In summer and fall, Minnesotans make a splash. They paddle up and down the Mississippi, float down less mighty but still scenic streams and escape to the state’s 10,000-plus lakes. Here are five ways groups can enjoy Minnesota’s waterways.
Padelford Riverboats has had a grand 50 years plying the Mississippi River near the Twin Cities. Since 1970, when it launched its boat tours near St. Paul with the authentic stern-wheeler Jonathan Padelford, it has expanded its fleet, adding the Anson Northrup, a side-wheeler low enough to slip under the area’s bridges, and the Betsy Northrup, a converted car ferry that has become a crowd favorite for its quiet ride — it has no engine and is pushed by a tug boat — and its large, open deck.
Gus Gaspardo, president of Padelford Riverboats, remembers when people used to get mad if they weren’t on the stern-wheeler. “Now they get mad if they aren’t on the barge.”
Even as the cities have grown, the serenity and scenery enjoyed on Padelford’s cruises have endured. “It catches people by surprise,” said Gaspardo. “It is unique in that you are in a scenic stretch in an urban area surrounded by 3 million people. It is relaxing.”
The stretch of river where the boats cruise is flanked by the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, which protects hardwood trees that bring brilliance in the fall and ample perches for bald eagles, great blue herons and other birds.
Cruises are seasonal, from mid-April to October, with lengths to suit different schedules. A 90-minute sightseeing cruise and a four-hour dinner cruise are both popular with groups, with options like drink packages and entertainment.
Plans for a 50th-anniversary celebration are in the works, and the company hopes to bring back couples and others who’ve marked important occasions onboard in the past half-century. The celebration will include a special Padelford beer, concocted by a local brewery, to toast the occasion.
Charlie’s Ottertail Tubing
As Cathy Pihlaja’s dad watched his daughter and her friends float down the Otter Tail River in inner tubes, he saw good outdoor fun and a business opportunity.
“He bought a couple hundred inner tubes and some land, and away we went,” said Pihlaja, who runs Charlie’s Ottertail Tubing, founded by her father 35 years ago in Detroit Lakes.
Charlie’s is a highly seasonal enterprise, ruled by weather’s whims. The business opens Memorial Day weekend, and “we shoot for Labor Day,” said Pihlaja, although dry weather sometimes causes water levels to drop too low for tubing before that.
Groups roll into Charlie’s ramshackle headquarters, pick out inner tubes — they basically come in small, medium and large sizes — board a white school bus and head up river to the launch site. Coolers are welcome, but Charlie’s staff counts beverages at the beginning and end of each trip to make sure no cans or bottles end up in the river. “We’d like to see this go for generations, so we don’t want any litter,” said Pihlaja.
The float downriver takes longer than the ride to the put-in point. “It’s only a couple of miles by bus, but it is a two- to two-and-a-half-hour float back because the river twists and turns,” said Pihlaja.
Deer, beavers and eagles are often spotted along the way. And if customers haven’t had their fill when they end up back at Charlie’s, they can reboard the bus for another round. “You can go as many times as you want,” said Pihlaja. “Some come and go three times.”
At $10 for adults and half that for children under 12, tubing’s about the cheapest fun you can have in a day. “It is a relaxing way to spend a hot afternoon,” said Pihlaja. “My mom is 74, and she still loves to go.”
Mississippi River Paddling
Paddling the Mississippi River is easy even for novices when Winona is the point of departure. Prairie Island Campground, five minutes upriver from downtown, can supply all the equipment and expertise.
The city-owned campground’s concessionaire, Jamie Schell, can line up outdoor recreation experts from nearby Winona State University to lead group paddles in the quiet Mississippi backwaters. Trips are planned based on group size, skill levels and other individual needs. Self-guided tours take about 90 minutes; with a guide, groups could spend as long as three hours on the water.
In his short time managing the campground, Schell has added rental bikes and weekend concerts; he has also invested in new paddling equipment, including sit-on-top kayaks, which are more comfortable and easier to manage. “You don’t sit down inside it like a traditional canoe, and it is also self-bailing,” he said. “It’s safer for the less-experienced kayaker because if you fall off, it is easy to get back on.”
The beauty of paddling this part of the river is the peaceful backwater channels that result from being below a lock, dam and spillway, which creates water trails that paddlers can easily and safely navigate. When the water level is just right, kayaks slide easily among the trunks of swamp maples.
Schell just spent his first spring on-site and was amazed by the avian activity. The Mississippi, of course, is a migratory path, but it’s hard to grasp what that means until it is witnessed.
“Spring and fall can be amazing times, with 3,000 to 5,000 pelicans or snow geese, sandhill cranes or Canada geese,” said Schell. “To be here every day in the spring was a spectacle because of the number of birds.”
Voyageurs National Park
Chuck Remus presents a convincing argument for taking a boat trip at Voyageurs National Park near International Falls. “The park is 219,000 acres, and 40 percent is water,” said the longtime park staffer. “Getting out on the water is the only way to truly see it.”
Of the park’s two boats, the 49-passenger Voyageur is best suited for groups. And because the season is short — mid-May through late September — chartering the boat might make more sense than squeezing onto a public cruise.
One of the newest national parks at just over 40 years old, Voyageurs is named for the French fur traders who used its interconnected waterways like we use highways today. On a boat tour, visitors learn about the voyageurs, Native Americans, and wildlife like moose, wolves, otters and ospreys. There are also some surprising stops, including a former gold rush site and the remains of Minnesota’s oldest commercial fishing operation. Lunch can be arranged at the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, which is only accessible by water.
Kettle Falls was originally a logging camp, and some say the hotel was a bordello before it became a hotel in the early 1900s. “It was the gathering place when people were mining and logging and commercial fishing,” said Remus. “It is kind of at a pinch point that everyone went through.”
Because Voyageurs is at Minnesota’s tiptop — “when you are going down Rainy Lake, Canada is on one side, and the U.S. is on the other,” Remus said — the park is not a stop-off on the way to somewhere else.
“This is a naturally beautiful place, with wooded shorelines and clear water,” said Remus. “The reason it hasn’t been as utilized is that you have to plan to come here. We are kind of at the end of the road.”
Cruise Gull Lake
Gull Lake has long been a cool escape. Gangsters hid out there; for decades, the rich and famous — Paul Newman, for one — scurried off to this lake, part of the Gull Lake Chain near Brainerd.
You don’t have to be a star to enjoy Gull Lake’s dazzle, especially since Destiny Cruises’ North Star began offering tours from early June to early October. The double-decker yacht is one of the last made by Wisconsin-based Skipperliner, and with its sophisticated sound system and lighting and a well-outfitted galley, it cost close to $2.5 million, general manager Michele Baker estimates.
“It weighs 76 tons and has a flat bottom, so there’s not a lot of roll,” said Baker. “Passengers often say, ‘This is like standing in my living room.’”
Cowboy Flame and Brew, a popular restaurant not far from the North Star’s dock at Ernie’s on the Lake, is the boat’s caterer, supplying everything from prime rib dinners to lunches of steaks and burgers grilled onboard. Baker grows many of the fresh flowers that decorate tables; another appreciated amenity is a handicapped-accessible restroom.
The North Star offers public, semiprivate and private cruises. There’s sometimes a band onboard, playing tunes by Jimmy Buffett, Elvis Presley and others. Sunsets become even more memorable with sweet treats like fruit pies and fresh-baked brownies.
On a two-hour sightseeing tour, there’s much to absorb, from the lake’s ties to Native Americans and the Brainerd bank robbers to views of some of the nearly 20 resorts that ring its waters. Massive mansions also add intrigue, said Baker.
“Some are owned by famous people, but we can’t name them anymore because then people want to hang out on their docks.”