Leopard frogs were hopping and a pair of snowy white egrets lifted off as I dropped our canoe by the bank of Rice Creek for a scenic adventure on a sunny August afternoon.

We paddled a stretch of the creek that flows south from Lake Baldwin in the Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Regional Reserve. The Anoka County reserve is one of two regional parks in the Twin Cities that offer multiple-lake paddling, with the wild waters and forest feel of a mini-Boundary Waters Canoe Area, according to Arne Stefferud, manager of regional parks and natural resources for Metropolitan Council.

The sprawling Rice Creek reserve "is the most wilderness-like park in north metro," said Stefferud, who has canoed it. He said the reserve's southern counterpart is Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan. The 2,000-acre Lebanon Hills, like the huge Boundary Waters area along the Canadian border, has portage paths between lakes.

The nearly 5,300-acre Rice Creek chain, mostly in Lino Lakes, doesn't require portages, but has occasional downed trees to circumvent, especially in the spring. The rustic reserve has a water trail wandering through four big lakes before it reaches Rice Creek, where a more challenging, less-traveled stretch flows south to Long Lake in New Brighton.

A photographer and I paddled a 5-mile stretch of the creek from a Lexington Avenue put-in to Long Lake this month with Anoka County Parks recreation specialist Todd Murawski.

The creek offers "excellent bird watching. It's a nice, shallow, navigable stream for the novice to average canoeist," at summer levels, Stefferud said. We saw plenty of herons, raptors, beaver dams, deer and raccoon tracks on our recent trip. Egrets and herons sat on nearby trees, and spotted sandpipers scampered on sandbars during our meandering, two-hour journey past the former Twin Cities Army Arsenal site in Shoreview to Long Lake. Along the way, fish jumped or left ripples, and an 18-inch, soft-shell turtle slid off a bank.

"And we're only 10 miles from St. Paul," Murawski said, noting a bald eagle circling overhead. Later he spotted a soaring osprey and a turkey vulture. "This part is the most scenic and wild," he added.

We were lucky, due to the rainy spring, to have passable creek depth in mid-August, Murawski said.

He advises paddlers to check water levels recorded daily on a U.S. Geological Service gauge on the creek and on the Rice Creek Watershed website at waterdata.usgs.gov/mn/nwis/uv/?site_no=05288580.

The gauge should read from 7.4 to 9.2 feet deep to paddle without snagging sandbars or a chance of being swept into creek banks during high flows, he said.

Metro's largest regional park

On a day when the level was at 7.7 feet, we encountered no bottom snags, though my paddle touched bottom in the concrete box tunnel guiding us under Interstate Hwy. 35W near old Hwy. 10, which we also floated under. Our only obstacles were a few downed trees to scramble around.

For most of our trip, we floated through grasslands with little sign of humans, other than the faint hum of traffic from I-35W. The banks were green with tall reed canary grass, with occasional appearances by cattails and tree stands. The creek grew more wooded south of old Hwy. 10, where we floated within earshot, but not view, of Irondale High School in New Brighton, not far from Long Lake.

Paddlers who want a longer trip can follow Rice Creek out the northwest corner of Long Lake, where the creek flows west into Fridley twisting down to the Mississippi River at Manomin Park on East River Road. The whole trek is about 22 miles from the Lake Peltier boat ramp to the river, and Murawaski estimated it takes eight to 10 hours, depending on rest stop frequency and the creek water level.

Besides its scenic qualities, the reserve this year became the largest regional park in the seven-county metro area. As of June, the reserve had 5,295.7 acres of land and waterways. That was enough to edge out mega-park Elm Creek Regional Park Reserve, which has 5,295.0 acres, Stefferud said. All park reserves are at least 80 percent undeveloped, he said.

Anoka Parks planner Karen Blaska said the county bought, with Metro Council assistance, 85 acres for Chain of Lakes in January, and another 1.3 acres for a park maintenance building in May.

The Rice Creek section below Lake Baldwin was rarely used until about seven years ago, when a barrier across the creek was removed in the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant section, Murawaski said.

He gets five to 10 calls a week, three out of four from nearby or Anoka County residents, asking where to put in canoes or kayaks in the park. Paddling access points include Rice Creek crossings near Hodgson Road, Lexington Avenue and County Roads I and J.

Murawaski said canoe/kayak rentals in the reserve have averaged about 300 a season in the past six years, with 312 rented by this mid-August. That's about double the number rented before the creek barrier was removed, he said.

Since the creek wanders out of Anoka County, Ramsey County maintains its share of Rice Creek in Shoreview and New Brighton. The reserve rents canoes, kayaks and life jackets at Wargo Nature Center on George Watch Lake, but the craft can't be taken from the park. Call 651-429-8007 to check watercraft availability.

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658