Monday, 22 October 2012

Mississippi: Little Falls to Minneapolis

Blanchard Dam
Our luck lasted just 1 11/2 days after our skipping to Little Falls. For 1 1/2 days we were more or less happily paddling or walking our boats through rapids. We were definitely not happy when we arrived at Blanchard Dam. The portage there was more than 700 metres long and involved dragging your boat up and down two steep railroad grades. My boat is much heavier than Brian's and we had to take numerous breaks when shlepping it around. After dragging our two boats and all our stuff around for hours we were completely exhausted, but we could not even much enjoy our lunch break because it started raining.

Mucky portage
But even this hard portage seemed easy compared to what awaited us at the next power plant dam in Sartell. A quick inspection showed that the portage was a disaster. Although the put out place was decent, it was a very long portage and the put in place the worst I have ever seen. First we could not even find it as there was no sign. You had to steeply climb down over rocks to put your boat into swirling eddies over huge boulders. I even had problems trying to get down there without a boat and we had no clue how we would get our kayaks down. The power companies are legally obligated to provide portage routes for paddlers, but it is a shame that they can get away by providing these horrible portage trails. Locals told us that years ago the adjacent mill provided motorized shuttles like we had had in Grand Rapids. But the mill had blown up and was never re-built - and therefore no more portages provided.

Break in the cold
Not only was the portage a nightmare, but we could already see plenty of rocks and rapids ahead in the river. Low water had hit us again. On top of all that we knew that only three miles later there would be another portage around rapids and only another three miles further on a portage around a power plant dam. Our spirits sank and the drizzling rain did not help. It did not take long and we decided to skip around these three portages. The only question was how. I suggested a taxi and a quick phone call confirmed that it was a good idea, although we would have to disassemble our boats. We decided to do further planning over a pizza. With the pizza devoured we realized that we faced another problem. The taxi could drop us at the last portage but by the time we had reassembled the boat it would be too dark to start paddling again. And the camping situation did not look good. The pizza place owner took pity on us and even called ahead to verify the camping situation. Unfortunately the put in place was on a university campus and campus security would kick us out for sure. The next road accessible put in place was next to a major highway. And after that the next road accessible put in place was so far away that we would not get there by taxi. So what to do now?

When we had been assembling our boats in Little Falls two days ago Brian had met a very friendly lady offering us help in case of any future problems and we decided to give her a call. We only reached her answering service and left a message not expecting much, but an hour later Brian received a call. The woman herself did not have time, but she had asked a friend an Sartell to help us. And again to our great surprise this friend Twyla went far out of her way for us. She came to get us and all our gear and drove us half an hour down the Mississippi to the next put in place with camping possibilities. We receive so much help from strangers on this trip it is amazing. And again we did not know how to thank Twyla for her incredible help. The put in area and the campsite were very nice and peaceful - just what we needed after such a stressful day. I even  managed to reassemble my boat in 1,5 hours without a nervous breakdown just before sunset.

Despite all our good hopes the last two days into Minneapolis remained stressful. Every hour we would encounter rapids and rocks. Although we became quite good in reading the water we still ended up being stuck on rocks several times. Of course when we got out to walk our boats out water would get into our mud boots and we ended the day with wet and cold feet. But the most scary situations were when the current got strong and we actually bounced off the rocks or we could feel them scraping under our legs. It is amazing how much abuse the Feathercraft would take without even showing the slightest scrape on the bottom. Although we got kind of used to the rapids I still had adrenaline pumping every time the current sucked me into a set of rapids and I saw myself running straight into a huge boulder. I would even have nightmares at night about them.

Paddling into Minneapolis
The water remained incredibly low all the way into Minneapolis. Brian hit his last submerged obstacle one hour before we beached in central Minneapolis. Whitewater kayaking is definitely not on my wish list for the future and I am so happy that the low water issues are over now. After Minneapolis the Mississippi is controlled by locks and commercial barge traffic is going up and down the river year round. And where a barge can go, we should have no trouble with our kayaks. On the plus side we survived all those rapids without capsizing once. The bottom of Brian's Folbot shows a lot of abrasion, but no holes and my Feathercraft still looks almost new. And by our last portage at Coon Rapids Dam we had the whole unpacking, portaging and repacking procedure so down pat that we mastered the whole process in less than an hour. But like low water portages are hopefully a thing of the past now.

We were lucky because we could stay with our CS hosts in Minneapolis again. They even picked us up from the public boat ramp where we had disassembled our boats and dried all our stuff. But again our days in Minneapolis were spent organising the next stretch of our trip, replacing gear and going shoppping - no time for sightseeing. It was very nice to be at the same place again where we already knew our way around - and the way to Aldi's...

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