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.


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.

Continue reading »


The big question

wilderness-news-cover-spring-2013New mining proposals near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are a complex problem. Big enough for 2,800 words and still not covering all the issues.

I did my best to provide a comprehensive status report on the issue for the spring 2013 issue of Wilderness News, published by the Quetico-Superior Foundation.

The Twin Metals copper mine proposal has been described by supporters as an “underground city,” a “juggernaut,” a “monster deposit,” and possibly the “largest mine in Minnesota history.” Opponents talk about the short-term proposed gains versus the long-term environmental damage of the mine; mining’s history of “boom, then bust” in Minnesota; and ask what, if any, price should be put on preserving our state’s largest and most beloved natural area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Continue reading (PDF) »


Stories of solitude and silence

Firegrate Review cover

In every creative writing class I’ve ever taken, it has been stressed that you must be specific when you write — include details. The instruction is often misinterpreted as to include all the details, or as many as possible.

The writer’s work is to choose the details that tell the story. This idea and others are discussed in the introduction I recently wrote for The Firegrate Review, Volume 2, what you might call a Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness/Greg Seitz production:

Details from the Trail

In my introduction to Volume 1 of The Firegrate Review, I wrote that “every canoe trip is a story.” That held true for me in 2011, as I managed to paddle into Lake Insula just as the Pagami Creek Fire was set to explode into the biggest wildfire in the recorded history of Minnesota.

My friend Stephen Wilbers, who has shared excerpts from his latest Boundary Waters book in this publication, told me recently that he could not have written his books without keeping a detailed journal of every trip he has taken to the wilderness over the past several decades. It made me think about how I can recall each trip I have been on, but it usually just one or two highlights: A night at a terrific campsite, a day with a bad headwind, a moose or the northern lights or a long, hard portage. I have to consult my own logs to remember the minutia.

A good story is about the details, and that is why Stephen’s journals are essential to his books. If you read his work, you inevitably feel like you were there with him, his dad, his son and the other companions that joined him in the wilderness. That is because he includes details like breaking a fishing rod, a conversation around the campfire, a solo paddle after dinner on a perfectly still lake.

Even though my experience with the Pagami Creek Fire is a story I will probably tell for the rest of my life, I hold fast to parts of that trip that had nothing to do with the fire.

One afternoon while we were camped on Insula, there was not a breath of wind, the water was perfectly calm, and the air was hazy with smoke from the fire, which was several miles away. A quarter-mile across the lake, a group of young men landed their canoe on an island and took turns jumping off a 15-foot cliff into the water.

We watched them from our campsite, and we would see the splash when they hit the water, but only a second later would we hear it. That sense of the empty expanse of water between us and the island was powerful – it amplified the vastness of the wilderness we were in, and how empty it was of humans.

Continue reading here.

Buy The Firegrate Review here.


Star Tribune blog: Nowhere else but here

I am very excited to share the first post on my new blog. I will be writing about once a week there on familiar topics, such as conservation, the Boundary Waters, the St. Croix River, and more. I will cross-post everything here, and also continue posting other words occasionally.

Nowhere else but here

Greg Seitz headshotIn 2009, I decided to write every single day for the month of June, as a way of celebrating what many consider Minnesota’s finest month. To add to the challenge, I decided to write in the old Japanese form of haibun, which is just a fancy way of saying a few paragraphs of prose, combined with three-line haiku poems.

This ended up meaning a lot of late nights, tapping away at the computer when I wanted to go to bed, faced with a midnight deadline. But I finished the month with 30 short essays, a document that is both a record of a specific period of time, and an impression of the season and what it brings year after year.

The collection of writing spanned the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the St. Croix River, from riding the bus through the heart of Minneapolis to walking my dog on the shores of St. Paul’s Lake Phalen, and all the journeys in between those places.

Also in those essays were perennial summer events: watching a field full of fireflies; canoeing to a campsite along a cold spring-fed creek, then paddling to a sandbar perfect for swimming; Ely busy with canoe parties ready to head out into the wilderness.

St. Croix River canoeingJune is here again. I don’t plan to repeat my “June Haibun” project, but I am eager to enjoy this month known for the beauty, joy and sun that we deserve after another long winter. This past weekend, as summer hesitantly arrived in the North Star state, I took to the St. Croix River with my wife Katie and our black lab Lola. It was sadly the latest in the year that I can remember taking our first canoe trip in a long time.

We put the canoe in near the mouth of the Snake River and floated downstream 11 miles to a landing near Rush City. The sky was overcast, but summer skies are never boring. The clouds were dimpled, showing that there was a bright sun shining above. The early summer air was heavy with moisture, thick with the smells of new growth and alive with a constant chorus of birds.

A friend once said the solstice, the longest day of the year, should be an official state holiday in Minnesota. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but I’d suggest June 21 would be a very good day to use some vacation or call in sick, and celebrate summer in this beautiful place we live.

Sunset canoe beach