By Jim Umhoefer
St. Louis County. 39 miles, from Vermilion Dam to Crane Lake
The scenic Vermilion River alternates from slow-moving water to rapids with steep drops. Experienced paddlers will need decked canoes or kayaks for some of the pitches; High Falls, 4 miles upstream from Crane Lake, must be portaged by all. The river is a good route for expert canoeists as well as novices who are careful to portage around rapids.
Because much of its flow comes from Vermilion Lake, the river rises and falls slowly and can be canoed as late as October. When the U.S. Geological Survey gauge below the Vermilion Dam reads above 4 feet, then most of the rapids are runnable. Heavy rains swell the tributaries enough that the middle and lower rapids can be attempted even when the gauge reading is low.
Starting just below the dam, there are four rapids within the first three miles. Each of these rapids has a developed portage trail. The river then enters the Chain of Lakes, seven miles of wide, peaceful water. Access points for this section are on Twomile Creek and Eightmile Creek, which both empty into the river. Take County 422 to reach Twomile Creek, and County 24 to reach Eightmile Creek (this road then parallels the river up to Buyck).
Once below the Chain of Lakes, the river tumbles over a dangerous 20-foot cascade, with several vertical ledges, called Table Rock Falls (Class IV-VI). Portage this one on the right side. The next three-quarters of a mile is continuous rapids (Class III-IV) that spill through a steep, narrow canyon. The nearby mile-long portage that bypasses all of this is the longest one of the route.
The next couple of rapids are both Class I-II rocky runs above Buyck. The Vermilion quiets down again for some 6 miles until it drops through the Class II Chipmunk Falls (River Mile 18.2). Just above Chipmunk Falls, you can take a half-mile side trip up the Pelican River (RM 19.7) to see a rapids and waterfall. About 2 to 3 miles below Chipmunk Falls, the river squeezes under 100-foot pine-covered cliffs in the Snowshoe Narrows. Wild-rice beds flank the river as the hills recede.
This section of the Vermilion calmly winds toward Crane Lake, as if saving strength for its energetic rush through High Falls, the Chute and the Gorge. High Falls, also known as Vermilion Falls or Upper Gorge, is a 25-foot-high, narrow, twisting ravine (ClassVI) that must be portaged at any water level. The portage begins on the left bank where the river wraps around a rocky island above the falls.
The Chute is a winding 10-foot drop (Class III-V) over a ledge and some big boulders. The powerful current crashes into undercut formations on both sides of the channel as the rapids smooth out. Then, about a mile and a half above Crane Lake, you'll run into a Class II-III rocky rapids. Suddenly, the river lurches left and roars down two steep ledges before entering a rugged canyon, with sheer 50-foot walls, called the Gorge (Class III-V). The rocky isolation of the Gorge makes the rapids even more hazardous in case of a mishap. The long portage starts above the rapids on the left bank and ends where the river widens just above Crane Lake.
The Vermilion River is a popular, but unusual, state canoe route. Because it is bounded mostly by public lands in the Kabetogama State Forest and the Superior National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service maintains the nine primitive campsites, and the Minnesota DNR publishes a map of the river.