By Jim Umhoefer
The St. Louis River is diverse enough for the experienced and beginning canoeists. You'll find frequent boulder-filed rapids rated Class I or Class II at normal water levels.
You can put in below the Highway 53 bridge on the upper river and will encounter only a handful of Class I rapids and a dam that must be portaged (RM 84.3). The steep banks on the northern river section support heavy woods of maple, aspen and birch mixed with small stands of conifers.
The middle river from Toivola to Floodwood is slower-paced and wider. You'll notice some farmland interspersed with hardwood forest. There are a couple of campsites about 12 miles apart on this stretch that make it easy to plan a weekend canoe outing with the kids. If you need gear, outfitters are located in Duluth and Virginia.
The rapids between Floodwood and Cloquet are for experienced canoeists only. About two miles below Floodwood there's a long stretch of Class I to Class II rapids that extends to Gowan. The river channel widens again and you'll pass by some 75-foot bluffs covered with hardwoods. The pace is lazy from Gowan to the confluence with the Cloquet River, and there are four campsites spaced along the left bank. Most inexperienced canoeists end their trip at the U.S. Highway 2 access about a mile below the confluence.
About four miles downstream from the Highway 2 access are two stretches of boulder-bed rapids: one is rated Class II-III and the other is Class I-II. These ratings depend on low or high water, but consider them more dangerous during the cold, peak levels of spring runoff.
Once past these drops, the river calms down as you paddle into the deep pools formed by the Cloquet dam. The last takeout before the Knife Falls dam is on Dunlap Island in Cloquet (road access is from Highway 33 or Main Street). The route ends here. Below Cloquet, the river becomes hazardous because of dams and the St. Louis gorge. The gorge, in Jay Cooke State Park, is worth seeing, but not by boat. The best views of the jagged riverbed rock formations and the tumbling stream are from the swinging bridge over the gorge.
Chances are good for spotting some of the wildlife that northeastern Minnesota is noted for while on the St. Louis River: moose, deer, beavers, bald eagles and ospreys. Black bears and timber wolves are occasionally sighted. Walleye and northern are the main game fish caught on the river, though smallmouth bass are common from the mouth of the Whiteface River to Cloquet, and channel catfish are landed from Floodwood to Brookston.
Savanna Portage, McCarthy Beach and Hill Annex Mine are other state parks in the St. Louis River area. Nearby forests include the Superior National Forest and the Cloquet Valley and Savanna state forests. The Cloquet River Canoe Route (a family river in the southern section) empties into the St. Louis River below Brookston.