Editor’s note: Today is the second of three parts on paddling by outdoors writer Greg Breining. Breining is the author of “Paddling Minnesota,” published by Falcon Guides and updated last year. (Find part one here.)
It may be the stream just outside your door. Or it may be a river you heard about from friends. Or you crossed over a bridge and thought it looked interesting.
For me, it was the view of the Kettle River at the Interstate 35 bridge in east-central Minnesota — the long view downstream of a placid and wooded river that disappeared around a bend a half-mile downstream. My younger brother, still in his teens, and I loaded up our canoe and headed out for a weekend paddle. We paddled, lined and portaged our canoe through the notorious Hell’s Gates rapids in Banning State Park. Luckily for us, the water was low. The rocky rapids were more an inconvenience than a threat to our lives, and we ended our trip with a sense of satisfaction rather than of regrettable disaster.
But that trip bestowed a lesson — be prepared! And that means doing a bit of research beforehand.
The best place to start is with a canoe guide, an informative website, or an article like this one. Two good sources are guidebooks (like my “Paddling Minnesota”) or the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ State Water Trails website (online at bit.ly/2mncanoe). Both sources will provide a general description of the stream and the trips you can take that should answer the question — it sound like the kind of stream you’d enjoy when it comes to scenery, length, difficulty and fishing?
Picking a section and distance: Trips of various distances are possible by putting in or taking out at different public accesses or bridges. Don’t plan on covering more than 3 miles per hour — half that if you’re fishing.
Difficulty: Some stream are placid and easy to paddle. Others are swift and filled with difficult rapids. Rapids are usually rated from Class I (barely more than riffles) to Class VI (real risk of death, even for an expert). You may hear paddlers blithely talk of paddling Class III and IV rapids. Don’t believe it! Beginners will have all they can handle with a Class I rapids. Class II rapids are the limit for canoes and even kayaks unless you’ve had some white-water training.
Other hazards: Read up on other dangers the river may offer. Dams can be fatal. Culverts and low bridges can be a real hazard in high, swift water. Many streams are prone to “sweepers” — fallen trees that block your path. Of course, keep an eye out for these things, even if a guide doesn’t mention them.
Optimal water level: For most paddlers water level is a Goldilocks thing — not too high, not too low, but just right. With low water, a small rocky river becomes a miserable hike. A stream in flood is frightening and dangerous. River levels can change overnight. A good source of up-to-the-minute river level information is the DNR Water Trails site (bit.ly/mnwatertr). The DNR site provides helpful interpretation of the river flow information (that is, what does “very high” or “1,400 cubic feet per second” mean for paddling).
Another good source of real-time river levels is the U.S. Geological Survey WaterWatch site (bit.ly/mngeo). A guidebook will help you translate the data into practical paddling information. Even without a guide, remember that “very high” or “much above normal” is likely to be scary and hazardous. Conversely, “very low” or “much below normal” won’t be much fun at all.
Outfit your trip
Maps: Take a map on an unfamiliar stream. (A smartphone will tell you where you are, but it may not work on remote sections of river.) Good maps of many streams, with river miles marked, are available on the Water Trails website and in various canoe guides. Otherwise, buy U.S. Geological Survey maps for the stretch in question. In a pinch, print a map off Google Maps.
Canoe and paddles: Hard-core paddlers will have all sorts of specialized preferences. And you may need special boats for paddling difficult rapids or windswept expanses. But most any canoe or kayak will do for trips of just a few miles on easy rivers. Bring at least one spare paddle for each boat in case you lose or break yours. If you don’t have a canoe or kayak, rent one from an outfitter. Find an outfitter online or, again, on the Water Trails website.
Life vests: The law says you must have them. Wear them. (Children younger than 10 are required to wear theirs.) You’ll be glad you did if you get flipped by a rock or downed tree. Rent them from an outfitter if you don’t have enough.
Odds and ends: Bring rain gear and extra clothes (in a waterproof roll-top bag if you have one). Pack plenty of snacks and drinking water. A few short ropes come in handy for tying up boats along a steep shore. Bring sunscreen and protective clothing, because there won’t be shade on a broad river at midday. This is Minnesota, so you’ll want mosquito repellent.
On the river
Shuttle: Most folks aren’t going to want to paddle down a river only to have to paddle back up the river. So you’ll need a “shuttle.” That is, you’ll drop your gear and most of your paddlers at the put-in. Then you’ll drive at least two cars to the take-out, and use one care to return the drivers to the put-in. If you don’t have two cars, you can arrange a shuttle with an outfitter on some streams. Some short sections lend themselves to a bicycle shuttle.
When you spot a car at the take-out, make sure you know what your take-out looks like from the river so you don’t paddle past it.
Storms: You’re safest canceling your trip if thunderstorms are likely. There’s no really safe spot outdoors during a lightning storm. If lightning does strike, take cover in a park or campground shelter if one is handy. Otherwise, you’re probably safest away from the water, back in the woods, but not on a hill or under any particularly tall trees. For other safety tips, visit the Water Trails site.
Paddling: Moving water is trickier than still water. Whether you’re paddling a canoe or kayak, learn your strokes on a lake. Once on a river, avoid an obstacle (such as a rock) by pivoting your boat and crossing the current, making your move well before you get to the rock. To avoid getting shoved into the outside of a river bend, pivot your boat slightly toward the inside of the bend and paddle through the turn. To run an easy rapids, line up for the downstream-pointing Vs and regular chain of small standing waves that indicate a clear channel.
Give it time. After a couple of hours, it will all come together.
Next week: Five Minnesota river trips you can take.