By Jim Umhoefer
The wilderness canoeing on the Little Fork River enhances Minnesota's reputation as a canoeist's dream. Though the upper and lower thirds of the route are punctuated by bridges, homes and farmland, the middle stretch (more than 40 miles long) is true wild country. Because of its primitive character and numerous rapids, the Little Fork is best suited for experienced canoeists.
Most of the Little Fork's rapids are encountered on the upper river. With the exception of Hannine Falls (Class VI), these rapids vary in difficulty from Class I to Class II. Hannine Falls (River Mile 121) is a jagged, sloping 15-foot drop followed by 150 yards of Class II rapids. Portage the falls.
The first middle-river drops into the Nett Lake Indian Reservation. You'll need a permit from the Reservation Conservation Office to fish, hunt or camp on reservation land. Below the reservation are Seller's (RM 72.8) and Deadman's (RM 65) rapids. Seller's Rapids is a quarter-mile of Class II boulder bed; Deadman's (much easier than it sounds) is also rated Class II. Both of these rapids are easier to run in high water. The largest lower-river rapids, called Flat Rock, is a Class II pitch about 9 miles above the town of Little Fork.
The Little Fork River can rise swiftly following heavy rains. It is canoeable for most of the summer, but some rapids are unrunnable during low water periods. Stream flow peaks in April and decreases all summer, but rises again during late season rains. It's best to check current conditions before pushing off downstream. High water washes out some Class I rapids, but can form large standing waves in others. Scout each rapids, ahead of time and portage when necessary. Unfortunately, many rapids have undeveloped portages.
The pocket DNR river map is a handy in-canoe guide for the Little Fork. The guidebook A Gathering of Waters also has good background information about this route and all of the state's designated canoe trails. Although these sources are carefully prepared, some hazards may have been omitted. Check with local DNR personnel or the outfitters in Cook and International Falls for details.
The banks of the Little Fork support dense growths of pine, spruce, fir, aspen and birch. Thick cedar trees tower overhead as you paddle near the Valley River confluence. The high clay banks in this stretch sometimes break free because of erosion, sliding into the river with trees still upright. Farther downriver, the pine forest turns into hardwoods and then gradually (around Little Fork) into farm country.
Wildlife thrives in the Little Fork River Valley. Moose like the marshes and swamps, while deer browse around farm fields. Black bears and timber wolves roam the forests, though it's unlikely that you'll see any. You might spot beaver and muskrat in the tributaries and backwaters, plus several kinds of ducks.
Bring along your fishing gear and you may land a muskie, northern, walleye or small mouth bass. Trout have been caught in some stretches of the river and in its tributaries. The water has a cloudy appearance in sections because of suspended clay and other solids. You'll have to carry your own water or disinfect and filter the river water.
Dakota and Ojibway Indians are the most recent native people to live in this region. A Middle Woodland people, the Laurel Indians, built a huge burial mound near where the Big Fork River meets the Rainy River. Grand Mound, the largest prehistoric burial mound in Minnesota is operated as a historic site (with an informative visitor center) by the Minnesota Historical Society. The site is 17 miles west of International Falls on State Highway 11.
State parks near the upper Little Fork River include Bear Head Lake, McCarthy Beach and Soudan Underground Mine. Nearby state trails are the Big Fork and Vermilion River canoe routes and the Taconite State Trail.