When I first started exploring the places along the Mississippi River, I did a lot of driving. When I’d get to a new community, I’d look for the good places to be near or on the river, so I could pass those tips along to other travelers, then I’d pack my car and drive to the next town.
I rarely got to take advantage of the tips I was giving to other travelers, except maybe for the occasional day trip on Steamboat Nostalgia, which wasn’t very satisfying. I’d drive by places where the backwaters were thick and might spot someone paddling through. I’d feel envious, but I had work to do, so I packed up the car and moved on.
One of those places that I’ve driven past and through many times is the Chippewa River Delta. For six years I’ve fantasized about having the time and a boat to paddle around so I could get lost in it for a while. The backwaters looked thick with tall trees and narrow channels. I imagined an area teeming with wildlife and chances to get lost.
Six years is a ridiculously long time to wait to do something that is so accessible, but, hey, I had to pack up my car and move on. Finally, though, after all that dreaming, I got a chance to get in there, to paddle around that delta, thanks to Michael and Broken Paddling Guiding Company.
I met Michael at a riverfront park in Wabasha, Minnesota on a Monday morning. The day started overcast and cool, unusually cool for August, even for Minnesota. After I changed shoes into something more suitable for a kayak, we drove about ten minutes to a boat ramp in the Nelson-Trevino Bottoms State Natural Area, deep in the Chippewa River Delta. I was excited.
Michael gave me a couple of quick tips on paddling and I boarded my kayak, the yellow one. We took our time paddling through the maze of narrow channels, relying on the map in Michael’s head that has taken shape after dozens of trips paddling through the sloughs at different water levels and different times of year. An occasional mist fell from the sky, but there was no wind to push it, or us, around. The air smelled fresh and clean, with just a hint of muskiness thrown in for depth.
We lazed our way through the dense wet woods, talking more vigorously than we paddled, but our low chatter didn’t seem to frighten off any fauna. A bald eagle, a juvenile, kept a close eye on us as we drifted twenty feet under and past it, but it lacked either the fear or the desire to take flight. A short time later, we spotted an adult eagle, probably mom or dad. Before the day was over, we counted ten bald eagles, including a pair standing watch atop a tree and a solo adult on a branch over the river that also let us pass by without leaving its branch. I’ve approached many eagles in the past and, invariably, they are quite shy, taking flight when I was much further away. To stare up at them as we floated by in a kayak felt special.
I expected to see critters as we paddled around, but I didn’t expect to hear the variety of sounds that we encountered. At one point, the resonant call of a sandhill crane boomed out of the thicket of the swamp, close enough for us to see it, were it not for the dense foliage that lined the shore. A little before that we had a crack, snap, and splash around a bend just ahead of us. We glanced at each other as if to ask “Did you hear that, too?” and joked about being the lucky ones to hear a rare Minnesota glacier calving. After we rounded the curve, we saw a tree bobbing in the water that had just minutes earlier been part of the canopy.
When we got to the main channel of the Mississippi, we had the river to ourselves, save for a couple of small motor boats. The sun had finally come out and the wind picked up—a cross wind, mostly—that challenged my ability to keep the kayak moving in a more or less straight line. For some reason I worked much harder at it than Michael; while I zigged and zagged, he stayed true with little effort.
We finished our paddle at the same park where we met, within walking distance of downtown Wabasha. For me, though, it felt a world away from where we started. I finally got to spend a few hours paddling through the Chippewa Delta and it exceeded my expectations. I got to see plenty of wildlife—we even paddled alongside a muskrat for a bit. I also found out that my legs will still work after a couple of hours sitting in a kayak, so that’s cool.
Now that I’ve had a taste, I’ll be back, and it won’t take another six years, either. After that morning paddle, though, it was time to move on, time to pack the car up and drive to the next place.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2015