With a few dips of the paddle, I manage to maneuver my kayak from the Mississippi River’s open channel south of St. Cloud into a quiet shady waterway tucked along the banks.
I glide between wooded shoreline on the left and a parallel line of trees flanking my right side like evenly spaced foot soldiers. Branches of maples and oaks meld overhead, creating a soothing, arched sanctuary: Mother Nature’s cathedral.
That same feeling came over me a few summers ago while paddling Mississippi River backwaters near Wabasha, but this St. Cloud stretch feels a world away from southern Minnesota’s yawning widths and barge traffic. In fact, this St. Cloud stretch is a state-designated Wild and Scenic Corridor all the way to Anoka.
Over the course of four hours and 13 miles, Zac Meer of Clear Waters Outfitting Co. and I spot two canoes, one kayak, a boat and one occupied rustic campsite. Otherwise, the river is all ours.
Boat traffic is low, thanks to all the shallow channels and sandbars exposed where water levels have dropped off. It’s easy to take our time meandering around the Beaver Islands, a group of more than 30 islands that dot the river south of St. Cloud. Often, we simply float. The river current and a sky full of cottony clouds seem synced to the same slow speed, stirring the strange sensation that we’re holding still while the woods spool past.
Water trails galore
It’s been a long wait for many paddlers to get on the water with May and June’s unusually incessant delivery of rain. Paddling on the Mississippi in particular has been an exercise in patience this year. I could finally schedule my outing in mid-July and other outfitters, such as Wilderness Inquiry with its fleet of voyageur canoes for Twin Cities Mississippi trips, got back on schedule in late July.
While it’s a shorter paddling season than usual due to delays, there are plenty of options for catching up in August and September. Minnesota was the first state to start a water trail system more than 50 years ago and still boasts the nation’s largest water trail program with 33 rivers (plus Lake Superior) and more than 4,500 miles. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, that’s a 1,000-mile increase since 2005 and a nod to the growing popularity of paddlesports.
Water trails range from the scenic St. Croix and faster, smaller rivers such as southern Minnesota’s Zumbro River to northern Minnesota’s adrenaline-pumping Kettle River rapids. Even the majestic, moody Lake Superior shoreline is a state-designated water trail.
Clear Waters Outfitting opened its doors five years ago in a historic creamery building in Clearwater along the Mississippi River, and has seen a steady uptick in business, says owner Dan Meer (who is also Zac’s father). Paddlers can access the Mississippi right there and float 8 miles south to Snuffy’s Landing near Becker and call for a shuttle. Or they can get shuttled north to St. Cloud and float back to the shop. Zac and I choose the northern route for the islands and decide to take a kayak and a paddleboard, so we each can try both.
We access the river by the Beaver Island Trail parking lot on the southern side of St. Cloud State’s National Hockey Center, and Zac takes the first shift on the paddleboard. We’re just below the dam that’s still thundering and stirring up clumps of foam that swirl around us. The clumps fade into a moving blanket of bubbles as the water calms and flows toward the islands.
“It’s a good place for beginners to get some experience, along with some good scenery and fishing along the way,” says Tim Edgerton, area supervisor for Minnesota DNR’s Division of Parks and Trails.
Fishing for smallmouth bass
Anglers in the know — often using fishing kayaks — take advantage of the clean, cool moving water that makes this stretch one of the top spots in the nation to hook a smallmouth bass.
“The innovation in these fishing kayaks in the last five to seven years is phenomenal,” says John Twele of Minnetonka, who fishes this area at least a dozen times a summer. He loves the ability to float close to the water while staying focused on fishing, which is mostly catch-and-release.
A slow day might yield about a dozen catches, while a good one can land up to 54. On a mid-July outing, he says, “I caught 35, and I missed twice that. Smallmouth bass fishing is some of the most exciting fishing I’ve ever done. They hit and bite hard.”
Kayak vs. paddleboard
For us, on an idyllic summer day, we’re content to casually paddle or let the river carry us downstream. A blue heron elegantly swoops in front of us a few times. An eagle soars overhead. A kingfisher seems agitated by our appearance. From the shoreline, we hear splashes as sun-seeking turtles hit the water to hide. We also hear ripples from sideways trees with branches dipping into the water.
I note how Zac handles the paddleboard, especially when it comes to ducking under trees to explore side channels. About halfway through the trip, we switch watercraft mid-river, miraculously making the transfer without losing a paddle or falling in, then breezily float backward while eating lunch. The paddleboard provides a floating tabletop and sparks musings about Huck Finn and long-ago river rafters.
When I’m ready to stand up on the paddleboard, the new height makes me feel gigantic, like Paul Bunyan on the river. It’s also trickier than expected and works leg muscles as they strive for balance. As an afternoon breeze kicks up and slows me down, I opt for paddling on my knees and keeping a lower profile.
Just as we’re winding past a rustic campsite, the current seems to switch direction or double back. It pulls me sideways rather than straight ahead.
The paddleboard — especially with an utter newbie on it — doesn’t maneuver as quickly and easily as a kayak, which lets you lean in and put some serious muscle into a power paddle. I can see I’m in trouble as I flow toward one of many trees that hunch sideways from the riverbank. Scrape, push, splash. Over I go into the river.
That’s where being on a shallow and gentle river comes in handy. While I’m scratched up by the branches — this is what the outfitter’s pre-trip safety video calls “a strainer” — it’s easy to retrieve the board and get back up.
The tree encounter keeps me sitting up and paying attention, but it’s also meditative to sit cross-legged and float, soaking in one of the prettiest stretches of the world’s fourth-longest river.
I feel my breathing slow and calibrate to the river’s flow, they way it can sync to an ocean’s soothing surf.
Spotting the landing in Clearwater triggers a pang of reluctance, the urge to resist a return to ground and gravity, the stop-and-start of car travel. So I tip back, soak up the last drift of clouds and the final float across this sweet Mississippi stretch.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (LisaMcClintick.com) is a freelance travel writer based in Minnesota.