Sunday, July 1, 2012
Seventeen Miles on the Rum River
We had no idea what to expect, except what could be gleaned from a glance down the river from the window of a fast-moving car on Highway 169. But we wanted to get to know the Rum River better.
Internet references were few, and all but worthless. The DNR's map of the river was better, giving accurate mileage and a few comments about hazards, camp sites, and points of public access. The Falcon guide Paddling Minnesota was perfunctory. Thomas Waters’ classic The Streams of Rivers of Minnesota was useful to a degree, though it came out in 1977, and some things have changed.
For example, Waters writes that the stretch between Onamia and Princeton “is not wild—it is crossed by many roads…The riverside is not heavily wooded, and much of the area is in pasture or open fields.”
Well, the seventeen-mile stretch we canoed Sunday morning is entirely wooded. And discounting three or four bridges and the mile or so just before you arrive in Milaca, it’s entirely wild. During the first two hours we were on the water we saw nary a person, a bridge, a pasture, or any other sign of human activity, aside from three or four widely spaced cabins, all of which we wanted to inherit from some rich uncle. In fact, we didn’t even see a place where it was inviting to come ashore and ponder the beauty of the passing scene.
When Louis Hennepin negotiated the river in 1680 it could hardly have been more “wild.”
As for the water level, it was high, and that was a good thing. The official DNR reading available online was from May 8—not worth much, considering all the rain that’s been falling in the central part of the state recently. We learned more from the attendant at the wayside rest on Highway 169 fifteen miles north of Milaca, where a path down the hill through the woods led to the river.
“The river’s high, so you shouldn’t bang around too much,” he told us. “Some people in kayaks went down yesterday.”
When I suggested a three-hour transit time to Milaca he hesitated, then nodded his head in a sort of doubtful affirmation.
Waters writes of this stretch of river, “Upstream from Milaca, the Rum is clear so that canoeing or wading is a real visual pleasure.” That much is true. It might have been nice of him to add, “Most of this stretch is rapids.”
Now, there are rapids and there are rapids. Not much of the river we ran was “white-water” per se. But here’s the way I look at it. On many mid-sized rivers, you mostly have the freedom to drift, springing to attention occasionally when the sound of riffling water approaches. On the upper Rum River, you’re moving pretty fast, and there are very few stretches when you aren’t looking ahead, charting your immediate path, looking for Vs and protruding rocks, or actually negotiating a Class One rapids.
The hazards are ever-present, and the swift current is relentlessly carrying you toward or through them. There is little time to pause or ponder anything.
None of these rapids are terribly dangerous or difficult. But what you begin to notice is not the rapids, but the rare two-minute interludes when the river ahead looks calm and you can relax, extract the camera from its plastic bag and take a picture, or look at the map. Such moments are few and far between.
Waters tells us that the Rum River drops 145 feet during its 140-mile journey from Mille Lacs to the Mississippi, and half of that descent is along the 30-mile stretch from Onemia and Milaca.
Along this stretch I suspect the Rum is seldom more than five feet deep, and there’s little danger of serious injury. What you want to avoid is hitting an isolated rock square-on in the midst of a rapid, spinning sideways in the swift current, and dumping.
Even this could well end up being fun—we were both wearing swimming suits, after all—except for the camera and binoculars we’d brought along, and the straps and foam cushions required to fasten the canoe to the shuttle-car once we reach the end of the journey. I’d really hate to see that stuff go floating off …
During our journey we were accompanied by an osprey that rose from the overhanging branches and flapped away downstream, time and again. We also saw several bald eagles at very close range; a few chattering kingfishers; and about a thousand cedar waxwings darting out and back across the river.
We’d been paddling for two hours through the gorgeous, silent hardwood forest before we found a decent place to stop. It was a rocky spit about two feet across and ten feet wide. Hallelujah!
Hilary went swimming. I ate some cherries and drank a can of lemonade. Then we watched two iridescent green damsel-flies chase one another back and forth across our “beach.” It was a lovely sight—one of those little moments when you say to yourself: “I’ve never seen anything remotely like that before.” (Might these have been the Ebony Jewelwing?)
Another thing you notice is that some rapids have lots of water in them, and though everything’s moving very fast, you feel that if you choose the best channel you’re going to whisk right through. Then again, other rapids give off a chattering sound that tells you they’re shallow and full of rattling rocks and no matter which path you take, you’re going to bottom out once or twice before you get to the bottom. As you race through these riffles you sing the praises of the Grumman Aircraft Corporation. (They made the indestructible aluminum canoe you’re sitting in.)
For quite a while we kept an eye out for the Old Whitney Log Dam Site, which was marked on the DNR map, but once we started to hear the traffic on 169 again we knew we’d long since passed it. By that time our map had gotten soaked and stained and I wasn’t paying much attention anyway.
Meanwhile, the river had developed the habit of separating into two or three strands; there were more backwaters and side channels—maybe a cuckoo bird lurking?—some of them carrying a good share of the river’s flow and thus rendering the “main” channel that much shallower.
During the first half of our trip, we bottomed out five times—during the second half, maybe fifteen times.
On only one occasion did we hit a rock in the middle of a rapid and spin sideways. Too deep for me to disembark and “steady” the craft, our only hope at that point was to push off the rock and complete the spin. As a result, we found ourselves going backward down the rapids! This called for a further pirouette, which we executed deftly, brushing a few more rocks broadside in the process but completing our 360 degree circuit without going over. Bravo!
The temperature had risen to above 90 degrees and I was getting tired when we spotted a communications tower above the trees ahead of us. Next the manicured fairways of a golf course came into view. Then teens in swimsuits appeared riding turquoise inner-tubes—indolent slackers a third our age who sometimes inadvertently clogged the best lanes through the ever-threatening rapids.
Then I saw the lights to the Milaca baseball field and I knew we were only a few minutes from the car. Seventeen miles. Four hours. (In case anyone’s wondering how long it really takes, the way I was until today.) A beautiful and adventurous pre-4th of July event.
Heading down the Rum River, we had no idea what to expect. All we knew was that once we set off, there was no way to turn back.
I find it difficult to imagine the Dakota, the Ojibwe, or anyone else, taking this stretch of the Rum River upstream. But of course they did. In his memoir recounting events that took place three centuries and more ago, Louis Hennepin recalls: “these Indians sometimes make 30 or 40 leagues (120 miles) by water when they are hurried by war or wish to overtake enemies.”