A Pleasant Paddling Surprise

First stop

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Minnesota’s official network of canoe routes. Like I recently wrote in the Star Tribune, Minnesotans should get out and explore our rivers more often. I took my own advice and found the Cannon River is lively by paddle.

A good route starts at Faribault, below the historic woolen mill, at Two Rivers Park where the Straight and the Cannon come together. The day we went in late July, the water was running swiftly. Morning showers were tapering off and the skies glowed a lightening gray.

We pushed away from shore and were rapidly swept toward the first of many turns to come.

The river bends constantly, looping across the landscape. That typically means a flatter gradient and slower water, but the current pulled us insistently downstream. It was narrow enough that we were frequently dodging down trees in the water and we paddled most of the way, not for speed but maneuvering.

Swift water

Weaving through yet another narrow opening, I thought of kayaking the upper Namekagon in northern Wisconsin. Different rivers in most ways, the Cannon and the “Nam” both move quickly while zigging and zagging across their valleys. They demand attentiveness from paddlers.

The biggest difference between the rivers I noticed was the water, and the Cannon’s did not look good. The river was full of the tiny green strands of algae suspended in the water, the sign of too much runoff from surrounding crop lands. It wasn’t appealing for swimming, possibly made the dog sick, and starves the river’s feisty smallmouth bass of oxygen.

The Cannon is also different because of its tall sandstone cliffs. They are smoother and taller and more severe than the sandstone I’m accustomed to seeing on the St. Croix, less eroded. They looked shaped by a cosmic hand, monuments to an event buried deep in geologic time.


The banks mostly alternate between these bluffs and steep hills thick with vegetation. I had come to the Cannon expecting to see a lot of the floodplain forest we see a lot of in Minnesota, especially the farther south you go. But there was not much of this along the stretch of river we paddled. In some places, vines enveloped the brush, creating an impenetrable wall of jungle.

Our take-out was at the Cannon River Wilderness Park, operated by Rice County. The landing was in the midst of a fast stretch and we hugged the shore before spotting it and nosing into the mucky bank. Then it was a 50-yard carry to the parking lot, and soon we were on our way home.


The Cannon is a joy to paddle, but any new river offers a sense of adventure. There is nothing like putting the canoe in not knowing what waits downstream. Finishing such a paddle brings a sense of accomplishment, but I would have traded that for being able to see what was around the next bend downstream.

Making a weekend of it

Bring the bike and have a combined paddling and cycling getaway.


At our put-in in Faribault, the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail heads west to Mankato.


The final 20 miles of the river are paralleled by the Cannon Valley Trail. Eventually, the Mill Towns Trail, which is in development, will connect the two.

Cannon River Conservation

Bad water
Note the green strands of algae

As mentioned above, the water in the Cannon River is not in great shape.

Fortunately, people in the area are trying to clean it up. The Cannon River Partnership is in the middle of a project called Cultivating Conservation, which is focused on “increasing soil and water conservation on agricultural lands.”


They have their work cut out for them, but agricultural runoff is a problem that can be solved. It’s this kind of runoff that is largely the reason 40 percent of America’s waters are polluted.


Partnerships seem to be the name of the game now, and if shared goals can be identified between farmers and the river, the Cannon could run clean and clear again someday.


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