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“The 261” – A Summer of Paddling Event Like No Other
Midwest Region, September 26, 2012
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Refuge Ranger Danielle Quist paddled the entire length of the 261 river mile Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. She commented,
Refuge Ranger Danielle Quist paddled the entire length of the 261 river mile Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. She commented, "The last day was a good note to end on, a challenging day and a day to understand the need for the refuge and the islands and backwaters that compose it. These shielded and protected areas that make up the refuge are homes and safety zones for wildlife and in this case for canoeists, too." - Photo Credit: USFWS
Refuge Rangers Danielle Quist, Dustan Hoffmany, Ed Lagace and Cindy Samples snap a photo before heading out on their 261 River mile journey.
Refuge Rangers Danielle Quist, Dustan Hoffmany, Ed Lagace and Cindy Samples snap a photo before heading out on their 261 River mile journey. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Visitors to the Refuge, some 3.4 million each year, come for a wide variety of reasons and pursue their interests with many “tools” of transportation, both motorized and non-motorized. Canoeing (or kayaking) the Upper Miss Refuge is a very intimate and refreshing way to enjoy the beauty and nature of the River.
Visitors to the Refuge, some 3.4 million each year, come for a wide variety of reasons and pursue their interests with many “tools” of transportation, both motorized and non-motorized. Canoeing (or kayaking) the Upper Miss Refuge is a very intimate and refreshing way to enjoy the beauty and nature of the River. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Danielle Quist, Cindy Samples and Ed Lagace paddled the 261 river mile refuge in a loaded Minnesota 4 Wenonah canoe.
Danielle Quist, Cindy Samples and Ed Lagace paddled the 261 river mile refuge in a loaded Minnesota 4 Wenonah canoe. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Waking up to a beautiful sunrise on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge near Guttenberg, Iowa.
Waking up to a beautiful sunrise on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge near Guttenberg, Iowa. - Photo Credit: Danielle Quist/USFWS

This summer the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge hosted several Summer of Paddling 2012 (SOP2012) events. The SOP2012 is a series of paddling events celebrating America’s Great Outdoors hosted by conservation organizations along the Mississippi River in an effort to connect participants with the river and its tributaries.

In June, Refuge Manager Kevin Foerster requested that Visitor Services Manager Cindy Samples, and her summer staff, plan a paddling event that encompassed the entire Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Foerster commented, “I wanted them to document the trip and identify camping locations and barriers to paddling along the way.”

An intrepid refuge employee, Danielle Quist, completed the entire 261 river mile paddle. “The 261,” appropriately named for the 261 river mile length of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, began on August 14 and was completed on August 31.

Samples paddled all but 20 miles - Samples commented, “I couldn’t miss the dedication and grand opening of the La Crosse District Visitor Center, so I bowed out on one day but rejoined the paddle crew that night at Wildcat Landing Campground. I actually missed one of the hardest paddling days. Paddling in Pool 8 near La Crosse, Wisconsin on a summer Saturday was not an easy paddle with all the boat traffic. Danielle will be rerouting that part of the 261 trail and we will include a caveate that it's best to paddle that stretch during weekdays.”

Refuge Rangers Dustan Hoffman and Ed Lagace each paddled more than 150 miles, Visitor Services Manager Pam Steinhaus paddled nearly 50 miles and Assistant Refuge Manager Tim Yager experienced nearly 30 miles of the river refuge. Friends, volunteers and general public joined in on some paddling days. Quist commented, “Once the 261 is mapped, it will provide an excellent reference and support for future paddlers who wish to enjoy this magnificent treasure.”

Just like the early explorers who recorded their journey in journals, each of the paddlers recorded thoughts about this historic journey through the river refuge.

Excerpts from Refuge Assistant Manager, Tim Yager paddling log:

River Mile 763:
Beginning at River Mile 763 near Reads Landing, MN, two “Minnesota 4” touring canoes, fresh from the We-no-nah canoe factory in Winona, MN slipped silently into the clean water of the Mississippi. Constructed of Kevlar, aluminum, wood and fiberglass resins, the Minnesota 4s are a far cry from the traditional birch bark and pine pitch, but they worked just fine for this expedition.

River Mile 760.2:
Passing river mile 760.2 a solitary Great Blue Heron silently stalks the backwaters. With the speed and accuracy of a jousting knight, the bird lances a silver fish, possibly a perch or maybe a river carpsucker.

River Mile 759.3:
An immature bald eagle sores gracefully over an immense sand pile near river mile 759.3. As bird and shadow merge as one alighting silently on the sand, it’s hard to believe the youngster is less than six months old, but has fully mastered flight.

River Mile 752.8:
At River Mile 752.8 a gargantuan 12 barge tow exists the lock chamber and the Minnesota 4s cautiously follow. With a bump, whir and whish Mississippi River waters rapidly dewater the lock chamber, dropping the Minnesota 4s about six feet in less than 5 minutes. The canoes rapidly exit the lock chamber to make room for the next upbound vessel.

River Mile 751.5:
A Belted Kingfisher with a gizzard shad impaled on beak, undulates in flight across a secondary channel near river mile 751.5. The shad will make a healthy meal.

River Mile 756:
Young wood ducks have infested Buttonbush shrubs on the floodplain of the river near river mile 756. As the Minnesota 4s cautiously slide past, the immature waterfowl boil from the shrubs like bees from a hive.

Excerpt from Visitor Services Manager, Cindy Samples paddling log:

August 15, 2012
Thomson Causeway – Princeton Landing through Lock 13 (22.5 miles)

We entered Lock 13 and conversed with the Lockman. He told us that the water was the lowest he had seen in the area since the 1950s. He said not much grain was moving, the main channel was 9 1/2 feet deep and he was only letting out 13,000 cfs. He asked us where we were headed. That seems to be the common question from anyone that sees us on the river. We tell him about the water trail we are scouting and he comments that it sounds like a great adventure. He’s says he’s seen more canoes and kayaks lock through this year than most.

Out of Lock and Dam 13 we see more towns. Clinton, Iowa seems to stretch on forever. 'm not sure this is my favorite stretch of river but it is where I recognized how much I love the refuge. We had to take a stretch back before we had gotten past the industrial part of Clinton. This stretch is 5 miles and we paddle about 5 miles per hour. The ADM plant must have been processing corn, at least our noses told us something was being processed. Our ears strained to hear cicadas over the whine of the machinery noises the industrial plants were making. We couldn't hear the natural river.

Paddling along this stretch I recalled the Junior Stewards paddle event in July in Spring Lake near Savanna, Illinois. I overheard a grandmother talking to her 12 year old grandchild, "Don't let that dirty water get on you." She was talking about the water in the backwater slough, water filled with duckweed and coontail. I asked her, “Why do you think it's dirty?” Her comment, “You know all the weeds.” However, this stretch of the river was where I felt the water was dirty, where pipes coming out of the plants were spitting water into Beaver Slough. I know there are regulations and the water has to be "clean" but for me, I like the "dirty" water, I like the duckweed, wild celery, coontail infested water. Along this route we didn't see "dirty" water.

The refuge is on our left and turkey vultures sit on tree branches and shore picking at dead fish along the shoreline. It wasn’t long and we reached my favorite stretch of this 74 mile paddle, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge on one shoreline and the Princeton Wildlife Management area on the other. We slowed our strokes and took in the quietness and the beauty of the “wild” Mississippi.

Excerpt from Refuge Ranger Danielle Quist’s Daily Log:

August 23, 2012
Day #5: Island 42, MN to Winona, Minn.

The next morning we were greeted with a glorious sunrise and light morning breeze. Dusty, Cindy, Ed and I listened to the weather (as with every morning) and grew a bit worried about the wind we may be facing that day. As we made it downstream towards Half Moon Canoe Trail, another one of the refuge’s water trails, we were filled with enthusiasm to start the day off in the backwaters instead of the main channel. Along this trail, we spotted Eagles soaring in the sky, Great Blue Herons, many freshwater mussels, and even a family of deer! It was an excellent way to start the morning, until we realized that the water was not high enough for the trail to be passable even by canoe. We portaged a bit, but were unable to pass through to the main channel. We had to backtrack. We were a bit reluctant to do so, but realized that if there was any place we would want to backtrack, this would be it. As we made our way back, we noticed an aquatic plant species we hadn’t seen along the river before. After close examination, we discovered it was South American water lettuce, a rather invasive plant that has recently been found along the refuge. This was a daunting discovery, but a good one since we found it early before it had time to become too wide spread.

As we made our way downstream towards Spring Lake, the wind started to pick up. We found ourselves torn between crossing to the Wisconsin side and then having to cross back over to lock through, or we could stick to the Minnesota shore. Either way, it seemed like it would be a tough paddle. We decided to stick to the Minnesota side, and give it our all. We took a couple breaks and found cover within the wild rice and other vegetation along the pool. Once we locked through, the wind didn’t seem quite as bad, but we were definitely ready for a lunch break. We slipped into Bass Camp right below the lock and dam and treated ourselves to a couple of ice cream bars, a great treat for such a challenging day on the water.

The rest of the day, we would be paddling all within the backwaters of Pool 5A with most of our trip along the Straight Slough Canoe Trail, one of my favorite trails along the refuge. We saw many Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets along the shorelines of the trail as we paddled on by. More Belted Kingfishers joined us and chattered as they landed from tree branch to tree branch along the shoreline. It was nice to spend the last 9 river miles along this beautiful slough, sheltered from the wind, and away from the main channel. Once we passed Verchota Landing, we found ourselves in large beds of wildrice, arrowhead, and a mix of lily and lotus pads. The wind picked up a bit as we entered Polander Lake area, but it was still much more calm then the main channel. As we pulled up to McNally Landing, we were greeted by the press! It was nice to be able to share our stories thus far and the purpose of our voyage with others.

There are currently 16 canoe trails/canoe areas on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The purpose of the “261” paddling event was to identify and map a canoe trail which would stitch together these existing trails/areas. Quist has created that map and the next step will be to submit the trail for National Recreational Trail designation. We hope others will experience this historic journey and record their own memories from paddling on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.


Contact Info: Cynthia Samples, 507-542-4232 ext.216, Cindy_Samples@fws.gov



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