Minnesota River: Hidden treasure or muddy ditch?

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2010 - 1:54 PM

A three-hour tour exposes scores of south-metro leaders to the oft-forgotten wonders of the Minnesota River.

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Metro civic leaders talked as they looked at the Black Dog power plant in Burnsville.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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If you happened to zoom across the Minnesota River on a golden evening a few days ago, and glance down toward the water at just the right moment, you might have seen a peculiar sight:

A 250-ton steel barge, cleansed of its normal cargo, looking like a party cruise boat, with a tent-top and sandwiches and rows of folding chairs.

Scores of south-metro officials -- mayors, legislators, county commissioners and others -- and the members of a film crew doing a documentary on the river were taking a three-hour tour.

This is "the river" people talk about when they say they live "south of the river." Yet how many people know it as anything other than the barrier that forces them onto a few highly-clogged arteries at rush hour -- or the drainage ditch that in spring swells up and threatens to flood?

"I grew up in Renville County, just above the river," said Matt Wohlman, outreach director for First District Congressman Tim Walz. "I've fished the river. But I've never been on it till now."

Savage Mayor Janet Williams, who delivered groceries to tugboat men as a kid growing up in these parts, calls it a "hidden treasure." It has also been called a "muddy ditch," carrying farm chemicals and stream bank erosion from across much of western Minnesota.

Clint Gergen, of Cenex Harvest States, which operates along the river, sees from his office window the quiet dramas of nature.

"I see eagles carrying muskrats in their talons. We have 40 acres just for wildlife, with deer and wild turkeys. It's pretty cool."

But Warren Formo, of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, adds: "I'm sure you've noticed you can't see to the bottom."

In some years 60,000 cubic yards of sediment have to be dredged to keep a channel open for barge traffic, he said, as a river that drops relatively steeply in the western part of the state -- and therefore moves with a faster current -- flattens out, slows down, and deposits its gunk.

Officialdom was being reminded, on this sunny, breezy evening, of the role of the river as a commercial artery (much of the Midwest's grain takes it en route to the Gulf of Mexico) and as a recreational amenity that many hope will be much better known in future years, as trail corridors are extended and historic bridges such as Shakopee's and Bloomington's, no longer used for cars, are restored for bikers and walkers.

On a more primitive level, it was stirring to find oneself near the surface of a waterway one has passed over forever without ever having any real sense of what it is.

Tim Lies, the mayor of Belle Plaine, likened the experience of travelling from the ports of Savage to Lilydale on a barge, 95 feet long and 35 wide, to being carried downriver on an iceless hockey rink: a vast steel surface ringed with short walls.

"There's a lot of romance with barges," he mused.

You'd never know it until you're way down below, but someone has managed to get halfway up a pillar holding up Interstate 35W and write, in giant letters, "HEY GOOB."

Surrounded by a 3 million- person metro that seems hundreds of miles away except when jet airliners scream overhead, Huck Finn-like kids scramble the banks and toss fishing lines out into the water. Someone holds up a just-caught monster carp and screams happily at the passing bargeload of strangers. Cold campfires squat here and there. Herons descend heavily from bare branches in quest of food.

From the water line, each bridge has a vastly different personality. Some, like 35W, seem purely functional and almost tiny -- belying their importance. But the Mendota Bridge leaps from bank to bank with height and grace.

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland called the journey "the biggest pontoon ride I've ever been on." He was one of many to be struck by how natural the river is for most of its length, as opposed to quasi-industrial: From highways one sees Xcel Energy's Black Dog power plant and barge loadings, but that is seldom how it feels from Savage to where it merges with the Mississippi.

Instead, the wide flood plains and backwaters mean that civilization - the riverbluff homes of Bloomington, for instance -- are held off at an invisible and silent distance from the main channel of the river. The trip is amazingly quiet. Some fantasized about graduation parties here on a barge with charcoal grills and bands.

The trip was advertised as ending at a yacht club, evoking images of butlers with welcoming glasses of champagne. Instead, the landing proved to involve many of those folks who run the south metro clambering up a muddy bank like kids and being helped to step over a roadside cable.

Still, a memorable three hours. "Quiet ... slow ... soothing," murmured documentary filmmaker John Hickman, as the barge slipped along the water. "You'd have no idea you were that close to the Mall of America, or -- visually speaking, anyway, apart from the planes -- the airport."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023

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  • FOR MORE ONLINE

    To learn more about the documentary on the river under preparation, and see snippets from it: mnriver.org

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