#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.


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