For a big river, the Mississippi can be awfully hard to find. Though it traverses 21 miles of Washington County, from the City of Newport to the St. Croix River confluence in Hastings-Prescott, there are precious few places to access the water as it flows. To find the river here requires a road map and plenty of time on your hands. When you get there, you’ll likely have the view to yourself, unless you count the egrets or eagles overhead.
Hazen P. Mooers Park in Cottage Grove is a small one-acre parcel halfway across the bridge to Grey Cloud Island (10911 Grey Cloud Trail S.). The park has four parking spaces, a small picnic area, and a carry-in boat launch for kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards. It is located just south of the equally hard-to-find Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area and downriver from the new bridge on Hwy 75 that crosses Grey Cloud Slough. Though it’s part of the Mississippi Riverway, the water that flows past the park is technically Mooers Lake, a backwater channel of the Mississippi that separates Grey Cloud Island from the “mainland” of Washington County.
Last month, my son and I enjoyed our first trip to Mooers Park during a public program organized by Cottage Grove to bring more visitors to the area. The scenery was beautiful, but we were most enthralled by a giant green caterpillar we found crossing the road when we arrived. We spent nearly an hour watching the caterpillar crawl, showing it to everyone we met, and searching through identification guides to determine its species. (If you care to know, it was a white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata), also known as a hummingbird moth. They are most active in the summer when bee balm are in bloom and are sometimes confused for hummingbirds because their bodies are so large.)
After the thrill of the caterpillar died down, we turned our attention to the giant white birds perched in a nearby tree. Mooers Park lies within a designated “Important Bird Area” that includes 38 miles of the Mississippi River and adjacent floodplain forest and uplands stretching from Hastings to Minneapolis. Egrets are one of many bird species that call the Mississippi River home, nesting in colonies and using the river as a migratory corridor in the spring and fall. Egrets were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900s when people used their feathers for decorative hats, and were only rarely seen along the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities area prior to 1930.
Upriver from Mooer’s Park, water is flowing through the Grey Cloud Slough for the first time in more than 50 years, thanks to a new bridge constructed by Washington County and the South Washington Watershed District in 2017. Previously, the dead-end channel suffered from severe algae blooms and supported little aquatic life due to low levels of dissolved oxygen. The bridge replaces an old culvert that was blocked by floods in 1965, and is high enough for canoes and kayaks to pass beneath. In the coming years, the watershed district plans to work with Great River Greening and adjacent landowners to restore two miles of shoreline and 100 acres of aquatic habitat in the channel. The project was funded through Washington County, the South Washington Watershed District, and funds appropriated by the State Legislature from the Clean Water Fund. It was supported by National Park Service, Minnesota DNR, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Fifty years ago, the metro Mississippi River was dead and lifeless. Today, Pool 2, which flows from the Ford Dam to Washington County and the Hastings Dam, supports 125 species of fish, including an above average abundance of walleye, sauger and flathead catfish. Record winning catfish have been caught in this stretch, and a third of the walleye in Pool 2 are larger than 24 inches. Some of the lesser known fish in this stretch of river include sheepshead, gizzard shad, white bass and the endangered paddlefish.
Step off the beaten path to explore Mooer’s Park charm and you’ll find yourself immersed in nature. It’s the perfect spot to cast a line, launch a canoe, photograph birds, or simply enjoy a picnic. You won’t find too many people there to keep you company, but keep your eyes out for giant, green caterpillars with polka dots and horns.