By Jim Umhoefer
The Cloquet River is one of the state's most primitive canoe routes. Most of the river flows through the wild lands of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, inspiring a sense of isolation that explorers may have felt. You'll discover its remoteness before pushing off downstream. Few highways cross the river, and you may have to drive 100 miles or more (partially on rough back roads) to pick up canoes. Outfitters are located in Duluth and Virginia.
The Cloquet has two distinct personalities. The upper section from Indian Lake to Island Lake Reservoir, is for experienced canoeists only. Rapids are usually short and are separated by long sections of quiet water. Except for a couple of high-water Class IIIs above Island Lake, the rest of the upper rapids are rated Class II. Each rapids has a portage trail. You could canoe above Indian Lake, though the long boulder-bed rapids (Class I and Class II) are runnable only in high water. The riverbanks above Island Lake are covered with dense stands of red and white pine, fir, spruce, aspen and birch trees.
White Sides Rapids, above Island Lake, is probably the river's most difficult pitch. Rocky outcrops and thick boulder beds make this rapids too much of a challenge for most canoeists. Just below White Sides is an 8 to 12-foot waterfall that develops as water is drawn out of Island Lake. When the reservoir is high the ledge is covered and the majority of canoeists don't notice it. If you wish to end your trip on Island Lake, the Minnesota Power picnic area and boat launch on the north shore (just east of County 4) is a handy takeout. The reservoir is big, though, and it's best to keep an eye on the weather before canoeing into open water.
Because the upper river is characterized by so many steep, rocky stretches, medium to heavy stream flow is necessary for an enjoyable run. During summer, the rapids may be runnable only after heavy rains. Stream flow usually peaks in late April, decreases during summer and rises again during fall rains. When the bridge gauge south of Brimson reads below 3.5, many of the upper Cloquet's rapids will be too rocky to run.
The lower Cloquet, from Island Lake Reservoir to the St. Louis River, is easier to canoe. Although there are many rocky Class I rapids, waves are small and navigation is not too difficult, the only exception being a steep Class II drop near the confluence with the St. Louis River. Stream flow is controlled by discharges from Minnesota Power's dam on Island Lake Reservoir. When the river is extremely high, the rapids become more difficult. To get more information about releases, call Minnesota Power's System Dispatch at 218-72202641 (ext. 2602). You can also get water level information from the DNR in St. Paul or at the DNR's Grand Rapids office at 218-327-1709.
The lower Cloquet River is not quite as wild as the upper. The forests are similar, but you'll pass under more bridges and notice some buildings and farmland. In spite of these signs of civilization, the route is mostly primitive and requires careful preparation. When on a relatively inaccessible river like the Cloquet, experienced canoeists let someone know their itinerary.
Because of its isolate nature, the river alley supports an abundance of wildlife. Great blue herons are common sights, but you might also hear the drumming of a ruffed grouse, or spot a moose browsing in a backwater or bear along the bank. There are timber wolves, bald eagles and otters here too, though they aren't common. Northerns and walleyes are the primary game fish on the Cloquet, though some canoeists like to try for small mouth bass. Brook trout lurk in the colder headwaters and tributaries of the upper Cloquet; brown trout (also near cold-water tributaries) and channel catfish inhabit the lower Cloquet.
Besides the Cloquet Valley State Forest, regional side trips could include Jay Cooke and Savanna Portage state parks, plus the parks and attractions of the North Shore. You can continue your canoe trip on the St. Louis River Canoe Route as far as Cloquet. The river is too shallow and rocky below that point.
Before European exploration, the Cloquet River valley was the home of the Dakota tribe. AS the Ojibway Indians were pushed westward by th whites, they in turn pushed the Dakota out of the forests to the prairies. After the Ojibway Indians ceded their land in 1854, railroads and lumber inspired rapid settlement. Logging camps sprouted on the riverbanks, and dams and sawmills were built. The names of some of the Cloquet River rapids, such as Dry Foot Brown's, McCabe's, and Camp G, recall the lumber days in this valley. One of the rapids is named for J.C. "Buzz" Ryan, district ranger of the Cloquet Valley State Forest for more than 40 years.