Eve of autumn: Overdue lessons on the Mighty Mississippi River
I’ve been living on the northwestern edge of the Twin Cities metropolitan area for a decade, along the border of Anoka and Sherburne counties, and really enjoy the benefits of a life in the transition zone.
Born a city kid, with a heart from the north woods, it’s been a good thing. I have all the amenities of the big city within a half hour drive, and I have a jump on the traffic when I want to head north.
There are several wildlife management areas (WMAs) within miles of my house for several different kinds of hunting and some quality fishing lakes, not to mention the Mississippi River.
So it came as a surprise to me, recently, when I realized that I haven’t taken my canoe out onto the Mississippi River yet. I’ve fished the river frequently in a boat with a motor, but never the canoe. It was a situation I had to rectify, and quickly.
The Mississippi meanders 2,341 miles from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico and the name “misi-ziibi” means “Great River” in Algonquin. It’s a name the river has had longer than the United States has existed and, as a social studies teacher, hardly a day passes when I’m not referencing something related to the river.
I loaded the canoe on the truck, had the kids pack their fishing gear, and off we went to a nearby boat landing along the river. There are two landings about five miles from my house so it was a coin toss which one we’d select.
My canoe has not been idle over the past decade, mind you. It’s put on plenty of miles in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) on trips with my wife before we had kids, and then with the whole family.
Paddling on lakes, even the big ones, is a different game than paddling on a big river. I’ve grown up paddling a canoe on lakes and know how to read the waves, the wind, and currents generated by the two together.
My only other river paddling experience came as a young Boy Scout on the Namekagon River in Wisconsin. I didn’t especially enjoy that paddling experience compared to my BWCAW experiences, so the thought of jumping from a little stream to a big river was probably a bit intimidating.
Standing at the shore, helping the kids into the canoe, I pretended not to be worried as I studied the currents. The Mississippi is flowing pretty fast right now, but it appeared manageable compared to earlier in the summer when ample rains had water levels high.
As I pushed off the canoe, I talked with my kids about how to read the current of a river. We looked at how eddies reveal where rocks and shallow areas are located, we saw how the current bends around shoreline structures, and how the current is stronger on one side of the river than another.
Confident in my strength as a paddler, I told my kids that I was a little nervous about paddling on the river but that I felt we were safe with the river conditions and our life jackets. I told them what to do if the canoe tipped over, how they should try to stay with the boat and scream for help.
Neither my 5-year-old daughter nor my 7-year-old son seemed phased by my emergency plans because my son quickly asked for his fishing rod as my daughter studied an osprey circling overhead.
My apprehension flowed downstream, too, as I grew more confident with my ability to read the currents. I could turn into the current very easily and paddle upstream, even in the quickest waters. I also figured out how to tell the “fast” current from the “slow” current.”
Paddling upstream is definitely calmer than paddling downstream simply because as the canoe rides with the current, one feels the mighty forces of the river at work. Going upstream means more paddling, but it means being more in control. Paddling downstream means being very careful of where the canoe is headed because if you hit something, the river keeps pushing.
When we were going downstream, I used the paddle as a rudder unless I was certain that we were in the main channel. When the water was shallow, and we had to go downstream, I would paddle at an angle so that if we did hit bottom, it wouldn’t be a head-on collision.
We didn’t catch any fish, but we explored a few islands in the area and saw a ton of wildlife and wildflowers. Most of all, we gained a healthy respect for the power of the river along with a cautious confidence to do it again sooner than later.
I hope to return to the river several times this fall, at least until it’s too cold to be out there around mid-October or so. We will see what the fall rains bring. The river remains open and ice free, most years, well into December. It would be interesting to explore those aged-islands once the frost and fall winds knock down the leaves.
As we pulled into the driveway, my son asked if we could keep the paddles in the truck and not place the canoe deep in the garage. “Then we can take the canoe back out tomorrow,” he said.
That’s the measure of a good outing!