By Trent Jonas
Paddling is an awesome way to explore the lakes and rivers that define the Minnesota landscape. Some spots are exposed or susceptible to rough water, making them less than ideal for beginning kayakers. Fortunately, there are also plenty of places where a kayaker can find flat water, fabulous scenery, and enough shoreline to keep the paddle interesting. Before you head out, it is recommended to bring a guide along or take a safety course. When you’re ready to go, check out these five excellent spots for beginner kayakers in Minnesota!
Only experienced paddlers—or those with a guide—should paddle on Lake Superior, itself. That being said, the protected harbor in Grand Marais is big enough to explore, pretty enough to enjoy, and lacks the big boat traffic of Duluth. There’s a boat ramp on the east side of the harbor, near Artists’ Point, with ample parking and a shallow put-in. There are also a few outfitters in town that offer guided trips, lessons, and equipment rentals if you don’t bring your own. Skirt the breakwall for gorgeous views of the town and the Sawbill Mountains. Head over toward the marina and the in-town campground to get a look at the sailboats that make Grand Marais their summer home or head out for lunch at the Angry Trout Café. If you get lucky and the main lake is calm, glide out past the breakwall and explore the peninsula that Grand Marais sits on. On the other hand, if you find yourself there on a day when even the harbor is too rough, head a few miles up the Gunflint Trail to the public launch at Devil Track Lake and enjoy some gorgeous inland paddling in the North Woods.
Wild River State Park is located along some of the wildest stretches of the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River. Despite its name, the part of the river that runs through the park—during normal flow—is anything but wild. Indeed, it’s relatively shallow, not particularly swift, and riddled with islands to paddle around and explore. Unless the St. Croix is flood-swollen, it’s easy to maneuver a kayak up and downstream throughout this stretch. The park, itself, is gorgeous. Forested bluffs of big hardwoods stretch along the St. Croix, offering vistas for miles down the valley and across to Wisconsin. Anglers will find plenty of fishing opportunities along the river, both from shore or, if so inclined, from their boat. Beaver, fox, otter, and even the occasional black bear, are not uncommon in the park and may be seen along the shorelines.
For an urban flatwater adventure, head over to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. During summer months, you can rent equipment at the concession building on the Northeast shore of the lake. Or bring your own and paddle at will. Putting in at Lake Calhoun opens you up to the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. You can decide where you want to paddle and for how long. For a couple hours on the water, stick to Calhoun and explore the canal to Lake of the Isles. For a bigger adventure, head into Lake of the Isles, hit the canal to Cedar Lake, and if you’re feeling particularly good, paddle into Brownie Lake. Bring a picnic, wear your swim gear, and take a break on one of the Cedar Lake beaches. You won’t see a whole lot of non-human wildlife, but you may forget you’re in a major metropolitan area for a few hours.
Paddlers looking for some swift river experience but with minimum rapids (Class I) should check out the Cannon River, particularly the stretch from Cannon Falls to Red Wing. Folks who need boats and gear can rent it from Cannon Falls Canoe and Bike Rental in Cannon Falls or from Welch Mill Canoeing, Tubing, & Kayaking in Welch. The Cannon River isn't far from the Twin Cities and passes through some of the best of Southeast Minnesota’s Bluff Country as it flows down to the Mississippi Near Red Wing. Paddlers on this federally-designated Wild and Scenic River will pass through hardwood forests, rolling hills, and along limestone bluffs as they ride the current downstream. Be sure to arrange a ride with your outfitter or from a friend because, despite its relatively tame flow, you’re not going to paddle back upstream on the Cannon.
The Root is one of the state’s most scenic rivers. Winding past towering limestone bluffs, dense forests, and quaint towns, the Root River Water Trail is an incredible beginning paddle. At normal flow levels, you’ll never be terribly challenged, nor will you be far from supplies or amenities. On the other hand, you’ll definitely be awed by the rugged beauty of Minnesota’s part of the driftless region. Root River Outfitters in Lanesboro can hook you up with equipment rentals. Although the Root will not be overly-challenging, paddlers will definitely need a ride back upstream.