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Changing Seasons: Finding Paddling and Community in the Twin Cities

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Snow pelted my eyes as I squinted downriver toward the bridge coming into view, a looming structure obscured by fog and swirling snow. The Lowry Ave Bridge marked the halfway point for our downriver paddle into the heart of Minneapolis. As the clean white cables raising the bridge became more visible, it gave itself away from the many other grayer, seemingly mundane spans on this reach of the Mississippi River.

Normally, the bridge provided a striking foreground to the skyscrapers behind it, but all we could see now was a swirling white haze. As I flexed near-frozen fingers on the handle of my paddle, I reckoned that perhaps we didn’t pick the best day to float this iconic downtown route. Only a few weeks earlier, the mist of snowflakes was instead a haze of mosquitoes.

Snow, cold, gray—and mosquitos—all things that come to mind when you think of Minnesota. But the most important is water.

I’m new to the upper Midwest. I’ve spent most of my life out west—Washington, California and Colorado. Caitlin, my partner, earned her PhD a little over three years ago and since then we’ve moved four times, most recently landing in the Twin Cities. I’ve longed for a sense of community.

I knew that many considered Minnesota to be a paddler’s paradise, yet up until this point my forays consisted only of adventurous trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) and Isle Royale. And, after calling the Twin Cities home for the better part of a year and the pressure of a global pandemic, I knew I needed to find more local waters to paddle and friends to do it with.

My first summer in Minneapolis was enlightening. Beyond the anxieties felt by all during the pandemic, my partner and I watched the unrest in the city following the murder of George Floyd. As a white man, it makes me continue to take a hard look at my privilege within society and the outdoor industry, and the responsibility that I have as a photographer to help make the outdoors more inclusive.

Perhaps a serendipitous outcome was that I met Miles Kipper. During the height of the protests in Minneapolis, he earned some notoriety by saving the truck driver that mistakenly drove into a crowd of demonstrators on I-35. After taking his portrait for a magazine article, Miles and I stayed in touch. Besides living the life of a roadie, event coordinator and semi-pro longboarder, Kipper is also paddler.

And so, this larger-than-life, ex-rugby player joined me now as we plunged through the forest, paddles in-hand on our way to Howard Lake.

Even though Minnesota is famous for thousands of lakes, nearly all of those in, or even a short drive from “the cities” are also prized for their prime lake-front property value. My goal was to find a lake near the Twin Cities not completely surrounded by houses and I found this little gem scouring Google Earth.

Howard Lake lies just north of the urban sprawl, to the west of I-35 as it snakes its way north toward Duluth. With its marshy hardwoods and pockets of cattails, it makes a great backdrop for those looking for a taste of the wild, or perhaps just looking for a quiet lake to hunt down largemouth bass. Miles and I didn’t find any fish, but we did catch quite a nice sunset and conversation.

Another similar option, albeit more on the beaten path, lies to the southeast. A golf course partially surrounds the Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Park Preserve. Paddlers should aim for the Rice Creek Canoe Launch to paddle the more forested Marshan Lake or use it as the upper-most put-in for Rice Creek itself.

There are several more put-in locations along Rice Creek as it slowly meanders south through open meadows and marshlands before flowing into Long Lake at New Brighton. I suggest floating the creek in the spring or early in the summer when the flows are still high enough. Rice Creek leaves the lake, draining though a forested canyon bisecting the suburbia of New Brighton and Fridley. Paddlers can expect low hanging branches, sweepers and several fast-moving sections through culverts as the creek continues west toward the Mississippi. I found that it’s best floated at 80 CFS or above, otherwise you’ll be dragging more often than not.

Later that month, Miles and I connected again for a more urban-centric paddle. We launched our collection of SUPs and an inflatable kayak at Kelly’s Landing in St. Paul. In Minnesota, the Mississippi is still more of an average-sized river. Fairly broad with a decent amount of current, it makes for a great open-water recreational paddle. Though, paddlers should be hesitant about venturing too far downstream unless they have a shuttle or the gumption to power back upstream.

Ann, a SUP enthusiast who works with Miles, also joined us. She had never paddled on the Mississippi and was excited to get off the standard lakes surrounding the cities. Steph and her partner Nick also came out to play.

The temps were in the high 70s and only a slight breeze stirred the water. Like me, this group of outdoor enthusiasts were excited to explore the possibilities of recreation within our cities’ limits and the unseasonably warm weather gave us a great opportunity.

Every tree stood ablaze with fall color as we stroked upriver from the put-in. Not a single mosquito, I mused.

We continued to paddle, passing under the Smith Ave bridge before eventually beaching our boats on the south side of the river. After shedding some layers, we haggled over who got to paddle what from our diverse collection of NRS SUPs. We set off again, downriver this time toward St. Paul.

One of the oldest cities in the Midwest, St. Paul marked its settlement in 1838 with the first structure, notably a tavern constructed at a cave entrance overlooking the river. Even though “The Pig’s Eye” only lasted a short while, within a decade a Catholic missionary ousted the tavern and built a log chapel named St Paul’s. But the culture of brewing beer remains strong within the Twin Cities. Historic names like Yoerg’s, Schmidt’s, and Hamm’s blend with the craft breweries of Summit, Surly and Lake Monster—just to name a few.

Our group chatted away as we paddled downriver. Ann told me about her experience learning to SUP on the whitewater of Northern Minnesota. “It’s really hard, but so much fun! You really have to be on your toes!”

I told her that Minnehaha Creek was another spot she should check out in the cities. While not whitewater, the creek requires quite a bit of stickhandling as it twists through a contrasting mix of riparian areas and urban developments before cascading over the 53-foot Minnehaha Falls. Similar to Rice Creek, this stretch also requires a deeper flow of at least 100 CFS. It’s best paddled in the spring and early summer.

Golden light splashed against the architecture of St. Paul as we drifted. Several old-style paddleboats—clearly meant for tourist cruises—lined the south bank. Fishermen and boaters casually waved as we paddled by. The city is no stranger to paddlers. While not as tall or perhaps as grand as the towers of Minneapolis, these buildings felt strong and older. It also held a commanding view over the river.

With the warm weather and fall color aligning perfectly, Caitlin and I met up with two of our new friends the next day for a morning paddle on Silver Lake. We met Kirby and Mike earlier that summer on our block while walking the dogs. As a native Minnesotan, Mike spent plenty of time in canoes, having worked for an outfitter in the Boundary Waters, but never ventured out on an SUP.

Kirby helped Mike don one of my extra drysuits and we looked on as he nervously took several tentative strokes away from the beach. For her part, Kirby also had limited paddling experience, but the former collegiate athlete had no trouble balancing on a 12’6” Escape.

The early morning air was brisk as our group moved out onto the lake. Nestled in a northern suburb of St. Paul, Silver Lake’s shores exploded in leafy reds and golds. Containing two small islands and fringed by a park on the north end, the lake makes an ideal paddle location within the city. Paddlers looking for something even closer to downtown Minneapolis can make a fun day trip out of the canal system linking Cedar Lake, Lake of Isles and Bde Maka Ska.

We paddled around the first island, casually bantering and Caitlin and I offered advice on technique and posture. Kirby, a natural athlete, glided along and even Mike seemed at ease.

As we rounded the island, a rising wind caught us all in the face. But Mike’s six-foot-four-inch frame made a good sail, and he was unable to keep his board from sliding sideways into some branches overhanging the shore. Splash! I looked back in time to see him rise up in waist-deep water, the drysuit clinging to his body.

“Sure glad I wore this thing!” he laughed.

Maybe that’s all Mike needed because the rest of the paddle went smoothly. We even squeezed under a bridge connecting the lake’s second island to the shore. Later, while chowing down some tacos at nearby Brother’s Taqueria, Mike and Kirby wanted to know more about what kind of paddleboards they should get, launching me into a discourse on types of boards—inflatable, hard, rocker, shape, price.

And now, several weeks later, I was watching fat snowflakes fall into the dark waters of the Mississippi. Was this already the end of fall, or just an early-season blizzard? In either case, it seemed like it had gone by way too fast.

I was with Ann, Steph and Nick. Miles was called into work and was noticeably absent from our crew. Ann joked that Miles really should have been there because misery loves company after all! I thought back to the lanky ex-rugby player I had befriended. He would have loved this experience. Like Ann and Steph, Miles had also lived in the cities his whole life. The women were having a blast, pointing out things seen now for the first time from the vantage point that only the river gave.

As we paddled downriver through swirling snow, we saw wooded banks give way to industry. Concrete plants, refineries and energy centers emerged out of the gray, interspersing these pillars of commerce were parks and bird refuges. We passed by a beach holding a curious collection of Adirondack chairs and tiki huts. On the banks above resided a sprawling wooden building. It looked like Margaritaville, Minnesota-style

“That must be Psycho Suzie’s,” said Nick.

I looked it up later, and unfortunately the Polynesian-inspired “motor lounge” was closed due to the pandemic. I’ll be back, I thought, one should never pass up a quirky paddle-in watering hole.

Paddlers looking to float the urban stretch of the Mississippi River have multiple choices for put-in. We had set out on a six-mile float, launching in Fridley and setting our shuttle at Boom Island Park, the last takeout before the mighty river plunges over St. Anthony Falls. As one of the only major waterfalls on the Mississippi, the obligatory portage and surrounding area became one of the natural resting and trade points along the river for the Dakota and Anishinaabe peoples. And with the confluence of the Minnesota River just south of the falls, the city of Minneapolis and its bustling mill industry evolved with this conjunction.

Our crew passed under yet another bridge and the skyscrapers of “Mill City” slowly came into view. Even through the whiteout, the towers still impressed. And as we made our way past the iconic Boom Island lighthouse into the backchannel, our boards collided with a skim of ice. We used our paddles to crack the thin layer, pushing aside the small bergs. Winter was coming it seemed, earlier than anyone expected. The paddling season might be over, yet I already thought about all the opportunities that lie ahead.

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Aaron Black-Schmidt has always been drawn to experiencing the outdoors, from backpacking with his parents as a child to working the firelines every summer as a wildland firefighter. It was the desire to capture the beauty of these special places and the people that travel them that led him to photography. Aaron focuses his personal work towards documenting adventure sports, outdoor lifestyle and natural history.