On an overcast morning, seven people in a 24-foot voyageur canoe paddled by as jabbering swallows flocked around a sandstone cliff at the river's edge. Adding their voices to the river's chorus, the diminutive birds tucked their wings and flitted in and out of tiny holes in the cliff face.
The paddlers, part of a flotilla of six canoes, were not hundreds of miles from the nearest coffee shop or Wi-Fi hot spot. They were on the Mississippi, just downstream from the Interstate 94 bridge in Minneapolis, at the center of the metro area.
The half-day trip was one small piece of a broad effort to alert locals to a spectacular natural treasure in our midst. The Mississippi River is actually a national park running 72 miles through the metro area, less a divider of the Twin Cities than their heart and reason for existing.
"People never pay attention to something that is so familiar to them," said Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the National Park Service's Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. "To local people, it's just the local river; to everyone else in the country and the world, it's one of the great rivers of the world."
A broad range of organizations are trying to get the locals to see the Mississippi that way.
The National Park Service aims to get 10,000 Twin Cities kids a year onto the river. Wilderness Inquiry, a private nonprofit, took 8,200 metro students on river trips last year through its Urban Wildlife Recreation Area program (UWCA).
Meanwhile, the Minneapolis and St. Paul park boards are working on their RiverFIRST and Great River Passage plans. Both hope to use park, commercial and residential projects to connect neighborhoods to the river and encourage recreational and industrial users to coexist in safe and sustainable ways.
The Minneapolis blueprint just had its first public hearing; St. Paul's is on its way to council approval. The proposals are the latest in the cities' long-term riverfront plans.
There are no definitive numbers to measure interest in the river, but here are some clues:
Duane Putz, lockmaster at Lock and Dam No. 1, near the Ford Bridge, reported that since 2009, the lock has opened 4,000 times for the passage of anywhere from one to 200 pleasure boats. About two-thirds of the craft are motorized, but canoes and kayaks have been gaining ground. Although a yearly breakdown wasn't available, Putz said he's seen leisure traffic at the lock increase. The four locks within the national park stretch of the river -- at St. Anthony Falls 1 and 2, Minnehaha Creek and Hastings -- have counted almost 15,500 leisure craft pass-throughs during that time.
Feeling the water
Organizers want to build the kind of excitement that the river holds for visitors. Eric Wrede, water trails coordinator with the state Department of Natural Resources, noted that for one family visiting from Argentina, it wasn't enough to just see the river. They had to touch it, he said, "to get the sand between their toes and get wet and actually be there."
Once locals have a close encounter with the Mississippi, they're likely to feel the same way, Wrede said.
"It's hard to go on the river and not be awestruck. That moment when people's eyes light up and they go, 'Wow, that's amazing!' that's the seed of stewardship and it's the seed of future recreation and future outings where people are going to learn more about natural resources in general."
The recent canoe flotilla included kids and adults from Courage Center, along with guides from Wilderness Inquiry (both private nonprofits), who put in at East River Flats (a Minneapolis park), floated through the national park, guided by a national park ranger, and put out at Hidden Falls (a St. Paul park).
They counted dozens of herons among the trip's highlights, as well as a kingfisher, a painted turtle, a family of mallards perched on a log, a Canada goose nesting on a precarious finger of earth, a peregrine falcon on the lock wall and a turkey vulture that took off from its leafy perch as the canoes passed.
Jackson Larson, 16, of Cambridge, said he enjoyed passing under the bridges "to see how long they are."
"I didn't think there were going to be that many birds, just being in the city," he said during a lunch break on the E. 34th Street sand flats. "You'd think you'd see them in the country instead of in the city."
Holden Kowalke, 12, of Excelsior, built a sand fortress on the bank. Wilderness Inquiry guide Neal Wehrwein helped him make flags of sticks and broad leaves.
As the group continued to Lock No. 1, they saw evidence of humans, too -- a treehouse, a tent, a branch lean-to, two rope swings, sightseers taking photos.
The excursion, meanwhile, meant 13 more kids for the UWCA tally of Twin Citians experiencing the river.
"But it's bigger than that," said Wilderness Inquiry founder and Executive Director Greg Lais. "It's to transform the way the community looks at the river and perceives the river. And, really, our bigger goal is to have every kid in the Twin Cities area have an opportunity to get down on the river and feel it and touch it and be part of it. ... The only way to accomplish that kind of transformation in our community is through partnerships."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409