Experiencing the Urban Side of Old Man River

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 10.09.45 AMI’ve always associated the Mississippi River with Huck Finn’s adventures, but never my own. Even today as a full-grown adult, I’ll look across the wide expanse of river that snakes through the Twin Cities and expect to see a make-shift raft carrying two passengers floating by. But not even on the hottest summer day would I consider dipping a toe into that muddy water, where man-sized catfish and other monsters of the deep roam free.

Despite my raging fish phobia, I’ve always been drawn to a section of the river known as the Saint Anthony Falls Historic District. In addition to its namesake waterfall, it contains the Stone Arch Bridge, historic mill ruins and a series of functioning locks and dams. Someone once told me kayakers can pass through the locks just like big boats. After learning the city was going to discontinue this service in the near future, I decided it was time to take my own journey down Old Man River with Above the Falls Sports.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 10.10.48 AMI enlisted a few friends who were willing to sign their lives away, suit up in life vests that smelled like ancient B.O., and shove off into the great unknown. My best friend Erin was my co-captain. She and I are both capable paddlers, but it took us a few minutes to get our rhythm down and stop clapping our paddles together. We battled against the current and jetties coming at us from upstream and slowly made our way into the first lock.

Our guide instructed us to form a small flotilla by hanging on to the sides of each other’s boats while she clung to a small cord attached to the wall. We waited for the water to rush in while taking bets regarding who would be the first to tip out of their boat (Marcott). The massive gates closed and water started to pour in rapidly, but a lot more smoothly than I anticipated. We gradually rose higher and higher inside the lock until the skyline of downtown Minneapolis came into view. A loud beep signaled it was safe to exit the lock and we paddled upstream toward downtown.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 10.11.19 AMI’m very familiar with this part of the city, but I’ve never seen it from this vantage point. It looked beautifully benign framed in by blue sky and water. We explored a small waterfall near Mill Ruins Park that I hadn’t known existed, then made our way into the Upper Saint Anthony Falls Lock, which permanently closed this summer. After exploring inside the massive structure, our guide led us back downstream, past the University of Minnesota.

The river banks revealed a number of hidden cave and tunnel entrances Erin said, “reminded her of Europe.” We landed at a small, white-sand beach Luke and I named “Hidden, Hidden Beach,” when we first stumbled upon it a few years ago. Its existence is a bit of a mystery, considering the rusty-brown water of the Mississippi usually creates brown, rocky beaches. This was closer to the sugar sand found along the Gulf Coast of Florida. After a short break, we loaded back into our kayaks to complete the last leg of our journey through Lock and Dam No.1. Incoming boat traffic held us up for about half an hour, giving us ample time to sit, float and enjoy the last bit of scenery before pouncing on some fish tacos and cold beers at Sea Salt.

This unique experience helped me see why so many people regard the Mississippi as the venerable Grandfather of our city. And I now have my own adventure to think about the next time I visit its shores. Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 10.09.31 AM

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