Editor's note: Today is the final of three parts on paddling by outdoors writer Greg Breining. Breining is the author of "Paddling Minnesota," published by Falcon Guides and updated last year. (Part I and Part II)
As a friend and fishing partner once told me when I asked him what was his favorite fishing stream, “Whichever one I’m on!”
I feel that way, too. I’ve kayaked down the streams that race off the precipice of the North Shore to Lake Superior. I’ve paddled rippling rivers for smallmouth. I’ve canoe down placid woodland and prairie creeks.
And I still can’t pick a favorite. They all are.
But I’ll try. Here are five river trips that represent some of the best stream paddling Minnesota has to offer. They are suitable for people who have done some flat water paddling, maybe some Boundary Waters tripping, but don’t have much experience on rivers.
Best scenery Root River
While the most recent Ice Age glaciers bulldozed most of Minnesota tens of thousands of years ago, they missed much of southeastern Minnesota, allowing rivers there additional time to burrow deep into the limestone geology.
One of these rivers is the Root, which heads up south of Rochester and winds eastward to the Mississippi. After it crosses beneath Hwy. 52, it winds in a deep valley flanked by abrupt limestone bluffs and cliffs. The Root glides quickly over gradual riffles of limestone cobble, without much in the way of hazards.
There are plenty of smallmouth bass and other game fish in this stretch. On a warm day, you’re sure to see turkey vultures wheeling in the updrafts rising from the bluffs.
Put-in: Moen’s Bridge, northwest of Lanesboro.
Distance: 12 miles.
Best bass fishing Rum River
Smallmouth bass hold a special place in anglers’ hearts because they fight so hard and are so much fun to catch. Many Minnesota streams hold smallmouth, but for mile upon mile of good water for big bass in a river that’s pleasant to paddle in a canoe or kayak, it’s hard to match the Rum.
The Rum flows from Lake Mille Lacs, winds through a series of shallow wild rice lakes near Onamia, and then flows swiftly south over long stretches of easy rapids to Milaca. Then it cuts eastward through innumerable lazy meanders. At St. Francis it again builds up speed in long, easy riffles.
A lot of this water, especially the swifter sections, hold bass. One of my favorites, simply because it’s so convenient to the Twin Cities, is the section from St. Francis to Anoka. The banks are wooded. The current is quick but not hazardous. Look for bass in the deeper pools between riffles and along deep banks on the outside bends. Fish small crankbaits, spinners and shallow-running minnow lures. Poppers, divers and streamers are good fly rod flies.
Put-in: Rum River North County Park in St. Francis.
Take-out: Rum River Central Regional Park.
Distance: 9 miles. (This is a long distance to fish in a single day. You’ll have to stow the rods and paddle to make the take-out before nightfall.)
Best canoe camping St. Croix River
The St. Croix deserves its distinction as Minnesota’s first and only national wild and scenic river. It flows broad and clear past banks of pine and hardwoods on the border with Wisconsin. Except for a patch of rough water (Class I and II) at the mouth of the Kettle River, and a short heavy pitch at Taylors Falls, the St. Croix is placid. Any number of sections are perfect for beginning paddlers.
It’s a great camping river because of its length (plenty long for a multiday trip) and because the National Park Service has developed many small campsites along its banks.
So despite its popularity with canoeists and kayakers, you’re likely to find a place to stay.
The St. Croix is also a great fishing stream, with smallmouth bass, walleyes, northern pike, and even a few muskies.
Put-in: Hwy. 70 bridge west of Grantsburg, Wis.
Take-out: Nevers Dam Landing.
Distance: 24 miles, enough for an overnight trip.
Best wilderness trip Vermilion River
The Vermilion, located near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park, shares many appealing features of those better-known areas — thousands of acres of unspoiled country, deep conifer forests, wolves and moose, long placid waterways, and portages around steep rapids and falls, several too tough to run.
Among these rapids are two of the most picturesque you’ll ever see in Minnesota. At Table Rocks Falls, the river roars over a 20-foot-high stair-step cascade and then races through a half-mile of Class III rapids. Near the end of the river, the river squeezes through a 10-foot wide slot in the bedrock known as the Gorge.
Experts run these drops and other difficult drops. But the less-than-expert paddling a canoe laden with food and gear should portage instead — just like in the Boundary Waters. The entire river makes a comfortable three-day trip. Fishing for smallmouth bass, northern pike, and walleyes can be excellent, especially in late spring and early summer.
Put-in: Near Vermilion Dam, at the outlet of Lake Vermilion.
Take-out: Crane Lake.
Distance: 42 miles.
Best intro to white water Kettle River
The Kettle River in east-central Minnesota is renowned as a white-water stream (even though much of the stream is calm). Near Moose Lake, the river roars through long stretches of bouldery Class I and II drops, but they’re runnable only on infrequent occasions when spring melt or heavy rains have boosted the water level. The heavy, distinctive drops in Banning State Park are a playground for white-water boaters, but are too difficult for beginning river runners.
But in the last 8 miles before the Kettle joins the St. Croix, the river races through long Class I and easy Class II boulder-bed rapids. The wooded banks are undeveloped and protected in St. Croix State Park and Chengwatana State Forest land.
This is not a stretch for rank beginners. But if you’ve had a bit of practice on swift rivers, it’s a great run at moderate water levels. If the water is high, the waves become high enough to swamp a canoe.
Put-in: Maple Island in St. Croix State Park.
Take-out: Boat ramp on the St. Croix, at the mouth of the Snake River. Unfortunately, this take-out requires a long shuttle. Make a short trip and shuttle by taking out at Kennedy Brook, also in St. Croix State Park.
Distance: 11 miles; 4 miles if you take out at Kennedy Brook.