#27 Blue Earth River, Minnesota

27-Blue Earth River

27-Blue Earth River

October 25, 2007—The Minnesota Library Convention took me to Mankato, MN, south of the Twin Cities by about an hour. Despite being late in the year I had hopes we could find a river and some good weather so at the last minute I tied the canoe on the car, added Paddling Minnesota Rivers to my suitcase and drove off. A look at the map revealed a surprisingly thick web of small rivers flowing into the grand Minnesota River, which meanders to the grandest of them all, the Mississippi. After reading all the descriptions (and looking for a river with the least amount of “rapids” hatchmarks), the charmingly named “Blue Earth” won the vote.

26-Put in Bridge turn

26-Put in Bridge turn

The Blue Earth flows northeast and is crossed by the Rapidan Dam, built in 1918. The official canoe put-in could not be found (we later heard that it was closed) so we began poking our cars along back roads that paralleled the river, all in the hopes of finding an available place to launch a canoe. (I was a bit relieved not to put in at the dam’s base as it was churning thunderously and the day was cold. If there was ever a day to NOT turn over, this was it.)

26-Borrowed boat ramp!

26-Borrowed boat ramp!

We followed a meandering road that eventually turned to a driveway, where, to our astonishment, we found a house with a ramp right down to the river. A man struggled at the base of the ramp and looked up as if he was expecting us. He needed help moving a floating dock that had lodged itself in the way of his boat launching and he was now late for a meeting. Ian helped lift and lever the impossibly heavy dock out of the way just enough to get his boat trailered in. He was grateful and we were delighted to find ourselves at a safe place for the second car, with riverside paved put-in, to boot.

26-Blue Earth, big rock

26-Blue Earth, big rock

The water was high and fast due to a recent dam release followed by late rain and the constant riffles and rocks kept us on alert. Lunch was spent atop a warm flat rock just beneath this waterfall where the most graceful curve of sand channeled the spring out to the river.

26-Waterfall

26-Waterfall

 

26-Lunch beach, chilly

26-Lunch beach, chilly

Burnt gold dotted the riverbanks of bare branched trees, the last remaining maple leaves holding tight. The day was exquisite in every way, all the more so as we knew it would not be long until even these last golden dots will be lost to white.

27-Confluence

27-Confluence

We crossed the confluence of the LeSeur River and the river slowed and broadened. We saw no one on the water except for the very man who had loaned us his boat ramp. The river flowed so quickly that twelve miles flew by in less than three hours, long lunch at the waterfall included. Gold draped the final section and suddenly the bridge and factories of little Mankato loomed over us. A young man fresh from third grade met us at the park with a zillion questions. We hid the canoe and set off in Ian’s car to collect my car, left back at the boat ramp.

We decided to drive over the dam and visit the famous Dam Store, a house more than 100 years old, that was moved to its present site when the reservoir was flooded. The interior is like something out of a 1950’s movie set and the pie is just as other-worldly. If you find yourself just south of Mankato, don’t miss it.

#26 Yellow River – Northeast Iowa

26-Yellow River midstream

26-Yellow River midstream

Oct 4, 2007—The summer of 2007 brought a very busy studio filled with deadlines, a little bad luck and a lot of very bad weather in Minnesota with intense flooding in the south, drought in the north. Our rivers are loose for only half the year and all those things must be in alignment or before you know it, the green carpet of summer is suddenly dotted with orange tinged leaves.

And that’s exactly what happened. On October 2nd I walked to my car and found crisp leaves spinning down around me, astonished that I had foolishly nearly missed the rivers. Call it misplaced priorities or too many obligations, call it whatever, but no matter how late you wake up to it, no matter how hard you push against the earth’s spin, you can’t stop the water from turning to ice.

Impending ice is not negotiable so we left early on the 3rd of October for John Snyder’s Iowa farm. I had read of a river south of Decorah, south of the lovely Iowa River—the Yellow—tiny and farm lined, eventually twisting into the Mississippi. Arriving at John’s farm late we found his kitchen counter piled high with magnificent green-topped beets and vegetables grilling on the fire. The next morning we toured John’s new barn studio renovations (he is a brilliant painter) and filled our ice chest. A map check pointed us south, curving on dirt roads to a tiny dot along the Yellow River.

Iowa is tinged with straight-out-of-the-crayon-box-orange in early October, and like a kindergartener’s coloring book, it was scribbled everywhere between the deep greens. Pumpkins lined mowed lawns: three minis for one dollar. Trees stood half green, half orange. Morning light turned brittle corn stalks orange. Roadside tomatoes sat fat and juicy with the color. We missed turns, found turns, bought pumpkins, and wound our way to an outfitter in a named town that was really no more than a string of houses along the river.

Unfortunately, not a person was around. No people meant no shuttle service. Fortunately, a man pulled up, introduced himself as father to the outfitter, and volunteered to run one car down to the take-out, and bring us back to our canoe. He turned out to be a delight, and a collector of Indian artifacts, (some found just across the river, he pointed) and promised a tour of his collection at day’s end.

Sitting down in a valley, the Yellow River twists between farms but is lined by a greenway for much of the river. A Paddling River Pirate saw us off! Evidence of the severe flooding of August was everywhere: trees undercut on the banks, debris high in the branches, and submerged trunks clawing up from the surface. Water rushed fast for late fall, still. Ian was seriously concerned and insisted on zipped lifejackets (PDFs), speaking sharply. He was right.

River-left we spotted a lunch spot complete with steps but the swift current carried us beyond it before we could stop. Paddling back we got a taste of how a gentle stream can be a tough competitor. Ian had packed an orange spread-of-a lunch but dessert’s Honeycrisp apples drew a swarm of bees. We escaped to an island for a rest amid rushing water and no bees. It was one of those Perfect Places and I sometimes imagine myself there, still.

26-Lunch!

26-Lunch!

The river turned through several limestone bluffs and then flattened out to cornfield edging. An eagle, startled to find us at a turn, surprised us with a flight across our path. The sheer size of a nearby eagle is always astonishing yet by the time it joined another to soar the far ridge it was only a tiny dot in the sky. Day’s end brought us to the take-out and here’s where I made a Very Big Mistake, ignoring Ian’s good advice and overshooting an easy take-out for one I thought I understood to be ahead. We ended up dashing to the bank in the muck amid a herd of horses on both river banks. My misunderstanding had very nearly taken us to the next section of the river where the guide warned of no take-out for miles and serious rapids, to boot. We had to carry our gear and the canoe up a steep bridge slope and moments were tense between us. Canoeing is a partnership. It is not called “The Divorce Boat” for nothing, and I pushed the limit this day, not listening more closely. We were last-minute-lucky and I learned another river lesson.

 

We had a peek at the Indian artifact collection on the way back and saw stones shaped for pounding, arrow points, and food grinding.

 

The drive back to John’s farm was equally orange, with dried corn fields stretching as far as you can see and an orange sign explaining why a train lay silently parked across the only dirt road we knew to get us home. Dinner at a restaurant in Decorah dropped us into a young crowd of Barak Obama organizers, all checking electronic devices and buzzing like the river bees after his local speech. Next morning the drive back to Minneapolis gave us tractors to buy, or pumpkins, and I couldn’t resist one more of the latter.

#25 Upper Iowa River

25-Iowa fields

25-Iowa fields

   
25-Fall flame

25-Fall flame

October 5, 2006—The Upper Iowa River marks the halfway point in my 50th Birthday / 50 Rivers Project. This is a vow I just “made up,” but now, three and a half years later, I realize I could not have invented a project that could offer a more transformative effect on my life! I have loved every inch of water, every mosquito, every wet sandwich, every lost road—Remember? I knew nothing about canoeing when I started!  But along our glorious waterways I have found my way back to living a life more in touch with the natural world. Living in a big city, being self-employed, raising a family, volunteering—all these pressures made it easier to neglect the growing, wild desire to be outside more.

25-Canoe packed

25-Canoe packed

 

 

Watching my mother slowly fade unexpectedly made me see that time is short—a lesson learned over and over by we humans, I know, but it took this personal event to make to make me change, to learn, and to grow.

The Upper Iowa was a red-orange glowing birthday candle of a river. We followed freeways south from Minneapolis to smaller and smaller roadways, past the rolling farms of northeast Iowa, and down to the river bed just outside the tiny, tiny town of Bluffton.

25-Upper Iowa put in

25-Upper Iowa put in

 

A cold night made for a steaming river but by midmorning the sun lit up the mirrored river and fall rippled in the water all around us. I brought along a new experiment—a watercolor paint box! I am trying to teach myself this most challenging of mediums, but won’t show you anything as I’m terrible at it. So here’s to 2007, to more time on the water, and more changing, learning, and growing.

       
 

#24 St. George River, Maine

Southeast of Rockford, Maine

August 30, 2006—If anyone has ever dropped a child (and an only child, at that), off at college, you know what I mean when I say that my tearful self arrived in Portland, Maine, after five intense college move-in days. Add some terrible weather, three canceled flights, an array of hours on the tarmac, and a too-late arrival, and you have one very sad potential paddler. Like dominos, my flight cancellations caused a cancellation of our planned trip on the Penobscot River and we were forced to regroup to a very modest Plan B. Let’s keep the words short and the pictures big!

24-St. George River from bridge

24-St. George River from bridge

After studying guides we decided to take the St. George, a sweet small stream from Seven Tree Pond (all lakes are called Ponds in Maine), with a dashing, rocky ending. The great people of Maine Sport helped us plan the route and rent a canoe and supplies. We lashed it to our rental car and drove to the put in. Sweeping rolling hills. High clouds. Bright blue domed sky.

24-Helpful sailor

24-Helpful sailor

At the boat ramp we met a charming man who, while loading his sailfish asked us about our plan and happens to say… “Anyone mention the 25 foot dam? It’s not marked but you’ll probably hear it if the wind’s not up.” Needless to say, that got our attention. Turns out he was a member of a local canoeing club and they had recently paddled our planned route.

Given my shaky state, we decided to take his other suggestion of going across the lake and paddling upstream on the St. George, also eliminating our sketchy shuttle plan.

24-Plan change at put in

24-Plan change at put in

This new Plan C took us across a brief connecting stretch of river toward Round Pond. We startled a turtle on a rock that looked just like the turtle, then slipped past lily pads glistening in noonday sun. We’d been told to look far left for a huge granite rock for lunch and that’s where we ate and watched clouds sail over the tidy distant farms—It was a spectacular stage show starring those Great Long White Puffy Clouds from the West.

Bucking the wind we found the grassy cut across the lake and ducked into St. George River. The water instantly turned silky, mirror like. We paddled a couple of lazy hours, past farms and the old fairgrounds, then turned the canoe and headed back to the landing. Before slipping out in to the lake Ian insisted on climbing one last rock while I held on against the wind. He made it up to me by unloading the canoe while I swam, back at the landing.

 

Post Script…After the river I headed north to Haystack Mountain School of Craft on tiny Deer Isle. There I watched tides, fog, sun, ships, and a growing peace float in and out of view. I studied book arts and journal making with my dear friend, Paulus Berensohn, and his amazing co-teacher, Joy Sidler. If you ever want to take one or two weeks to study something with your hands, visit Haystack’s website. Sign up early as classes fill quickly…

24-From Haystack deck

24-From Haystack deck

#23 Rum River, Minnesota

 

23-Big wind blows big flag!

23-Big wind blows big flag!

June 16, 2006—On a summer Friday Ian and I finally had the time to go in search of the Rum River, north of Minneapolis, and winding through tiny Cambridge, Minnesota, before emptying into the Mississippi. A huge storm system swept south of us, making the air so windy the giantPerkins flag stood straight out. But a 94 degree predictedtemperature made us

23-Subway workers to the rescue.

23-Subway workers to the rescue.

hope some wind would follow us into the riverbed. Luckily, a breeze did stir up the trees because the mosquitoes at the put-in were so intense they could have lifted us up and carried us off for slow eating later. We accomplished our shuttle from the take out, where we left our car, to the put in, with the help of these two guys, on break from the local Subway sandwich shop. Many thanks!

 

23-Rum river

23-Rum river

The Rum River is a prairie river and the site of several

23-Rum River in hot sun.

23-Rum River in hot sun.

battles between the Chippewa and the Sioux. The river begins at Mille Lacs, great wild rice territory, and the rich marshland was often contested between the two tribes. Later, loggers used the stream to carry all the great pines down to the mills at Minneapolis. New growth forest line the banks, always disturbing—no old trees left anymore.

 

Sluggish and quiet, the river is now a paradise for birds. Big ones, little ones, darting and dashing, swooping and attacking—we saw them all. A huge bald eagle led us for awhile, and later a mysterious gigantic pair of wings swept over the canoe, larger than the eagle, leaving us to think that maybe an owl was unable to sleep through the heat and had taken to the river? We turned a bend in the river in the nick of time to avert a hawk’s swoop for a lagging duckling, the hawk startled by us as much as we were by it, the mother duck yelling at all of us. Birds wove songs across the river all day, back and forth, kingfisher and starling, and of course, the giant blue heron silently gliding and hiding, gliding and hiding, always just up ahead.

23-Lunch with books.

23-Lunch with books.

We stopped for lunch and drug out The Great Book of Archeology book we’ve been poring over of late. The ancient cities of Mesopotamia have caught our imaginations: Persepolis, Ur, and Babylon, all now crumbled stones in the desert, most abandoned due to enemy attack, or that other great quiet destroyer: rivers that dried up or turned elsewhere. (And this new book has led to my finding a new translation of the oldest written story, the text pieced together from clay tablet fragments found in the libraries of these great stone cities: Gilgamesh.)

23-Tiny openings

23-Tiny openings

Back on the river we passed several tiny openings in the riverbank grass, each offering a window into Minnesota’s famous wetlands. Once the river thinned out and we had to walk the canoe across a shallow sandbar, grateful to be in the water instead of on it. Waning afternoon light followed us the last of the fifteen mile paddle and we tied the canoe on the car as huge dark clouds accumulated to the west. On the drive home rain fell so hard the road flooded, traffic stopped, and thunder thundered. I thought about those ancient fallen cities, dry as bones, sand blowing, while the rain poured all over us. It rained like this, once, on those cities, too…

23-Debra walks a canoe

23-Debra walks a canoe

#22 St. Louis River, Minnesota

 

22-St. Louis River

22-St. Louis River

August 7, 2005—Once, when driving back from Ely, Minnesota, the road crossed over a narrow twisting river set close with pine. I want to go there! I thought as we flashed over the small bridge.

“There” turned out to be the St. Louis River, a wild coniferous lined stream that has its headwaters in Seven Beaver Lake in northern Minnesota. The river was named for Louis IX, (king of France when the area was explored), and this 160 mile ribbon of water flows slowly, then suddenly swiftly in the last ten miles, into Lake Superior. I read that impoundments and pollution plague the lower section but the upper reaches are said to be gorgeous—so off we set to find out.

22-Need a ride to canoe!

22-Need a ride to canoe!

Our traveling day turned sweltering by 11am. Sun pounded down and the still summer air did not even stir the roadside dandelion puffs ready to set sail. The map showed that the take-out was off a small road that ended at a lake. Experience has shown that this might make finding a ride to our stashed canoe difficult.As a back up

22-No ride. Ian bike's!

22-No ride. Ian bikes!

 measure we had stowed Ian’s bike in the car if this proved true.

Well, you guessed it. Despite our paddles and our sign, the first car whizzed by us. After half an hour’s wait (and only three cars later), we considered driving back to the city. After an hour in the heat Ian decided to drive me up to our canoe hidden at the put in, come back, hop his bike, and peddle the seven miles of sweltering road to join me.

22-On water at last...

22-On water at last…

And that’s how I found myself studying The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry in the shade while Ian did the work! But even he agreed that the river proved to be worth the sweat. The water was late-summer low, tannic brown, and running clear and lazy. The views reminded us both of the tree-lined lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area just north of us, except this was a river version.

Both of us were weary from a hard working summer—I was nearing the end of a new book, A Birthday Cake Is No Ordinary Cake, and my eyes were tired from cutting and gluing hundreds of tiny dashes out of paper. Ian had been busy sanding and finishing wood for his show in San Francisco and maybe it was because of all this inside, focused work that the river seemed particularly

22-In the distance...

22-In the distance…

 
22-Closer...

22-Closer…

 
22-Close!

22-Close!

beautiful. Once we rounded a bend and there, in the distance, sat the most perfect tiny, grass green, luminous mound-of-an-island I have ever seen. I took a dozen pictures of it as it grew larger upon our approach. The still water offered a perfectly green reflection of the perfect island, like something from a perfect dream.

22-Riffled water, birds fish, we eat.

22-Riffled water, birds fish, we eat.

A riffled falling spot brought a little white water, a circling bald eagle, and a picnic spot. The quiet, the food, the rest, and the glowing island flowed around us like a blessing, a summer blessing, punctuated by the eagle, who accompanied us for hours, all the way into the dusk.

#21 Whitewater, Minnesota

July 3, 2005—Edging the Minnesota side of the Mississippi on Hwy 61, we turned east, between Wabasha and Winona, onto the gravel roadway of Ct Rd 74. The shining Whitewater River Valley rested before us, stretching every color of green from soft hillside to hillside while a lazy dark stream, seemingly the most misnamed in all the world, meandered down the middle of all this greenness.

21-The valley

21-The valley

The Whitewater River is one of those bi-polar rivers that nods sweetly through three seasons but rages through a swollen spring run-off. We found our way to the tiny town of Elba where kindly strangers directed us just over the bridge to the Wilderness Campground where we might find shuttle help.

21-Camp

21-Camp

There we met Gary, owner, designer, and builder of this most-lovely of tiny compounds. Once part of his family’s farm, Gary has tended several hundred feet of river’s edge into a primitive campground for a handful of tents. A spacious teepee crowns a bend in the river (4/26/08: teepee is no longer available).

21-Rock table

21-Rock table

 
21-Rock Table with Debra

21-Rock Table with Debra

   

Gary, once a cement contractor, has a couple of discrete piles of small boulders and slabs of concrete sprinkled amid the property. This turned out to be the raw material for his creations. His wonderful massive stone tables are the centerpiece of each riverside campsite. (To reserve, call: (507) 932-7013.)

 

21-Whitewater start

21-Whitewater start

We entered the little stream on a riffled turn at the edge of the campground. The majesty and rigor of the 20th river was perfectly balanced by the opposite sweetness of this bit of rushing water. The stream never opened wider than fifty feet, twisting and turning through soft banks. Acres of tiny summer flowers edged our river, rimming the day in a happiness of yellow. Birds constantly darted back and forth across the bow of our canoe, adding a music so intense that Ian said our trip seemed scored for film.

 

21-Yellow dots, blue sky

21-Yellow dots, blue sky

Due to the narrowness of the stream, any fallen tree could obstruct the entire waterway and the years had left many turns sprinkled with logs and stumps. The lazy current let us pick our way through with careful strokes and a few pulls over shallow sand. Often our green canoe made a long shadow over the unusual limestone ledges that rested just inches under the water.

 

 

21-Rocks and stumps

21-Rocks and stumps

We spent our lunch puzzling over a complicated thirty-foot stretch of rock strewn, stump pierced, log obstructed rushing water. We finally figured out that there was no way through this curve of water without turning over so we resigned ourselves to getting wet. We battened down all the dry bags and chose the course of least resistance, knowing that the last knob of dead wood was going to catch us in the low water—Which it did! But in the bobbling second that we tipped to the gunnels, Ian made a quick push in his seat. I nearly tumbled out but, instead, caught myself and we slid off the stump, righted ourselves, and came out of the water puzzle dry and laughing. The take-out came too soon for this golden gift of a bird-songed day.

 

21-Silted town's remains

21-Silted town’s remains

We had read of the 1880’s town of Beaver, once nestled in this valley but slowly covered over with silt due to poor farming practices. After the extensive logging up stream, annual floods filled the valley and the town finally gave up and disappeared. We went searching for the evidence, as a “silted town” caught Ian’s imagination. We drove up several gravel roads, ending up nowhere. Back on the

21-From such a tiny start...

21-From such a tiny start…

 main road we saw a sign to the Beaver Cemetery, pointing up a hillside to drier land. We hiked the quiet trail and found the headstones of people who had tried to make this valley their home alongside the recent memorials to people who had stayed and built a life. One woman, in the 1890’s, had lost four children, one every two years for eight years. Their stones stood there, all in a row. How does one go on after that? I wonder about her often.