By Jim Umhoefer
Minnesota's newest designated canoe route is a clear, scenic river that families and beginning canoeists can enjoy. The Pine River has occasional Class I rapids that may be impassable in low water.
The route could be regarded as three separate sections. Most river trips on the upper stretch run from the Cass County 118 Bridge to the Whitefish chain of lakes. To reach the bridge, take Highway 84 north of the town of Pine River to County 118 and turn left. The river flows through an area of mixed hardwoods and conifers, mostly birch, elm, jack pine and red pine. Some farmland interrupts the forest along the riverbank.
The Pine River enters the Whitefish chain of lakes, continuing for 9 miles to the Army Corps of Engineers dam at the river's outlet at Cross Lake. The lakes in the chain are large and potentially dangerous for canoeists. If doubtful about the weather, stick close to shore for a fast escape.
Below Cross Lake, the Pine has remained more primitive where it flows through the Crow Wing State Forest. The dense tree cover is rarely broken by development. Rapids here, as elsewhere on the river, are dotted with boulders but are easy to canoe. Beyond Pine Lake, the river broadens into a marshy area characteristic of the rest of the route.
One of the Pine River's main attractions is the constant change of scenery along its route. Canoeists paddle from woods to farmland and from big lakes to marshes. Riverbanks vary from low wetlands to high sand-and-gravel banks. The river itself changes from mild rapids to meanders, pools, and lakes. The river's environment is fragile. Sand banks erode swiftly when people walk on them, and litter detracts from everybody's outdoor experience. Numerous unofficial landings and campsites compound these problems.
The Pine River passes by too much farmland and cottage development to be called a wilderness stream, but its easygoing nature and diverse backdrops add up to a pleasant northwoods outing within a 3-hour drive of the Twin Cities. Besides canoeing, tubing is popular on the lower Pine River (bring your own inner tube or rent one locally). Before leaving home, ask the state Department of Natural Resources about river conditions and whether there's enough water flow for canoeing.
The last take-out is on Crow Wing County 11, just above the confluence with the Mississippi River. Some canoeists continue their trip on the Mississippi River Canoe Route.