As I pondered the coming folly, my dinky boat — stuffed to the gunwales with camping gear, fishing tackle, a cooler of food and my nervous dog, Percy — bobbed low in the harbor at Boom Island Park.
I had been mulling a fast and cheap overnight excursion for a couple of weeks before settling on a crackpot plan: I would seek out a quiet spot in the wilds right here in Minneapolis, where I would pitch my tent and spend a night under whatever stars were not utterly obscured by the big city light pollution.
When it comes to urban camping, of course, “quiet” is a relative term. What I was really looking for was a locale where I would not be molested by hoodlums, upright citizens or lawmen. I was particularly concerned about the later cohort because the authorities in most good-sized communities, including Minneapolis and its suburbs, frown upon camping within city limits.
While I wasn’t sure where exactly to pitch my tent, I knew where I wanted to look: the 12-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis to the Coon Rapids Dam. This is the mellowest run of the Mississippi in the Twin Cities, with a fraction of the pleasure boat and barge traffic found in St. Paul.
Those factors appealed to me because I prefer a measure of solitude when camping, even — and especially — when camping in the city. Also I had limited faith in my vessel (a recently acquired, leaky $400 boat) and my motor (a balky 15-horsepower Evinrude).
Despite lovely weather, the river was scarcely in use as I chugged to the north. Between the Plymouth Avenue Bridge and the Broadway Bridge, I came across the only moving vessel I would encounter: a speeding ski-boat with a trio of daredevils in tow.
Trolling farther upriver, I passed the stately but decaying and graffiti-adorned Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge, the oldest bridge above St. Anthony Falls. In its shadow, a brightly colored tent was barely visible amid thick vegetation. Three scruffy fellows — presumably fellow campers — were lounging along the shore, fishing poles propped up on Y-shaped sticks.
I waved cheerily, assuming these guys would take note of my camping gear, my fishing rods and my dog and recognize me as a kindred frontiersman. I was met with stone faces. Were they camping out of necessity, not novelty-seeking? Were they angry that my noisy little motor was scaring the fishes? Did they not care for my looks?
Hesitant to invite fiasco on such a pleasant afternoon, I chose not investigate. Pressing farther upriver, I came upon the vestigial remains of Minneapolis’ industrial riverfront. I paused to shoot pictures at the Aggregate Industries dock, where vast quantities of sand and gravel are shipped on barges from Grey Cloud Island, unloaded and piled into mountains. Farther north, I putted by the American Iron metal shredder, which was noisily spitting out nuggets, which are hauled downriver by barge.
Just north of the new Lowry Avenue Bridge, I came to the river’s northernmost barge terminal — the soon-to-be shuttered, city-owned Port of Minneapolis. The infrastructure and business model at the port seemed to be collapsing in tandem. Nothing was happening that night, except that the fabric was peeling off the exterior of the salt-storage domes. It looked like the building was molting.
Once north of the Lowry Bridge and the Port of Minneapolis, the character of the river changed dramatically. With park land and the Minneapolis Water Works occupying the shorelines, the river took on a far wilder feel.
Several clusters of small, sandy islands dot the river here. After investigating my options, I motored up to one such island. I had picnicked there a few years earlier but it had changed. Erosion and the loss of trees (likely from the north Minneapolis tornado of 2011) had shrunk the island at the margins, while the interior — once quite open — was overtaken with buckthorn.
Exhausted after clearing enough of the vicious weed to accommodate my tent, I answered a call on my cellphone. Two favorite friends had just ambled to the Camden Bridge and wanted to pop over to my private island for a visit. Returning to the campsite, I put them to work setting up my tent as I built a fire — an unexpected but fine side effect of camping so close to one’s home and cronies.
As the sun dropped over north Minneapolis, we talked around the fire and noshed on the sausage and crackers. The crackle of the fire competed with the steady drone of Interstate 94. The constant noise from the interstate presented the only obvious evidence that our rustic interlude was taking place in the biggest city for hundreds of miles in any direction.
After a few hours, I drove my friends to the mainland and commenced with serious business. Channel catfish dominate this stretch of the river, so I went with the most common tactic: chicken liver on a circle hook with a couple of heavy weights, tossed into swift water. By the time the dog and I crawled into the tent, I had landed and released four nice cats.
In the morning, I boiled up some coffee, broke down the campsite and loaded the boat. I was home by 10 a.m., with no vagrancy tickets or other misadventure to stain the memory. It is true I have had better camping trips. I’ve also had much worse ones. But I never had one so convenient or — with a total cash outlay of $5 for gas and $3 for chicken livers — so cheap.
Mike Mosedale is a freelance journalist and longtime