For the First Time in Forever...

I can't say that I know exactly how excited Anna felt after being sequestered inside the castle all those years, on the verge of welcoming all those guests to Arendelle for her sister's coronation. Nor can I affirm so strongly that "nothing's in my way!" because there are, in fact, a litany of things in our way; huge lakes, voracious bugs, whitewater, and early mornings, to name a few.

(If the previous paragraph did not register, pause here, watch the movie Frozen and then continue)

But for the first time in forever...downstream. It is likely no one has traveled so far or worked so hard for so little. We paddled just shy of 2,000 miles upstream through winter, rain, and sun to meet the mighty Bois de Sioux and eventually the Red River. And although we have yet to reach it, we hear that the Bois de Sioux above the White Rock Dam is flowing at a torrid pace of 6 cubic feet per second (cfs). This is down from its annual median of around 160. For some reference, if you were to look at the Mississippi River near Saint Cloud, MN in April, average cubic feet per second is near 5,000. If you were downtown in Granite Falls near Jimmy's Pizza and looked just above the dam, average cfs in April is near 2,000. Single-digit cfs flow is hardly enough water to float an empty boat, let alone paddle. 

But those are problems for tomorrow. Let's look back instead.

We left Saint Paul knowing that there was a long-overdue break in store for us in New Ulm and it was only 135 upstream miles away. Suffice to say, we traveled accordingly, and we had a lot of fun doing it. The current on this first stretch of the Minnesota River was meager, and the weather (mostly) cooperated with us. When it didn't, divine providence placed perfectly situated bridges in our path to shelter us from the rain. Chipotle burritos with Mary Long under the County 5 bridge is a special memory that comes to mind.

It took us five days to complete the stretch, and we paddled into New Ulm through the wind and the rain on Thursday, April 9th. Waiting for us were our hosts, Tom and Jan Keaveny, along with local boosters and news affiliates. We had to make quick work at the boat ramp. Everyone was soaked from rain and sweat, and simply tired, ready to lay-over without the prospect of paddling on the mind. Tom had warm chili waiting for us at the house, ever the prepared host.

The break flew by. Most of the crew spent time in New Ulm through Sunday, the afternoon of which we were hosted by the Oakwood Methodist Church for an opportunity to gather with friends and family and catch-up. The mayor presented us with gifts from the city, and it was overwhelming to have so many people, previously know and unknown, show-up and share stories. 

From there, our focus shifted to gathering and preparing food/gear for the remainder of the adventure. Tom and Jan passed the hosting duties onto Steve and Patti Delano in Cold Spring, MN. In only a couple days, we managed to finish our tasks and still enjoy ourselves over great food and with great company. Our remaining resupplies now fit into a small section of the garage instead of occupying it completely. Pre-trip images and memories came flooding back as well, mostly late nights bagging food and mixing nuts over purple beers with 'Drinks after Work' radio in the background.

And like that, we were back on trail, wondering where the break had gone and trying to account for how we felt MORE tired after our LONGEST layover. But that was easy to explain - we just had too much fun!

Our second stretch of the Minnesota River, approximately 180 miles, did not resemble its gentler predecessor. We were still able to manage around 25 miles a day on the river; it was just harder work and longer days. It did not take long for people to miss us, either. Just a couple days out of New Ulm, the Keavenys and Kalahars (Winchell's local relatives) met us near North Redwood Falls and took us out for dinner. Word to the wise: if you order prime rib at Duffy's "as rare as you can," it will come out that way.

From North Redwood, it was only two days before Granite Falls. This stretch of the Minnesota River is where the river's character is most on display. Huge rock outcrops define tight corners, and sandy (some muddy) beaches lead up to flat, grassy terraces, great for camping. If you were ever looking for a long weekend paddle destination, put in at Montevideo and travel down to New Ulm. Really beautiful.

In Granite Falls, we were lucky enough to draw the attention of Nicole and Doug Jans while lining the final stretch of rapids before the dam. They encouraged us to camp in their yard, do laundry, shower, etc. It so happened that Tom Kalahar, Winchell 's uncle, was in town, and put us in touch with Tom Cherveny and Dave Smiglewski. We had an opportunity to talk smart over chicken wings and pizza and learn a bit about the river yet to come from some experienced local paddlers.

We were looking forward to the dam effect above Granite Falls; that is, the current-less pooling that generally occurs topside of dams and what upstream paddlers love. Not such a prevailing force there, unfortunately, and the wind, which lasted for over four days and averaged between 20-30 mph (gusts over 40), did not help either. It was actually not a huge concern on the river as the winding, tight corners, about which we had previously complained, mitigated the wind's impact. Lac qui Parle neared, however, and the forecasts continued to deteriorate. Higher and higher winds, colder and colder temperatures loomed.

As we rounded our last turn before the Lac qui Parle dam, we knew things were likely pretty grim on the other side judging from the white caps that were able to form within just a 500 foot stretch. Ask a local what a 30-40 mph wind out of the northwest looks like on Lac qui Parle. Turned-out to be as bad as we thought. Lac qui Parle is not only large and oriented northwest/southeast, but also shallow, which is a recipe for turbulence. Our fears confirmed, we portaged the dam and set-up camp, the lake a blur of blue and white in front of us.

But if you're even vaguely familiar with this adventure, you know that nature's ability to put up roadblocks is matched only by the benevolence of the people we meet. Or, to be more precise, the people who reach out to us. Enter Joan and Barry Fust, locals of Appleton, MN and owners of Shooters Bar and Grill. They contacted us, worried about our spirits on such a tough day, and offered to pick us up and get us out of the wind. Steve Mitlyng, proprietor of the Bait and Tackle Shop that bears his name, offered to hold onto our stuff, and we headed over to Shooters. Of note there, the Super Shooter burger is delicious (Barry knows his kitchen well), and in a triathlon of darts, billiards, and bags, the old-timers (Winchell, John, and Adam) beat the young guns (Jarrad, Dan, and Luke) 2-1. Those Iowa boys know their bags, but billiards and darts went to the old-timers.   

After another wind-bound day, we paddled through Lac qui Parle and Marsh Lake on glass-like water onto the last stretch of the Minnesota River before Big Stone Lake. There was still no lack of surprises in store for us. We ran into an old Cathedral High School educator of ours, Mrs. DeVries, just before leaving Lac qui Parle, and some more friends, Alex Trigg, Corbin Chaffee, and Pinky, just above the dam north of Marsh Lake. We were beginning to wonder if we'd even left New Ulm behind...

And then that realization hit us quite hard just near Odessa, MN. The low water we had anticipated and the entanglement we were promised all occurred at once, and required some creative travel. We were able to make it far enough north that we could portage (double, actually) through the state park just south of Ortonville and land back into a drainage ditch in order to paddle the remainder into Big Stone Lake proper. Nine miles on foot, achy bodies, and a late night push to Rustling Elms Resort culminated less than two weeks spent paddling the Minnesota River.

But we weren't done yet. Big Stone Lake is 26 miles long, and the Little Minnesota River had the last portion of upstream travel left. It was a long day, but Jay Lindahl (blessedly) stopped us just short of our goal and guided us to a city park in Brown's Valley; chips, gatorade, and beer didn't hurt, either. On the afternoon of April 26th, we portaged the Laurentian Divide between Big Stone Lake and Lake Traverse, effectively ending what began about four months ago - paddling up the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers to where the current flows north, in the direction we intend on going; just under 1,000 feet of elevation gain from sea level.

Ahead of us is some brief lake travel before down the Red River and onto Lake Winnipeg. And hopefully some nice weather and well deserved rest.

As always, we know there are too many people to thank, and too many we passed by without contact. To everyone, thank you for coming along thus far, and we look forward to paddling on with you!