“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus
ST. CLOUD – As he maneuvered his jet boat — specially designed for shallow-water river fishing — around a point just a few yards beyond one of the greens for the St. Cloud Country Club, noted guide Dave Genz joked that the Mississippi River has a clay bottom in that area. Then he motioned to a big concrete box on the west bank, nearly covered in overgrown brush, which not too long ago was one of the three houses for a trap shooting range.
For nearly 40 years, until the range closed in the early 1980s, sport shooters would send thousands of clay pigeons and countless millions of lead shot pellets into the river, concentrating on the quest to break 25, and giving nary a thought to the long-term effects on things like water quality downstream.
But on this Saturday morning in May, the Mississippi was a significantly more serene place. Even with the hype of the Governor’s Fishing Opener happening just a few miles upriver, Genz zipped up and down this stretch of water with few other boats in sight, finding a few places where the walleye and smallmouth bass were hungry.
A lifelong resident of the area, with a house on the east bank of the river, Genz talked about a time when two St. Cloud meat packing plants dumped their waste products directly into the water, and very few anglers would eat fish from the Mississippi. Up until the 1970s, the city of St. Cloud didn’t treat its wastewater, choosing instead to pipe it directly into the river and send it off for the folks to eventually deal with it in St. Paul, Rock Island, Ill., and Hannibal, Mo. In one notable piece of St. Cloud riverfront architecture, one can learn plenty about the state of the Mississippi a generation ago.
“One of our hotels right downtown has a restaurant, and the big windows are on the parking lot side of the restaurant, not on the river side,” said St. Cloud’s four-term mayor Dave Kleis. “That’s probably a testament to when it was built and what the river smelled like at that time.”
But on the morning of the 2017 fishing opener, when Kleis joined Gov. Mark Dayton and other politicians from throughout Minnesota angling — successfully in most cases — on the stretch of the Mississippi that runs through St. Cloud, it was a significant moment for a community that Kleis said mostly turned its back on the river for decades.
In recent years the community has raised money via a citywide sales tax, garnered some federal funding, and has invested $8 million in a riverfront trail network that provides new access to the famed stretch of muddy water. South of the locks and dams in Minneapolis, barge traffic becomes more common and the Mississippi of St. Louis or Memphis is akin to an industrial freeway. Not so north of the Twin Cities, where the river is narrower and shallower, and the watercraft scene is dominated by canoes, paddleboards and pontoons.
City hall is a block from the water, and Kleis likes to walk the new trail in the afternoon making calls and returning e-mails. He noted that among the students who come to St. Cloud State University from all over the globe, few of them may have heard of St. Cloud or Stearns County, but nearly all know of the Mississippi River and its place in American lore.
One thinks about that place in history while canoeing the Beaver Islands, just downriver from the SCSU campus. These roughly 20 (a few of them disappear in high water) uninhabited islands were named by explorer Zebulon Pike when he came through the area in 1805. They are a paddler’s paradise, with countless tiny inlets perfect for exploring and low-hanging flora creating a scene more reminiscent of the Florida Everglades than the central Minnesota prairie. Clear Waters Outfitting opened in 2009 when Dan Meer returned from Iraq and sought a career change. He and wife Sandra give adventurers a taste of Boundary Waters-style canoeing in the heart of the state. They offer a retail store, classes, rentals and full-service trips of up to 13 miles on different segments between St. Cloud and Becker.
“People keep coming back because it’s such a great stretch of river,” Meer said. “I don’t think there could be a more perfect location for what we’re doing, with the scenery, how good the fishing is, the fact that there’s good flow for paddling pretty much all season long. And at different water levels, the river is a whole different experience.”
Other ways in
When those paddlers get thirsty, some get a taste of the cleaner river water that’s used to brew beer at Beaver Island Brewing in St. Cloud.
In addition to being a brewer, co-owner Nick Barth is something akin to a Mississippi River evangelist, leading canoe trips and naming his business, which started slinging suds in 2015, after his favorite weekend recreation destination.
“We were looking for a name, and when we landed on ‘Beaver Island’ it was just perfect, because this set of islands means a ton to us as outdoor enthusiasts,” said Barth, who often organizes river cleanup outings in conjunction with Meer. They offer volunteers a free beer when they finish as an incentive. “I was more of a lake person before, but I’ve been entranced by the river. Our community is doing a better job of turning everything toward the river.”
Kleis, the mayor, said they’re not done, and are exploring plans for even more waterside development and access in this community that is determined to no longer turn its back on the nation’s best-known river.
“We’re looking at a master plan for a river walk and exploring economic opportunities for potentially a new hotel with a restaurant that actually faces the river,” Kleis said, with a chuckle. “It would be the first in a long time.”
Jess Myers is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights and co-host with Dennis Anderson of the Great Outdoors show on 1500-AM radio.