In my three years as a scoutmaster our small troop has gallivanted all across Minnesota, traversing sections of the Superior Hiking Trail and the St. Croix Scenic Byway, and making a ruckus in a dozen or so state parks. Of all our journeys, including our 20-mile hike, uphill both ways on our knees, none was as adventurous or life-threatening as our canoe trip down the Minnesota River.
Our scurvy crew consisted of four gung-ho boy scouts and three fearless leaders, distributed in three heavy canoes with an assortment of hiking packs and duffel bags full of clothes and food, a few fishing poles and tackle boxes, a 5-gallon water carrier, and a variety of last-minute items tossed into plastic grocery bags. Most importantly, we had sunflower seeds of all flavors, including dill pickle. Our waterproofing consisted of wrapping everything in black garbage bags. The scouts were certain that no amount of water could penetrate a Hefty bag with a triple granny knot.
We budgeted four full days of paddling to complete the 70 miles of waterway from the north end of Lac qui Parle to Vicksburg County Park 2. With the river flowing at about two miles per hour, even if pirates stole our paddles we could float the distance in about 8 hours per day were it not for the dam portages, which cost us a couple hours each. Portages are sections of a water trail that you cover by foot to reach a different waterway, or in our case another section of the same waterway. We had three portage points and, fortunately, there weren’t many pirates.
Our biggest challenge, besides staying afloat while defending ourselves from the ravenous insatiable mosquitoes, was finding shelter. When the Department of Natural Resources says that they maintain the free campsites interspersed along the river, what they mean is they’ve abandoned them all to overgrowth so that you couldn’t find one if you were standing in it. There’s a good reason they’re free – they don’t exist.
Our first night on the river, as the sun disappeared and the zombie apocalypse mosquitoes attacked, we parked our canoes on the only piece of private property we could find. Another leader set off to ask, or, if necessary, beg the owner to let us camp on his shoreline. Our only other options were to continue paddling, in the dark, until the next imaginary DNR campsite, or bushwhack through the overgrowth with our pocket knives. Either way, we wouldn’t be roasting mallows or telling ghost stories around a campfire.
But Randy, the owner, saved the day. In addition to not chasing us off with shotgun a-waving, he welcomed us and even offered us his stash of firewood. We thanked him profusely and later marveled at how his simple kindness had saved us from a sleepless night with much blood loss.
As expected, the challenges continued. On day two the current slowed to nothing and no matter where we turned we always had a head wind. Each of us was certain he was paddling more than his weight. We all wanted a break but were too proud to admit it. During our longest portage, carrying canoes, gear, and our tired selves through the town of Granite Falls, Betty from the VA insisted on buying us pizzas and soda. The scouts consumed the pizza instantly, and we rested in the shade for an hour and shot the breeze with some classic war vets. Also in town, we accepted three watermelons and 24 ears of sweet corn from an insistent fruit stand owner. A scoutmaster couldn’t ask for better examples of generosity.
Day 4, the Last
Despite the exhaustion the scouts were optimistic and things worked out well, at least until the last day of the trip – I had returned to the Twin Cities the night before, so the details from here out are all second-hand.
With one fewer person, one fewer bag, and only a day’s worth of food, the group had consolidated all the gear and people into two canoes – the third they towed, empty, with a rope. This worked out well until the current picked up and they came to a section full of debris. In the most treacherous spot downed trees obstructed much of the river, and though the towing canoe made it through safely, the towed one did not. It snagged on a tree and couldn’t be shaken – the only option was to cut it loose!
Unfortunately, as soon as their canoe was freed it lost balance and was flipped by the current. The two scouts and one leader capsized. The remaining canoers paddled upstream with all their might and rescued one scout and the leader, as they struggled to hold on to nearby trees. The other scout successfully body surfed through the rest of the chaos and was collected a quarter mile down river.
No serious injuries, but what a disaster! I regret not being there to help. A gear bag, tackle box, two fishing poles, some clothes, and many sunflower seeds were claimed by the river that day, along with the empty canoe. The DNR campsites were also never found.
Yet, despite all the trouble and suffering the trip was a success – the scouts earned their sea legs and two merit badges, we met some of Minnesota’s finest, and we got really tan. Most importantly, we immersed ourselves in the wilderness, took a serious thrashing, and came out on top, humbled but empowered. That’s what outdoor adventures are all about.
Here’s a text file of the itinerary, created by one of the scouts.