It was 2013 when my husband and I moved to Hugo, Minn., to begin new jobs and (quite literally) put down roots as part-time tree farmers. I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback by my new neighborhood, which was home to more cows and chickens than people. But I took up kayaking and began exploring the bodies of water that seemed to surround me: tiny, nameless lakes; well-known, heavily populated ones; windy rivers; and, of course, the majestic St. Croix. My longing for the city (and my blood pressure) lowered as I came to love the peaceful, come-as-you-are sport that almost anyone can do and love. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.
People to Know
Susan Overson is a veteran National Park Service park planner, and she actually wrote the book about paddling the Mississippi. When she’s not at the office (which looks eerily like a canoe some days), she’s exploring waterways with her husband, Mark, and encouraging people to get out on the water. From their home base in North Hudson, they coordinate KAKAttack, a free hobbyist paddling group. I attended the 2016 season kick-off and was delighted as I watched fellow paddlers of all ages file into the Hudson Marina on a weeknight.
Overson and a group of other enthusiasts—including Kerri Kolstad, owner of Wahoo! Adventures outfitter and rental company—had filled a table with snacks and beverages and an evening with helpful info. Their season, with Wednesday-evening and Sunday daytime paddles, included free rendezvous for anyone who wanted to join in.
“I decided I needed to see my husband every once in a while,” laughs Overson, who says 2016 was the first time she recruited help with planning and leading trips for the growing group. “If I weren’t working, I’d be on the water non-stop. If you’re looking to set records or learn new techniques, this isn’t the group for you. It’s more this organic group of people that want to go out on the river and have fun. It’s a work in progress, and it gets a little better each year!”
Places to Paddle
Minnesota comes by its Land of 10,000 Lakes title honestly, and Wisconsin has just as much water, even though it lacks the name. Local options abound if you’re up for putting in alongside Jet Skis, pontoons and the like. But the St. Croix can’t be rivaled for its stunning views and easy paddling. It’s a National Wild and Scenic River, and the National Park Service publishes a series of maps covering the headwaters near Gordon, Wis., all the way to the Mississippi. You can find them at the website here and plan out your course.
If you don’t have a boat of your own, Wild Mountain rents them through Taylors Falls Canoe and Kayak Rental. Leave your car at Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls, Minn., (you’ll need a State Park annual or day pass), and jump in a rental that comes with a life jacket and paddle for $45.50 per boat. Choose from a bus pick-up in Osceola, Wis., (7 miles) or at William O’Brien State Park in Minnesota (17 miles). Depending on the day, the current can be strong—in other words, you might not have to paddle hard to make your destination in time! Keep an eye on seasonal and post-rainfall river levels at the water data website.
“Rivers change all the time—trees fall, things get in the way,” Kolstad says. “You want to be aware.” There are lots of geological and historical sites along the way if you know what to look for. If you don’t, book a Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tour through Wild Mountain to get the lay of the land first. A Wahoo! half-day trip features sites from Stillwater’s past: It leaves from downtown Stillwater and includes instruction, equipment, and history and wildlife info from an experienced guide.
“We cover the history of lumbering,” Kolstad says. “It’s crazy to think that that’s the reason all these towns
Other local trips to try include stretches of the 72-mile Mississippi National River and Recreation Area water trail through the Twin Cities (with new Paddle Share stations), a trip from Half Moon Landing near Winona, Minn., the rapids-punctuated Kinnikkinic near River Falls, Wis., or the Chippewa River to the Mississippi. If you’re not sure about going it alone or with a buddy, keep an eye on KAKAttack’s Facebook page for free upcoming group trips.
Things to Pack
First off, you’ll want to find the right boat. On the St. Croix, any mid-size recreational kayak or canoe will work. Check out KAKAttack’s boat demo—usually in May—for an overview of types of boats, with an opportunity to try them out. Mark Overson is a self-proclaimed boat nerd, and he’s got quite the collection. He also keeps an eye on Craigslist and alerts the group to deals throughout the year.
If you’re not completely sold on paddling, start by buying used. My husband bought my beloved 10 on sale at Cabela’s. (Anyone who says diamonds are a girl’s best friend hasn’t received a kayak for Christmas!) I can throw it on top of my Ford Fusion, it transitions well from lakes to calm rivers (no spray skirt needed, although there’s a spot for one), and there’s just enough room for my dog and the essentials.
If you’re looking to buy something universal, Mark Overson suggests a 14-foot Necky Manitou or Wilderness Systems Pungo. The Oversons even have one that folds up, which is great if you’re planning to travel to your next paddle or have limited storage. You’ll need to bring a good life jacket, water and snacks, sunscreen, layers of clothing in case you get wet or conditions change, water shoes, and a flashlight and mini first-aid kit. If you’re worried about your iPhone or car keys, a dry bag is a great investment. 45 Degrees in Stillwater (45-degrees.com) offers gear checklists and carries most of these items in fun colors and durable brands. You’ll need a Minnesota boat license for anything more than 10 feet long. Life’s easier for Wisconsin-side paddlers: just bring your driver’s license. No matter what you pack, when you’re on the water and it’s a warm day, you can’t go wrong. Happy paddling!