Essential Paddling Guide: Prime Paddling Spots, Mid-Continent
I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again. I was fascinated by how it sped by and yet was always there; its roar shook both the earth and me. — Wallace Stegner
Rivers run fast and tumbling throughout the National Park System, there are streams with lazy meanders, and placid lakes perfect for dipping a paddle. This diversity poses a delightful dilemma when you have the urge to float and paddle. What follows is just a sampling of the experiences that await you, whether you have hundreds of watery miles under your paddle, or are looking for calm waters to take your youngsters. Where available, links take you to paddling information specific to the park unit.
Flowing 76 miles through the Sandhills of Nebraska, the Niobrara is born in Wyoming. It gathers momentum from hundreds of springs that feed it as on its course towards the Missouri in northeastern Nebraska.
A rich variety of ecosystems are found along the river’s path, as the convergence of dry western air currents colliding with more humid air from the eastern half of the country create a surprising mix of settings. There are vestiges of boreal forest, western forest, eastern deciduous forest, and even tallgrass prairie in the Middle of the Niobrara River Valley that is split by the 100th Meridian.
Somewhat unusual is the fact that the park’s borders are defined by the river banks; most of the dry land is in private ownerships. Paddlers looking for multi-day adventures can choose from a number of private campgrounds to erect their tents.
Paddlers have 72 miles of river that mix rural as well as downtown experiences to consider when looking at this waterway. As the river passes through Minneapolis, you won’t necessarily get the feeling of wilderness, however, you can get a sense of the area’s history with stops at Fort Snelling.
To help plan your trip, invest in a copy of the Mississippi River Companion, or download a copy from the park’s website. This guide helps you locate boat ramps, provides history of the area along the river’s path, and pinpoints state and local parks.
There are no campgrounds within the national river’s boundaries, though you can download a map of regional parks within the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area to see where you might spend the night.
Together the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers offer 255 miles of water gliding past a lush green landscape interspersed with "glimpses of a human presence." In other words, you can sample a quasi-wilderness experience, but not you're not too far off the grid.
Before you head out, though, check with park staff on river levels, as upper sections of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers can get quite bony without adequate rainfall. During the paddling season, river flow data are published on the park’s website.
Fed by hundreds of millions of gallons a day of spring water, the Jack Fork and Current rivers that flow 134 miles through this unit of the National Park System were the motivators for protecting rivers in the United States as Wild and Scenic.
Though not officially carrying the Wild and Scenic designation, this park established in 1964 was the first in the country to protect a wild river system. Today you can enjoy the benefits of that designation by canoeing, kayaking, or even taking a motorboat on the rivers for recreation.
Nearly two dozen canoe liveries in the area can rent you a canoe and arrange shuttles if need be. Campgrounds and backcountry campsites dot the rivers, making it easy to coordinate a multi-day paddling adventure.
Twenty-one islands in Lake Superior fall under the auspices of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Exploration by touring (sea) kayak is the way to go. Camping is allowed on 19 of the islands offer campsites, making it possible to spend days on end exploring the waters, and islands, of Lake Superior.
Unpredictable weather can whip Lake Superior into an inland ocean in minutes, so inter-island travel by canoe or sit-on-top kayak is not recommended in the national lakeshore.
There are several kayak launch areas in the lakeshore’s mainland unit at Little Sand Bay and at Meyers Beach at the end of Meyers Road. You need to obtain a backcountry permit for your trip, which will ensure that you’ll have a site when you reach each day’s destination.
Individual campsites (for one to seven campers) with facilities like fire rings, pit toilets, and bear-proof food lockers are located on 15 of the islands in the national lakeshore. Camping zones (for one to five campers) have also been established on 16 islands for visitors seeking a remote backcountry experience without any facilities. Individual campsites and camping zones can be reserved beginning one month before the start of a trip for $10 per night."
To help you reach your site, the park offers GPS coordinates for the sites. The park’s website also offers a mileage chart.
To the north across Lake Superior from Apostle Islands, this island park is not easily reached. But paddlers who make the effort are rewarded with bays and coves that offer some protection (and nice campsites) from the big lake, or smaller inland lakes, for exploration. Due to Superior’s reputation for tempestuous storms, cold water, and fog, experience is key to a paddling visit to Isle Royale.
Paddlers are urged by park officials to familiarize themselves with weather patterns and consult the marine forecast at ranger stations and visitor centers before heading off. Being flexible with your plans so you can cope with the weather is essential, and a portable marine radio is recommended.
Check with park officials for details on camping. In general, canoe-only sites are limited to two nights stay, for parties of six or less. The entire shore of Lake Whittlesey, Wood Lake, Intermediate Lake and Siskiwit Lake, and designated zones along Lake Superior, are open to camping with a one night stay limit per location. Camping on offshore islands is limited to designated campsites.
Groups (7-10 people) must stay at designated “group campsites”, and must get backcountry permits in advance. Shoreline camping is not open to groups.
This is one park that is almost entirely dedicated to paddling. The prospect of paddling these inland highways of water that were navigated by 18th century fur trappers draws canoeists and sea kayakers from across the country.
Rainy Lake is the largest of the park’s big lakes, but Kabetogama, Namakan and Sand Point lakes also draw their shares of paddlers. You also can leap-frog a canoe trip by tying together Kabetogama, Locator, War Club, Quill, and Loiten lakes via a series of portages, or perhaps the Cruiser Lake Trail that links Cruiser Lake. Just be sure to carefully study the available maps for these trails, as some of the portages might be longer than you’d like them to be
Exploring this park by canoe or sea kayak takes time, but it’s well worth it for the solitude, sounds of wolves howling in chorus, moose and other wildlife sightings, not to mention your passage through deep boreal forests of the lake country opened up by the 18th century fur trade.
The Missouri River is one of the country’s iconic waterways -- sections of it aren’t much changed from when Lewis and Clark came through in the early 19th century-- and you can dip a paddle in nearly 100 miles of the river as it flows through the Missouri National Recreational River across parts of Nebraska and South Dakota.
This is a big river, though, and windy conditions can challenge the best of paddlers. To help you get the most out of your visit, the park has developed two paddling guides: one to a 39-mile stretch of the Missouri that flows from Fort Randall, South Dakota, to Running Water, South Dakota, and another that stretches 59 miles from Gaving Point Dam, Nebraska, to Ponca, Nebraska.
The guides point to areas where you might camp (both primitive and state park camping areas) and mention some of the wildlife you might encounter, such as least terns and and piping plovers. Sadly, the bison and grizzlies that once roamed this landscape are long gone.
This badlands-rippled park might not come immediately to mind when you think of paddle trips. But you can spend five days navigating more than 107 miles on the Little Missouri River between Medora, N.D., near the park’s South Unit and Long X Bridge on U.S. Highway 85 near the park's North Unit. Two days are needed to continue from Long X Bridge to Lost Bridge on State Highway 22 (Little Missouri Bay on Lake Sakakawea).
River ice usually breaks up by early April. Moderate temperatures and spring rains may combine to produce satisfactory conditions for float trips with May and June usually being the best months.
For much of the year, however, low water levels require boaters to frequently drag their boats through shallow stretches. Each year is difficult to predict, say park officials, and some years the river is not deep enough for float trips; sections of the river may dry up completely. Adding to that uncertainty is the fact that water levels vary daily; “easy paddling one day can become a trip requiring frequent portages the next.”
A river depth of at least 2.5 feet (699 cfs) at Medora is required for fair boating and 2.5-3.5 feet (699-1500 cfs) for good boating.
Next Wednesday: Southwestern Parks