BY JAMES HANCOCK
YOU MIGHT BE A PADDLER IF … say, you touched down at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport arguing with other passengers about which quarterback could hand-roll first. Tom Brady versus Other Guy debate aside, maybe you only showed up for the Ro-Tel dip and Kitten Bowl. Or perhaps you’re asking ‘Super Bowl … that's with the oblong, pointy ball, right?’ Either way, now that the Eagles have landed, err flown, and the holographic halftime debacle is over, we can focus on the important question plaguing those of us searching beyond the spectacle, wondering one thing: what type of paddling adventures lie beyond those towering glass walls of U.S. Bank Stadium?
This year's host city offers plenty to turn the head of anyone who's taken a forward stroke. Let's start with the obvious. The Big Game itself was played a short portage away from the biggest rapid on the biggest river in North America, in a city officially dubbed the City of Lakes, in a stadium whose silhouette bears an unmistakable resemblance to the hull of a boat (shallow 'V', maybe?).
So, if your preferred method of tailgating is hauling your drag bag up to the stern to crack a cold one and you prefer to measure first downs in rods instead of yards, read on.
For those of you interested in architecture that doesn't involve cedar strips, kevlar, or rotomolded plastic you can marvel at the stadium itself. When viewed from the riverfront side, the leading edge of this monolith truly resembles the hull of a ship – cutting through the mist of concrete and steel skyscrapers, making land as unsuspecting businessfolk scurry to escape through the skyways of Minneapolis below.
When the Minnesota Vikings take the field at U.S. Bank Stadium, they disembark through the gaping hull of a viking warship, whose oars permanently ply the astroturf and dragon-headed bowsprit screeches pyrotechnics into the air, as thousands of fans scream SKOL! Who knew 66,000 people were so into boating?!
For the paddler who scoffs at the idea of getting out his or her boat, even for want of liquid water, the Mississippi River, which flows through the heart of downtown Minneapolis, past thousands of obnoxious Eagles and Patriots fans this weekend, can provide year-round paddling opportunities for hard-core experts with proper training. When the conditions are right, many sections between Minneapolis and St. Paul are navigable during the winter, though hazards like ice jams, frozen-over eddies, and obviously very cold water temperatures make this an expert-only endeavor. When you've thawed out your pogies, see the next entry.
The Pub Crawl
The only thing that fits into a hand better than a paddle is a pint of beer. The highest concentration of Minneapolis' brewing scene can be found a stone's throw across the river from the stadium in Northeast Minneapolis. These hundred-year-old buildings turned brewhouses, originally milled flour, lumber, and…um, also brewed beer. This once industrial river corridor is now littered with great places to grab a pint, along with all the great dive bars that predate the brewing-boom. A paddler with a high tolerance and right motivation could spend a long summer day ping-ponging downriver from north Minneapolis to St. Paul, sampling the Twin Cities finest barley pops. And in the winter, when the river closes up for most of us? Hey, the bars stay open! With so many options, I somewhat arbitrarily narrowed it down to those closest to the river and the stadium.
Pryes – this brewery's taproom is literally on the water (river-right) just upstream from the gridiron. Their Miraculum, a Midwest IPA, is the real "Minneapolis Miracle."
Dangerous Man – gets the nod by simply being closest to the river on the NE side (river left). And because it's awesome. Forgot to pack a snack? Replenish with their peanut butter porter.
Psycho Suzi's Motor Lounge – a tiki bar with a 1950s hot-rod vibe. They maintain a dock and boat landing to accommodate thirsty downriver adventurers.
Yacht Club – yeah, I know it's sailboat themed, but this dive is a must visit for paddlers who'd rather guzzle cheap beer by brands that were probably brewing when those sawmills were still powered directly by St. Anthony Falls. A close jaunt inland from Psycho Suzi's.
Pracna Bar – the oldest bar in Minneapolis, dating back to the milling days. From a comfy seat you could have simultaneously watched whitewater roar down the spillway through the front window while catching every play on TV inside.
And if you're reading this in a fine Minnesotan drinking establishment, other than those mentioned above, you can still get in on the paddle-theme drinking by asking the barkeep for a Bent Paddle Kanū Session IPA or Lake Superior Brewing Company Kayak Kölcsh (both brewed up the road in Duluth).
Midwest Mountaineering. Since 1971, the shop with the self-deprecating name has taken outfitting seriously. A great all-around paddle shop and really the only game in town when it comes to whitewater gear. Just down the street from the U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Rapid Scout
Minnehaha Falls – this 53-foot urban waterfall located just a few miles south of the stadium, interrupts the mostly riffly creek that drains Lake Minnetonka (think Prince's house) to the Mississippi. Plunging into a shallow, limestone bowl it doesn't look to go, even for those who would actually consider dropping a 53-footer. In 2014, with record high water, kayaker Hunt Jennings made a first descent. Whether or not you're good/crazy enough to push your bow over the brink, everyone can mind-paddle it while sipping a local craft beer and munching fish tacos from Sea Salt at the top of the falls. The falls create a spectacular fortress of ice this time of year, the bar unfortunately is closed.
St. Anthony Falls – Though now cloaked in human engineering, the power of the falls are still awesome to behold. You can imagine all sorts of unimaginable lines through what was once a massive, river-wide cataract. The largest drop on the Mississippi, the falls are the reason that Minneapolis is known as Mill City, first milling lumber, then grain. They were the source of the greatest direct-drive hyrdopower system in the world. Best viewed from the Stone Arch Bridge or the observation deck of the Guthrie Theater. Both a few blocks north of the stadium.
And then there's this...
River of Dreams With the permanent closure of the locks at St. Anthony Falls, due to diminished traffic and preventing invasive carp from spreading upstream, some visionary paddlers have imagined creating a whitewater park right here in the shadow of downtown. Another group has gone a step further by proposing a restoration of the river to its natural flow, which for paddlers would mean an 8-mile stretch world-class whitewater through the downtown river corridor. The only downside I could see? Might make eddying out for a craft brew a bit trickier.
There are number of fantastic non-profit paddling outdoor and experiential education programs in the Twin Cities. Urban Boat Builders empower youth through the hands-on experience of building a boat from scratch, from North Canoes to skin Greenland kayaks. Voyageur Outward Bound School works with youth and adults teaching leadership and building character through day and multi-day canoe expeditions on local and regional waterways.
The Multi-Sport Athlete
When waterways freeze over (which they do for most of the winter here) Minnesotans just grab their skates or skis and head out all the same. Two events that embody this spirit, the US Pond Hockey Championship and the City of Lakes Loppet, bookended the Super Bowl this year. The former, is exactly as it sounds. Over thirty hockey rinks are shoveled on Lake Nokomis, really a giant pool on Minnehaha Creek's path toward the Mississippi, hosting hundreds of hockey teams in this outdoor tournament. The Loppet, is an annual cross country ski race whose course snakes through the Chain of Lakes, a popular multi-lake paddle with views of downtown and the always-hip Uptown area. Both allow you to trace your favorite paddling routes from a different perspective.
Of course you could always come back this summer, when you could actually paddle more and drink less (or not). See you on the water!