Saturday, January 17, 2015

Urban Paddler

The Mississippi River and downtown St Paul, Minnesota.
There is a whirl of activity at Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul, Minnesota. Shuttle buses are coming and going. Kayaks and canoes are being unloaded and carried to the grassy staging area next to the river. Numbers are have been assigned, pictures are being taken, while water, apples and granola bars are packed into the boats. It is the annual Migthyssippi River Adventure Race day on the Mississippi River. Over a 100 hundred paddlers have signed up for the 14-mile charity event through the Twin Cities. The paddler's instructions on the river are easy: Be Safe, stay to the right of the river when traveling downstream. Avoid all boats and barges and have fun.
A countdown from the loudspeakers and soon the river is filled with kayaks and canoes of every color and size. Before long the paddlers spread out going past Fort Snelling State Park and the skyline of St Paul giving each one their own perspective of the famous river. At times it is gritty and industrial, but also offers an oasis of nature in the heart of city dwellings.
Most paddlers feel like they are discovering it for the first time. They are surprised that an urban river can contain so much beauty and nature. It happens all the time for urban paddlers. The waterways thought to be dirty and polluted are found clean, inviting and full of wildlife. On the Red River between Fargo and Moorhead, I have seen deer, beaver and even a bald eagle along the bends of the rivers just blocks away from downtown. River otters splash and hide in the rocks underneath the Rainbow Bridge over Lake Natoma and the American River, while farther down Californian quail, deer, and Canadian geese find a haven in the sloughs.

The American River Parkway

On the river urban views are blocked by trees. The only reminder that one is even close to civilization is going to the cities train and highway bridges. The buzz of traffic echoes off the water giving us the only clue we are close to home. In some places, we go back in time past turn of the century mills and remnants. Along the Red River on the Moorhead side, I can still find broken bottles from the prohibition days when North Dakota was dry and Minnesota taverns were right on the river. On the American River, huge piles of dredge tailings are still visible from gold mining days. The waterways are no longer highways or dumping grounds and the rivers have now reclaimed their banks.

Paddling in downtown Fargo, North Dakota.

Canoeist Natalie Warren founder of the outdoor education nonprofit Wild River Academy has trekked the waterways across the country to observe how rivers are promoted in their communities. In a recent interview with Canoe & Kayak Magazine said, "When I paddled urban rivers from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay and from Minnesota down to the Gulf of Mexico, I realized that our local water trails have their own beauty and, even more, provide a classroom to learn how our country uses rivers. My experiences on wild and urban rivers inspired me to speak about building a culture around urban paddling, diversifying the paddling community, and increasing recreation, positively impacting all aspects of society."

Natalie Warren left and Ann Raiho in Fargo, N.D., during the 2011 Minneapolis to Hudson Bay Trip

Warren's goal is to increase recreation through the public waterways in river towns with the addition outfitters, hiking and bike paths, restaurants and interpretive centers, campgrounds and most important access to the water.
 "I hope to highlight the positive ripple effects of opening up to the river and prioritizing water trails to improve recreation and trails, tourism and economies, and increased environmental education and ecosystem health. It all starts with a paddle in the water. Every time you paddle locally you are partaking in a larger movement for the betterment of communities, ecosystems, and the future of river-town economies."
Paddlers taking part in the Mightyssippi River Adventure finished the day under the Interstate 94 bridge, 14 miles downstream. They came away with sore muscles and smiles with this annual day on the Mississippi. Of course for some, this experience is only a warm up to their annual Boundary Waters trip or lifelong dream of going down the Grand Canyon. However, paddling locally and exploring their neighborhood water trail gave them a low-cost view of the river, right in their own backyard.