ST. CLOUD, Minn. – From the shore, the current looks downright scary. Just a long punt downriver from St. Cloud’s city-owned dam, which is directly in front of St. Cloud State University’s football stadium, the organizers of the canoe outing on the Mississippi River assure our group of a dozen or so that the waters are manageable despite what looks like raging rapids on this sunny Friday morning in early May.
City promoters made a push to host the 2017 Governor’s Fishing Opener to introduce people to St. Cloud as a fishing destination. There aren’t notable lakes in the region, but the nation’s best-known river runs right through town, and on the Saturday of the opener, the dignitaries and media who came to town by the hundreds nearly all reported successful days on the water.
But the annual event was designed way back 70 years ago as a vehicle to boost tourism in the state, and for St. Cloud organizers of the GFO, that manifested itself both in showing off the angling options, and in revealing non-fishing activities to visitors as well.
That’s how we find ourselves at a boat landing in a far-fling parking lot for the National Hockey Center, facing what appears to be a raging river swollen with spring rains, canoe paddles in hand. We’re assured that the current is not bad. We’re also told to keep a life jacket on at all times, be prepared to get wet (they offer to keep our cell phones in a waterproof bag) and are given a primer on how not to get sucked underwater due to the current if your canoe hits a rock.
When Dan Phipps, a St. Cloud native who lives and works as an adventure guide near Ely now, offers to paddle and steer from the back of our canoe, I jump at the chance for an experienced set of eyes and arms to show me the way.
Immediately upon entering the river, we learn first-hand the current truly isn’t as bad as it appears, especially when you can get behind one of the 15-plus hunks of land known as the Beaver Islands (there are up to 18 islands when the river level drops later in the summer) that dot the five miles of river just south of the SCSU campus. There are rocks to be avoided, for sure, but you can see them coming, and steer clear without much trouble. Within minutes we’re winding through calm creeks barely two canoe paddles wide, with thick vegetation blocking out the sun, and views more reminiscent of the Florida Everglades than the river country of central Minnesota.
Phipps is one of a half-dozen volunteers from CW Outfitting who are our official guides, but it quickly becomes clear that the member of the excursion with the evangelist-like passion for and knowledge of the river is Nick Barth, who is paddling the lead canoe.
Barth grew up on St. Cloud’s north side and returned to the region a dozen years ago after college in Alaska. He admits that he explores the various bays and straight stretches of the Beaver Islands nearly every warm-weather weekend. When Nick and partners needed a moniker for the microbrewery they started two years ago, they didn’t need to look far for inspiration.
“We were looking for a name and wanted to find something that was a tip of the hat to a town but also allowed us to expand markets,” Barth said, wearing a t-shirt from what’s now known as Beaver Island Brewing Company. “When we landed on ‘Beaver Island’ it was just perfect because this set of islands means a ton to all of us as outdoors enthusiasts whether it be paddling or fishing or just spending time with your family.”
Nick narrates for the handful of canoes making their way along a route that will eventually take you to New Orleans if you stick with it long enough. On weekend mornings, it’s common to see a dozen or more tents dotting the islands, as residents of the region find a less-distant way to get a little taste of BWCA adventures without venturing north.
We take advantage of the higher water to navigate around the west side of Sportsmen’s Island, a now-abandoned spot with some real history in the region. Only the fenced-off decking remains of the rusting bridge that once linked the 19-acre island to the mainland. It used to have a clubhouse, a ball field and all manner of other recreation. Now owned by the adjacent St. Cloud Country Club, the island sits unused and inaccessible other than by water, but rumors abound of a new bridge and an island resurgence that some big dreamers would prefer.
Just past Sportsmen’s Island we come upon two of the country club’s golf holes, and a small fence has been erected at the water’s edge to prevent canoeists from pulling up with clubs and playing a few illicit golf shots without paying their yearly membership fee. Anglers joke that the river has a clay bottom here, as one can still see the remains of the trap houses of the old St. Cloud Gun Club, where for years clay targets and the pellets from shotgun blasts were sent into the river by the thousands each day that the club was in operation.
A few generations ago, two meatpacking plants just south of St. Cloud freely dumped animal waste and all manner of other pollutants in the river, and old timers who remember those days still shy away from eating fish from the Mississippi. But tighter regulations and a different attitude toward natural resources mean that much of the stretch we paddle appears pristine today. Still, keeping the river clean is an on-going effort spearheaded by countless volunteers. Barth and Beaver Island Brewing, along with CW Outfitters, have organized clean-up days for the river and the adjacent trails in the past, even rewarding volunteers with a free beer at the end of the day. CW Outfitting is a relatively new family-run operation, working the stretch of Mississippi between St. Cloud and Clearwater, which is the next downriver community, and offering full Boundary Waters-style outfitting and transportation for outdoors enthusiasts who are interested in a closer-to-home canoe adventure.
South of the islands, the river opens up, and the partially submerged rocks that cause ripples and boils in the current become less prevalent. We’ve budgeted two-plus hours for the canoe trip down to the landing at River Bluffs Regional Park, maybe five miles down the river. But the current pushes us faster, and the entire trip is done in around 90 minutes. As we relax some sore arms on the shore and devour a box lunch, Barth reflects on the importance of the river to the region, and how the big weekend event is a way to showcase St. Cloud as more than a college town and a regional shopping hub, but to remind people of its roots as a river town.
“Our community is doing a better job of turning everything back toward the river,” Barth says. “And the Governor’s Fishing Opener gives us the ability to highlight that and show the beauty, as well as the great fishing in the area.”
He also notes that even among St. Cloud area residents, the Beaver Islands are mostly a secret, with very few ever seeing the river from water level, let alone navigating the seemingly endless options for a down-river run among these Minnesota gems. The sheer scope of the Boundary Waters have enthralled and intimidated would-be adventurers for generations. But hidden away in central Minnesota of all places, there’s a smaller-scale but similar adventure waiting.