Throughout my life I fell in love with places other than where I was living. This feeling is common in many adventurers. It is inherent in the human spirit to long for unknown territory. It is that same feeling that propelled us to the moon. A powerful motivator for human exploration, that feeling can also separate us from the beauty of our current surroundings.
I am a Miami, FL native living (voluntarily) in Minneapolis, MN. When people ask me why I left the beautiful warm coast of Florida for the frozen tundra, especially now that our eyelids are freezing in below zero temps, I always respond the same way: I'm a paddler. And Minnesota is a paddler's paradise.
I have been avoiding writing about my home city as a result of being too familiar and less curious about my immediate world than I am of water trail happenings elsewhere. But Minneapolis did something recently that really takes the cake for water trails and sets precedent for the future of water recreation worldwide, especially in big cities. My friends, I am thrilled to present to you, the very first of its kind, the Everest of paddler amenities, even more special than the Cubs winning the World Series, drum roll, please… the Paddle Share!
"Think bike share, but with kayaks," explains Katie Nyberg, Executive Director of the Mississippi Park Connection. Most people are familiar with bike shares in cities that allow people to rent a bike from a station and return it to other stations across the city. Minneapolis recently braved inventing the wheel for the Paddle Share in which anyone can go to a kayak station, rent a kayak online (right there on their phone), unlock a kayak, paddle, and PDF with a code, and paddle on the Mississippi River to other stations downstream.
Whether you are renting a kayak from a Paddle Share station, booking a tour with Above the Falls Sports, or have your own boat, a popular stretch of river to paddle through Minneapolis is the four miles from North Mississippi Park to Boom Island near downtown. On this route, paddlers will experience a perfect mix of urban skyline and natural beauty as well as easy access to some of Northeast Minneapolis' favorite restaurants. Paddlers can bask in the dramatic skyline while simultaneously paddle by an active heron rookery. Pull over at the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization right before the Lowry Bridge to secure your boat and walk to Betty Dangers, a fun local bar with a ferris wheel and mini-golf course. You can't miss it! Paddle past the Lowry Bridge to access other establishments accessible by dock: The Sample Room offers great tapas and Psycho Suzi’s is a must see tropical escape with elaborate cocktails and a great view of the Mississippi River from the patio.
Continue on the river to Boom Island where you can return your kayak at a Paddle Share station, conveniently located next to a bike share station (in Minneapolis, we call those Nice Ride stations). Worried about getting back to your car? No problem. A nearby bike path will take you right back to the start, where you can return the bike at a station by your vehicle. "It's a self-sufficient, seamless experience," said Nyberg. Visitors don't need a car or an outfitter to get on the river. Take public transportation or get a ride with one of the many transportation services available in a big city and get out on the Mississippi River, the iconic river of our nation.
What a lot of people don’t know is that the 72-mile stretch of river through Minneapolis and St. Paul is in fact a National Park, home to the beautiful Mississippi River gorge — the only true gorge on the entire Mississippi River. "The Mississippi River gorge provides an unparalleled experience of skylines, old lumber sites, and natural landscape," explains Chad Dayton, local river advocate. To paddle the gorge, put your boat in at Bohemian Flats or East River Flats below the St. Anthony Dam and explore a 5-mile stretch of beautiful white sand beaches and limestone cliffs cutting through the heart of Minneapolis. Paddle back to your put-in spot, use the biking and hiking trails along the river to get back to the start, or continue on to St. Paul through Lock and Dam #1 (which is actually the second lock and dam on the river). If you are new to locks, never fear! Just paddle up to the intimidating doors, pull the chord, and they will open for you like the black gates to Mordor. Paddle in and hold on to the rope for a painfully slow decent — perfect for a snack break or cat nap!
The approximately 7-mile stretch of river from Hidden Falls (right after the lock) to Harriet Island in St. Paul is a local favorite, where you may encounter dogs swimming alongside paddlers from the dog park, barges and passengers on paddleboats waving hello, and a heightened sense of a spiritual presence as you paddle by Pike Island. Part of Fort Snelling State Park, Pike Island marks the confluence of the Minnesota River with the Mississippi River, which the Dakota people believe to be the center of the universe. Once you arrive at Harriet Island, stay the night at the Covington Inn, a houseboat Bed and Breakfast with easy access to the food, breweries, sightseeing, and nightlife of downtown St. Paul.
So, what's next for the Mississippi River as it flows through the Twin Cities? The city recently increased the number of Paddle Share stations and they are working to incorporate the river into the existing matrix of trails. Local businesses are getting on board to provide better access to and from the river, and potentially even discounts for customers traveling by boat. This effort not only increases leisurely recreation, but provides a mode of transportation for commuters and visitors alike, positively impacting the health and standard of living in Minneapolis.
At this point you may be thinking about relocating to the Twin Cities, and I don't blame you. You may be convincing yourself that you can tolerate several months of bitter cold winter in turn for an amazing paddling season. While I don't doubt that you would love it here, remember to love where you live. Explore your home. But love this place, too.
**Editors note: While Minneapolis is certainly a much larger “town” than others featured in this series, the midwestern city has a small-town feel and an infrastructure that eases logistics for paddlers.
More of North America’s (Next) Best Paddling Towns:
— 37 miles of managed water trail on the New River near Pembroke, VA.
— Explore the country’s second largest delta near Mobile, Ala.
— Lively access to the Kansas River National Water Trail in Lawrence, Kan.
— Paddle downstream, both ways, on the Waccamaw River in Conway, S.C.
— A bayou tour through Cajun country in Breaux Bridge, La.
— Mid-Atlantic rivers and bays in Snow Hill, Maryland
— A range of paddling options along the Huron River in Ann Arbor, Michigan
— Check out C&K‘s full list of North America’s Top Paddling Towns