Aquaphile: Canoeing Out Of The Cornfields

In search of a backyard adventure, a college canoe club portages dams, braves pollution, and discovers a river's unlikely beauty

canon river

Words and Photos by Mara MacDonell

Only the promise of paddling pulls me from my warm bed this Saturday morning. I tiptoe around my room collecting my gear, envious of the soft snores of my roommates. Leaving the room, my footsteps echo in the empty hallway that has the lingering smell of last night's beer and pizza. With blurry eyes, I tromp over to the outdoor interest house where my co-leader, Kyra, and I open the canoe garage, bring out lifejackets, and throw paddles on the ground. As we finish last minute preparations, the others trickle in, ready to go. At 7:00 am, the campus is silent except for our enthusiastic crew of seven, upping canoes and grabbing paddles. I lift a canoe onto my shoulders, grab my coffee, and portage across campus to the river.

It's time to paddle.

Attempting to find the best channels of navigation on the refuse-braided river reminds me of paddling whitewater, though this water is more of a grey-brown color and we are dodging tires instead of boulders.

My adventure began a month earlier, on a late night in March, as my friends and I sprawled on the floor of my dorm room, eating burnt popcorn and bemoaning the lack of outdoor adventure in southern Minnesota. A winter with little snow and spring breaks that failed to satiate wanderlust contributed to a serious sense of cabin fever. Adventure was on our mind. But with no vehicles, never-ending homework, and limited funds, it seemed we were stuck with whatever the cornfields of southern Minnesota had to offer. With these longings and limitations, and in collaboration with our campus outdoors club, we decided we would canoe 35 miles from our school, Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota, down the Cannon River to its confluence with the Mississippi River. Finally the day has arrived, and we are ready to see if adventure actually can exist in our backyard.

P1040587

"Whoop whoop!" Our three canoes push off into the brown waters of the Cannon River. Sitting in the stern I reach forward and pull the water back, watching it whirlpool. Each stroke puts winter behind me; each stroke feels like freedom.
We pass farms guarded by broken barbed wire and cookout spots decorated with fraying rope swings. Graffiti under bridges and tree buds on overhanging branches color the grey waterway. As we paddle, we smell manure and our jaws drop as we float past a dumpster rusting in the middle of the river mud. Farther down, a great blue heron appears among the riverside brush, standing rebelliously against the surrounding pollution.

After the blue heron, a blue folding chair appears in the mud. We decide to count chairs and birds — both seem out of place.

Near lunchtime we arrive at Lake Byllesby and after a short paddle, the Lake Byllesby Dam. I've never previously encountered a dam while paddling. Our cadre of canoes whale-beach on shore and we contemplate how to get around the concrete monolith. According to our maps the portage is supposed to be on river right. As we look around we find motorboat landings and a playground, but nothing to indicate a portage. Walking along the shore, we come to a fenced construction site. Though the dam has "DO NOT ENTER" written in a global smorgasbord of languages, the construction site has no such warnings. We decide to hop the fence and scout. It appears the construction site is for a new walking bridge spanning the river gorge, however, in their attempt to further accessibility, the portage has been destroyed. Challenge accepted.

We two-person carry the first canoe down, caterpillaring the muddy plastic boat from one paddler to the next. The eroded bank is nearly vertical and the construction project has left a series of jagged limestone slabs for us to traverse. As we move the canoes down, there is a gasp and the sound of sliding rocks.

P1040560

"I'm alright, I'm alright," the voice calls nervously, holding up slightly bloodied hands. We continue. After 10 minutes of teamwork, the canoe finally sits in the water. One down, two more to go.

"Let me put it on my shoulders," I say, eying the second canoe. Years of difficult portages with heavy boats have given me confidence.

As I begin down, the trail seems to crumble under my feet and the limited visibility makes each footstep a guessing game. Working my way slowly down the limestone slabs makes my legs burn. Then there’s a step that’s larger than the rest. Canoe on shoulders, I sit on the edge of the boulder and slide down, cursing the dam as I go. My hands scrape on the jagged rocks as I try to slow myself. BOOM! The canoe hollowly reverberates as the back hits the rocks behind me. BOOM! The bow jumps in front of me. With a hand from a friend, I gingerly stand up and continue down. The steepness forces me into a bit of a running fall, but at the last moment I pull myself up. Heart racing and legs hurting, I finally make it to the river and throw the canoe down. Two down, one more to go. More creative maneuvering ensues and at last the final canoe is placed in the water. As we finish the portage, I glare at the concrete monster that has forced us to waste so much time.

P1040526

All annoyance quickly dissipates as we paddle further downstream. Laughter and yells of excitement fill the air as the current begins to pick up and we are faced with fun, fast swifts. Attempting to find the best channels of navigation on the refuse-braided river reminds me of paddling whitewater, though this water is more of a grey-brown color and we are dodging tires instead of boulders.

After the dam, the landscape changes, too. Bluffs began to rise on either side of the river as we paddle closer and closer to the Mississippi. It is astounding to know we were only 30 miles from campus; it feels like we have entered another world. In some ways we have: our campus is located on the prairie, an area leveled by glaciers 10,000 years ago. We are now paddling into the Driftless Area, which somehow escaped the last glaciation and is characterized by deep river gorges and soaring bluffs. In this dramatic landscape, I feel diminutive against nature. I close my eyes and feel the waning sun on my face. Everything is right in the world.

Thirty-five miles after we began, we end our trip as the sun sets, our bodies and the canoes covered in thick, grey mud. The group's laughter and exhausted smiles make it clear that the journey has been a success. I had doubted southern Minnesota and it proved me wrong: adventure truly exists everywhere, if you know where to look.

P1040569

Sadly though, the adventure that we found also leaves me troubled. When I consider the moments that made this trip an adventure for us college kids — the horror in the polluted river, the challenge of the horrendous portage, the fast fun of the quasi-whitewater — I realize those are the exact things that keep away beginning canoeists, families with kids, and even experienced paddlers. Thousands of people live on the banks of the Cannon River, yet there is little infrastructure to create accessibility and seemingly little incentive to engage with the river.

While my friends and I had the opportunity to travel 35 miles of the Cannon and see the ugly sections redeemed by the beautiful moments, most people will only see five or ten miles of the river. Still, I sincerely hope they encounter the unlikely beauty of this less-than-wild place: the light on the water or the heron stalking the litter-strewn banks. The experience of canoeing the Cannon will stay with me as a reminder of the multitude of adventures that exist everywhere, but it also reinforces the reality that all rivers, even those in our backyards, need protection.

P1040593

More from C&K

Aquaphile: When You Get Your Life Back

Aquaphile: Crossing The Threshold