Early one morning last summer, JD Fratzke and I met on the banks of the Mississippi River. The light was dim. The water was calm. Fish were making rings on the surface. JD and I had grown up together on this river, further south in Winona. We’d both spent much of our young lives swimming in it, boating on it, and hanging out at parties in its backwaters. Now it was time to follow it.
I had biked down it. I had driven down it. But I had never floated down on its surface. I had the idea of kayaking from Minneapolis to Hastings, a 33-mile trip, which I thought I could make in a day if the river was fast. When I mentioned this to JD, his reaction was instant: He’d always wanted to do the same. He came from a family of hunters and fishermen and spent nearly every weekend growing up on the river. He remembers one morning out fishing with his dad when he turned and asked why they never went to church. His dad looked at him and said, “Don’t you feel like you are in church?”
For those of us who grew up on the river, it flows through our minds and our lives, even though we can’t spend aimless days on rope swings any more. For his part, JD spends most of his time running his restaurant, the Strip Club Meat & Fish in St. Paul, where he turns dead things into delicacies. For my part, I spend too much time in my office staring at a screen. To both of us, the river feels like a kind of refuge.
In 1988, it was recognized as such by the federal government, when the 72 miles winding through the Twin Cities were incorporated into the National Park System; in 2012, the same stretch was declared a National Water Trail in a new federal system. This was a mere 45 years after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had done the same, deeming all the state’s 668 miles of Mississippi a Minnesota State Water Trail in the country’s first and biggest water-trail system.
Now, in the growing light, we stood on its edge, ready to set off. Next to us were our kayaks—mine a cheap, green plastic thing with no keel; JD’s a long, sleek craft he called “Red Medicine.” Both, hopefully, river-worthy.
We pushed out into the water. The current was fast, and we both felt giddy as it swept us past Fort Snelling. We veered around Pike Island, where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers converge. From the trees we could hear pileated woodpeckers. In the water we watched beavers swimming up ahead. It was strange to be in the middle of the city surrounded by so much wildlife.
Downstream we passed the Wabasha caves and paddled by a century-old wooden train bridge. We floated past St. Paul, then stopped to look at some barges full of rusting scrap metal. We eyed the heron rookery at Pig’s Eye Lake and watched eagles perched on high dead branches.
Photo by Frank Bures
We only had a rough idea of how long it would take us to get to Hastings. But really we didn’t care. All that mattered was that we were back on the water. The river had receded after months of flooding, but it was still filled with whirlpools, unexpected swells, and powerful currents. We both knew the river is never as calm as it seems on the surface.
South of St. Paul we stopped at an island to check out a campsite that was marked on our map. We beached our kayaks behind a fallen tree, then climbed up the steep, sandy bank and startled a deer, which bounded away across the island. Through the trees, we could see the site was occupied.
Two young guys were camped there, who both introduced themselves as Alex. The ground where they were staying was littered with beer cans, which made me a little nostalgic for Winona. It turned out they had just finished college and were on their way from Lake Itasca to New Orleans, a 2,552-mile journey.
We chatted for a bit, wished them luck, then went back to our boats and paddled on. JD talked about how he’d always wanted to do that same 2,552-mile trip—he wanted to know the river better even than he had. But life went on, and that window closed. So instead he read books about it. We talked about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he and I were rereading. We talked about Jonathan Raban’s travelogue Old Glory, in which Winona makes a long, strange appearance as the author wanders about drinking with locals. We talked at length about Canoeing with the Cree, in which two young guys (not unlike Alex and Alex) just out of high school (not college) put their canoe in near Hidden Falls in 1930. But instead of going south, they went north up the Minnesota River, and on 2,550 miles to Hudson Bay. We talked about what may be my favorite river story called “Mississippi Drift,” by a writer I knew, the late Matthew Power. Starting in Minneapolis, Power boarded a raft and floated down the river with a group of anarchists to Winona and beyond.
Above us the sun was hot, and we were drifting slowly. The river had widened, and we were paddling into a strong headwind. It was just after noon, and both of us had started to feel the miles: 18 down, 15 to go. My spirits were flagging. My nipples were chafed.
Just then, I came around an island to see JD standing under a towering cottonwood leaning out over the water. From a branch probably 40 feet up, a barge rope hung down to the water. We took turns climbing the rickety boards nailed to the trees, then swinging out and dropping in, feeling the weight of life lift, buoyed by sunshine and water and memories. By the time we finished, we’d almost forgotten how far we’d come and how far we still had to go.
Photo by Frank Bures
Farther south, we stopped on another island. In the middle, somewhat oddly, was a picnic table. So we hauled up our bags. JD whipped out a cast-iron skillet and a camping stove. “If we’re going to do this,” he said, “we’re going to do it right. We’re going to have a true Huck Finn lunch.”
Photo by Frank Bures
Instead of catching and killing our own catfish, though, we just unrolled a brown paper wrapper and took out several meaty fillets. JD lit his stove, rolled them in cornmeal, and threw them in the pan.
“I even brought some watercress to make sure it tastes like the river,” he said. Then he slathered the bread with spicy mayo, topped it with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and set the catfish on top of it all, like a tiny offering to the memory of Huck and Jim. (It tasted a lot better than the river.)
Photo by Frank Bures
When we finished eating, we looked at the map. We still had 10 miles to go, and the sun was sinking. So we packed up and paddled on, aching and sunburned. Along the way, we talked about our families, about Winona, about how the river had shaped our thoughts, maybe even our lives. It was easy and natural, as if no time had passed since our paths diverged years ago before coming back together later in life. It felt good to know things that drifted apart could flow together so easily again.
The river turned east, and so did we. We pushed on through the wind, through the whitecaps on Spring Lake, and around the Nininger cliffs. Stroke by stroke, mile by mile. Pelicans filled the air around us. The sky started to go dark. Far across the water, the Hastings dam came into view.
We paddled the last few miles in silence while the current flowing under us, until at last we reached the end. JD steered over and pulled the cord to announce our passage. A bell rang, and the huge steel doors swung open, welcoming us. We passed through them, and they closed behind us. Slowly the water dropped, then stopped, and the doors opened on the other side. A little reluctant, a little relieved, we paddled out, both of us quiet, lost in thoughts of sunshine and water and of just how far the river had carried us.
5 Favorite Water Trails
With some 34 water trails across the state, you can find one within an hour of nearly every home in Minnesota. Campsites along water trails are free and many have fire rings, rustic latrines, picnic tables, and space for tents. To plan a trip, go to dnr.state.mn.us/watertrails, where you can check river levels, listen to podcasts, and find downloadable or interactive maps of the water trails. Here are a few favorite routes.
Cannon River State Water Trail
A short drive from the Twin Cities, this stretch of the Cannon River rolls through lakes and farmland before entering the official “Wild and Scenic” area (a designation that helps preserve pristine river systems) from Faribault to Red Wing, where it flows into the Mississippi.
Cloquet River State Water Trail
One of the wilder and more scenic routes, the Cloquet River passes through some wild, undeveloped areas in the Arrowhead, with lots of Class I–II rapids, some Class III, and a decent chance of seeing moose, otters, osprey, and other wildlife.
Des Moines River State Water Trail
Further south and west, the Des Moines River provides a calmer ride as it passes through farmland and the forested bluffs around Kilen Woods State Park, which has walk-in campsites along a trail to the river.
Kettle River State Water Trail
Serious kayakers will want to head to this route, which is one of the premiere whitewater rivers in the Midwest, with everything from Class I to IV rapids. It’s also a designated Wild and Scenic River, and eventually merges with the St. Croix.
Little Fork River State Water Trail
One of the first designated water trails, the Little Fork River flows north toward Canada, through some of the most beautiful and wild parts of the state. There are some serious rapids, so no beginners. You may see bobcat, lynx, and timber wolves along the way.