Is it Possible to Circumnavigate Minnesota by Canoe?

Preface: This route plan should not be utilized without extensive personal research. I have not completed this route nor do I specifically intend to. It exists for entertainment purposes only. As with all adventures, do your due diligence and research in vetting any part of this article before attempting a dangerous or challenging activity.

With that out of the way, it was long winter a couple years back when I sat down for yet another route planning session. A funny idea had popped into my head and I felt the need to ponder it. Minnesota is an incredible place to be a canoeist or kayaker. There are the many thousands of lakes of course, the BWCA, Voyageur National Park, Superior, not to mention all of the state water trails which round out many lifetimes of paddling opportunities within one state. Thus, I wondered what would it look like to circumnavigate Minnesota? There’s a lot of water here and many of our borders are defined by rivers and lakes. What would a paddle all the way around entail? There are obvious challenges to the feasibility of such an idea. First, what to do with the southern border? The borders with Iowa and South Dakota are less river-defined; they are a simple line on a map. This brings up the question of what defines a circumnavigation if there isn’t a water body on the border? Does it mean paddling around Minnesota without paddling inside? That’s challenging because it would require a passport to the north. To avoid that, I ended up defining a circumnavigation as such, “attempt to paddle around the border of Minnesota as closely to the border as allowed by navigable water.” The second major hurdle was balancing the timing of seasons. So much of the route would include rivers which become less navigable late in the season. It would be important to take the tough river stretches early. Another hurdle would be the watershed changes. Taking rivers along their natural course is easy enough but, at some point, one would have to jump watersheds. This usually involves long, difficult portaging. Another question would be where to spend the night. A route of this caliber would take the entirety of the open water season. Some of the stretches have full campsite selections around them, but I would anticipate many nights spent in the ditches of Southern Minnesota / Iowa.  There are dozens of other challenges of course as one digs into the details which is why this is meant to be a fun idea for the dreamers out there. The following is the theoretical culmination of these ponderings and how one could, in theory, circumnavigate the North Star State.

By the numbers, the route covers approximately 3218 miles. The safe paddle window runs from April through September and maybe into October depending on the year. Assuming 6.5 solid months of travel time, that would only necessitate 16.5 miles covered per day, a lot for sure on some stretches of the route. Heading downstream on a major river, accomplished paddlers could really cover some ground. Heading upstream though, or bushwhacking through a barely navigable creek, and 16 may be a big ask.

For the sake of best utilizing high water, I have the route starting at the small town of Gordon, Wisconsin. Two major rivers flow from here: the Brule north to Superior and the St Croix southwest to the Mississippi. The route would be heading southwest via the St Croix. It is a wonderful place to start as the entire length of the river, all 160 plus miles of it, have camping opportunities along it, something that becomes more sparse further on. The majority of the river is managed as a premier paddling destination besides which make for a pleasant start to the trip. That said, paddlers must be cautious as high water levels and cold water temperatures are a dangerous combination early in the season. The Upper St Croix joins up with the Namekagon shortly before intercepting the state border. Further downstream, after the Kettle and Snake rivers, the St Croix becomes a good-sized river. By the southern stretches, the great pine forests give way to cottonwood lowlands and sandstone bluffs. As the river widens, motorboat traffic and bridge crossings become increasingly common which continues on the Mississippi.

Image Credit to the Town of Gordon, WI

The Mississippi is already wide here after meeting the Minnesota River in the cities. Following the Mississippi south, it’s important to have good maps of the dams so one can portage in time. It’s also important to steer clear of the motorboat traffic which may or may not be courteous to paddlers. The river is wide with numerous muddy channels as it weaves south along the border through bluff country. This is the last real open water one would have for awhile, so it’s important to make the most of it and make good time downriver. Follow the Mississippi to the town of Victory, Iowa.

View from Great River Bluffs State Park along the Mississippi: Photo Cred – Photo Cred: Explore Minnesota

At Victory, the route turns west and up-current into the Upper Iowa River. It’s actually a great paddling river with scenic, high sandstone bluffs and some developed paddling routes. I cannot imagine heading up-river to be the pinnacle of that experience. This is also where things get dicey as no river runs across the entire state. The best one can do is zig zag strategically from navigable water to navigable water. The average speed of travel is bound to drop dramatically for the next 500 miles or so. The entire length of the Upper Iowa is 150 miles long. The goal, essentially, is to continue fighting upriver until one cannot anymore, hopefully somewhere near Le Roy, Minnesota. At some point though, sooner rather than later, there will be a long portage to change rivers. Without paddling a farmer’s flooded field, it’s inevitable I’m afraid. From Le Roy, it’s about a 2100 rod portage south to where 130th St. crosses the Wapsipinicon River, at that point little more than an agricultural drainage ditch.

The Upper Iowa River – Photo Cred: Wisconsin River Trips

The Wapsipinicon is likely to feel a little desperate as a small trickle through rolling farm fields is a far cry from paddlers’ paradise. Hopefully one is able to work south without offending too many locals along the way.  It becomes more of a river south of the Iowa border, and one is heading downstream again, but it’s bound to be very brushy and tree filled at times. Proceed with caution. Follow the river about 11 miles south until McIntire where a small tributary splits off toward the northeast. Follow this as long as one dares; another long portage is approaching.

The Wapsipinicon River – Photo Cred: Jones County, Iowa

After taking the channels as far as possible, hopefully all the way to Timber Ave, it’s about a 800 rod portage down the road. What waits ahead is, again, little more than a drainage ditch. This is bound to be a frustrating stretch of the route. After the drainage ditch, one will end up in the upper reaches of the Little Cedar River, an undoubtedly brushy, log-jammed stretch of water. This will be a slog and rather discouraging as one bashes their way downriver. As it winds south, the channel widens slightly and a few sandbars along the way offer respite. Near Nashua, it joins the Cedar River which is wider and more navigable. One can continue following this south past Janesville, Iowa, enjoying the benefits of a helpful current.

Nashua, Iowa – Photo Cred: City of Nashua

South of Janesville, the Cedar joins the Shell Rock River, and it’s time to head upstream again, sigh…. ’tis the plight of rogue adventurer.  Take the Shell Rock River north to Rockford before turning off onto the Winnebago River which the route follows for the next 73 miles until just north of the town of Leland. The route splits off again from there to follow Lime Creek. Hopefully one would be able to follow the ever-narrowing channel 16 miles north to the Minnesota border and follow the now channelized river to 130th St. where the channel seems to tuck underground. With any luck, some local would take pity and let you sleep in their barn, otherwise it’s more nights in a ditch around this stretch.

Paddling the Winnebago – Photo Cred: Travel Iowa

Portage about 640 rods north until the channel starts up again. Follow this as it gradually becomes more of a stream as you approach South Walnut Lake. From South Walnut, the tiny trickle, which will become the East Branch of the Blue Earth River, flows 43 miles to the Blue Earth River. It will be a blessing to leave all the farm field paddling behind for awhile. Though one is still technically in the Mississippi watershed, the flow has changed direction. The Blue Earth flows north to the Minnesota while the Cedar, from the previous week, flows south directly to the Mississippi. Following the 43 miles on the East Branch will continue to be easier said than done (I sense a theme) as these upper stretches of rivers are rarely more than wet walking paths and log-filled jungle gyms. Hopefully, I am wrong and some paddling can be had before the main stretch of river. Once on the main river, follow the Blue Earth 18 miles downstream until almost the town of Winnebago.

Blue Earth River

At Winnebago, it’s another turn upstream on Center Creek. Though the creek is wooded near its mouth, long stretches seem open and marshy. Though the water is moving against you at this point, hopefully Center Creek can be followed all the way to Fairmont. At Fairmont, one will jump on the chain of lakes. For the first time this trip, it’s time for true open water paddling (though parts of the Mississippi and St Croix definitely felt that way.) A lovely chain of lakes heads south with maintained channels between them. As one heads out of town, the channels begin to feel less official so there may be some portaging to do. One can continue on this way almost to the Iowa border, approximately 43 travel miles from the turnoff of the Blue Earth River. At the end of Iowa Lake at 100th St, straddling the border, portage for 1536 rods until Okamanpeedan Lake.

Photo Cred: Visit Fairmont

From Okamanpeedan Lake, it’s north again along the East Fork of the Des Moines River. The banks are open for good long stretches, but there are undoubtably some impassable parts too. Follow this north for about 28 miles until 90th street, just south of the town of Alpha. In this instance, what waits ahead is a portage roughly the same length as the Grand Portage but is instead tromping along farm fields for 28736 rods into the town of Jackson.

Jackson, MN

This is the heaviest portaging of the trip in terms of distances covered. Another bad portage lay ahead, but one must first jump on the Des Moines river for a short stretch before heading west on Stoney Brook. I can only imagine the group attitude will have soured by this point after crashing their way up and down streams on a frivolous march westward vaguely along the border. This moment in the mud of Stoney Brook, preparing for the second long portage in a few days time, is a moment of character building. This next portage of 2000 rods works west to the Loon Lake campground. After 15 miles of portaging with a mere 17 or so miles of paddling between them, sleep should come easily. Rest well. Things get a little clearer from here.

Des Moines River

From Loon Lake, head south across the border to Big Spirit lake. Big Spirit drains south through a chain of lakes into Milford Creek and eventually into the Little Sioux River. This should be easier going with a wider, opener channel. The Little Sioux meanders southward and will eventually pass through the town of Spencer, Iowa. All good things must end, and it’s time to head up-river again.

The Ocheyedan seems a pleasant paddle, despite heading the wrong direction. The river serpentines plenty along its course with a plethora of sandbars to mark the turns. It seems to maintain a fairly wide open channel for almost its entire length so at least there won’t be too much getting out of the watercraft on the long fight north. Follow this river north all the way to its headwaters at Ocheyedan Lake, some 55 paddle miles away. If one needs a pitstop, head west and visit the Minnesota Welcome Center. For someone who has inevitably entered and left the state by watercraft a fair number of times throughout the trip so far, it’s a stop well-earned.

Worthington Welcome Center – Photo Cred: Explore Minnesota

Portage the rural roads across the highway. Now is when water levels really come into play as the next put-in is uncertain. Continue west until the Little Rock River is wide enough for one’s craft. The Little Rock is another classic example of southern Minnesota prairie rivers with wide open banks and lots of tight turns as it lazily winds south. Though the overall distance covered is relatively small, the amount of winding really makes the distance travelled add up! The river never seems to widen much, but should be a nice lazy paddle for about 90 miles, through the town of Little Rock, and eventually meeting up with the Rock River at the town of Doon.

A familiar site along this stretch of the route – Photo Cred: Little Rock, Iowa

Turn north on the Rock, following it upstream back over the border. This will be a final fairwell to Iowa; it’s northwards from here. The Rock seems a shallow, sandy river. It also looks to maintain a pretty good channel which is refreshing as one would be following it for well over 100 miles until it peters out. Somewhere near Prairie Coteau Scientific and Natural Area, it’s back onto one’s feet for another portage. Depending on where the Rock runs out of water, it’ll be somewhere in the 1800 rod range. It’s moments like these that the ethics of the route come into play. A purist may say that it has to be un-assisted, all paddling and portaging is up to the crew attempting it. And truly there is some beauty to that. In this moment though, I’m sure, passing through rolling prairie with the sound of cars out on the local highway, it would be very challenging to turn down a ride.

Prairie Coteau Scientific and Natural Area – Photo Cred: Minnesota Seasons

The reward for marching up towards Ruthton is a meager one: a small trickle of water making up the headwaters of the Redwood River. For bearing the name of such majestic flora, the Redwood is another prairie river with intermittent forested stretches. This will be a unique experience since it the first large river since the St Croix that the route follows from its headwaters to its mouth, some 130 miles to the Minnesota. As one infers from the name of the nearby town of Redwood Falls, there will be some portaging required along the way as the Redwood River drops steeply at points on its way to its mouth.

Ramsey Falls along the Redwood River – Photo Cred: Redwood Community Center

Near Redwood Falls, the mighty Minnesota is but a trickle of the river that it is further on, which is beneficial. It will still be a long fight upriver to make it to the border. There are some 115 miles of river to cover before the headwaters at Big Stone. Along the way are rapids, dams, and plenty of log jams by all accounts. In the final stretch before the headwaters, the river turns into a maze of small channels weaving through the wildlife refuge. Proceed with caution. At the headwaters, the route hits the border with South Dakota.

Paddle past Lac Quie Parle State Park on this stretch – Photo Cred: Explore Minnesota

Following the Big Stone Lake leads up into a series of muddy reservoirs making up the headwaters of the Red River. It’s now downstream for over 350 miles to the north along the Red River. This is the longest amount of time spent on a single river over the course of the route. For the most part, the Red has a wide, easy-to-follow channel compared to the rivers preceding it. As with any river though, it’s important to not get complacent of the current. Take the river past Fargo and Grand Forks all the way to the town of Joliet, North Dakota, not overly far south of the Canadian border.

The Red River – Photo Cred: Explore Minnesota

At the turnoff to Two Rivers, it’s into bog country. Follow the North Branch of the Two Rivers upstream. This is a winding, complicated river. Be careful to not get turned around in the maze of channels. Eventually, somewhere north of the town of Lancaster, the river was channelized through the bog. Now paddling becomes like driving a long, straight highway. The air photos refer to this unglamorous stretch of water as County Ditch Number 6. Follow this to the State Ditch Number 72 in a mind-numbing straight paddle through the bog. This continues for a long while; don’t get frustrated. In the middle of just about nowhere, the ditches come to a four-way-intersection. Bear left on this ditch and follow it on a straight shot north to the Roseau River.

Two Rivers – Photo Cred: MPCA

One would be heading upstream on the Roseau. This area is very remote closing in on the Canadian border. A variety of ditches shoot off from the river, and one’s looking for one leading east. Take the river for about 30 miles where one’ll turn off on one of many channels. Do not miss it or it’s onward to Canada! From what I have been able to gather, Judicial Ditch Sixty-One, just 2.5 miles south of the border, is the best chance. Others disappear intermittently as the bog has reclaimed its own. There will undoubtably be some muddy walks spread throughout this one too, but the channel seems to lead almost to the town of Longworth, MN. At this stage, the ditch runs parallel to 380th St. Portage out to the main road and down out onto Springsteel island. Depending on where the ditch runs out, this could mean another 2700 rod portage. On the island, find a place to jump out onto Lake of the Woods.

Roseau River – Photo Cred: MPCA

Lake of the Woods is a good long paddle, but I imagine it’s refreshing in a way after so many closed in bog channels. Follow the southern Minnesota shore eastward until the mouth of the Rainy River. The route from here is pretty clear cut. Continue following the Rainy River all the way to I-Falls.

At I-Falls, it’s basically the Kruger challenge to Superior. I described it in detail in this article last summer so there isn’t really a reason to repeat it here. That said, hitting a wilderness stretch of open lakes would feel so powerful at this stage of the trip. After so many challenging river miles bashing through log jams through plenty of civilized areas, to break out into easy paddling in a wilderness setting would be sublime.

After the BWCA and the Pigeon river, potentially the scariest portion of the trip lay ahead. Lake Superior is not a lake to be trifled with. This is also where one of the big watercraft questions comes into play. Again, the purist perspective would likely be one canoe for the entire trip. However, a canoe that handles rapids or serpentining rivers is not the canoe that will handle the BWCA efficiently. And a canoe that handles the BWCA may not be hardy enough for Superior. Does one switch canoes at certain points? Does one pick a middle of the road hull and upgrade it with a cover at some points? It would be a decision to make. Once on Superior, the route follows the Minnesota shore southwest. The shore of Lake Superior is technically a “state water trail” and does have campsites along it for watercraft, especially in the northern half. It is a 150 mile paddle down the shore to Duluth. With any luck, the lake is calm enough to travel though there is a very real possibility of getting laid up for some days. If you want a glimpse of the challenges of tackling Lake Superior by canoe, check out Waterwalker by the great Bill Mason. It’s not a lake to be meddled with! Superior is also an active shipping area so watch out for much bigger watercraft along the way! From Duluth, follow Minnesota Point to Wisconsin and follow the Wisconsin shore.

The home stretch of the route will also be a challenge. Hopefully by this point the river is at least running low. The finish line is at the headwaters of the Brule River. Having spent some time fishing the Brule throughout my childhood, I know it as a powerful, rapid-filled river that will be a brute to fight against. But, someway or another, one has to climb out of the Superior watershed to reach the headwaters of the St Croix. The Brule, conveniently, shares a headwaters with the St Croix, just flowing in opposite directions. There will be lots of portaging and rapids lining all the way up the river. Gratefully, the Brule has lots of public land for camping at least. It is a touch over 43 miles up the Brule to the headwaters, just a drop in the bucket of mileage covered this trip.

Mays Ledges, Brule River – Photo Cred: Midwest Explorer

Whether this route is at all feasible is truly up to the determination of the people that set out to do it. If it is accomplished though, one thing is clear. That person will have endeavored a route that has never before been taken, weaving together deep river gorges and expansive lakes, and paddled small bodies of water which are often forgotten as paddle routes. And likewise, they would have encountered the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes at its very finest from deep sandstone gorges, rolling prairies, aspen parkland, the open bogs, the quiet solitude of the old pines, and the vastness of Superior. Therein is found the heart of the route. Though setting off in a spirit of adventure with a dream of the hopefully attainable, one can experience the unimaginable through the indescribable beauty and imposing challenges of a life-changing experience. What do you think? Is it possible to circumnavigate Minnesota?

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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