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