Cold muddy silt on my bare feet and ankles provided a caffeine-like stimulant as I reloaded the canoe shortly before 6 a.m. The river's clarity decreased noticeably since leaving the upstream section of lakes and reservoirs and I attributed this to increased turbulence and streambank erosion. The skies were partly cloudy and the winds were calm as I departed on the swift flowing river. I encountered the first real rapids of the Minnesota a few bends downstream. The run through the fast water was relatively easy and without incident.
Steeply cut clay banks and sweepers holding logs and other debris were again abundant on the run down to Montevideo. Small mounds of granite bedrock along the bank appeared about a mile below Highway 59 and provided a welcome relief from the repetitiveness of clay banks and downed trees. These rocks are said to be some of the oldest on earth and have been proclaimed by geologist to be 3 billion years old. Even though they were partially covered with Minnesota silt, I felt at awe in their presence and paused briefly to try to comprehend the history of this geological relic and pondered how many travelers have passed this vista in the brief time period since man has first paddled this river.
At river mile 256, a few miles upstream of Granite Falls, a large farm spanned the bottomlands on the right descending bank. The scene was rather ugly with sheep and cattle standing along an animal worn bank, discarded old farm equipment scattered along the shore and rusted out vehicles used as riprap. Two minor rapids presented themselves just downstream of the trashed landscape with the second offering a bit more difficulty due to numerous rocks one needed to avoid. I reached the dam at Granite Falls at 11:40 and took-out on the right side in tall grass and poison ivy near a sign that read, "Portage 300 yards." Initially I wasn't sure if the portage was at the sign marking based on the overgrown vegetation at that location. The wooden sign's recessed yellow lettering on a brown background was somewhat difficult to read from the river. A short climb up a rather steep heavily vegetated bank was required to reach the top of the levee. I slipped and fell hard on my back and nearly knocked the wind out of me while descending the bank to transfer more gear to the levee.
After the gear was relocated on high ground, I set up my canoe carrier and proceeded to the put-in a few 100 feet below the dam in the heart of the business district in downtown Granite Falls. I crossed Highway 5, which is suspended above the dam and soon discovered my access to the right side of the river was blocked off with 4-ft tall orange plastic fencing. A large parking lot that bordered the river and the backside of the downtown businesses were being prepared for festivities associated with a large rodeo being held that weekend. Fortunately, one of the organizers was on hand to help me get through the blockade and showed me the way to the steps that led down to a boulder-filled tailwater area.
The Minnesota's only hydropower plant rests on the east side of Granite Falls' Dam. The turbines did not appear to be functioning based on the absence of any notable raceway below the facility and instead, the river was being diverted to the long spillway and two tainter gates on the hydroplant's west side. As noted several days earlier, a few pelicans were still dawdling around the tailwater area in search of small fish as I shoved off from the bank shortly before 1:30 p.m. Fast water and two small riffles were noted about a quarter mile below the dam and did not present any problems. The river made an acute bend to the east a bit further downstream and the river's current slowed due to the backwater effects of the next dam located a little more than two miles down river. Fifteen to twenty-five foot tall granite outcroppings rose up on both sides of the river. A coal-fired power plant has been constructed on the left bank about a half-mile below the city, but apparently was not operating based on an absence of cooling water in its discharge canal or emission of steam from its smoke stack.
Shortly before noon I reached the Minnesota Falls Dam where the river drops vertically about 12 feet over a fixed crest spillway. No portage signs were found above the dam but my Minnesota canoe route guide for this section of the river indicated a carry on the right descending bank. I pulled out just above the dam and had to surmount substantial amount of woody debris and large logs that apparently were carried into the shoreline during high water. The portage to the put-in was relatively short but thick patches of poison ivy covered the ground in areas exposed to the mid-day sun. A hard gray sandy beach in the tailwater area provided a nice footing to reload and launch my canoe. However, the noxious odor of a dead pelican that had washed up onto the beach was discomforting and I pushed it off into the current to clear the air of its stench.
Just before leaving the tailwater area I paddled over to the opposite bank where a boy and his father were fishing while sitting in lawn chairs placed in about a foot of water. They reported catches of sheepshead, walleye and an occasional channel catfish. A more relaxing site on this warm sunny day couldn't be imagined as they dangled their bare legs and feet in the cool, brown colored water while occasionally pulling fish out of the river with their spinning rods. The man indicated they lived nearby and fished the river often. He added, "we seldom leave without catching fish."
The river swept broadly across a 1 to 2 mile wide floodplain from Minnesota Falls down to Upper Sioux Agency State Park located at the confluence of the Yellow Medicine River that enters from the west. Large mussel midens were observed near mile 246 on the left descending bank and on the right bank at the next major bend downstream. Just upstream of the park, I found another dead pelican along the left bank with the cause of death unknown. I took out at the park's watercraft camping access at river mile 240 just after 5 p.m. The large open, grass covered campground rests several feet above the river's surface and was largely unoccupied and tranquil. I selected a convenient site adjacent to the landing and immediately set up my tent in the shade of a small green ash tree and then made dinner.
For Pelicans and a Shower -
The early evening was warm and clear as I headed to the park's office to pay my registration fee, report the sightings of dead pelicans and take a needed shower. The walk required a climb up a 200-ft high bluff that overlooks the Minnesota and Yellow Medicine Rivers then down the opposite side into valley of the Yellow Medicine where the registration station was found. The distance was a little more than a mile using the park's beautiful system of roads and nature trails, but I enjoyed the walk having been confined to canoe for many hours today. The park covers more than 1,000 acres and offers a complex system of habitat from wetlands, forested blufflands, to open prairies. A modern interpretive center and park office was constructed along Highway 67. The park's prominent landmark includes the remains of the Upper Sioux Agency, a site used by the federal government in the mid-1800s for distributing payments, food and supplies to the native Dakota people. One of the buildings has been reconstructed and stands over looking the two valleys. A large system of hiking trails for hikers on foot and horseback is provided. An equestrian campground is an additional unique feature of this park.
The registration station was vacant upon my arrival. I filled out the necessary paper work and deposited my camping fee in the requisite envelope in the drop box and included a note regarding the locations of the dead pelicans. I then walked a half-mile further and found a modern shower facility at the southern campground that bordered the Yellow Medicine River. It was getting late so I took a quick but refreshing hot shower and packed up my soiled clothing in my small backpack to prepare for the long walk back to my encampment on the other side of the park.
Upon exiting the shower I noticed a worker inspecting the electrical system in the utility room of the shower. I introduced myself and explained that I had set up camp at the site along the Minnesota River and desired to find the shortest route back to camp. A smile spread across his friendly face as he replied, "well if you wait just a minute, I'll give you ride there myself since I need to check on something on that side of the park." I thanked him but indicated I didn't want to take him away of his responsibilities. He indicated, it wouldn't be a problem and would be happy to provide the ride. "O.K" I said, and then went to wait for him near his red pickup that was parked nearby. He finished his inspection and approached and apologized for his delay. He suggested that I place my backpack in the enclosed tailbed to provide more comfortable sitting in the front seat of his cab. I was hesitant but felt obligated to comply with his suggestion since he was making the special trip for me.
His name was Hillding Applewick, a small statured Norwegian in his late 50s or early 60s who provided electrical contracting services for the park. I was intrigued by his name and he explained that "Hillding" was actually Swedish for "fast running stream." He told me he had relative named John Sullivan in the Twin Cities and we both were surprised by the coincidence. I indicated I went to school at University of Minnesota in the early to mid 70s and knew that there were over a hundred John Sullivans in the St. Paul phone book at that time.
Although he was not a park employee, he knew quite a bit about the park and pointed out features and tidbits of park history as we made the five-minute ride back to my campsite. He asked about my trip and was interested in what I had observed. We continued talking for a few minutes even after stopping near my campsite. I soon felt compelled to let him get back to his work since it was getting late and I needed sleep. We shook hands and he soon was out of sight heading backup the long roadway to the top of the bluff.
I sat down at a picnic table and wrote a few notes in my journal while enjoying the peace and solitude of the nearly vacant campground along the bank of the Minnesota. I hastily consumed a 12 oz can of Pepsi I had purchased at a vending machine near the shower, a delightful alternative to stale water from my canteen. Just as I swallowed the last swig of the sweet carbonated beverage a sudden horror fell over me. I had just remembered my backpack was still in the back of Hillding's truck. I sprang from the table and started to run back up the hill in attempt to find the friendly Norwegian. I couldn't afford to loose this since it contained much needed items including topographic maps, flashlights, extra batteries, weather radio, dried fruit, clean clothing, and my wife's cell phone. The latter item was particular important since it was the only item that wasn't mine and I knew my wife would never let me hear the end of it if I didn't return with this item. Halfway up the hill I had to resort to walking since I was definitely out of shape and the agitated Pepsi in my stomach created a stinging pain in my side.
My evening search of the campground for Hillding or his red truck was unsuccessful and I returned to my tent disgusted with myself shortly after 9 p.m. I slept poorly through the night thinking of the missing pack. Further, the nearby landing was surprisingly active with fisherman returning to the landing at 1 p.m. and another partly leaving at 3 a.m. A thunderstorm hit the campground at 4 a.m. and moderate to heavy rain continued through 6 a.m.
Minnesota Falls Dam