It is the time of year when paddling adventures are escorted by vast flotilla of crisp, miniature craft -
fallen leaves floating lazily on the surface of the water. Summer has ceded to September but the weather remains warm enough to stay on the water.
I brought the car to a stop on the steep sloped boat landing on the Minnesota River beneath the arched spans of the Cedar Avenue bridge. The put in, four and half miles upriver from the confluence with the Mississippi and a three mile circumnavigation of Pike Island. The entire route was within the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Fort Snelling State Park.
Despite constant and consistent evolution over time, the character of this river remains not unlike the experiences had by the earliest paddlers. From the native Dakota, the French fur traders and English explorers in the 1600s to a Wild & Scenic River designation in 1977, this waterway has remained an undeveloped, urban wild.
Here you encounter birds of many feather -
Smoky blue herons and heavenly white egrets, practicing their miracles of cleanliness – remaining unstained by the muddy waters of the river. Squadrons of geese, ducks and other waterfowl skirt the surface. Vultures, eagles and the occasional pelican tease the canopy. The 747s roaring overhead, obscured in the lowest layers of cloud cover, can be felt vibrating across the the river and the aluminum sides of the canoe. I ply along past the ends of the international airport’s runways on the northern bank.
I wonder to what destinations these outbounds fly? How many for seaside cities on other continents? How long would it take me to reach these places, were I to continue down the length of North America’s Mighty and brave the cresting waves and swirling currents of the world’s oceans?
I abandoned the main of the river,
curious enough about the backwater of an ox-bow to portage my boat over an impressive pile of jammed logs and organic jetsam. I sailed through the still, swampy shallows until the boat bottom slid to a sticky halt. Untying my trail runners and swinging my feet over the gunwale, I had to admit, I was getting in deep. I had the sickness. The going gets tougher but you’ve got to see what’s ahead.
More portage? Perhaps. More mud? Guaranteed.
I plunged in, drowning my feet in the cool muck.
Five stark white, sentinel egrets peered from their canopy perches on the curve up ahead. A plover took flight up the right bank, hurrying to warn a flock of geese that a dog was in hot pursuit and his keeper was putting in on the river again – a man too transfixed with discovery to leave the private piece of their river refuge undisturbed. I had become intimate with the river.
After a second portage I had rejoined the main channel of the Minnesota
to complete the distance to Pike Island. Washing my legs in the river would not dislodge the clumps of mud from my largest toenails. Caked in dark brown, a nail polish of high dirtbag fashion.
The Pike Island experience is rich in natural, historical and spiritual bounty. Wander the lush floodplain forest of cottonwood, elm and maple while attempting to reconcile the present peace and beauty with a history that records the internment of over 1600 Dakota in a frigid, festering camp a century and a half ago.
Avoiding the churn of a behemoth barge,
I rounded the far corner of the island and began my return to the landing. Weaving through the skeletal remains of drowned trees beached near the shore, I watched the incessant rise of feeding fish as the sun began to set on the river. The adventure had turned exhausting, and as stroke after repetitive stroke I moved slowly back up the Minnesota, I found myself enjoying an unexpected midnight paddle. I was benighted.
New creatures of flight emerged with the onset of evening. Flitting bats and questioning owls, planes now shrouded in bright lights. Never before had I felt envy for airline passengers and the relative comfort of their cramped but cushioned seats. Splashes in the dark would forever remain unidentified. I was weary. But the water was wonderful, the river was wild, and that’s everything we ask for.