It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday and the temperature is already 74 degrees. The sun blazes overhead as I wait on the sidewalk outside Above the Falls Sport’s North Loop location. My guide for the trip, Harrison, has already checked me in, had me fill out the waiver and handed me a life jacket that smells like ancient B.O. He makes sure I’ve applied sunblock (check), have enough water (check) and expresses concern that my shabby Ziploc bag won’t keep my phone dry (it ends up ripping mid-tour).
This morning’s 9:00 kayaking tour has 11 guests led by three guides (Claire and Sophia are training with Harrison). The other guests are a middle-aged couple from Boston visiting for the weekend, a young woman named Marie who’s also from Boston and is temporarily stationed in Minneapolis for work, and a bachelor party.
We gather around Harrison as he gives us a standard safety speech. He hands each of us a paddle, instructs us to select a boat and begin dragging it toward the river located a few blocks away. Harrison leads the way, giving us the historical background on the buildings and warehouses in the area. He talks about the Mississippi River’s impact on the city’s early development and what the North Loop neighborhood has become today. He is well rehearsed and animated, and we follow him like baby chicks down the parkway.
We access the river via a small running path partially hidden by trees. Before we’re allowed to get in the water, Harrison shows us how to correctly hold our paddles and how to avoid falling out of our boats. He eyes the bachelor party suspiciously, most likely wondering which will be the first to go.
Nearly everyone gets paired up in double kayaks, but I’m traveling solo, so I get my own. Once everyone’s safely in a boat, we begin paddling north against the current. Fortunately, there is no wind and the water is almost glassy. Our first destination is the Bassett Creek tunnel, a manmade cave built to protect a naturally occurring stream that runs below Minneapolis.
We turn into a shallow ravine, pointing our kayaks toward the dark hole at the end of it. Harrison hands everyone a headlamp and tells us to head on in to what I previously assumed was a sewer drain. The concrete tunnel is cold and damp and smells slightly pungent. We paddle, single file, about a quarter mile into the darkness, dodging small waterfalls and shallow banks along the way. Harrison asks us to switch off our headlamps and we float for a minute or two in total darkness and silence. I am fully expecting to see a sewer monster when we turn our lights back on.
Our group clumsily turns around and heads back out into the open water of the Mississippi. Harrison keeps us close, partially so we can hear him speak about the various industrial and natural landmarks along the way, and partially so we don’t hit any stray pieces of metal left behind by the scrap yard to our left. For a majority of the morning, we are the only kayakers on the river. We maintain a fairly speedy pace and some of the weaker paddlers (the bachelor party) fall behind.
After passing under the stunning new Lowry Avenue Bridge, we approach our second stop of the tour – a small island near the east bank that is home to approximately 150 great blue herons. Their sound and smell is overwhelming. Massive nests loom in treetops overhead and a few heads pop up to check out the newcomers. Large, graceful birds float from branch to branch. A few circle us out of curiosity and perhaps as a display of dominance. We are told to expect a little bit of bird poop if we decide to get out of our boats and explore the island. Everyone chooses to remain in the water.
With approximately 45 minutes of the tour remaining, we start making our way back downstream, which is a breeze. We are flying toward the downtown skyline and our guides manage to catch a few of us to take photos they’ll later email to everyone on the tour. We beach our boats on the shoreline for the 1:00 tour group and walk back to Above the Falls Sports to drop off our life vests and tip our guides. I overhear the bachelor party collectively vote to take a nap before heading to the Twins game.