BY JON WOGEN
The Minnesota River is over 300 miles long and runs from Ortonville and Big Stone Lake to its confluence with the Mississippi River at Fort Snelling, St. Paul. The river served as a transportation route for Native Americans, traders, trappers and explorers. In the 1800’s one might have seen logs floating down the river to sawmills, and steamboats could be seen hauling goods to early farmers and settlers and trade stores along the river.
In the Tatanka Bluffs Corridor, the area between Redwood and Renville Counties, several towns sprang up along the river because of it being a travel route and a commercial area for early residents. These towns are mostly abandoned now but their names live on. Beaver Falls and Vicksburg are two such towns on the Renville County side of the river that are currently Renville County parks. Foundations and remnants of early buildings can be found in some of the river parks.
The Minnesota River Scenic Byway exists in and along the valley of this historic river. Many people interested in history, especially of the 1862 Indian War travel the byway and explore important sites on and near the Byway.
Bird watchers and others interested in wildlife, native prairie, wildflowers and geology travel in this region. The river corridor is a travel route for migratory birds in spring and fall. Many camping opportunities are present in the parks along the river.
Rock outcrops, exposed by the erosive power of the Glacial River Warren (now the Minnesota River) as it flowed from Lake Agassiz attract a lot of students of geology and biology. Many of the most interesting rock outcrops are found in the Tatanka Bluffs Corridor. Many whirlpool-carved depressions and actual tunnels are present in the rocks and rock domes in the valley.
There are numbers of rare, threatened, and endangered species of plants and animals throughout the valley of the Minnesota, but are more common in the Tatanka Bluffs Region. One of the most interesting animals is the five-lined skink, a very beautiful small lizard that lives in and near the rock outcrops here. The whirlpool “kettles” on rock domes also harbor species of plants that appear only when the depressions hold water for a length of time. These plants are very rare.
These rock outcrops are made of granite and gneiss and are dated to about 3.5 billion years of age. They are believed by some geologists to be the “roots” of ancient mountains that were present here at one time. They, of course have been weathered down so that only the rock outcrops and domes remain.
Most Minnesotans are familiar with the name, Sigurd Olson. He was a rabid advocate for designation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Olson wrote many books about his canoe adventures and love for what he saw and felt in the BWCAW. In his book, “Runes of the North”, Olson called the BWCAW “Le Beau Pays”, because that is what the Voyageurs called it. It means “beautiful Land” in French.
People who have made a float trip by canoe or boat on the Minnesota River feel they are in an area almost identical to the BWCAW, especially in the Tatanka Bluffs Corridor. So, we might feel like calling this area “Beautiful Land” also. It truly is beautiful.
Let’s take a canoe from the Upper Sioux Agency State Park and float/paddle for a few miles to see what it is like. The Tatanka Bluffs region is where we will go. Seeing a Teepee in the State Park campground brought thoughts of many years ago when this whole valley was “Indian Country”.
We are going to take a float trip down the river with just adventure in mind. We aren’t worried about adding to our bird list, even though we know we will see many common species along the way. We also will see mammals and beautiful plant species as we float along the peaceful river. River otters, beavers, mink, muskrats, deer and perhaps eagles will be seen as we travel the river. We even left our fishing gear in the car.
The first areas of “fast water” were easy to paddle through. The water was fairly low and we could easily dodge rocks in the river. We knew that we soon would be entering the really exciting Patterson’s Rapids just ahead.
As we came to what we had heard would be a challenge to our paddling skills, we realized that, yes, indeed, this would be “fun”. The river suddenly made a turn to the left and dropped several feet into a depression ending in a rock wall and turning quickly to the right. As my bow man put all he had into the paddle, we made the turns and the canoe straightened out and we moved ahead. But at that time we quickly saw a tree in front of us that had fallen into the river.
A canoe that gets hung up in a downed tree will swamp very easily. The current pushes you into the tree and you are stuck there. The canoe then fills with water and you are in trouble. Even with a life jacket on, one can be washed under the tree and hang up there, and drown.
My bowman, again, saved the day. With his youthful power, he brought the bow into line with the current that would bypass the tree. I tried to do my share from the back of the canoe.
Well, we made it through Patterson’s Rapids without a serious problem and felt very relieved. Now we were back to enjoying the scenery as we floated along. As we came around a fairly tight bend in the river, a small bunch of wood ducks jumped up and flew away squealing as only wood ducks can. Farther along the river we jumped several pairs of Canada geese, who protested our intervention in their peaceful rest by honking displeasure at the intrusion.
The rock outcrops got even better as we drifted and paddled along. The area between Renville and Redwood County (Tatanka Bluffs Corridor) showed us the best rock outcrops so far. The granite and gneiss outcrops made for several photo opportunities for us.
Several vultures were practicing their soaring skills at a point where the south wind rose up the north valley wall. They seemed to not care at all about the guys in the canoe below as they enjoyed the wind.
Many species of birds called out to us as we floated along and quite a few showed themselves rather than just sing to us as we passed. Suddenly, as we rounded another tight curve in the river, my bowman held up his clenched fist. That of course is a universal sign to be quiet.
I looked ahead and spotted a fellow sitting on a lawn chair on a sandbar. He was dressed pretty tacky and definitely looked like a “river rat”. He sat there with his fishing pole propped up by a forked stick and along side of his chair was perched a tall, square, black-labeled bottle of an amber colored liquid.
We paddled the canoe quietly and steered the canoe as far to the opposite shore from the fisherman as possible. We didn’t want to disturb his fishing, and he appeared to not be the friendly type as he stared menacingly at us. He didn’t return our friendly wave either, which seemed a bit strange for Minnesota.
As we got some distance down the river from the fisherman, we started to discuss what we had just seen. Both of us confessed that we had visions of the movie “Deliverance”, as the scenery was similar and the actor on the sandbar fit the vision of the hillbillies in the movie. We were glad we heard no banjos in the hills above the river as we continued on our trip.
The rest of the trip was uneventful but we kept a close watch on the banks and rock outcrops along the way. And, of course, we glanced back behind us too, at this “Le Beau Pays”.