Written by Lee Hoedl; LAKESTYLE magazine - Summer 2006 Issue
Within the geographical boundaries of Minnesota, there is an expansive river system totaling approximately 92,000 miles. This distance translates into driving across the United States, coast-to-coast, fifteen times. Birthed out of a chain of ten lakes in southern Hubbard County and flowing southeast approximately 90 miles before joining the Mississippi River, the Wadena County Crow Wing Canoe Trail remains one of the most graceful and picturesque channels of this entire Minnesota river system. Coupled with this fact, the countless weddings, anniversaries, family reunions, church outings and friendships that have been celebrated on this 90-mile stretch of river and this river is quickly elevated to the status of an awe-inspiring lifetime memory… and most likely, annual tradition.
Originally given the name Kagiwegwon (Ojibway for “Raven’s Wing”), the Crow Wing River credits its name for the wing shaped island at the river’s mouth, where its waters join with the mighty Mississippi. It is believed that the Dakota and Ojibway Indians were the first inhabitants along the banks of the Crow Wing River and on a quiet clear night, it is fabled that the river’s water still echoes the laughter of these settlers.
Should you be inclined to seek out the laughter, lark and lore of this mystic river system, then direct your car toward the city of Menahga, Minnesota. Local residents of Menahga and surrounding area remain the best resource for fanciful folklore and helpful tips in experiencing this gentle river. Whether your mode is canoe, boat or inner tube, your Crow Wing experience will be dictated solely on the amount of time you have available to witness all aspects of the river’s life. Be it extended or brief, your experience on these majestic and pristine waters will draw you and your spirit back… again and again.
Beginning its journey within a series of lakes just north of Menahga as the Shell River, the river’s crystal waters cut a gentle flowing path northeasterly through the Twin Lakes and southern Hubbard County. At its origin, the river is seldom more than three feet deep and is flanked by thick forests. As the river broadens and flows southward, it officially transitions into the Crow Wing River. The river banks subtly increase in height while jack pine forests majestically stand guard on either side, all but replacing the virgin white and red pine forests that once graced the plains of northern Wadena County.
Blueberries, sweet fern, bearberry, bracken, wintergreen and reindeer moss adorn the landscape and provide a lush ground cover while osprey, eagle and blue heron entertain the skies overhead. Along this river’s path, it is the ideal location to lose one’s concerns and rediscover one’s soul.
As the Crow Wing continues to flow south toward Nimrod, one relaxed 2-mph paddle stroke after another, all manners of wildlife can also be seen celebrating the river’s presence. White-tailed deer and ruffed grouse in the early morning hours and spirited otters swimming along one’s canoe at dusk. A natural nirvana was never so close.
Playful, but gentle rapids dance down the river’s corridor past the subtle and somber presence of Native Indian burial mounds on several sides of the river. It remains a wonderful reminder of the commingling of a dynamic present with a graceful past. The brisk breaking of water with one’s canoe paddle, the lighthearted splash while lazily maneuvering one’s inner tube, the lively river conversation of “what ifs” and “why nots,” and the prankish water antics - all signs of the child within being truly alive.
But just as soon as one’s journey has begun on this stream of adventure, be it one day or a weekend, the journey is over and the canoe is banked. But rest assured it is the warm memories of a journey well spent that will ease the soreness of one’s tired muscles.
And yet, to truly enjoy this river’s mystique, there is so much more to know, explore and reminisce along its waters and banks; landmarks to gain one’s greater appreciation of what the Crow Wing River has to offer. Perhaps the most definitive landmarks along this scenic waterway are the thirteen public campsites conveniently spaced throughout this 90-mile stretch of river. And it is here where the lesson, exploration and reminisces begins.
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“First of all, the Crow Wing River provides something for everyone,” confidently states Dorothy Kennelly, proprietor of the family-owned Huntersville Outfitters, “You let us know what you’re looking for and we’ll help you find it on the river.” Operating since 1971, Huntersville Outfitters is located on the Crow Wing River, adjacent to County Road 18, east of Menahga [see inset]. Outfitters in the Crow Wing area, such as Kennelly, suggest using one of the established services, but if you choose to canoe or tube the Crow Wing on your own, be sure to notify family and friends of your definitive canoeing plans and your timeline.
Second, are you looking for a solitary or group canoeing experience? “It doesn’t matter as much which campsite you stay at,” states Lee Gloege, proprietor of Northern Sun Outfitting, “as it does what time of year and day of the week you are canoeing. If you’re looking for a more solitary experience, canoe the river in the off-peak time (early spring or late fall) and also during the midweek throughout the summer.” Lee, husband George and son Mark have been operating Northern Sun Outfitting since 1970 and are located on the Crow Wing River as well. Their base of operation is north of Nimrod and one-half mile north of the DNR fire tower [see inset].
Both outfitters’ services have accommodated groups ranging from large scouting groups and family reunions to intimate wedding parties and couples. Their clientele is comprised mainly of those within the tri-state area, with national and international guests (Sweden, Germany, Poland, Norway) rounding out their total. They are flexible and personable in their service, as well as knowledgeable concerning river navigation and camping.
Should you be looking for a one-day canoeing excursion, Lee Gloege recommends a relaxing river trip of 8-10 miles. Should you be looking for a weekend or two-day excursion, Gloege further recommends inserting your canoe at Shell City Campsite and staying overnight at Huntersville Forest Campsite. From there, spend your second day canoeing to Nimrod and celebrate your success at the R & R Grill with the Nimrod locals. “It doesn’t matter how long your canoeing trip is,” states Dorothy Kennelly, “because it is guaranteed to be memorable.”
Shell City Campsite to Huntersville Forest Campsite: 13 Miles
Most canoeists prefer to insert their vessel at Shell City campsite, the former location of a past flourishing button factory; buttons that were fashioned from the shells of fresh water clams dug from this river’s bank. It is the river’s first campsite and river insertion point, enveloped by matured white birch sprinkled with stands of pine. In the early morning hours, you will encounter a wide variety of the river’s clientele at this campsite, both human and wildlife. College gatherings, family reunions, scouting dens and church groups awake to begin their relaxing trek down the river as turtles, beavers, mink, chipmunks and assorted squirrels continue their morning activities.
On the river’s bank, Joey Bohmbach and Andrew Hilleren, lifetime friends from Bloomington, Minnesota, are preparing to launch their canoe in the early morning hours. “Our parents brought us on a canoeing trip of the Crow Wing when we were teenagers,” states Bohmbach, “because they’ve been coming here since they were youngsters. The atmosphere is so peaceful that we’ve come back for the last ten years.”
John Jenasen waits patiently for these young men to embark on the river’s water, for he’s here for another reason. He had returned to the river for the last twelve years with his wife Jill of 21 years; she tragically succumbed to illness in the prior fall season. But John simply had to return to the river, without his wife, seeking comfort from past memories and drawing hope for the solo journey ahead. Before pushing off from the shore, he quietly states, “She’s here. I can feel her presence.” These are just two of the countless powerful tales of annual pilgrimages to this river’s edge.
The water although gentle flowing, is cool to the touch and a poignant morning reminder for all travelers to be prepared. This is the ideal location to make a last minute check of all necessary gear and supplies. In addition to the obvious list of items, local outfitters encourage all river guests to stow ample sunscreen and a wide brimmed hat to address the powerful sun’s rays reflected off the crystal clear waters. Dorothy Kennelly advocates, “Always bring a long-sleeved shirt, for both the potential sun and sometimes cool temperatures on the river.” In addition, Lee Gloege reminds, “Be mindful of the weather – heat and wind have a subtle impact on the time traveled on the river. Be sure to include insect repellant and river shoes or sandals.”
As Shell City campsite becomes a distant but warm memory, your attention is embraced by the sweet smell of jack pine from the river’s bank. The sun’s rays slowing break the trees’ edge and the warmth is welcomed. Just off in the distance, Tree Farm Landing Campsite, the second campsite on the Crow Wing, can be seen. Huntersville Outfitters shares that Tree Farm Landing is “a secluded campsite formerly a part of a surrounding 2000 acre Northwest Paper Company Tree Farm, which is now open to the public for recreational pursuits.” Similar to the other twelve river campsites, Tree Farm Landing is equipped with toilet facilities, pumps and plentiful campgrounds. It is a fortunate location for a break and a snack; enjoy the moment and view because it just gets better from here.
Just ahead are Huntersville Township Campsite and Big Bend Campsite, the third and fourth river campsites. Big Bend Campsite is a remote campsite that is only accessible by the river. So if you are looking for a “get away from it all” camping experience on the Crow Wing, this would be the location. From here, it is two miles to Huntersville Forest Campsite in the mid-afternoon sun, while you’re entertained by eagles fishing from the distant river’s water.
Huntersville Forest Campsite to Anderson’s Crossing: 7 Miles
The afternoon sun’s intensity has begun its descent as your canoe arrives to the bank of the fifth river campsite, the Huntersville Forest Campsite. Centered in the midst of the conifer-rich Huntersville State Forest, this section of the river is a haven for photographic opportunities. From occasional fox sightings to the happenchance encounter with a playful pair of otters and from the ongoing observation of turkey vultures to the ongoing stream of geese and waterfowl, there is a ready photographic subject for amateur and advanced photographers alike.
Should you find yourself on a two-day river trip, this campsite is a wonderful halfway point. So feel free to disembark here and set up camp. When doing so, bear in mind some important river etiquette. Lee Gloege reminds canoeists, “It’s important to remember not to litter, whether at a campsite or on the river. Use campground courtesy: pack out your own garbage and please pick up others’ trash if you see it.” Dorothy Kennelly adds, “When pulling up to a campground or river bank, be sure to pull your canoe up far enough to leave room for others’ canoe to be banked.” As well, Kennelly advises the following river etiquette: When others overturn their canoe, be gracious enough to stop and help them collect their items; please be considerate – to other river guests and wildlife - when using portable radios and players on the river (use an Ipod); and respect the natural habitat by not feeding the wildlife and locking up your food in your vehicle or cooler.
Should you spend a few moments greeting other canoeists as they exit the river, you will quickly realize that the river guests are as diverse as the river’s ecosystem. Sojourners from a Wahpeton youth group, outdoor enthusiasts from Wisconsin celebrating their 35th anniversary on the Crow Wing, and a tri-generational family reunion (gathering from across the United States) enjoying a hotdog cookout are just a sample of the diversity experienced when you extend a simple hello and “How’s the river?”
Should you not choose to camp at Huntersville Forest Campsite or simply use it as a break station, there are many other ample camping and photographic opportunities. Along the next seven miles to Anderson’s Crossing, there are prime photographic opportunities of osprey, eagles and blue heron, according to Dorothy Kennelly. Have your camera ready to capture these graceful animals in action, but also be prepared: the stretch of the river approaching Anderson’s Crossing is the beginning of intermittent Class I rapids. Not to worry, these rapids will provide you with the all the excitement without all the danger of river rapids. Sit back and let the current tow you into Anderson’s Crossing.
Anderson’s Crossing Campsite to Nimrod: 5 Miles
Anderson’s Crossing, the sixth river campsite, is considered the beginning of the Butterfield Rapids. Again, these rapids are classified as Class I – not hazardous, but just enough to add variety to your canoeing or inner tubing experience. Simply enjoy the river’s adventure, but in the excitement of the moment, don’t forget the photographic opportunity these rapids provide. When exiting your canoe or inner tube, be mindful that the average depth of the Crow Wing River varies. Paddle toward the shore before exiting so that you’re not chasing your canoe or inner tube down the remaining portion of the river.
Regardless of whether your adventure is a one-day excursion or an extended expedition, you are inevitably going to assess your supply needs. At this point in the river, it is an opportune time to begin a list of what supplies you are lacking. Just a few miles downstream, you will be entering Nimrod and the focal point for minimal supply replenishment. Be watching for signs of Stigman’s Mound, a picnic area north of the Nimrod Bridge on the right side of the river. Canoes will exit across from the picnic area on the left side of the river. From there, it’s a short walk to the River Market for limited supplies. Just be mindful that the River Market closes at 6:00 p.m., so gauge your river pace to make it before closing time.
Nimrod to Cottingham Park Campsite: 15 Miles
Many canoeists will exit the Crow Wing at this juncture, but if you are able and willing – and have the time – you may wish to continue just a little further down the river. According to Lee Gloege, the subtle Indian Mounds burial grounds on the river’s banks, just two miles south of Nimrod, are another of the river’s wonderful photographic opportunities.
Whether your journey ends here or continues on further, be sure to reward yourself with a celebration meal. The Crow Wing River is not without its dining pleasures as well. Early in your journey, indulge yourself by stopping by Outfitter’s Post, adjacent to Huntersville Outfitters and south of Tree Farm Landing. According to area residents, “it has some of the best burgers in upper Minnesota.”
Further down the river in Nimrod, stop by for a grilled meal – seven days a week – at the R & R Grill. The menu is as satisfying as the local conversation is lively. Finally, if you find yourself continuing on past Nimrod, be sure to treat yourself at the river establishment of Wahoo Valley. Wahoo Valley is across from the Cottingham Park Campsite and hosts picnic tables, a dance area and grilled menu.
Between Nimrod and Cottingham Park Campsite are the seventh (Frame’s Landing Campsite), eighth (Little White Dog Campsite), and ninth (Knob Hill Campsite) river campsites. Each are able to accommodate your group and its camping needs. At White Dog Campsite, seven miles from Nimrod, you are provided with a picturesque view of the Crow Wing River. The high banks above this site, according to Huntersville Outfitters, were used for Indian gatherings and ceremonies. Soak up the atmosphere, be sure to stay hydrated and continue floating down this mighty stream.
Cottingham Park Campsite to Old Wadena: 10 Miles
Throughout the Crow Wing River Canoe Trail, it is legal to possess and consume alcoholic beverages. However, local outfitters advise river guests to be mindful that alcohol and water don’t always mix well. Be sure to balance out any alcoholic beverages with plenty of water, juice or sports drink. “The intensity of the sun on the river can surprise you,” states Lee Gloege, “so be sure to bring and drink plenty of water.”
From Cottingham Park Campsite through to Old Wadena Campsite, the waters of the Crow Wing seem to slow to a gentle flow. Perhaps it’s a combination of the winding river pathway and your calmed spirit? Regardless of reason, the effect remains the same: the river’s gentle pace has a habit of slowing the heart and mind of each river guest. And in that slowing, you will leave with a renewed perspective for the celebration of Life’s individual moments.
Once again, just as soon as your journey has begun on this stream of adventure, be it one day or a weekend, your journey is over and your canoe is banked. But rest assured, upon reflecting on your adventure later, you will truly say, that within the Crow Wing River’s corridor life is but a dream.
For complete Crow Wing River Canoe Trail outfitting reservations, preparation tips, maps and directions, contact the following local established Crow Wing outfitters:
Northern Sun Outfitting
Copyright 2006, Lee Hoedl, email@example.com