By Dave Simpkins
On August 3, 1836, French astronomer and topographer Joseph Nicollet and his expedition met three Ojibwe and two Sauk Indians at the mouth of what is now the Sauk River. He was mapping the Mississippi watershed and recording the local names of lakes and rivers. Nicollet questioned how to write the name. The Americans pronounced it: Såkis, Sauks and Sawkis, the French: Såks or Sacs and the Ojibwe gave it a hard g sounding much like a k.
Nicollet reported following a solemn and friendly meeting the river was named for the Såkis Indians who were relocated from central Wisconsin.
Nicollet also reported the waters of the river were clear and tasted sweeter than the Mississippi.
Flowing 122 miles across the center of the state from Lake Osakis to the Mississippi River at Sauk Rapids, the Sauk River offers a quiet, peaceful journey through thick oak groves and teaming marshlands surrounded by farmlands and small towns.
The river is thought to have been the home of Dakota Indians as far back as 5,000 years ago. Later the Ojibwe and Sauk Indians hunted and made camp along the river. Settlers followed it on their way to the Red River Valley and later built dams to run mills and factories. While it has been ignored in recent years, that state has named it a designated canoe route. A Friends of the Sauk River group has been formed and Stearns County has improved access points and campgrounds.
The river starts in an isolated area of oak savanna, rolling hills and farmland about six miles north of Osakis on the east shore of Lake Osakis. The water flow begins at 30 cubic feet per second meandering about 20-feet wide from lake to lake.
The first six miles includes three small lakes; Guernery, Little Sauk and Juergens Lakes, woodlands and tall cattails. Little Sauk and Juergens are nice little fishing lakes without an access. The river between Little Sauk and Juergens has a hard sand bottom where locals have found pre-historic bones.
Three miles down river you'll come into the Sauk Lake, an 11-mile riverine lake created by the dam built by Alexander Moore in Sauk Centre before the Civil War to operate a mill. Sauk Centre is at river mile 90 where you can camp at Sinclair Lewis Park, park your car, use the bathroom or have a picnic at the shelter. You can also walk a few blocks up Original Main Street to eat or catch a movie.
You'll have to portage across Original Main Street and the Sauk Centre Dam. You can also park along Conservation Park, below the dam. The pool below the dam is a popular fishing hole. The river goes through a wooden area east of the dam and turns south toward I-94.
The next 10 miles to Melrose goes through farmland. The meandering river has created several oxbow lakes. You will find three parcels of the 400-acre Sauk River Wildlife Management Area maintained by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource, (DNR)where tall grasses make this a good place to bird watch, duck hunt or take pictures There is another dam, campground, access and picnic area in Melrose.
The 40 river miles from Melrose to Richmond offers a surprising collection of mature oak groves and very peaceful paddling with a county park and campsite about a third of the way. Snags have been a problem in this stretch and hopefully the DNR designation will help clear these snags.
But first you'll come across a 300 acre Wildlife Management Area just north of New Munich operated by DNR and an undeveloped canoe access only campsite just south of New Munich.
Spring Hill County Park is just beyond river mile 55 providing picnic, parking, pump and bathrooms on the Westside of the river and a canoe only campground on the east. The river cuts through a gorge here with undeveloped shoreline.
There is another canoe only access at river mile 45 in St. Martin where we've heard reports of many deer and turkey sightings.
The cfs rises to 200 and the width of the river increases to 210 feet at river mile 35 just outside Richmond, which is a response to the Cold Spring dam about 15 miles and 14 lakes away. You will see more development as the river goes through Richmond and into the 2224 acres Sauk River Chain of Lakes. Watch out for waves and motor-boats. Make sure you have a map to follow the main channel.
The Sauk River has played an important role in the history of Cold Spring where a dam has been used to generate power since the 1860s. The Cold Spring Dam has had it's enemies through the years as people have tried to blow up the dam.
There is a free boat landing at south of Richmond on State Hwy 22 on Becker Lake, another boat on County Rd 71 on Cedar Island Lake and another in the City of Cold Spring on Hwy 23 in a city park.
Frogtown park is downstream from the Cold Spring just northeast of Cold Spring bath rooms, a picnic area and ball fields.
East of Cold Spring you'll see the remains of a former Heron rockery at river mile 19.5 and another mature stretch of oak and maples that are part of a DNR Science and Natural Area. While there is some development, much of it is set back because of the flood plain. The river is scattered with large granite rocks from here to the Mississippi River. Bald eagles nest between here and Waite Park.
Above Rockville there is a canoe only campground and will soon be a county park along the river. There is also an annual canoe event held each June from Rockville to Waite Park.
You will find some Class I rapids from river mile six through Waite Park, the Veterans Administration Hospital and St. Cloud most of the year and up too Class III in the spring. Even though you're in a small metropolitan area, there are open lands to give you a natural experience.
At Boy Scout Bridge you find a low level roller dam where the rapids can be Class I to II. There is a canoe access at river mile four near County Rd. 4.
Be careful at the confluence of the Sauk and Mississippi rivers where the rapids can average Class IV. Experienced kayakers use these rapids to train.