GRANITE FALLS -- It was difficult beforehand to tell people what a Paddling Theatre experience would be, since nothing of the sort had ever been offered on the Minnesota River in this area.
Afterward, it was sure easy to describe people's reaction to it.
"They were just so amazed at how it could happen,'' said Peg Furshong, associate director of Clean Up our River Environment.
The Montevideo-based organization, along with a variety of partners, hosted "With the Future on the Line: Paddling Theatre from Granite Falls to Yellow Medicine'' Saturday on the Minnesota River south of Granite Falls.
All 164 audience seats on 18 different Wilderness Inquiry voyageur canoes were filled. Another 30 paddlers made their own way in canoes and kayaks to enjoy the play.
Ashley Grant and Andrew Gaylord of PlaceBase Productions crafted a story about an 1873 county seat battle between Granite Falls, Minnesota Falls and Yellow Medicine City.
The audience paddled their way to scenes staged along the river bank and an island on the route. They also encountered a host of colorful, historical figures on the way.
The paddlers covered more than eight miles of river to reach the Upper Sioux Agency State Park to watch the final act, where they also cast ballots on their pick for county seat.
More than half the people who watched the play had never been on the Minnesota River before. And, half of those who hopped aboard the voyageur canoes had never even been in a boat before, said Furshong.
Introducing people to the Minnesota River and the outdoors are goals for the organization, and on that account the day couldn't have gone better, she noted.
CURE's partners in the production included the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the state's waterway system this year.
There were a lot of other reasons to celebrate the success of the area's first-ever Paddling Theatre event too. Furshong noted that it introduced the area to people from all across the state: Audience members came from Two Harbors to Worthington and all places between, and a few from beyond, including New Jersey, Maryland and New York.
Before the play began, Prentice Street in downtown Granite Falls looked like a version of Sheridan Street in Ely, with vehicles topped by canoes and kayaks and people strolling along the street.
The Paddling Theatre was the main event, but the day also provided an opportunity to showcase the whitewater rapids returned to the Minnesota River south of Granite Falls with the removal of the Minnesota Falls dam. News that the rapids offered a challenging run brought many who came just to run the rapids, including members of the Mankota Paddler's Club.
A major grant from the Kreske Foundation and help from other partners made it possible to offer the Paddle Theatre production and its events. When all of the in-kind help, grant funds and work by the partners is tallied, it represents an approximate $30,000 investment to make it all happen, according to Furshong.
Whether another Paddle Theatre event like this one can be held again is hard to know, but Furshong said there is no doubt. "People left wanting more,'' she said.
While Paddle Theatre history on the Minnesota River is still to be written, another needs no revision. At play's end, the majority of ballots cast by audience members were in favor of Granite Falls as the county seat. Good thing too, as Minnesota Falls and Yellow Medicine City both disappeared in the late 1800s after they lost their bids to be county seat.