After five years of long commutes, crabby drivers and yawn-filled mornings I am finally moving to Stillwater this June to a home within biking distance of my office. Hello to leisurely walks on hot summer evenings down to Nelson’s Ice Cream shop. Welcome to Summer Tuesdays, even at the Courthouse, and to Lumberjack Days as well. Find me soon perusing locally owned shops and restaurants on oh-so-cute Main Street, eating pastries at the Bikery, and dancing to my friend Mary’s band 40 Shades of Green at Charlie’s Irish Pub. I’ll have two extra hours in my life each day, and I’m looking forward to spending them here.
At the same time, I can’t help but feel a little sad as I leave behind some of my favorite places in the south metro area where I’ve lived for ten years now. Among the treasures I’ll miss the most is the beautiful, but ravaged, Minnesota River. The river’s been in the news a lot lately, but not for any good reasons. A recent study from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has shown that the Mississippi River is being drowned by excess sediment that runs off of farm fields, riverbanks, parking lots, neighborhoods and businesses throughout the state. An astounding 74% of this sediment comes from the Minnesota River. At the current rate, the upper part of Lake Pepin will fill in by the next century and the entire lake will be filled within 300 years. Aerial photos of the confluence between the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers at Fort Snelling show the Minnesota slithering like a muddy brown snake into the Mississippi’s dark blue waters.
I know a different side of the Minnesota River, though, and it’s one that not many others take the time to enjoy. For me, my experiences with the Minnesota River are intertwined inextricably with memories of our dog Cocoa, who we lost all too early last summer. She and I explored many different stretches of the river throughout all four seasons of the year and almost always in total solitude. At the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area near Jordan, the river looks more like a Louisiana Bayou, with braided channels and backwaters full of dead standing trees. Cocoa and I would run there together, spotting herons, hawks, turtles and more along the way. One day I hopped to the side just in time before my foot landed on top of a gliding garter snake. On another occasion, Cocoa took off through a barbed wire fence into a nearby ranch. During my ensuing search for her I encountered a heard of longhorn cattle, four fleetly fleeing deer, and a coyote racing through the prairie.
At the Wilkie Unit of the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge, a simple loop trail leads down to the river and back, while a second trail heads across the river via the Bloomington Ferry Bridge. Only a five-minute drive from our house, I loved to grab my snowshoes and head there first thing after the snow fell in the winter. Cocoa would bound along beside me leaving dog shaped holes in the powder and come up with a face full of white like the dog in the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. There is also a great blue heron rookery there, where hundreds of herons congregate to nest and raise their young during the spring and summer each year.
From the Bloomington Ferry Bridge, I would sometimes ride east along the river on my mountain bike, Cocoa racing along beside me. The trail is thin but relatively flat with plenty of places for a canine companion to stop and jump into the river along the way. At one point, the route crosses Nine Mile Creek and a wooden raft and rope are stationed there for bikers. To get across, you have to pull the raft to your side of the bank, hop aboard, and then row yourself across to the other side.
It’s been said that people only protect what they love, and only love what they know. Perhaps the Minnesota River is faltering because too few people take the time to stretch their legs and hike along its banks. Maybe the problem is that so much of the land that drains to the Minnesota is located far from the river where it’s hard to see the impact of the landscape on the water. Certainly there is no easy way to reduce the massive quantities of sediment and nutrients that run off into the river, but in our nation it seems we usually find solutions to protect the things we care about the most. I, for one, have found many hours of happiness hiking, biking and running along the Minnesota River. I’m eager to start a new life here in the St. Croix Valley, but I’ll always hold a spot in my heart for another river, less loved.