By Lynne Diebel
Driving across the vastly flat landscape of Red Lake and Pennington Counties, the last thing we’d expect to find was a fast river. But there it was. When the water’s up – and it was when we were there – the Red Lake River really cooks along.
Bob and I explored this northwestern Minnesota gem on a sunny day in mid-May. The stage on the USACE gauge (www.mvp-wc.usace.army.mil/dcp/) at Red Lake Falls was just over 14 feet. We paddled 36 miles in less than 6 hours, and that included a lunch break, snack breaks, stretching on gravel bars, photo ops, etc – those little paddling niceties. Bob and I love paddling fast rivers, so the Red Lake got high marks.
We based our adventure in Red Lake Falls, where the river bends westward and the Class I-II rapids are at their liveliest. From there we drove north on MN Highway 32 to an access in the little town of St. Hilaire. For the first seven miles, the river was quiet but fast. Then, with every mile, more boulders dotted the riverbed, and chains of standing waves danced down the river. A long series of rapids began as we neared Red Lake Falls and continued all the way through town.
The river has gouged a deep channel here, and the dramatically high, raw-faced bluffs along the river captivated me. Voyageurs View, a tubing outfitter, operates along this stretch, and at Sportsman’s Park, where we stopped for lunch, there’s a campground. The Clearwater River comes in right by the park, so after lunch, the current flowed even faster.
If we had taken out at Sportsman’s Park, our speedy journey would have been 23 miles in less than four hours. But we pressed on, which was a good thing, because we liked the next stretch even more. Downstream of town, the river’s edge was softened by red osiers, willows and ferns, sand and gravel bars appeared, the land felt more remote, and the rapids were still lively and fun.
By the time we cruised past the scattered houses of tiny Huot, the river had quieted. Soon after, a huge dead cottonwood – a mailbox used by 19th century oxcart travelers was once nailed to the tree – marked Old Crossing Park. From park to park, the distance was 14.8 miles, just under two hours of paddling.
While Bob biked the shuttle, I explored. The park got its name because long trains of oxcarts on the Pembina Trail once forded the river there. A statue commemorates an 1863 treaty and land transfer; for $510,000, the Ojibwe sold the U.S. government 11 million acres of land. Back in town, we learned about a modern event that we’d love to attend. Every August, the Old Crossing Chautauqua and French Festival celebrates the area’s Native American and French heritage with four days of dance, music (think zydecos!), food and art at Old Crossing Park. (Contact the Association of the French of the North at 218-253-2270 for more information.) Imagine the fun of arriving by canoe at a cool event like that.
These two trips, and 84 other great northern Minnesota trips on 20 rivers, in the BWCA and Voyageurs National Park, and sea-kayaking on Lake Superior, are described in Paddling Northern Minnesota by Lynne Smith Diebel, published by Trails Books (800-258-5830), a division of Big Earth Publishing. Each trip description includes a detailed map and essential information on camping, shuttle route, gradient, and water levels.