Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A day off in the kayak

For many, Labor Day weekend is a time of family getaway and vacation. Luggage gets packed, boats get loaded and countless families drive off to resorts and cabins for a few days away from home.

If I'd of had the full weekend off, I likely would've been among that crowd, going on boat rides and getting my fair share of fishing in at my parents' cabin on Big Birch Lake. I enjoy spending time with my family and it's nice to get out of town once in awhile (especially when out-of-town trips involve heated games of Hammerschalgen).

Alas, it wasn't meant to be. I had two days off out of the 3-day weekend, but they happened to be Saturday and Monday, with a work day sandwiched between them on Sunday. Since my parents' cabin is about a 3-hour drive from Mankato, I figured I'd save the trip for a longer weekend.

However, that's not to say that the two days off weren't enjoyed to the fullest. Saturday was spent doing an 87-mile bike ride that utilized all four loops listed on the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's hiking/biking trails map (blog entry and column on that coming soon) and the majority of Labor Day was spent floating down the Minnesota River in my inflatable kayak.

Regular readers might recall that I blogged about my inflatable kayak last year. I've taken it out a few times on lakes this summer and attempted a short paddle upstream on the Minnesota River in the past, but until yesterday, I'd never attempted a day-long float. I always figured the logistics of it (dropping a vehicle off and getting a second person to drive you back to the starting location) made it a bit of a hassle, plus I didn't know how well the kayak would hold up from the rigors of the Minnesota River.

I managed to solve one of those problems with the realization that I could use my bike for transport, albeit transport without the kayak (even deflated, it'd be a little too big to bungee to my bike, plus I have no idea how I'd carry the paddle). So the sequence of events to prepare for the float were as follows:
  • I dropped my kayak off at the starting point of the float (Land of Memories Park) and asked one of the families camping there to keep an eye on it for me. (thanks again to that family)
  • With my bike loaded in my car, I drove to the end point of the float (Seven Mile Creek), parked my car and biked back to the starting point.

As for the float itself, I was pleasantly surprised by two things about the Minnesota River: how calm it was and how easy it was to navigate (I gave myself more than enough time to finish the float because I assumed I would get lost at some point).

Both surprises can be attributed to the low water level in the river. It is considerably lower than it was this past spring and fall (during flooding) and less water typically means less current. It also revealed some of the damage done by the flooding, with river banks looking like barren wastelands of prior vegetation (pictured right). Likewise, most of the jutting tributaries and pools along the river have also dried up, making navigation a simple exercise in following the current.

Contrary to my worries beforehand, the inflatable kayak also proved to be more than capable of handling the river. The problems I had with steering it in the past were solved by having no wind to deal with and going with the current instead of against it (paddling upstream in an inflatable kayak is like pancakes without syrup: It's possible, but you won't enjoy it). Since the Minnesota River is a sediment-heavy stream (brown from all the farmland soil flooding in), the bottom of it is mostly soft sand and devoid of any sharp, jagged rocks.

Really, it was an great stretch of river to kayak on. The weather was perfect, the scenery varied from the flood walls of Mankato to deep forests to prairie lands (even spotted a few deer along the way) and the float took a little less than four hours (or two Grain Belt Nordeasts, if you're measuring by beer consumption).

About the only thing missing from the experience was a fishing rod to get a few casts in. Well, that and maybe something else to consume besides beer.

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