rocky slope and twists hard to the right under the 54th Street Bridge. It was one of two marked access or portage points along our route.

As we pulled closer to the bridge, which only displayed a graffiti-covered concrete wall because the water turned too sharp to see through the structure, I was fully prepared to get out and portage the canoe. But Saddoris wanted to go through it, so for the sake of adventure I didn’t hold us back.

We pulled up to a wooden dock to check out the obstacle, which turned out to be short and less daunting than it initially looked.

“This is what you want to do,” Saddoris said. “Even something small like this, you want to come and look at it, figure out what way you want to go down it, so if you get into trouble, you know how to get out.”

A big splash of water and a couple bumps later, we were through. The rest of the creek posed few problems, except a long, dark tunnel under France Avenue that could have easily hid submerged obstructions (it didn’t, fortunately) and a log that we were briefly hung up on toward the end of the paddle.

There were plenty of obstacles to watch for, such as fallen trees, steel rods, concrete chunks and other miscellaneous junk that had made its way into the creek. We went under more than a dozen bridges, most of which required ducking. But the water was flowing slow enough to navigate around or through anything that might have caused a problem.

Minnehaha Creek may not be a destination for thrill seekers, but its diverse sights and sounds made it interesting and constantly engaging.

“You don’t know what’s around the corner,” Saddoris said.

From parkland to private property, ducks and geese to low-flying jets, the babble of water to buzzing cars, the Minnehaha Creek experience in Minneapolis was truly a conglomeration of natural beauty and urban development.

For Saddoris, who is working on his Masters of Science in Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, the development changes throughout the creek made it especially appealing.

“The sense of adventure for me in the city is just how development has responded to the creek,” he said. “Minneapolis has a done a really good job of preserving that stretch of land right along the creek in the Grand Rounds, but you’ll see in other parts of the creek where that hasn’t been done so you don’t have the same sense of community benefit on the creek.”

In Minneapolis, the city owns the creek bank. Throughout the rest of the creek in Minnetonka, St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Edina, the land along the waterway is both publicly and privately owned.

The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) is responsible for maintaining the entire creek and the dam at Gray’s Bay, which regulates its flow from Lake Minnetonka.

Spring and early summer are prime times to canoe the creek, which was still flowing at 100 cubic feet per second (CFS) in early June. The MCWD measures creek flow each week and publishes the rate on its website. Ideal canoeing conditions are between 75 CFS and 150 CFS, according to the site.

“Although it’s not anything we have control over, who goes in the creek,” said MCWD Communications Manager Julie Westerlund. “You’re on your own. That’s just the advice we give.”

Westerlund said a licensed and registered canoe and life preservers are all you need to paddle the creek. People of all ages and experience levels have paddled it, she said.

So while the creek is flowing strong, get in a canoe and embark on your own urban canoe trip. Bring coffee at your own risk.

If you want to paddle

• Check the creek flow at www.minnehahacreek.org. The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) controls creek flow by opening and closing the dam at Gray’s Bay based on water levels in Lake Minnetonka and how much discharge the creek can handle before it floods.

The MCWD recommends canoeing the creek when it is flowing between 75 cubic feet per second and 150 cubic feet per second. If the creek is too weak, you’ll be dragging your canoe over sandbars. If it’s too strong, fast water, low bridges and submerged obstacles make canoeing dangerous.

• Life preservers are required for each person in the canoe or kayak.

• Watch the signs posted at various locations throughout the creek, especially those warning of Minnehaha Falls just before the Mississippi River.

• Arrange transportation from your end point. Shuttle service is available in Minnetonka.

Canoe and kayak rentals

• Three Rivers Park District, Minnetonka,763-559-6700, www.threeriversparkdistrict.org

• Hoigaard’s, St. Louis Park, 952-929-1352, www.hoigaards.com

• Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, 612-230-6400, www.minneapolisparks.org

• REI, several Twin Cities locations, www.rei.com

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com