MONTEVIDEO -- Ten years ago they canoed the Minnesota River from top to bottom, camped on sandbars, and were surprised at how the upper reaches of this river still held a wilderness character.
They were even more surprised by the reaction they received to the series of articles they wrote on their experience for the Mankato Free Press. "There was a lot of interest,'' said Mankato Free Press reporter Tim Krohn.
All of these years later, Krohn said he and fellow paddler and Free Press photographer John Cross continue to hear from people who remember their 1998 series on the Minnesota River.
They're back, repeating the journey that won awards for their journalism and helped focus renewed attention on efforts to clean up the river.
Krohn and Cross lugged their gear-laden Old Town canoe to the river's shoreline in the Big Stone Wildlife refuge on Monday and immediately struggled.
Ten years ago they found the first miles of the river so snag-choked they would have turned back if only they could have. They had locked the keys in the van for someone else to retrieve, and had no escape, explained Cross.
This time they once again fought their way through downed trees and snags and wove their way through the upper, marsh-choked channel before they eventually emerged 30 miles downstream on the open waters of Lac qui Parle Lake. They've kept a good pace ever since, with intentions of reaching Mankato and a one-night respite in their own beds today (Saturday).
Ten years ago, their daily articles chronicled not only their adventure, but the river's woes and the many people who were working to address them.
This time around, they've found signs of improvement. The water clarity seems improved, and they do not see farm crops planted right to the water's edge as frequently as they did 10 years earlier, said Cross.
But they also are also seeing first-hand the problems that many people told them about as they gathered information for stories prior to launching. River bank erosion has become a bigger problem, said the two. By the time they reached Montevideo they had already seen thousands of downed trees along the eroding banks.
The greater erosion is partly the result of higher water levels but undoubtedly, also a sign of the increase in farm field drainage that has occurred in the last 10 years. River bank erosion and drainage are the issues people concerned about the river most often call to their attention, they noted.
Their attention was also caught by how much has stayed the same, and happily so. No different than 10 years ago, the two reporters said they continue to find lots of people who are passionate about cleaning up the river.
Best of all, the river still holds its wilderness appeal. "Like the Boundary Waters,'' said Cross of the stretch of granite outcrops that tower along the river between Granite Falls and Redwood Falls.
They intend to paddle the entire 330 miles of the river and reach the confluence with the Mississippi on Wednesday. They are posting stories and photos of the journey each day. They can be viewed at: http://www.mankatofreepress.com/