A paddle on the urban Mississippi

A view of the Mississippi River from a kayak near Boom Island. Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Minnesota canoeing often conjures up images of breathtaking Boundary Waters summers, scenic ponds and quiet lakes, and, if you’re lucky, Northern Lights aplenty.

But you can get away from the city without driving six hours and planning your Boundary Waters permit a year in advance. Perhaps you’ve already paddled around the Chain of Lakes in a rental, and are ready to take the next step — an urban paddling journey and lock passage on the Mississippi.

Paddlers on the river near the Lowry Avenue Bridge. Photo by Sarah McKenzie
Paddlers on the river near the Lowry Avenue Bridge. Photo by Sarah McKenzie

There are many points within the Twin Cities for a great Mississippi river water adventure; both above and below St. Anthony Falls. Hidden Falls Park — the south end of the urban river — is a good starting point just south of the Ford Lock and Dam. The current is typically slow and inviting, but can be swift at times. The Mississippi hides itself from civilization here — or perhaps we’ve hidden from it. Houses are hard to spot, but those fishing from shore and kicking the sand were always nearby and tucked away from the roads and neighborhoods.

On a weekend, the boat traffic can be occasional, but most slow when approaching paddlers. Among the cottonwoods, it’s easy to spot the Big River’s shore-wading birds; typically herons and egrets. Eagles are a treat to spot and more visible recently.

Traversing the Lock

A bit further upstream is the Lock and Dam #1, the Ford, after its original owner. A group of fishing boats might be trying the stream heads and island tips. You can traverse free of charge.

You may have been through the lock on a cruise boat; but a canoe or kayak is a closer brush with nature and civil engineering alike. Paddlers should remember to stay well back until receiving a green signal to enter, and proceed carefully to shore side and find a rope. You can contact the lock operator if necessary, and make sure you know the lock’s hours so you can return. You realize the enormity of the giant bathtub immediately, so grab a side rope and hold on. It doesn’t take long to float you up to Minnesota’s urban blueway between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The lock opens northward on a wider channel, with the Ford Bridge spans looking so much bigger from the river than the road. The river is generally quiet except for a few kayakers, and the sense of the hiddenness again might lap the side of your canoe. The blufftop trails on both sides of the river are likely full of joggers and cyclists.

Aside from rivers-edge trails and a busy bridge or two, your vista is mostly wooded; astonishing when you’re navigating between two cities totaling three-quarters of a million people. North of 44th Street, you pass the Winchell Trail on the west side of the river, all the way up to the Franklin Bridge. You can be forgiven if you’re a lifelong resident and never realized a three-mile shore trail existed below. You might also spot a few fishermen. The ruins of the Meeker Island Lock and Dam are on your right just as you pass the Lake Street Bridge. Once you pass under the bridge, you might encounter a University of Minnesota crew team, which uses this portion of the river to practice in the summer. You can dock at the U of M boat house on the east side of the river, or continue on past the Interstate 94 Bridge. There are many flat areas to easily beach your canoe or kayak. Above the Washington Street Bridge and Bohemian Flats is the six mile mark. The current is strong from St. Anthony Falls, and the best journey is to turn around and enjoy the current on the six mile journey back.

Planning your trip

Visit the Water Trails site at the DNR for a great summary of the exact entry and exit points on many Minnesota water ways, along with advisories, guidelines, and history of the river at dnr.state.mn.us/watertrails. Be sure to check the river level before you go with readings and interpretations. Erik Wrede, state water trails coordinator, posts newly approved state-wide water trails, as well as podcasts to make your water journey more enjoyable and informed.

Logistics is the next thing to attend when planning your trip. Most canoeists take a round trip. When you do, make sure to paddle upstream first, in case the length of the journey, the wind, or the current is more than expected. If you do choose a downstream-only paddle, you might choose to lock your canoe upstream, park one car downstream, and ride another back to the start. For solo paddlers, it’s always a round-trip and at least half a journey against the current. For the logistics and gear geeks, lock your canoe up at the entry point, drive to the destination, and cycle back to the canoe. This assumes a multitude of appropriate gear on your car, but several local organizations are considering a canoe-bike share combination. The details haven’t been worked out yet. In the meantime, a bit of planning before you start is well worth it.

A canoe trip down the river you likely pass many times on a highway bridge is a refreshing view of the urban appeal of the Twin Cities and a certain journey to make the out-of-state relatives jealous.

Christopher Kasic is a Twin-Cities based freelance writer