The Great River Walkabout
A hike through the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
November 21, 2014
29 degrees F
Distance traveled: 9 miles
My Great River walkabout begins at a boat ramp near the half-frozen waters of the Vermillion River. Winter has come early this year and the ground is covered with snow. Cold temperatures have frozen the river’s edge and water in the main channel is running swiftly through the icy chute. I pause to view it as it rushes past me and swirls around the pilings of the nearby bridge. The ramp is located near Ravenna Trail and 200th Street East, about 10 miles southeast of Hastings. It marks the southern boundary of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. It is my goal to hike to Dayton, Minn., where the recreation area begins. I will do this over several months, taking my time to fully explore the Mississippi River valley.
The Vermillion flows through the Mississippi River floodplain and the heart of the Gores Pool #3 Wildlife Management Area, 6,700 acres of forest and backwater marshes that provide natural habitat for deer, waterfowl and other small game. As I take my first steps along 200th Street I hear the crack of a rifle echoing off the bluffs, and then another shot shortly thereafter. I scan the forest but see no hunters, yet I know the woods are thick with them. They are in search of whitetail deer. I scold myself for not wearing a blaze orange hat or vest.
I turn north on Ravenna Trail, a two-lane highway that runs parallel to the Vermillion, and quickly discover it’s a heavily traveled road. More than 4,300 vehicles travel this highway each day and I suddenly feel I am seeing every one of them. I pull a prayer for safety from my quiver and shoot it to heaven.
As vehicles whiz by I instinctively move closer toward the ditch to create a wider buffer zone. On my right is a beautiful marsh stuffed with dying cattails and clumps of brown grass rising above the snow. Do these drivers see this beauty? I suspect they do and that it is a primary reason they choose to commute on this rural road. Yet at 60 mph I know they aren’t experiencing it as I am and I’m thankful to be traveling at a pace that allows my eyes to see and my mind to wander.
As I crest a small hill I approach the Reuter Family Farm, which displays a sign proclaiming that the owner is a "A River Friendly Farmer." The farm is enrolled in a statewide program that recognizes farmers who employ practices that help protect Minnesota’s rivers and watersheds. I walk past a large white barn and hear the lowing of dairy cattle and soon get a whiff of pungent manure. The highway divides the buildings on the farmstead and I see two men moving about the property. They are both dressed in brown coveralls, one walking and one riding a four-wheeler. Each sees me but doesn’t acknowledge me, which seems odd given our close proximity. Much of my childhood was spent in Upper Midwest farming communities and I’ve always known farmers to be friendly, often waving to strangers on the street. But they can also be suspicious, and I imagine they view me as a vagrant, possibly someone who lost all his money at Treasure Island Casino, located just a few miles down the road.
The countryside is beautiful, with gentle rolling hills that flow toward the river. Looking over a barbed-wire fence I can see the bluffs of the Wisconsin countryside in the distance. Soon I pass a gravel road that curves off into a forest dense with burr oak, red pine, birch and cottonwood. Roads in this region rarely run straight for very long, rather they twist and turn as they snake along the contour of the river.
The road also runs parallel to train tracks and I hear the rumble of an approaching train. It passes me and produces a deafening sound, and moments later it’s gone. I bask in the silence left in its wake and envy the engineer because he gets to travel through some of our country’s prettiest areas.
As I get closer to Hastings, the shoulder of the road narrows significantly and the ditch drops sharply, leaving me no choice but to walk within a few feet of passing traffic. Fear returns and I say another prayer, as if God hadn’t heard me the first time.
After a few miles I see another marsh and walk quickly toward it. A small brown sign informs me that I’m in the Hastings Scientific and Natural Area, an area that protects rare and unique natural resources. On it are instructions on what is not permissible within — including hunting — and a reminder to "walk gently." Grateful to be off the busy road, I walk softly through the forested floodplain, following the tracks of a deer for a short distance as I crunch through the snow.
I approach open water and am forced to return to the road, but am now near the city limits of Hastings. I spy a paved trail on the opposite side of the road, dart across the highway and breathe a sigh of relief for having arrived safely, knowing that the trail would lead me to my destination. The trail crosses the Vermillion River and continues toward the city’s new dog park, which opened this year. I followed the scenic loop around the dog park and looked toward the sky when I heard what appeared to be low-flying Canada geese. I was thrilled to discover that the sound was emanating from a formation of trumpeter swans.
The trail led to a residential area and became one with a street leading to the historic district of Hastings, the first town on the Mississippi river in the MNRRA corridor. Dusk was approaching as I turned west on Second Street and walked a few blocks past quaint brick buildings that house a number of retail establishments, including four antique shops, a clothing store, butcher shop, appliance store, some bars and restaurants, and Evansen’s Art Studio. The studio is the latest addition to the emerging artist community in Hastings. This group has formed the Hastings Prescott Area Arts Council, a nonprofit that supports area artists, including those involved with the Black Dirt Community Theatre in Hastings.
The street lamps were burning orange and most supported a Christmas wreath lit for the season as I walked to the edge of the business district, located in the shadow of the river bridge that opened in the summer of 2013. The terra cotta bridge replaced the city’s 62-year-old blue bridge and is near the site of the former iconic spiral bridge that served river crossings from 1895 to 1951. Beneath the bridge is a plaza with murals depicting life in the river valley. Nearby is Bella Vista, an Italian restaurant that opened this fall. With aching feet and a growling stomach, I stepped inside and met my wife, who was to be my ride home. We enjoyed a glass of wine, a nice meal and conversation about life in the river valley.
January 3, 2015
10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
30 degrees F
Route: Downtown Hastings to Pine Bend Trail in Nininger Township
Standing on the riverfront trail near the historic commercial district in Hastings I gaze with admiration at the graceful terra cotta arches of the Highway 61 Bridge glowing bright against the slate winter sky. Built in 2013, the bridge is the latest structure to serve river crossings at this location since four years before statehood. Travelers first crossed in 1854 using a rope ferry.
I see a small plaque that commemorates the ferry landing so I jump over the trail railing, amble over some rocks and stand next to it. From the water’s edge the river looks much wider than it appears from the bridge deck high above. I slowly view the floodplain on the east bank and imagine how difficult it must have been in bygone days for horse and wagon to navigate through it during times of high water. Today, the nearly 30,000 motorists who cross the bridge daily are able to do so with no fear of getting stuck in the muck.
I continue down the trail and within a quarter-mile enter the 215-acre Hastings River Flats Park, a popular area for hiking, biking, fishing, picnicking and boating. The park lies between the river and Lake Rebecca and is the site of Hastings’ annual festival, Rivertown Days, held the third week in July. To my right the piers of a public dock are rising through the river ice like barren tree stumps. To my left I see five colorful ice shacks—red and blue—on the lake, and a mixed flock of waterfowl in open water near the bank. The chatter of the birds sounds like laughter. It is possible that they, like me, are giggling with delight for experiencing such a moderately warm day in the heart of winter.
Walking past a DNR boat ramp I see a bald eagle high in a tree keeping watch over the river. There are two active nests in this park so eagles are a common sight. Other birds found here at various seasons include peregrine falcons, wood ducks, white pelicans, great blue herons and golden swamp warblers.
At the west end of the park is Lock and Dam #2, built in 1927. Several hundred yards before I approach the rumbling waters swirling below the dam I hear a crackling sound, like that of cellophane being wadded up. I veer off the trail and walk to the river’s edge to investigate. The sound is coming from the many jagged shards of ice that fill the river. As they grind against each other it sounds as if someone is trying to communicate with me through the static of an old ham radio. Standing still, I listen longer and hear creaks and groans emanating from the largest sheets of ice, resembling the sound of someone slowly walking across an old wooden floor. Whoever was trying to communicate has evidently walked away so I return to the trail and follow it to a dike that divides the river and Lake Rebecca.
The river is very wide here and the water in the sheltered bay is encased in ice. I can see where others have walked on the frozen river so I follow their footprints until I approach a large fissure that stretches out a hundred yards. I kick the snow beneath me to gauge the depth of the thick, black ice before returning to the safety of the trail.
I cross the dike, ascend a steep bluff and continue on to where the trail intersects with Highway 42.
Traveling west a short distance, the trail meanders back toward the river and through the ghost town of Nininger. The town, which had more than 500 residents in 1856, was the brainchild of John Nininger, a land speculator from Philadelphia who hoped to capitalize on western migration. Joining him in the endeavor was Ignatius Donnelly, a lawyer from Philadelphia and brother-in-law to Alexander Ramsey, former Minnesota territorial and state governor. The two embarked on a massive advertising campaign to attract people to their utopia, but it was a futile effort. The town failed, in part, because steamboat captains refused to stop there, choosing Hastings instead.
Today several dozen homes dot the area, now identified as Nininger Township. I took a short detour to Historic Donnelly Avenue to see the site of Donnelly’s home, located near the present day township hall. According to a historical marker, Donnelly was "easily the best known Minnesotan of his time." After his real estate fiasco he got involved in politics and eventually served one term as lieutenant governor and three terms in Congress. He also wrote several books on popular science, including "Atlantis: The Antediluvian World: Atlantean Megalithic Civilization," which is still in print today. Often referred to as the Sage of Nininger, Donnelly lived in the home until his death on January 1, 1901. The house was demolished in 1949.
Leaving Nininger, the trail passes through rolling country where cattle and horses stand still and silent on a distant hillside. A mile or so later it enters a forest that is part of Spring Lake Park Reserve, part of the Dakota County Parks system. I continue walking until I reach the main section of the park, which offers picnic grounds that overlook the river and many recreational opportunities. Dakota County calls this park the "hidden jewel of the Upper Mississippi River valley" and it’s easy to see why. People use the park for hiking, cross country skiing, bird watching, and flying kites and model airplanes.
The park, also known as Schaar’s Bluff, was once the farmstead of Otto and Maria Schaar. The couple purchased 199 acres in 1898 and farmed it until 1941. At that time they sold it to their son Carl and his wife Dorothy, who expanded the estate to 295 acres and farmed it until their retirement in 1973. They then sold the land to Dakota County to be preserved as park land.
With tired feet, I followed the park road back to Highway 42, reluctantly backtracking about one mile to reach it. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t doing this walk to find the shortest route but rather the most scenic and informative one. Once on Highway 42 I walked past cornfields and a large dairy farm, confirming the fact that Dakota County is largely agrarian. If I needed further evidence I found it a mile later when I approached three county sheriff cars parked alongside the highway. Deputies were helping a young farmer round up stray cattle.
I followed the highway to the intersection of Highway 55 and headed west on the busy thoroughfare about a mile to Pine Bend Trail, the end of this segment of my hike. As I reflected on my walk I thought about the dichotomy between local and foreign journeys. I find it thrilling to explore distant lands and experience new people, cultures and scenery, but when I do that I often feel like an outsider, someone just passing through. On this route I encountered beautiful landscapes, friendly people and interesting historical sites, and there was a sense of familiarity to it all that made me feel like a thread woven into the exquisite tapestry that is my community.
January 31, 2015
11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
29 degrees F
Route: Nininger Township to the Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area in Inver Grove Heights
Distance traveled: 7.5 miles
From the intersection of Highway 55, the graveled Pine Bend Trail descends steeply for a half-mile before it levels out, makes a sharp turn westward and runs straightaway through a broad wooded plain that overlooks the river. The topography looks like a giant staircase: one large step from the bluff to the plain, and then another to the river below. It’s an area marked by rustic spaces. On the south side are small fields filled with cornstalk stubble and patchy snow, and to the north is the wild natural landscape of the Lower Spring Lake Park Reserve.
This section of Spring Lake Park Reserve traverses parts of Nininger Township and rural Rosemount. It features an archery range, a lodge and campground for youth events, and a trail to the river. As I approach the entrance near Fahey Avenue, three hawks emerge from the trees on the southern bluff, flap their powerful wings and soar over me. One screams hunting instructions to the others. A few Canada geese follow shortly behind, singing a different tune. I stop to examine a small grove of oak trees still plump with withered brown foliage that has refused to surrender to the gales of winter and a transmission of Morse Code fills the air. I stare into the woods until I find the woodpecker that is tap-tapping the message.
A mile later the landscape dramatically changes when the road passes CF Industries, a large plant that receives fertilizer and other products by barge and freight train and distributes the commodities to customers across the Midwest. The plant appears to be clean and tidy. The surrounding area has many other industries and is lined with fences holding signs that prohibit trespassing. I hear the grind of machinery in the distance and get a whiff of foreign odors.
Pine Bend Trail becomes paved after it crosses the Union Pacific railroad tracks near CF Industries. It soon climbs an S-curve and eventually reconnects with Highway 55. The western horizon is laden with silvery steam billowing from seemingly a hundred stacks of the Flint Hills refinery, located on the west side of nearby Highway 52. This area poses a problem for a walker because there is no legal way to get from this intersection one mile north to 117th Street, where one can get on Courthouse Boulevard and continue north. I had to choose between walking along Highway 52, which was out of the question given the amount of traffic that speeds along it daily — 44,000 vehicles — or along the UP railroad tracks. I opted for the tracks and walked swiftly along them with a swivel on my neck, keeping an eye out for freight trains and angry railroad personnel.
The tracks passed by Pine Bend Cemetery, a small graveyard located near the refinery. I stepped into it and was astonished to see the graves of several Civil War vets, many denoted with a Grand Army of the Republic marker: 1861-65, 8 Minn. Infantry Co. K. I felt a tinge of sadness for the vets because this is no longer the peaceful, serene place it undoubtedly was when they were laid to rest.
Traffic noise consumes me as I continue north and walk past the busy Pilot Travel Center and the many trucking companies housed along Courthouse Boulevard. Even though I am just a half-mile from the river, it seems far, far away. I find brief respite when I pass the Pine Bend Bluff Natural Scientific Area. This 256-acre site features dry prairie and oak savanna and is one of the few untouched areas in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. It’s a beautiful space in which only low-impact activities are allowed, such as hiking, bird watching and photography.
A short time later I reach the paved Mississippi River bike trail, near Inver Grove Trail in Inver Grove Heights. I gladly step upon it and follow it as it dips away from Highway 52 and winds through a picturesque area bordered by woods and a small lake.
I’ve chosen to end this section of my hike at the nearby Katherine Ordway Natural History Study Area so I get off the trail and walk about one-half mile along Inver Grove Trail to reach it. This 300-acre site is owned by Macalester College in St. Paul and is named in honor of the woman who donated funds to help preserve the prairie ecosystem. It provides an outdoor classroom for students to study tall grass and sand gravel prairies, oak, aspen and birch forests and springs, ponds and a backwater lake near the Mississippi River.
A sign at the entrance said visitors need permission to explore the area. I entered anyway and walked to a building where I hoped I would find someone to grant me access. There was no one there so I turned around, but before leaving I stepped onto the prairie and sat on a rock to observe the landscape and see if tranquility could be found. A noisy jet flew overhead, followed by another. I waited until stillness finally settled upon the land, and then breathed deeply. The forest and prairie were before me, the river beyond them, and the sounds of nature filled the air, including the tap-tapping of another woodpecker. I got the message.
March 7, 2015
9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
38 degrees F
Route: Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area in Inver Grove Heights
to Kaposia Landing Park in South St. Paul
Distance traveled: 8 miles
From the intersection of Inver Grove Trail and Cahill Avenue the Mississippi River bike trail heads west and then quickly sweeps north along Highway 52. As I follow the trail I am soon engulfed in urban sprawl.
Inver Grove Heights is a community that has changed dramatically over the past 40 years. In 1970 approximately 12,000 people lived there. Today, that figure has nearly tripled. The spacious city encompasses nearly 30 square miles, which made it an attractive place for development during the housing boom surrounding the turn of the 21st century. With the swell of people came new businesses, and the Highway 52/Concord Boulevard corridor became the city’s newest commercial district.
The first business I pass is the Tractor Supply Company, which belies the notion that the city is fully suburban. A banner in front of the store announced “chicks now here,” which is good news for those who raise chickens. Next door is Walmart, and nearby are many other corporate businesses that hang like barnacles to that massive retail ship.
The trail loops back northeast toward the river and follows Concord Boulevard as it passes clusters of condominiums and town homes, an influence of modern suburban housing trends. The entire area has a homogenized feel, but that soon changes as I descend the bluff toward the older part of the city, where the modest homes along Concord are showing their age and industrial presence is apparent.
I can now see far across the river valley. To the north is the Wakota Bridge, which crosses the river near the city limits of South St. Paul, and on the eastern bank is the St. Paul Park Refinery. Deep ravines cut toward the river and many of them are filled with industrial businesses. One area had so much abandoned waste — cars, trucks, heavy equipment — that I shook my head in astonishment. Despite the blight on the land, I laughed when I read a sign near this area that said “Third World Road. Enter Slow.”
The accumulation of trash bears witness to how we have treated the river and its floodplain since the beginning of westward expansion. Many communities along the river have made strides in recent years toward riverfront renewal, but it would take a Herculean effort for the city of Inver Grove Heights to reclaim this land. It saddened me that this landscape has been altered so drastically and I found myself casting blame, but then I questioned if these businesses are solely responsible. People need things for their basic needs, and want other things to make their lives more comfortable. Thus, we have industries to supply these needs. It’s easier to point the finger at businesses than at myself as one of the caretakers that feeds the beast.
At 65th Street East the trail enters Heritage Village Park and meanders through a beautiful tall grass prairie. At one spot I see nothing but rippling prairie touching the powder blue sky. It was as if the winds of time had fluttered back the pages of a history book to show me what the landscape was like before statehood. Were it not for the large metal utility poles that looked like giants walking single file along the trail, I would have thought I was in a distant land of another time.
The north end of the park passes a backwater pond and I notice a flock of mallards and Canada geese. I watch as two drakes fly across the frozen pond and contort their bodies into a “C” to land in open water near the bank. This action sends some geese in motion. They fall into formation and high-step their way across the ice like Russian soldiers. The piercing crack of gunfire fills the air but the waterfowl don’t flinch. They are accustomed to the unending sound that emanates from the nearby South St. Paul Rod and Gun Club.
As I continue on I am treated to a sign of spring. I pause and watch a fuzzy Wolley Bear caterpillar inch its striped black and chestnut body along the trail, searching for wings that will transform it into an Isabella tiger moth and allow it to fly away.
A short time later I reach a boat ramp near the Wakota Bridge and I see a few boaters on the water. They are among many others who have come to the river to enjoy this mild winter day. I have passed walkers, runners, bikers and bladers. As I travel beneath the bridge, the northerly breeze blows the stench of industry in my face. It forces me to hold my breath, and when I cannot hold it any longer I take a gulp of air and wonder what I’ve just sucked into my lungs.
The city of South St. Paul has always struggled with odors. The earliest smells rose from the cattle, hogs and sheep awaiting their demise at the stockyards. A century ago, that stench was known as the smell of money. The livestock industry transformed the city of South St. Paul into an economic powerhouse, and by the late ’70s produced daily net proceeds of more than $1 million. From the trail I can see the remnants of the gates to Armour, one of the two largest meatpacking companies of the stockyards era. Along with Swift, these two companies employed 8,000 workers originating from 20 ethnic groups, mostly from Eastern Europe. Today, the stockyards have vanished. The last auction was held on April 11, 2008. The ultimate death blow was the migration of livestock auctions from the sale barns to the internet.
I am now traveling on top of a 2.7 mile earth and concrete floodwall that the Army Corps of Engineers constructed in 1965-68 to keep the river at bay. A spiral pedestrian bridge gives trail users access to the city. From this point I can see the historic castle-like Stockyards Exchange Building, a large industrial park, trains on tracks and a glimpse of the St. Paul skyline. The view to the west is incorrigibly industrial, but to the east is incredibly scenic. There lies the Pig’s Eye Scientific and Natural Area. This nature reserve is one of the largest nesting areas for colonial waterbirds in the state, including the great blue heron.
I scan the area to see if I can locate any heron nests, which look like large balls of twigs hanging from tree branches. The great blue heron is an interesting creature. It has a long, sleek body and a sharp, pointed beak. It is a bird that rarely appears to be in a hurry. In flight, it takes slow, powerful strokes as it cruises the riverbank, its long legs trailing like a streamer behind it, its long neck scrunched into an “S.” When it lands, it looks like a stilt walker, rising more than three feet off the ground. Its long legs allow it to fish in deep water and it moves about slowly and methodically as it searches for prey. When it spots a fish, it plunges at it with a lightning fast strike. If successful, it elongates its neck, opens its beak and lets the fish slide down. Its skinny neck is able to expand to swallow even large fish.
I end this section of my hike in Kaposia Landing Park, a historically important area located near Bryant Avenue and Concord Street. Until 10 years ago this 87-acre site was a demolition landfill but the city of South St. Paul has been working to transform it into a city park. It currently has a dog park, open spaces and benches along the river. Plans call for the creation of ball fields, a playground and outdoor performing space. However, this site was once home to the Kaposia band of the Mdewakanton Dakota, which numbered 1,200 in the early 1800s. The Indians lived in bark-walled homes and hunted and farmed in the area. The village also had a few homes and school buildings that were occupied and run by government teachers and missionaries.
Many of my thoughts along this section of the hike were of man’s intrusion into the river valley. However, the South St. Paul riverfront trail is a symbolic ribbon of hope, reminding me that we’ve learned some lessons and can appreciate the river for more than what it provides us commercially. This was best illustrated in Wildflower Levee Park, a tiny park along the trail in South St. Paul. The park is home to the Industrious Cooperative Ant sculpture, a large metal ant that artist Rabi Sanfo created in 2008 from an old wheelbarrow, gas cylinder, steel pot and other debris retrieved during riverfront cleanup efforts. It’s a fitting memorial.
11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
32 degrees F
Route: Kaposia Landing Park in South St. Paul to scenic overlook at Shepard Road and Otto Avenue in St. Paul.
Distance traveled: 7 miles
Leaving Kaposia Landing Park I lose the luxury of following an off-street trail and am forced to pick my way along the wide, grassy shoulder of Concord Street, an area devoid of sidewalks. This thoroughfare is heavily traveled, and it has been that way for nearly two centuries. Its earliest incarnation was the Mendota Trail, used by Native Americans, fur traders and settlers.
Today the landscape is much different than in those days. The once wooded floodplain is now filled with heavy industry, and the runways, hangars and terminal of Holman Field airport. Holman Field is named after Charles “Speed” Holman, who had a certain panache for zany air activities. He set a world record in 1928 by flying 1,433 consecutive loops over the airport. It took him five hours to accomplish the feat, which was a long time for him to remain inside a plane. He is also notable for being a parachutist and wing-walker, as well as a stunt pilot, barnstormer and airmail pilot.
Shortly after passing into the city of St. Paul, Concord Street becomes Cesar Chavez Street, renamed in 2003 after the American farm labor activist to reflect the Latino heritage of the neighborhood. The buildings in District del Sol – the neighborhood’s commercial district along Cesar Chavez Street – are bright and colorful, and the sides of several contain murals. One entitled “Rivers and Bridges” gives a nod to the Mississippi River and the many bridges that span it in St. Paul. It was created by Mike Klein and youth from the Jane Addams School of Democracy. On May 2, this street will be lined with food vendors, band stages and activities of the annual Cinco de Mayo fiesta. Mariachi musicians, folkloric dancers and oversized puppets are always part of the pageantry of the fiesta’s popular parade.
In a short distance I am at Robert Street, which will take me over the river and into downtown St. Paul. I continue on until I am on a viaduct. I stop and glance at the railroad tracks below, and then spy a shelter hidden within a few scrubby trees about 100 yards from the tracks. It is a nylon dome tent that has been reinforced with cardboard, plywood and other materials to keep out the elements. Near it are a fire pit, several chairs – a lawn chair, office chair and one that might be from a school room – and something that appears to be a make-shift privy. The camp has a look of permanence and I assume it’s someone’s home without an address. Thoughts of its resident linger with me until I reach the Robert Street Bridge, and then my attention flows back to the river.
Below me, sunlight dances on a historic portion of the Mississippi along the Lower Landing. It was once a bustling steamboat port, reportedly one of the busiest in the country. I imagine the excitement and trepidation the early settlers must have felt as they departed the boat, walked up Jackson Street and entered a fledgling city that they would help build and improve.
The landing was renamed Lambert’s Landing in 1937 after Colonel George C. Lambert, who was instrumental in convincing the United States Congress to fund a 9-foot navigation channel to support commercial shipping. Tourists still arrive here today. The American Queen paddlewheel steamboat docks here during the summer and, beginning in 2017, Viking Cruise ships will bring as many as 300 passengers on each excursion from New Orleans.
Crossing the bridge, I head east on Kellogg Boulevard and pause to view a memorial to Jacob Fahlstrom, a fur trader, mail carrier and missionary who is credited as being the first Swedish settler in Minnesota. The backdrop of the monument is the former post office building, now being transformed into the Custom House, opening in 2016 with 202 luxury apartments, a hotel and restaurant. At Jackson Street, I take a right and descend to the river and the Sam Morgan Trail, named in honor of a St. Paul attorney, conservationist and former chairman of the Minnesota Council of State Parks who fought vigorously for preserving park spaces. It’s a wonderful trail that hugs the river and is divided for pedestrian and bicycle use.
On my right is a towering limestone bluff, appearing as the solid foundation of the city built upon it, and across the river is Harriet Island Regional Park. From an eagle’s vantage point, one can see the result of riverfront efforts that are the trademark of the Mississippi National River and Recreation area, an interconnected series of parks along the river. Battle Creek Regional Park to the east flows into Mounds Park, which connects to Harriet Island Regional Park, and the green space continues upstream into Lilydale Regional Park and Crosby Farm Regional Park, a combined 3,062 acres of green space.
Just west of downtown are several housing complexes in the Upper Landing area along the riverfront. At the turn of the 20th century, the area was known as Little Italy because of the large number of Italian immigrants who had settled there. Their heritage is still preserved with a street that dissects two of the complexes – Mancini Street – and through the popular long-time restaurants on nearby West Seventh Street: Mancini’s Char House, Cossetta’s and DeGidio’s.
Crossing under the Smith Avenue High Bridge, the city begins to melt away and the steep bluffs that define the gorge between St. Paul and Minneapolis become evident. Seeing a sandy beach, I duck through the trees to walk toward it. It’s a narrow strip but it offers a tranquil setting to view the river and the rising bluffs. I walk to the river’s edge, bend down and wave my hand through the water, which is cool but not as cold as I expected.
Turning around, I am treated to a marvelous sight: the wide-stretching, gnarly and petrified roots of a cottonwood tree that have been exposed to years of erosion. The roots are smooth and offer a perfect place to sit and enjoy a few moments of rest. My thoughts turn to the many vacationers who have fled Minnesota for spring break and are sinking their toes into warm southern beaches. I envied those travelers a few weeks ago, but not now. Today, I am enjoying the day’s mild temps and bright sunshine and am content to be on this St. Paul beach.
Traveling on, I see several boaters and I know that river traffic will begin to intensify, both recreational and commercial. On March 25, the New Dawn tow boat pushed the first barges of the year into St. Paul, marking the start of the commercial navigation season. The sleeping river is being nudged awake.
A bit farther down the trail I stumble across a marker for Fountain Cave, a notable landmark commemorated in the journals of several early explorers, including Stephen Long, Henry Schoolcraft and Joseph Nicollet. It is also the site of the first home in present-day St. Paul. The notorious Pierre (Pig’s Eye) Parrant, a voyageur turned moonshiner, built a cabin and saloon at the mouth of the cave in 1838. Soon after, other “refugee settlers” who were expelled from nearby Fort Snelling joined him.
Fountain Cave was once a popular tourist attraction. According to the National Park Service, it was likely the longest natural sandstone cave in the state: 1,150 feet long containing a large circular cavern 150 feet long by 50 feet in diameter. Sadly, the cave is but a memory. It was buried in 1960 during the construction of Shepard Road.
I end my hike at a scenic overlook near Otto Avenue and Shepard Road. It’s high on the bluff and offers wonderful views of the crooked river winding past it. In the distance I can see Pickerel Lake, which is worthy of a visit in June when it will be speckled with lovely white lilies rising from waxy green pads.
May 9, 2015
59 degrees F
Route: intersection of Otto Avenue and Shepard Road to the Marshall Avenue Bridge at Mississippi River Boulevard North.
Distance traveled: 8 miles
Shortly after the Sam Morgan Trail crosses under Interstate 35E I hop onto a trail that takes me from the city and into the wilderness. The trail meanders past Crosby Lake and the Mississippi River in the 736-acre Crosby Farm Regional Park. Memories of childhood vacations flood my mind as I exit the trail and walk through lush forest to the marshy lakeshore and watch a hooded merganser duck feeding in the slough. Standing here it is difficult to tell if I am in a major metropolitan area or beside a lake in northern Minnesota. It’s a place that begs for bait and bobbers, and patience.
The park was once the farm of Thomas Crosby, an English immigrant who bought 160 acres in 1858 and raised cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, potatoes and apples until his death in 1886. The farm underwent a number of ownership changes until the early 1960s when the St. Paul Port Authority purchased it and leased it to the City of St. Paul to be used as a park. Today the land is the largest open space park in St. Paul’s park system and provides a unique opportunity to spend time around a quintessential Minnesota lake and in the forested floodplain of the Mississippi.
Dappled light beams down through the forest as I follow the trail around the lake and to the river. Many people are using the park, but it is not crowded. I have seen hikers and bikers, fishermen casting a line, a trio of friends looking for mushrooms near rotted logs, a family wading in the river searching for shells, and even two young women in awkward yoga poses on a sandy beach. At the western edge of the park a small crowd is gathered in a spacious picnic area and the sumptuous aroma of their grilling wafts around me and tickles my taste buds.
The road from the park ascends a steep slope past the Watergate Marina and back to Shepard Road. As I start my climb I hear the wails of a child in tears and soon approach three kids and a young woman who appears to be their babysitter. Two of the kids are sitting on their bikes, their eyes filled with fear and confusion, and next to them the woman is trying to console a frantic 10-year-old boy. His face is contorted in pain, a trickle of blood shimmers between his eyes, and he is gingerly holding out an arm with abrasions resembling a raspberry patch. After stopping to make sure he is OK, I continue on and imagine the scene: three kids racing downhill fueled by excitement and adrenaline, a wobbly tire, a slow-motion skid and a bumpy tumble coming to a grinding halt. The race hadn’t turned out as he planned but I knew that after the tears had dried and the scabs flaked away that this young man would bravely retell the momentous event of this day, and that he had learned that speeding down a steep bluff on two wheels can be a dangerous thing.
At the top of the bluff is a pleasant overlook with views of the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers and historic Fort Snelling, which opened in 1825 and was instrumental for a variety of uses, including treaty negotiations with Native Americans, the fur trade, supplying settlers in the Minnesota Territory, and military training through World War II. It is at this point that the gorge of the Mississippi River begins. The gorge is an 8.5-mile long canyon extending to St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. It has the steepest drop – 110 feet – of any point along the entire river, resulting in vertical bluffs that rise as high as 100 feet above the river. The southern part of the gorge is embraced by Fort Snelling State Park and Minnehaha Regional Park on the west bank and Hidden Falls Regional Park on the east bank. As the regional park names suggest, the area is marked by waterfalls. The most famous here, and quite possibly in the Midwest, is Minnehaha Falls, the signature attraction of the regional park that bears its name. Thousands flock to it yearly to see water from Minnehaha Creek plunge 53 feet to the creek below and continue on toward the Mississippi River. Hidden Falls, a small spring-fed waterfall on the east bank, pales in comparison but is scenic nonetheless, and the improvements made to the ravine of the falls in 1936-37 by the Works Progress Administration crews make the area popular for hiking and sight-seeing.
Just west of Highway 5, the trail travels along the steep bluff line of Mississippi Gorge Regional Park, a small band of green space on both banks of the river that extends north past Interstate 94. It’s a very popular section for hikers and bikers and runs parallel to Mississippi River Boulevard, which could be renamed Envy Boulevard because the vast array of architecture of the homes and their finely landscaped lawns induce oohs and aahs from nearly all passers-by. I feel like a bobble-head doll as I walk along: one moment I’m admiring the homes, the next I’m watching the trail to avoid speeding cyclists, and the next I am gazing at the river when there is an opening in the tree line.
This area offers several scenic overlooks where one can enjoy tranquil views of the river, the Minneapolis skyline, and the activity of Lock & Dam 1, located near Ford Parkway. I’ve seen people of all ages and ethnicities on the trail, but as I pass Ford Parkway the trail users are decidedly younger and more physically fit. They are likely students from one of the nearby colleges: St. Catherine University or the University of St. Thomas, which fronts the river. Their attire is scant, their music more audible and the smell of suntan oil and perfume linger after they pass by.
As I approach the end of my hike I’m amazed that that I’m not overly tired from my 8-mile walk. The movement of people along this stretch of the river has been invigorating. I’m not sure there’s a better place in the Twin Cities to inspire one to be active, but I am sure there’s not a place with a better backdrop for it.
May 22, 2015
8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
59 degrees F
Route: Lake Street/Marshall Avenue Bridge at Mississippi River Boulevard North to North Mississippi Regional Park.
Distance traveled: 8 miles
This section of my hike is particularly historic and quickly pulled me into a century-old squabble between two twins: St. Paul and Minneapolis. I begin my hike by walking a short distance from Marshall Avenue to the Meeker Island Lock and Dam ruins, accessible near Eustis Street. I work my way down the bluff to the river’s edge and gingerly walk on a narrow concrete wall that juts into the river. It and a few similar walls – which today are under water – are all that remain of the first lock and dam on the river.
The structure was built between 1899 and 1907 by the Army Corps of Engineers at the urging of influential people in Minneapolis who wanted their city to be the head of navigation, a battle they eventually won. The dam was needed to submerge the rocky rapids that roiled below St. Anthony Falls so steamboats could safely navigate the gorge. It was the first of two lock and dams planned for a 1 ½-mile section. The other was today’s Lock and Dam 1, near Ford Parkway.
The construction of that facility and a power struggle in the most literal sense spelled doom for the Meeker Lock and Dam. Hydroelectric power was the rage of the day and leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul successfully lobbied Congress to raise Lock and Dam 1 from 13.3 feet to 35 feet to create a hydro power plant to produce cheap electricity. This eliminated the need for the Meeker Lock and Dam, which closed in 1912 and was later added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
I retrace my steps up the bluff but am not there for long. Near Cecil Street I descend again to view the East Sand Flats. Walking down the trail, the hubbub of activity quickly vanishes and I’m surrounded by lush trees, beautiful wildflowers and a tremendous amount of wild noises: honks, croaks, tweets, chatter and chirps.
While walking through this tranquil area of floodplain and sand prairie I see the shadow of a large bird overhead so I follow it to where it lands on a nearby tree. Observing its large black body, triangular head and flaming red crown I grin at seeing such a rare sight. It is a pileated woodpecker, one of the largest birds of the forest. As I return to the paved trail atop the bluff I am sure I hear Woody the Woodpecker’s famous laugh amidst the myriad sounds of nature.
At Franklin Avenue I decide to cross the bridge and continue my hike on the west bank but when I reach it my plan is thwarted because the trail is under construction. I walk back across the bridge and realize that Minnesota’s “other” season has arrived: road construction. It’s inescapable.
I pass over the Interstate 94 Bridge and see vehicles zooming along on 10 lanes and continue on until I reach the University of Minnesota, which was founded in 1851 when the territorial legislature decreed that it be built on the river near the Falls of St. Anthony. The university’s first building, Old Main, was built in 1851 and the campus has since mushroomed to encompass 2,700 acres to support its 51,000-plus student body.
The University has a pedestrian bridge that links its east and west bank campuses so I use it to cross the river. The enclosed walkway is lined with a high number of hand-painted billboards of student organizations, bearing testament to the mammoth size of the university. Nearly every group imaginable is represented, from Students for Gluten Free America to the Dungeons and Dragons Club. One sign for a tech club elicits a chuckle from me. It is recruiting “geeks” not “Greeks.”
Below the bridge are the infamous Bohemian Flats, a late nineteenth and early twentieth century neighborhood occupied primarily by Danish and Slovakian immigrants. In 1900 it was home to about 500 people but 40 years later just one family remained. A free exhibit that commemorates this lost neighborhood – “Remembering the Bohemian Flats: One Place, Many Voices” – is on view through November 1 at the nearby Mill City Museum, 704 S. Second St.
I make my way through the campus and see a Bohemian influence under a bridge just north of the university. Nestled between the concrete pillars is a small “village” filled with thousands of pieces of salvaged goods, everything from van seats and a vintage bike to paintings, tapestries and potted plants.
The trail takes me beneath the Interstate 35W Bridge and I pause to reflect on the tragic day of August 1, 2007 when the bridge collapsed. Nearby is a memorial garden with a monument that reminds us: “Our lives are not only defined by what happens, but by how we act in the face of it, not only by what life brings us, but by what we bring to life. Selfless actions and compassion create enduring community out of tragic events.”
Through the woods I can see the rushing water of the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, and in the distance the historic Stone Arch Bridge. The trail dips close to the river’s edge and I pass a group of humans on sticks bobbing, weaving and spinning in circles as they prepare to embark on a Segway tour.
Near the Stone Arch Bridge I pass a group and hear a large vociferous man explaining the history of milling to a dozen elementary school students. He said that Mill City (Minneapolis) met its demise as the milling capitol of the world because of greedy railroad barons. Rather than pay exorbitant transportation fares, milling companies chose to build mills in other parts of the country.
The trail is teeming with people where it meets the Stone Arch Bridge, now a pedestrian bridge that is popular with walkers, bikers and those humans on a stick. As I pass the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam and see the swirling water around it I try to envision what the falls looked like in their natural state. With a drop of more than 30 feet, they were undoubtedly a spectacular sight to see.
The trail heading north out of downtown Minneapolis passes between the river and a tree-lined parkway. Looking across the river I can see much farther into the distance than before because the river is now a prairie river, with no bluffs, very little floodplain and no backwater lakes.
The river has been the centerpiece of park space in the City of Minneapolis for more than 130 years. The Minneapolis Park Board formed in 1883 and quickly hired prominent landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland to create a comprehensive parks plan. Cleveland recognized the unique value of the river – calling it the city’s “jewel” – and incorporated it into his design. That year the city purchased 20 acres along the river for parkland.
Near Broadway Avenue I pass a platform used by the Twin Cities River Rats, a water ski team that offers performances at 7 p.m. most Thursdays in the summer, including every Thursday in July (www.tcriverrats.com). The free hour-long show features daring stunts, jumps, skits and music. It’s appropriate that the river hosts a water ski show since the sport was invented on the Mississippi downstream in Lake City.
The paved riverside trail ends in a small loop at Orvin “Ole” Olson Park, located near 22nd Avenue North, and from here I’m forced to take to the streets and walk the last two miles through an industrial park to my final destination. It’s an uneventful and uninspiring segment but fortunately it ends well. I follow Washington Avenue North to Soo Avenue, which leads me to the wooded sanctuary of North Mississippi Regional Park and the true head of commercial navigation.
Postscript: On June 9 the Army Corps of Engineers closed the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam, resulting in the head of navigation being shifted to downtown Minneapolis. The closure will affect some industries in North Minneapolis. I guess the Corps giveth and the Corps taketh away.
June 20, 2015
80 degrees F
Route: North Mississippi Regional Park to Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park.
Distance traveled: 8 miles
Scouting the route for this section of my hike gave cause for apprehension. The lines on the map revealed that I would be away from the river for large chunks of time and that I would often be walking on the streets of Fridley, a city that was formed in 1957 with no intention of incorporating the river into its commercial development plan.
Crossing over the Camden Bridge at the southern end of North Mississippi Regional Park, I follow 37th Avenue Northeast a short distance to reach the Mississippi River Regional Trail in Fridley and then trek north one mile through an industrial zone. The Minneapolis Public Works plant blocks my view of the river to the west, and to the east traffic and trains rumble by along the four-lane East River Road and adjacent railroad tracks.
A mile later things change dramatically and the paved trail turns westward into the 140-acre Anoka County Riverfront Regional Park. Suddenly, the river appears behind a swatch of colorful prairie flowers dancing in the summer breeze. The water is brown and appears to be moving in large sheets, like an advancing glacier. I hear birdsong around me, but another tune emanates from the west bank. There, a festival is taking place and soul music rises in the air and floats across the river toward me.
The trail quickly becomes a tunnel through the forest and I catch flickering glimpses of the river as I hike about a half-mile to the one amenity I was excited to see at the onset of my trip: the Riedel Farm Estate, an 1880s farm house that has been converted to an event center for weddings, reunions and other purposes. The stately white house stands on a small rise overlooking the river. Next to it a gazebo is decorated with lights and ribbons for a wedding that is evidently taking place soon. A violinist is seated nearby and is pulling her bow across the strings, filling the grounds with a soothing tune. A plaque on the trail shows a photo of Albin Riedel, a German immigrant who built the home and established a 500-acre dairy farm around it. He is handsomely dressed in a black suit and hat and stands proudly in front of the home in a relaxed pose, with a hand in his pocket. The curtain of the window behind him is pulled back slightly at the bottom, as if one of his nine children is sneaking a mischievous peek through it. My gaze is transfixed on the faded black and white photograph and I stare at it until more than 100 summers flutter past and I am in his colorful backyard watching the scene unfold. I see his wife Ida behind a large box camera that is resting on three wooden legs. Her skirt fans out behind her, where three of her youngest children are pecking around the grass like young chicks. I want to know more about this man so I take a step toward him, but when I do I am back on the present day trail.
I continue on and soon cross Interstate 694. I am happy to be out of the beltway and eager to see what’s in store as the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area slowly retreats from urban to suburban to rural land once again. Just before I get to the commercial district of Fridley, two tawny fawns come bounding down the trail, spring high into the air and disappear into the brush and foliage. I look upon the river and see a kayaker gently floating, bow upstream, taking in the scenic view of Durham Island, which is part of Island of Peace Park.
Soon the trail disappears and I must walk on a grassy boulevard along East River Road. I am not the first to have traveled this route. A well-worn narrow path has been carved into the grass by others.
A mile later I reach the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts, located in the historic Banfill Wayside Inn that was built in 1847 by John Banfill to serve soldiers, fur traders and other travelers on the Red River Trail. It eventually housed a tavern, post office and general store, but in later years was purchased by the Locke family, who used it for their dairy farm, and then finally as a summer home. Since 1988 it has been a nonprofit community art center.
The grounds around this Greek Revival building, which is on the National Registry of Historic Sites, are stunning and provide a perfect place to fish, picnic or paint, all of which is taking place around me this day. Rice Creek, a wide, fast-flowing stream, gushes past the center and through Manomin County Park before emptying into the nearby Mississippi River.
For the next two miles I am again on city streets without sidewalks. The route is part of the Mississippi River Regional Trail and is well-marked, but not well-defined. A blue sign at every major intersection helps keep me moving in the right direction through a quiet neighborhood of modest 1960s and ’70s-era homes. While the exteriors of these homes look dated, their property values are undoubtedly high because the river is in their backyards.
Near the border of Coon Rapids the trail becomes an off-street paved pedestrian path. The trailhead is denoted with a sign but the approach is very narrow and forested. As I enter it I feel like I’m following Alice down a rabbit hole. At last, I am walking with the river again. Its mood here is different, more gentle and easy-going.
The final mile of my hike takes me through the scenic and tranquil Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park, a 160-acre park that features the river, Cenaiko Lake, woodlands, wetlands and the Coon Rapids Dam. The park is known for its vast amount of diverse wildlife, including mink, beaver and river otters, and for the 12-foot-wide walkway on the dam that allows one to walk across the river at near surface level of the upper pool. Even though the dam is a man-made intrusion to the natural river, the sound of the water rushing over it is hypnotic and relaxing, causing me to dream about what lies ahead.
July 24, 2015
83 degrees F
Route: Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park to Donie Galloway Riverside Park in Champlin
Distance traveled: Approximately 7 miles
The river in Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park is generously embraced by forest and prairie, which makes the start of my hike scenic and enjoyable. I begin in the west unit of the park, located in Brooklyn Park, and head north on a paved trail along the river. The first mile is serene and I see many wild turkeys and Canada geese pecking about. There are ample views of the river here but no developed overlooks, which never deters people from getting closer to the river. I follow a well-trodden narrow footpath through a grove of oak, birch and pine until I reach a steep bank that affords me a view of the wide pool above the dam.
Traveling on, the trail merges with West River Road – also tagged as the Great River Road and the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) bike route – and crosses into Champlin, a city that offers no trail or sidewalk along this section of this busy thoroughfare. Walking along the grassy boulevard, I come upon a tranquil setting that thrusts me back in time. It is the site of the historic Dunning School, which operated from 1876 to 1947. It’s a simple structure with white clapboard siding and a green shingled roof. Upon the roof is a silver metal bell that once beckoned children from the countryside. I look at one of the four, skinny rectangular windows along the east wall and can envision a bored schoolboy gazing out of it. He is watching the wind rustle the oak leaves overhead but is dreaming about the cane pole he has stashed in the woods. He longs to retrieve it and cast his bait into the river, which is just a few hundred yards away from where he is sitting.
Wishing to escape the traffic, I follow the MRT and walk along the street of a quiet neighborhood and among the lives of strangers. The river in Champlin is primarily a residential river fronted by private homes, a mixture of old and new. Some date back 50 years or more, some have been remodeled and expanded, and others have been built in the last decade. The newer houses dwarf those that helped establish the neighborhood several decades ago but the mix lends a degree of charm and character. I cast intrusive glances into the yards and see hammocks hanging from large trees, vegetable and flower gardens, boats tied to docks. These people have an intimate relationship with the river and are lucky to experience its many moods throughout the seasons. A sign on one house sums up the attitude of these residents: “Life is better on the river.”
The commercial district of Champlin once lined the river but is now a mass of suburban strip malls that fan out away from the river toward Minneapolis. Champlin was birthed on the river when Charles Miles established a trading post here in 1852. Two years later a group of devout believers formed the Free-Will Baptist Church and held their first service in a steamboat that was under construction on the river. That steamboat also served as the city’s first school. Ferry service began in 1855 near the present-day Highway 169 bridge and this area has been an important river crossing ever since.
The City of Champlin celebrates its connection to the river by hosting the Father Hennepin Festival on the second weekend in June. The annual community celebration culminates with a reenactment of Father Louis Hennepin crossing the river, a historic event that occurred on July 1, 1680 near what is today D. C. Chandler Park. I follow a path through this small park to a graffiti-laden bench, sit down and try to envision that momentous day.
Hennepin was a Franciscan priest who had a thirst for adventure. A French missionary, he traveled to North America in 1675 with René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Henri de Tonti to explore the French-claimed territory of the “New World.” The journey took him through the Great Lakes region, down the Illinois River and to the Mississippi, which the French had named the Colbert River. In February 1680 La Salle dispatched Hennepin and two others to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi. Shortly after they departed the trio was captured by a band of 120 Native Americans traveling in birch bark canoes. They were forced to travel with them for several months before being released in September. Hennepin recounts that experience, his travels along the river and the customs of the Native Americans in his book “Description of Louisiana by Canoe to the Upper Mississippi in 1680,” which can still be found today. The metro area’s largest county is named after Hennepin, and he is also notable for naming St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis, which he christened after his baptismal patron St. Anthony of Padua.
The final two miles of my hike take me through more residential neighborhoods without any views of the river but I am able to walk along a paved trail that leads to Donie Galloway Park, near the northern border of Champlin. The park road winds through a prairie and a large grassy space to a parking lot. From there it’s a short hike to the river’s edge, where one can sit in peace and solitude and watch the river roll quietly by.
September 5, 2015
11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
80 degrees F
Route: Donie Galloway Riverside Park in Champlin to DNR boat ramp in Dayton.
Distance traveled: Approximately 6.5 miles
Donie Galloway Park is at the edge of suburbia so it’s not long until I am engulfed in semi-rural landscape. As I walk along the wide grassy shoulder that keeps me a safe distance from Dayton River Road, houses slowly become farther apart. I will remain on this 2-lane highway until I reach the final destination of my Great River Walkabout, which began last November in the snowy Vermillion River Bottoms south of Hastings.
Around me I see fields, farms and fences and hear the rattle of grasshoppers and the occasional chirp of crickets. With each step, a hundred grasshoppers spring up in front of me and fan out like streams from a sprinkler. They are a friendly reminder that although fall is near, summer still rules the land. The sun is high and bright and humidity drapes me in a steamy blanket, making me long for autumn.
I keep glancing to my right to catch a glimpse of the river but it evades me. I can feel its looming presence just beyond the woods but never see it. That changes when I reach Cloquet Scenic Overlook Park, a small park near Cloquet and Foster islands.
I tromp through the high grasses of the roadside ditch and follow a paved trail through the park. The earthy scent of the deciduous forest is all around me and I see the first blush of autumn tinted on the maples and birches. Not far from the parking lot is a concrete overlook with benches and a brown railing. I expect to find a stunning view of the river but see only a shimmer of blue through the dense foliage. Undeterred, I find a trail a few yards away and follow it down the steep bank to the river’s edge, where the wide, quiet river flows between the two islands. The bank is gooey and littered with brittle leaves that crunch beneath my feet.
Traveling on, the landscape becomes fully rural and I pass a dairy farm where a middle-aged man is using a red Case tractor to hoist large bales of sweet-smelling alfalfa into a barn. It and an adjacent barn are nearly filled to the rafters, indicating he is ready for winter. The air is thick with the fragrance of hay, dust and the roar of the tractor, causing a few Holstein calves in a fenced lot to softly low in anticipation of their next meal.
A few miles down the road I pass a farmstead that has fallen on tough times. It is flanked by fencing covered with faded white paint that matches the other buildings on the property: a barn, silo and a few other structures. All that remains of the farmhouse is a crumbled foundation, a dim reflection of a bygone era when families earned their livelihood off the land. Although small family farms are disappearing, agriculture remains vitally important to our state’s economy. I later learned that last year’s corn and soybean crop accounted for a combined $8.1 billion in annual revenue in the state, putting Minnesota fourth in the nation in production of these commodities.
Soon I enter old town Dayton, which resembles many rural farming hamlets. The first things I see are a manicured softball field carpeted with thick green grass, a red brick church with white trim and a tall grey steeple pointing to heaven, and a cemetery filled with former members of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, founded in 1904. The only commercial establishments are a bar and a liquor store.
In minutes, I walk through Dayton and arrive at the Department of Natural Resources’ boat ramp at the west edge of town near the confluence of the Crow and Mississippi rivers. This place marks the end of my hike through the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
One year ago, plus a day, I left this same boat ramp for a canoe trip through MNRRA. It took me just four days to leisurely float the 72-mile recreation area. I look at my dusty boots and wonder how many steps it took to return to this point. Doing the math, I estimate it to be more than 152,000. Both modes of travel occurred at approximately 4 miles per hour, a pleasant rate that allows for observation and contemplation. It was fascinating to travel the river by canoe but equally thrilling to explore the corridor on foot, for it is on land where the stuff of life and legends happens.
My only agenda on both trips was to simply gain a better understanding of the river and life in the river valley, and I have accomplished that. I traveled through the very core of the Twin Cities, an area that was birthed on the river and has grown to be the 16th largest metro area in the United States. It is the place where Native Americans lived, where a melting pot of immigrants settled, and from where the limbs of a broad community have branched out far and wide.
I sit on the beach and observe the Mississippi as it bends past the Crow River. The water, like time, moves toward me and rushes away. I feel no sadness at the journey being over and, oddly, no great accomplishment at having completed it. Rather I’m motivated to continue exploring. Questions pop into my mind: should I continue exploring upstream or down? Should I revisit interesting sites in the corridor? The answers echo in my head: yes, yes, yes. I realize the end of this journey is simply the beginning of another.
Another question comes: would I recommend hiking the entire corridor to others? My honest answer is no. I had hoped for something akin to what one can experience on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails but discovered this recreation area doesn’t provide that type of experience. It is instead a network of delightful places and natural spaces best savored in small doses and enjoyed often, like a bite of fine chocolate or a sip of aged wine.
Exploring the river gives me a deep sense of connectedness — physically, emotionally, spiritually. It’s a place where one can walk in the footprints of those who have traveled before us and learn about their lives; a place to enjoy recreation and culture; and a place to find a beautiful, natural sanctuary amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life, where the pew is a bleached white log on a beach and a hymn of praise can be heard in the soft rhythmic sound of waves that gently roll in, turn over on themselves and lap at the shoreline.