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Chippewa River run: Trip offers modern perspective

Shingo Yamane, right, a foreign exchange student from Japan studying in Clara City, and Glen Jacobsen, rural Bird Island, give Jacobsen's new Souris Canoe its maiden run April 23 on the Chippewa River. The river's bluffs offer a look back at more than 100,000 years of geological and glacial history in the area. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

The Chippewa River was back within its banks but keeping a sprinter's pace when the nine of us slipped two canoes and five kayaks into its current at Lentz's Landing on Minnesota Highway 40 on the afternoon of Easter Sunday.

Our plan was to hitch a ride on this conveyor belt to the Watson Lion's Park about eight miles downstream.

So much to see on the way: We chased up wood ducks, mallards and plenty of mergansers too, including a pair of hooded. A few deer, a mink and a raccoon were among the animals scurrying away from the banks at our approach, and a painted turtle went ker-plunk from bank to water at our sight as well.

We studied the yawning, open banks revealing thousands of years of geological history and should have taken more time. The banks are known for revealing the red iron material that is evidence of a glacial ice sheet that once reached this area from Lake Superior. Fossil hunters know these banks too for the curly-shaped gastropods that can be found. They date back 100,000 years or so.

The shoreline tells of more modern events too. We lamented the old kitchen stove, junked cars and other discarded trash spilling over the steeply sloped banks at a few locations.

There are lots of ways to look at this river, all depending on perspective. White settlers gave it the name Chippewa in recognition that it served as a water route from the land of the Dakota people to that of the Chippewa.

The Dakota knew it as Maya-waka-wapan, or "remarkable river with steep places.''

French cartographer Joseph Nicollet recorded the Dakota name as he paddled down these waters in August of 1838. He wrote down his observation too: "Water quite transparent on a white, sandy bottom.''

The waters we rode were the color of weak coffee.

A couple of days after our float, we contacted Kylene Olson, director of the Chippewa River Watershed Project, to discuss its condition. The Watershed Project has been monitoring these waters for more than 10 years.

We are seeing a small decrease in the amount of excess nutrients washing into its waters from farm fields, city lawns, feedlots and septic systems, according to the data.

Olson also pointed to previous work by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that found it supports a relatively diverse population of mussels, an important indicator of a river's biological health.

She is waiting for a detailed analysis from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on a two-year study that looked at the health of the fish and macro-invertebrate organisms in the waterway. The preliminary word is that things aren't too bad: She said they were surprised by the diversity of fish caught and sampled for contaminants.

But along with the signs of progress are plenty of reasons for concern. Olson said the river's hydrology is changing as more drainage is installed and impervious surfaces added in the 1.3 million acre watershed. The basin is home to more than 41,000 people, and 980,000 of its acres are farmed.

Areas of the landscape where water once disappeared into the ground, or stayed put in seasonal wetlands, small ponds and even shallow lakes, are now connected to the river.

When the snows melt or the rains fall, a big pulse of water chews up the banks of ditches, small tributaries and the main stem of the river. Banks are sloughing and mixing the sediment that makes these waters coffee colored today.

To clean them, Olson said the Watershed Project is working to encourage the planting of vegetative buffers along the ditches leading to the river. It is also promoting grazing and the addition of pasture, as well as alfalfa and other perennial covers in the watershed.

There is progress, but it is slow, she admits.

In the last year, the Watershed Project has hosted 11 different meetings of stakeholders gathered from the extensive watershed. The river runs about 130 miles from Fish Lake in Ottertail County to the Minnesota River at Montevideo.

The meetings made clear the economic forces that encourage row crop production and incentivize additional drainage. An effort to see 10 percent of the farm land in perennial cover is proving a hard sell, she said.

Yet she remains optimistic. More people are discovering this river by launching canoes and kayaks and exploring it as we did. Like us, they reach their destination thoroughly impressed by what it offers.

"It does change your perspective once you float down the river,'' said Olson.

Looking to test the waters?

MONTEVIDEO -- For those who may be looking to test the waters by paddling some of the area rivers, the weekend of May 21-22 offers the perfect opportunity.

Clean Up the River Environment of Montevideo is hosting canoe and kayak trips down area waterways. There are guided trips scheduled on the Chippewa, Hawk Creek, Lac qui Parle, Pomme de Terre, Yellow Medicine and Minnesota rivers.

Novice and experienced paddlers are welcome, and guides will offer tips and information on the routes. An evening campfire and sing-a-long will follow at the Chippewa County Park in Wegdahl with a history talk by Pete Carrels.

Call toll free 877-269-2873 or visit the CURE website at for more information.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335