Leave your cellphone behind.
Grab a paddle, a fishing pole or even just a sturdy pair of hiking shoes and discover a wild and scenic stretch of Anoka County.
Float down the Rum River, or hike or fish along its banks, and you almost forget you’re in suburbia.
The Rum is one of six rivers designated “Wild and Scenic” in the state. It’s one of 33 rivers that are part of Minnesota’s innovative water trails program. Each year, crews with chain saws clear the channel for canoers, kayakers and boaters. The state owns more scenic easements along the Rum than any other river in Minnesota. There are 53 scenic easements purchased from more than 100 landowners, who have agreed to limit development, building and tree removal to keep the Rum’s banks as pristine as possible.
The Rum River has unprecedented public access with multiple public put-in sites and parks along its banks. Anoka County has campsites exclusively for canoers and kayakers. And Anoka County has purchased land on its banks and created a conservation area open to hikers, birders and hunters.
The best part: You don’t have to drive for hours to get there. The Rum, which connects Lake Mille Lacs with the Mississippi River, is 20 miles from downtown Minneapolis. It stretches 150 miles through Onamia, Milaca, Princeton, Cambridge and Isanti before draining into the Mississippi at Anoka.
“Just being able to be within a couple hours of a paddling experience where you can shed all that technical baggage and reconnect with family and friends is great,” said Erik Wrede, Minnesota’s water trails coordinator. “Being on a river provides a great opportunity. It’s kind of soulful. You feel like you are reconnecting with nature. With a family, it’s a great way to get rid of the schedule and just be with your family and goof around and wonder what’s around the next bend.”
The Rum River was originally called the Spirit River by native tribes. Something got lost in translation. Spirit was interpreted as spirits and European settlers called it the Rum River. The name could also be derived from the river’s tea-colored water, which is caused by native plants. There’s now a movement afoot to have the river renamed Spirit.
Names aside, it’s a chance to get back to nature close to home.
A salve for stress
Mike McLafferty steals away to the Rum River on a Monday morning after a stressful weekend of work. He and his wife run a treatment foster home. McLafferty has brought his fishing pole and the sun is breaking through the clouds.
“It’s quiet and peaceful. I can be standing on the shore and I’ll have deer come right up and traverse the river,” says McLafferty, of Ramsey. It’s a nice escape and a perfect place to teach his 4-year-old son to fish.
The Rum was designated Wild and Scenic in 1978. The others with that designation in Minnesota are the Kettle, Cannon, Mississippi, Minnesota and the north fork of the Crow. The designation means each river has a special management plan designed to protect its scenic, recreational, natural, historical, and cultural values.
It also means money has been invested in scenic easements. The state purchased easements that are attached to the land forever. Landowners agree to preserve the riverbanks. The land isn’t open to public access, but it ensures that the river retains its natural character.
“They really help protect that wild and scenic quality of the river,” said Jay Krienitz, conservation programs manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “It’s a wonderful partnership with local landowners. It allows them to be a steward of the river.”
It makes a trip down the Rum feel like a respite from the urban hustle.
“You can feel a sense of solitude,” Krienitz said. “You see the bird and wildlife. You have trees on either side.”
Anoka County owns three parks along the river — Rum River North, Central and South — giving residents ample access to the river.
“There are few rivers in the state that have such good infrastructure,” Wrede said. “It’s got the infrastructure for recreation. … For folks trying to make an efficient day trip, this is one of the better ones in the state.”
“It’s hard to believe you are in the metro area,” said Parks Manager Jeff Perry.
The county also owns the Cedar Creek Conservation Area, which features wetlands, emergent marshes, woodlands and more than two miles of shoreline on the Rum River and Cedar Creek.
The county seized the chance created by the economic downturn to buy the prime real estate from a developer for $4.2 million, using money from the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment and the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources. It’s open for fishing, hiking and public hunting — a rare opportunity in the metro area.
Eagles, fish, and cleanup
On a recent morning, Perry led a small group in canoes. New signage marked the conservation area along the river. A bald eagle perched in a tree above the sign.
Perry brought a fishing pole along.
“The Rum is known for a wide variety of fish, especially smallmouth bass and walleye and northern,” he said.
Kriste Ericsson heads up the Friends of the Rum River. It’s a loose group of residents and businesses who love the river. They host an annual cleanup each year.
Ericsson grew up paddling on the river. She now wants to see it and the watershed protected and enjoyed.
“There is a lot of awesome culture and history to it, starting with the Native Americans,” said Ericsson, of Grandy, Minn.
“Rivers have a great way of building a sense of community. It’s a natural gathering point. Fire, water, mountains — those big elements in life draw people together,” Wrede said. “It’s a natural impulse to go hang out at the river.”