Another nail in the canoe

Originally published on my blog.

First stop
Our Royalex Wenonah Spirit II on the Cannon River

First it was kayaks. Now it’s stand-up paddleboards. Canoeing just can’t seem to compete. Therecent news that a popular material for canoes will no longer be manufactured is perhaps a sign of how far the once-dominant watercraft has fallen. If not a symptom, it could very well push the canoe further to the margins of paddling.

Tough, lightweight, and inexpensive, Royalex has been used in many a fine canoe during the past 30 years – including my Wenonah Spirit II. The Minnesota company uses the material in 50 percent of the canoes it makes on the banks of the Mississippi River.

All-purpose perfection

Our Spirit II has taken us deep into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and down many miles of Minnesota rivers. Sure, I have envied my companions’ super-light Kevlar boats when carrying it across BWCAW portages, but love the durability on the rivers during low water, when scraping gravel is unavoidable. It’s the ideal all-purpose boat.

Royalex is best known for its use in whitewater boats. I don’t paddle rapids much, but I love the stories of canoes wrapped around rocks by hydraulic forces, only to snap back to their original shape when pulled out of the river, often with a winch.

Apparently this position as the preferred material for the hardcore fringe of an increasingly marginal pastime doesn’t make manufacturing the stuff economical any longer.

Rise and fall

Canoes were once made out of birch bark and then wood and canvas. After World War II, airplane manufacturers converted their plants to making the ubiquitous aluminum canoes (and many war pilots turned to flying those craft into remote lakes with vacationing paddlers).

The vortex of baby-boomers and post-war industry and a national passion for the outdoors defined canoeing’s peak.

Then along came Royalex and eventually the premium Kevlar. And then came the meteoric rise of kayaks in the late 1990s and 2000s. People – including myself – love the indepence, the ease, the intimacy of a kayak. Stand-up paddleboards are the latest and greatest thing – it looks fun, and boasts the simplicity and closeness to the water to which all paddlecraft aspire.

But you can’t beat the connection between boat and water and people as you can achieve while paddling a tandem canoe. To make it swing and pivot in the current as you descend a river, or to pull it against a headwind stroke by stroke, brings you close to each other, and to the canoe’s history as an efficient means of transportation – loved by indigenous people, voyageurs and explorers.

Uncertain future

The big question with Royalex is what will happen next? Will someone buy it up and keep the stuff available? Will some other material replace it? Either way, I suspect it will be a more expensive future, recognizing the smaller niche market it supplies.

Hardcore canoeists will probably point to cedar strip, wood-canvas, fiberglass, or Kevlar as indication of thriving canoe communities, but those aren’t materials for the mass market. People will always canoe, but it’s likely it will either be in heavy, noisy aluminum, or one of the expensive and precious  materials.

Royalex is dead. Long live canoeing.


Paddle punditry

strib-commentaryPeople should go canoeing more. That was the basic argument of my commentary published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Saturday. Minnesota’s rivers are amazing and largely ignored, go paddle them.

I feel like that is a solid suggestion. And it’s was satisfying to see my words in ink and paper on something that goes out to 300,000 people. Without further ado:

Get to know Minnesota waterways up close

They’re something to behold. So find a canoe and get to know them up close.

In a 1963 edition of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, the magazine published by the Department of Natural Resources, Gov. Karl Rolvaag wrote that canoeing on Minnesota’s streams and rivers was a “recreational sleeping giant.”

It still is.

In the same issue, editor John McKane wrote: “Aside from a small and dedicated fraternity of canoeists who know the secret of recreation at its best on state streams outside of the Arrowhead, the majority of Minnesota rivers remain ‘forgotten rivers.’ ”

Those same words could describe the state of paddling today.

That edition of the magazine introduced what would become Minnesota’s network of Water Trails. The idea was to inspire folks to explore our 15,000 miles of streams and rivers.The legislation turned 50 years old in 2013. Today there are 33 designated rivers, marking 4,500 miles of routes. But paddling in Minnesota is still largely invisible, besides the exceptional opportunities in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Personally, I return often to favorite stretches of my home river, the St. Croix. Too often, probably, but it’s a marvel of a waterway — so accessible, yet so wild. Earlier this month, as soon as eight friends and I got on the water east of Pine City, we could hear rapids ahead. The fast water quickly transported us to a very different state of mind. We spent the afternoon slipping by cedars and stopping at sandbars.

A week later, I took my kayak to a familiar landing closer to the Twin Cities for a Friday afternoon solo outing. I first paddled upriver through a side channel, pushing against the current a couple of miles to a sandbar, where I got out to fish. Then I floated back down the main channel past limestone banks seeping spring water, and past white pines and sandy beaches, letting the current carry me home.

It’s hard to ignore the river I love, but I’m resolved to explore more of the designated trails. By my figuring, I could see all 4,500 miles of water trails if I paddled a new river six days a year for the next 50 years.

The Conservation Volunteer recently published an appreciation of the water trails by Keith Goetzman and Javier Serna, with lyrical narratives of paddling three of them. It’s worth reading for inspiration and useful information. The DNR also has released online tours of some water trails, with videos, photos and descriptions of river sections.

In 1963, Rolvaag championed our state as the “Voyageur’s Highway.” Fifty years later, it’s time to recapture our voyageur spirit, pull away from computer screens and busy schedules, and explore a river. The words of Conservation Volunteer editor McKane hold true today as in 1963: “The canoe provides an ideal outlet from tensions; of escape from the coldness of concrete and steel.”

For Minnesotans, getting in a canoe is a way to connect with the place we call home — its history, its nature, its beauty. For visitors, a day spent paddling shows them Minnesota’s heart and soul, and is an experience they’ll tell their friends about.

Our rivers are more than just a sleeping recreational giant — they are a slumbering identity for our state. They are more than waters moving across the land — they are part of Minnesota’s, and America’s, story: Nothing represents freedom quite like a river, a canoe and a paddle.

Our state’s rivers have carried Ojibwe and Dakota, explorers and lumberjacks, settlers and missionaries, timber and steamboats. Our cities are built on their banks, and take them as their trademarks. We paddle them, but not enough.

Minnesota’s rivers are asleep. Let’s go wake them up.


Art Afoot

Cross-posted from my Star Tribune blog:


There are people everywhere, all the time, in New York City. On the sidewalks, at the parks, in the bars and restaurants. It’s a city defined by swarms of humans as much as skyscrapers or famous streets.

I was reminded while visiting recently that how those millions of people experience the city is a complex thing: They coexist relatively peacefully, mostly minding their own business. They search for companionship in the crowds. They make micro-refuges of miniscule apartments. They drink.

And they make art.

The city’s major art institutions – the Met, Lincoln Center, MoMA, etc. – are world-class. But this time, we saw what you could see without leaving the street.

High Line hike

High Line hiking

Sunday morning, we took the E train to the 23rd Street stop, got coffee and pastries, and walked a couple blocks to the High Line, a nascent park built on an old elevated railroad. Grasses and flowers grow up from gaps in the pavement where the old tracks still lay, reminding you this was once a way to get dangerous freight trains off the streets of Chelsea, and it then sat abandoned for 25 years. Now it is a bright ribbon of green, threading a mile-and-a-half through the concrete and steel landscape of Manhattan.

The first part of the High Line opened in 2009, a second part in 2011, and another section is due to open next year. The park feels like something that could only have been created in the last decade. The design is thoughtful, confident, and informed. People move along its length smoothly, conveyed by a constant shifting of scenery.

High Line Tracks

At every turn, art asks you questions. We sat on a bench and listened to an automated male voice recite the names of animals. I wonder, will this be the outcome of one extinction after another? In the future, will our kids go outside with only a list of that which once lived here? What beasts once wandered the Manhattan wilderness? Fine questions to consider in a park reclaimed from industrial use.

It was a sunny and hot morning and for these Minnesotans it just felt good to be walking outside. We beheld creations big and small. Variations on busts, a wall of pressed tin and broken mirrors, billboards of baseball moments, gardens carefully curated for beauty and wildness.

Framing the city

The art and the gardens and the structure fit together in perfect harmony. An amphitheater over 10th Avenue, with a long view uptown through windows where a stage or screen might be, lets you sit and rest your feet and consider the city as a play or a movie: a comedy, a tragedy, a romance, and a drama, all at once.

Gallery of the sidewalk

Happy Faces

After our walk on the High Line, I took the subway out to Brooklyn. When I stepped out of the Morgan Street station, I immediately noticed two things: it was a lot dirtier than Chelsea, and there was art everywhere.

Street art, an evolution or an expansion of graffiti, is often vandalism, and illegal. But in blighted neighborhoods, especially industrial areas, it can improve one’s experience of the place. It states that people live here, and says a little about who they are, and it adds color and depth to the landscape.

Mattress art

The Bushwick neighborhood is full of good examples. The sort on display there isn’t your typical tag, and most of what I saw seemed intended to to delight, beautify, or challenge.

Its very nature is a statement about contemporary art. These are not artists content to work in a studio, hoping a curator will one day decide their work is worthy enough for a gallery or a museum. These artists go directly to the public. They also create knowing that their work is impermanent, that it will last at most a year or two, and often much less.

Wall of Wonder

These artists do not work so that the paintings will hang in a climate-controlled environment for centuries, viewable with a ticket. They work so that many, many people see it now.

The secret sound of Times Square

Our hotel was only a few blocks north of Times Square, but I had no intention of going there this trip until a friend told me about Max Neuhaus’s sound installation. It was worth fighting the hordes to experience.

You have to go looking for the piece, which is simply called Times Square, at the tip of the pedestrian triangle in the middle of this famous intersection. We found it surrounded by two people dressed up as the Statue of Liberty and a Buzz Lightyear – hokey impersonators who take photos with tourists in exchange for a couple bucks.

The large, unmarked grate in the sidewalk was unnoticed by the crowds. They walked over it quickly, perhaps assuming the weird drone from beneath their feet was the subway or ventilation or perhaps not thinking about it long enough to assume anything.

Neuhaus first installed the piece in 1977, when Times Square was one of the seediest places in New York, and possibly America. How the work has remained relevant as the square has evolved into a highly-commercial tourist destination is an interesting question worthy its own article.

The experience of the piece today is fascinating. If you stand on the grate, you are suddenly in a bubble. For the most part, people do not congregate on the grate, so you have rare space around you, and the droning emanating from beneath has the effect of white noise, blocking the cacophony of the area. You are surrounded by more activity than just about anywhere, and you are suddenly very alone.

Then you step off the grate and back into the fray and you walk as fast as you can past neon signs to escape the area. A museum like the Metropolitan has peace and quiet going for it, but none of the works we enjoyed last month would have had anywhere near the same impact in a traditional museum setting. I came home feeling I had a better sense of New York than before – not the accumulated art of our world found in the big museums, but the city itself.


Namekagon by kayak

My view all week

In mid-May, I joined 75 other folks on a 92-mile trip down almost the entire Namekagon River in northern Wisconsin. It was a beautiful six days of paddling, with high water adding to the excitement, many new friends, and a lot of stuff worth writing about.

In addition to filing several blog posts from campsites along the river, I wrote a couple articles when I got back, including one which was published in the Osceola Sun, Country Messenger and Burnett County-Sentinel. Enjoy!

Every shade of green

Magic on the Namekagon

The smell of green washed over me not long after starting a six-day kayak trip down the Namekagon River in the middle of May. I was overcome with the aromas of life, growth, and health. It did not feel like the beginning of a new season, but the spring of earth and time itself.

I set my paddle down and breathed deeply and listened to the constant chorus of bird song. I had 92-miles to breathe this in. The months of anticipation, the weeks of preparation, the days of packing, the hours of driving – all behind me now, only the river ahead.

Continue reading…

Wild and scenic

Where the Wild River Goes

It was on the third day of a recent 92-mile paddle down the Namekagon River that some magic happened. Nightly rains had brought the river up to flood stage, and the powerful current was pushing many of our party into rocks and trees, causing unplanned swims in the 55-degree water.

But the swamped canoes and kayaks were not the important part. Strangers coming to each other’s aid were the extraordinary sight. Four of us banded together for the final few miles of that day. I knew I could depend on these new friends if I ran into any trouble.

Continue reading…


Paddle parade

Snake River start
Snake River start

Last May, I posted a GoPro video I made doing the Snake River Canoe Race. Now you can read all about it in an article I wrote for Minnesota Trails.

With six inches of snow on the ground right now, it’s hard to believe the 2013 race is coming up in two weeks. I figure shoveling must be good training.

Start Your Paddling Season on the Snake River

As Slim and I approached another mild-looking rapids on the Snake River, we saw that some other racers were capsized at the bottom. They were wading around in the chest-deep water, fishing their gear out and trying to free their canoe, which was submerged and pinned by the rushing water.

This got our attention. We stopped paddling and started scoping out the rapids. It didn’t look like much, another Class I set which appeared like most of the ones we had already run. More water than rocks, a few miniature standing waves, plenty of room to maneuver. Nonetheless, that capsized canoe made me worried. The water was cold.

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