Editor’s note: Today is the first of three parts winding through outdoors writer Greg Breining’s life as a paddler. He’ll follow up with how to plan a trip and his suggestions for five great outings. Breining is the author of “Paddling Minnesota,” published by Falcon Guides and updated last year.
When I was a kid, my family would pile into the station wagon and head north. On our way, between Anoka and the shores of Lake Mille Lacs, we crossed the Rum River on seven separate bridges.
The Rum is an inviting stream. Even at its widest, it is barely more than a long cast across. At many of the crossings, it glides swiftly along and tumbles through broken, rocky riffles as far as the next bend.
At each bridge, I pressed my face to the window glass, just able to peer over the bridge railing. I wondered what lay beyond each bend and how far the river could carry me in our new aluminum canoe. That is the thing about rivers — they call out, beckon, ask you to follow.
And the other thing: They are always connected to something larger. At our cabin north of Brainerd, we are simply at the lake. And when we fish, we are on the lake. But once we paddle through the bed of wild rice at the south end of the lake and slip into the tiny creek, we could quite possibly follow it into the Whitefish Chain of Lakes and from there into the Pine River and from there into the Mississippi, and after a week of paddling pull out at the Lake Street bridge, a mile from our house in St. Paul. Of course, we could paddle much farther, until we float along on the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico. A river never precludes any possibilities.
When I was a young man just out of college, I landed a job at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in something called the Rivers Section. Thus began a haphazard career as a river rat, that would lead me over the years to explore dozens of streams around the state.
I finally paddled those many miles of the Rum River that tumbled and glided between the bridges. It was like a trout stream, but bigger, and the mottled, brown-bronze smallmouth bass fought like bulldogs.
I explored the sometimes swift waters of the Zumbro and Roots rivers in southeastern Minnesota, sliding down long, graded cobble shallows and passing in the shadows of towering limestone bluffs.
I discovered northern streams, including the Cloquet, Granite and Vermilion, where long calm pools were punctuated by challenging rapids and even waterfalls in a wilderness where wolves and moose roam.
The Kettle has long been one of my favorites. I learned to paddle white water in the gorge running through Banning State Park, where the river plunges over ledges and kicks up standing waves as it races by the silent ruins of an ancient stone quarry. Leafy birch grow among the four walls of the long-abandoned power house. And some of my favorite camping has been along the long rapids of the last few miles of the river, where it joins the St. Croix River in a tangle of channels.
All of these rivers, and nearly every other sizable stream in Minnesota, were highways — first for the unnamed tribes who paddled dugouts and harpooned sturgeon in the wake of the Ice Age, and later, Dakota and then Ojibwe Indians. After them came explorers, fur traders, paddling the birch bark canoes they learned to make from the Ojibwe. And later still were the loggers who floated Minnesota’s pine forests on swollen spring floods to mills and market.
They all knew that rivers are connected to everything else.
And that is what I like most about rivers — beyond the beauty, the fishing, the opportunity for solitude — the feeling that you are on the precipice of a great experience. They might lead you anywhere.
Next week: How to plan and outfit a river trip.