How to Make a River Town

An expedition paddler’s perspective on community development

In tracing waterways from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, canoeist Natalie Warren has had a lot of time to observe the role of rivers in promoting thriving communities. Now, she's taking her message to river towns across the Midwest, including St. Cloud, Minn., where she was a keynote speaker at the Water Trails Tourism Summit. A member of the outdoor education nonprofit Wild River Academy, we contacted Warren to learn more about her "integrated recreation and economy" manifesto. — Conor Mihell

Natalie Warren

Natalie Warren

CanoeKayak.com: Talk about how both wild rivers and urban waterways have inspired your speaking interests.
Natalie Warren: I discovered my love of paddling and the outdoors through exploring wild rivers. On those trips, I admired the scenery and ecological health of the remote areas of the world. However, it takes big bucks and a lot of travel time to reach those areas, which excludes people with little money or little time from participating in such expeditions. 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.

How long have you been thinking about the role that waterways play in communities?
During our trip up to Hudson Bay, we paddled by communities along the Minnesota River, Red River, and Lake Winnipeg. We compared these communities and became experts on key components of a thriving riverfront. There's a strong correlation between interaction with water trails and sustainable or growing economies. Several towns along our route were ghost towns or agricultural towns. Like a business, small towns should constantly advertise themselves to increase tourism and the money that flows into their economy. Historically, towns have chosen to depend on one or two industries, whether its agricultural towns, mining towns, cheese-plant towns, etc. On our trip we saw firsthand the repercussions of mono-economies. Agriculture, for example, used to require a whole community to tend to the land. Now one farmer can farm thousands of acres of corn or soybeans alone. Towns that were once vibrant have boarded up shops and barns falling into the ground.

I got to thinking. These farms, industries, and energy plants all had one thing in common: The river. It was on that trip that I began to understand the complexities of integrated recreation and the importance of diversified economies.

pfenergy

Paddling past towns on the Lower Mississippi tied to local energy plants during Paddle Forward’s 2013 expedition. Photo courtesy Paddle4Ward.com

What's your end goal?
My goal is to use the river as a way to diversify small town economies, to increase tourism, and bring life back to river communities. I've seen it done before. I bet you can think of a small town like this, too — a place within a few hours of where you live where you can go for the weekend to bike, hike, canoe; a place with a coffee shop, an interpretive center, and a bed and breakfast; a place where you can unwind after a long day of recreating with a beer by the water. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Every town along a water trail has the potential to be that weekend getaway.

My end goal is decades in the making, and I am not the sole force in pushing for increased recreation on local waterways. Through my public speaking engagements, 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.

What are some examples of communities that have embraced their riverfront?
There are several cities and towns that stand out from my travels up to Hudson Bay and down the Mississippi. Before I highlight a few places, here is a checklist of things that, in my opinion, make a great river town:

  • Access to the water
  • Outfitters
  • Hiking and biking paths
  • Restaurants and breweries
  • Museums, interpretive centers
  • Camping, B&B
  • Neighboring towns/cities with similar amenities

When our Paddle Forward expedition canoed through Wabasha, Minn., we wished we had a few more days to explore the area. Right after a long day of battling winds on Lake Peppin, we paddled right up to Reed’s Landing Brewery to have a beer by the water. The next day we paddled with someone who runs the local bed and breakfast and outfitter. He kayaked with us to the National Eagle Center (again, right on the river) where we learned about birds on the Big Muddy. This town has access to beautiful hiking paths on the bluffs by the river, an outfitter, a bed and breakfast, several restaurants, a great brewery, and just a quick jaunt from Red Wind (great place for climbing). It passes my checklist with flying colors.

Looking through the fog for America's next great paddling town during Paddle Forward's 2013 expedition down the Mississippi. Photo courtesy Paddle4Ward.com

Looking through the fog for America’s next great paddling town during Paddle Forward’s 2013 expedition down the Mississippi. Photo courtesy Paddle4Ward.com

The farther you go down the mighty Mississippi River, the harder it is to provide direct access to the water. Dubuque, Iowa was a memorable stop for us because, even though they still had retaining walls, the city built an enclosed harbor for boats to stop in and explore the city. We were able to paddle right up to the National Mississippi River Museum where the director let us stay the night in an old Army Corps dredging boat. We got together with city planners who showed us Dubuque’s Art on the River — a path along the Mississippi that displays new artwork every year. This project brings people of all ages out to interact with the river and helps market the city as a river town. Kudos for the creativity!

We were contacted by a community group in Montrose, Iowa, to invite us to stop and tour their town. Reaching out to paddlers is a great sign of a happy, proud river community. The sun set as we paddled the calm waters toward Montrose. We were greeted with flashing lights and honking horns as the community ran to the riverbank to welcome our group of paddlers. They held a dinner for us and we swapped stories about the river. The next day, members of the community gave us a tour of the button factory museum and we rode through town on the back of a trailer to learn about the town’s history. Turns out, Montrose was a major producer of buttons when buttons were made by drilling holes into mussel shells (before they were over-harvested). While Montrose may not fulfill all of the checklist categories, I have never met community members along the river who were more passionate about maintaining a culture around their waterway.

What's in this for paddlers?
Local recreation heaven! As towns turn toward the river, paddlers will have the opportunity to take low-cost paddle trips with minimal travel time. This experience is not a replacement for your annual Boundary Waters trip or Arctic river expedition. Paddling locally is a great way to explore nearby water trails, learn more about your home state, and take a peek at the beauty in your own backyard. And eat a piece of pie at the coffee shop on the river while you’re at it. 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. That’s a lot to digest … good thing there is a brewery on the water!

— Read more about Warren’s argument for urban paddling corridors in our Voices of Wilderness series.