Dive into Summer
Hike, bike, climb, ﬂoat, swim, soak in a hot tub: 34 great ways to experience the state’s sweet season
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One of five major sets of rapids on the Kettle River near Hinckley, Hell’s Gate sits pinched between towering sandstone walls, with swirling currents, eddies, and sloshing backwater. The stretch features some of the best whitewater in the state, with drops, tight chutes, rolling rapids and big waves that attract paddlers from all over the region.
If You Go
The Minnesota Canoe Association (www.canoe-kayak.org) runs trips down the Kettle River each year.
Five Other Great Whitewater Spots
St. Louis River: Some of the most exciting whitewater in the state is found on the St. Louis, near Duluth. Rapids range from class II to IV. Superior Whitewater Rafting, Carlton, 218-384-4637, www.minnesotawhitewater.com
Vermilion River: Flaring north from Lake Vermilion to Crane Lake, the river features class I to class V rapids. LaCroix Outfitters in Buyck, 888-600-2842, www.lacroixoutfitters.com
Snake River: A beginner’s whitewater river, with class I and II rapids. Put in near Pine City. Wild River Outfitters, Grantsburg, Wisconsin, 715-463-2254, www.wildriverpaddling.com
Minnehaha Creek: Stretches of class I and II whitewater are found in Edina and Minneapolis during high water. Sea Wolfe Kayak Instruction, St. Louis Park, www.seawolfekayak.com
St. Croix River: There are short but dramatic stretch of rapids just below the dam in Taylors Falls, usually class II and III. Taylors Falls Recreation, 800-447-4958 or 651-465-6315, www.wildmountain.com
The Life Aquatic
Diving deep and surfacing in the mine pits near Brainerd
By Joel Hoekstra
IT’S SUNNY and nearly 80 degrees, and I’m clad head-to-toe in black: hood, gloves, booties, a long-sleeved wetsuit—all made of thick neoprene and perfumed with the sweat of former users. The outfit puckers and pinches in all the wrong places. The mask I’m wearing bites into my cheeks when I inhale through my nose. I have no peripheral vision. Standing at the edge of a green lake, I look less like the Creature from the Black Lagoon than a potbellied cat burglar sporting blinders.
The lake is long, narrow, and oddly shaped. It is, in fact, man-made: a reservoir in a former iron mine, one of more than two-dozen that lie between Brainerd and Crosby in central Minnesota. Opened in 1904 and worked for nearly 80 years, the Cuyuna Range produced 106 million tons of manganese ore that were eventually alchemized into railroad ties, navy vessels, and skyscraper girders. Abandoned a quarter-century ago, the pits filled with rain and groundwater. Today, they attract swimmers, skinny-dippers, and—did I mention the flippers?—scuba divers.
“How deep is it?” I ask my instructor, Todd Matthies. A 40-something fellow with a reddish mustache and the build of Neptune, Todd grew up in Brainerd and owns the Minnesota School of Diving with his father, who started the business in 1959. He has been swimming in the pits since childhood, and has gone on dives in Micronesia, the Dutch Antilles, Mexico, and Honduras. He takes a drag from his cigarette before answering my question. “Some of the pits go 500 feet down,” he says.
Lots of Minnesotans get certified in scuba in area lakes or pools, then head off to look for starfish and manatees in some distant locale where umbrella drinks are served in coconuts. But I have no immediate plans to visit Cozumel or Guam. Sheer novelty spurred my call to Todd: None of my friends had “been there, done that.”
Todd and I wade into the water and slip below. I’m excited—but apprehensive. I’m also deeply skeptical of any sport that requires you to supply your own air. Still, knowing I’m in the depths of an abandoned mine does offer some comfort: I’m not risking an encounter with, say, a flesh-eating abalone or the sort of marine life that inspired Peter Benchley novels.
One of the basic skills first-time divers must master is neutral buoyancy—staying in one spot underwater. Water is denser than human flesh, so to sink below the surface, weights are necessary (see: Woolf, Virginia). To balance the extra pounds and avoid hitting bottom, the diver pumps compressed air from the tank on his back into the bladders of an inflatable vest. Too much air, and you rocket to the surface. Too little, and you’re the Titanic. Like a student driver riding both the brake and the gas, I manage to overfill and underinflate the bladders of the vest repeatedly in quick succession. A serpentine of bubbles trails behind me.
Todd and I descend to a platform 21-feet below the water’s surface and work our way through a battery of tests intended to prove my competence with compass skills, rescue techniques, and emergency-surfacing protocols. Then the fun begins: We tour the pit. We see snails and clam shells. We float through the branches of submerged trees. Moving deeper, we pass through the thermocline—a shimmering line that separates the sun-warmed surface water from the arctic bath below.
The pits are full of curiosities, from building foundations to mining equipment, from sunken boats to stolen cars. The water is clear, but there are constant reminders of human impact: not just old mining equipment, but also broken glass, plastic bottles, a splintered lawn chair. We’ve not only messed up the remotest corners of the earth—litter on K2, mercury in the oceans—we’ve also managed to reintroduce pollution into places we’ve already defaced and dug into. Sorry, Charlie, indeed. But then a baby bluegill races past—just inches from my nose. Nature, despite the scars and bruises, remains astonishingly capable of reasserting itself.
As I flounder, bob, and weave, Todd glides along. He extends a finger to point at the shadow of a nearby Northern pike, and I’m struck by how much he resembles—however briefly—the figure of God unfurling a hand to Adam in that famous painting by Michelangelo. A force, yet a feather. I will remember this weeks later, when I come across a quote from Jacques-Ives Cousteau, the father of modern scuba: “Buoyed by water, [a diver] can fly in any direction—up, down, sideways—by merely flipping his hand. Under water, man becomes an archangel.”
Todd signals that it’s time to surface. Before ascending, I collect a few plastic cups, intending to throw them away. My footprint on the environment is undeniable. Humans are not feather-light. But the least I can do while living in a world that I share with bluegills and birches and flesh-eating abalones is to open my eyes to the bits of paradise that haven’t yet been crushed. I can step carefully. I’ll never be an angel—in water or out. But I can strive for neutral buoyancy.
If You Go
Scuba enthusiasts have long made the most of Minnesota’s lakes, slipping below the surface to look for muskies, Native American artifacts, lost jewelry, and more. Scuba shops that offer training and local trips abound. For a list of dive shops in Minnesota, visit www.mnscuba.com.
CUYUNA MINE PITS, CROSBY-IRONTON
Minnesota School of Diving
ISLE ROYAL, LAKE SUPERIOR
Scuba Dive and Travel
SQUARE LAKE, STILLWATER
Minneapolis and Eagan,
The 300 miles of trail that snake through the rolling wilderness in and around the Chequamegon National Forest in northern Wisconsin make up one of the Midwest’s premier fat-tire venues. These range from relatively easy (and gorgeous) undulating paths to precipitous leg-killers, and there are plenty of options for trailhead parking near Cable, Delta, Drummond, Hayward, Namekagon, and Seeley.
IF YOU GO
Visit the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association’s website, www.cambatrails.org. Riverbrook Bike & Ski (715-634-5600, www.riverbrookbike.com), in Hayward and Spooner, rents and sells equipment.
Five more great mountain-biking locales
Eagan: Lebanon Hills Regional Park has some of the best riding in the state, including an expert loop with bridges, ramps, drops, and jumps. www.co.dakota.mn.us/LeisureRecreation/Parks, 952-891-7000
Minneapolis: A 4.36-mile off-road loop winds through Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis’s largest park. www.minneapolisparks.org,
Afton: Ride the eight hilly miles of Afton Alps, above the St. Croix River. www.aftonalps.com, 651-436-5245
Bloomington: Sandy trails line the Minnesota River in Bloomington Park at the terminus of Lyndale Avenue. www.morcmtb.org
St. Paul: Overlooking the Mississippi River, Battle Creek Regional Park has bluff-climb trails that ascend hundreds of feet. www.stpaul.gov/depts/parks, 651-266-8500
The Ice Age Trail
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail may be the world’s largest—or at least longest—tutorial on the power of global climate change. This humble hiking path, which meanders near the St. Croix River at Interstate Park in Wisconsin, tracks the scarred land and geographic abnormalities left by great glacial sheets of ice. A mishmash of moraines, tussled stone, talus, deep valleys, lakes, rushing rivers, ridgelines, and bedrock is evident along the trail, which will be 1,200 miles long when completed, connecting hundreds of trailheads within Wisconsin.
IF YOU GO
Trailheads abound in Interstate Park along the 1,200-mile route; download maps at www.nps.gov/iatr, or call 608-441-5610.
Other Great Day Hikes
Louisville Swamp: Oak savannas, prairie, and floodplain forests fill this 2,600-acre preserve near Shakopee. www.fws.gov/midwest/MinnesotaValley/louisville.html; or 952-492-6400
Carlton Peak: This dramatic, 1,526-foot peak in Temperance River State Park stands high above Lake Superior.
Jay Cooke: Rushing rapids introduce the trail system at this state park, which centers on the gorge of the St. Louis River near Duluth. www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/jay_cooke or 218-384-4610
Kekekabic Trail: This remote 38-mile route heads west from the Gunflint Trail deep into the woods toward Ely. www.kek.org
Cannon Valley Trail: This paved but pretty-wild trail unfurls under the bluffs of the Cannon River near Red Wing. www.cannonvalleytrail.com, 507-263-0508