Making a statement takes work.
Matters on land might be the biggest challenge to date for a Minnesota river paddler who is partway through his goal of floating along all of the state’s 34 state water trails, covering more than 4,500 miles.
Jay Gustafson has paddled through 16. He recently came off a chilly run of the 25-mile-long Cedar River which travels north of Austin, Minn., to Iowa. He will attempt to complete his odyssey beginning next spring.
Before Gustafson ever touches water, there is dryland work. He has had to follow water levels, adapt to mercurial Minnesota weather, and coordinate getting himself and his Northstar canoe from Point A to Point B — and on to the next water course. He said he has leaned heavily on his uncle, Mark Gustafson, and a cast of supportive friends. Executing the first half of his river quest, all to the state’s south, has been an education, he said. But Gustafson looks forward to leveraging some new connections with outdoors groups, whose members will head north like him come spring and summer.
Gustafson, 34, quit his job as a business analyst to take on the state’s main riverways, but there is purpose to what might come off as a year of frivolous adventure. He is driven by his concern for the condition of state waters, 40 percent of which are polluted. He wants others to care more, too.
His undertaking, called Paddle for Progress, dovetails with Gov. Mark Dayton’s “25 by 25” initiative announced earlier this year. The hope is to improve the state’s water quality by 25 percent by 2025. It’s a noble target, if daunting, said Gustafson, referencing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s report from October on the state’s lakes and streams. The draft 2018 “impaired waters list” has 618 new listings, covering 2,669 bodies of water across the state. The newly listed bodies can’t fully support aquatic life, or are those waterways that have high levels of bacteria or nutrients from sources such as fertilizer runoff or wastewater.
So, while public meetings are held and local watershed districts talk strategies and goals, Gustafson will speak through his observations from the gunwales of his canoe.
The state is aware of his trips. Gustafson said he has sent GoPro footage of campsites, landings and channel conditions to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which manages the water trails. What he hasn’t seen are people.
Gustafson took nine days to move through the 370 miles of Minnesota River. He said he saw two people on the water the entire time. He’s found it disconcerting.
“It’s hard for people to care about something they are not seeing, right?” asked Gustafson.
In a recent conversation, the Twin Cities man talked, too, about his upcoming year as his mission swings north. The Mississippi, Red, and St. Croix rivers (about 1,300 miles combined) make up about half of the remaining mileage. Excerpts below have been edited for space and clarity:
On where he’ll start this spring
I think the biggest thing I will be looking at is what kind of level of snow we’ve had. There are some rivers that are pretty quick to dry up. I am in no rush to do the Mississippi or the Red or the St. Croix. You take a river like the Snake River, something like that before midsummer can dry up. I know the Cloquet was impossible to paddle most of the summer this year.
On differences in his time spent trail to trail
The Whitewater (River) took me five hours, had a good flow. It was only 16 to 18 miles. Some are only taking me a day; I don’t have to stay overnight. Others, like the Minnesota River, took me nine days. On average, I’ve been going 4 miles per hour, sometimes way more, sometimes way less.
On how his perspective has changed on water quality
The importance of this has only increased. The Pollution Control Agency put out its draft of impaired waters, and it added 600 bodies of water to the list. What that tells me is that we as a state are not going the right way, and we have tremendous work to do. For me, it only enhances the reasoning and the rationale behind why I wanted to do this. It’s not just about water quality for me anymore. It has a lot to do with the general conditions of the river beyond the water. I’m talking about our campsites, I’m talking about our accesses, I’m talking about general channel conditions that the DNR maintains. I think we face a pretty significant challenge as it relates to that, as well. I wouldn’t say they are all bad — they’re not — and certain rivers are fantastic.
On wanting to help the state update its mapping
I really value what they have done. I really do think this is a service that every state doesn’t have. When I was going down the Mississippi [a through-trip in 2016], I called the nine other DNRs to get maps of the river, and they all laughed at me, and said ‘What are you talking about?’ I was just under the assumption that every state did this. They don’t. Between [the DNR’s] maps and the water level readings, that’s been huge for me.
On his initiative’s message
All of us in Minnesota are impacted by this. It’s not some issue that is obscure and doesn’t impact you. We’re talking water that we drink, that we bathe in, we cook with. Pollution that is affecting our rivers is affecting our groundwater, affecting our lakes. This is stuff that we had better care about because this is what we are putting in our bodies.
On surprises on waterways
For as dirty as the water is, the stretch (of the Minnesota River) between Granite Falls and New Ulm is just beautiful. I would not have expected that. It’s the tributaries that are polluting the Minnesota. It’s wonderfully wooded on both sides, there are rock outcroppings, and there is really good current. It’s just this cool river.
On being realistic
I don’t know everything about what is going on. My criticism only goes so far. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency does a phenomenal job. The 80 watersheds that [the agency has] monitored have told us a lot, and we needed to know that.