Raising the river's profile

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July 16, 2012 // UPDATED 12:38 pm - July 17, 2013
By: Patrick Roche
Patrick Roche

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area now part of the National Trail System



The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area has been named the second national water trail in the country. 


A water trail is defined as a waterway with a series of access points that allow for safe and reliable recreation. MNRAA Superintendent Paul Labovitz said that the designation is a national recognition of “what is really a wonderful water trail.” 


The National Park Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minneapolis and St. Paul’s parks and recreation boards and local nonprofits, such as the Mississippi River Fund and Wilderness Inquiry, partnered as proponents for the designation.


The accesses are designed to promote water-based outdoor recreation, encourage grassroots stewardship and increase tourism to designated areas. The initiative is designed to boost outdoor recreation in urban areas and provide national resources to existing local water trails.


“I’m sure there will be a variety of additional water trails designated nationally, but, I mean, come on, this is the Mississippi River — it’s going to be the best one,” Labovitz said. 


Labovitz plans on using the designation to leverage further improvements to several access points along the river. He expects the designation to grow over time to include the entire Mississippi River in Minnesota. As of now, the designation stretches from Dayton, where the Crow River meets the Mississippi River, down to the Goodhue and Dakota county line.  


Katie Nyberg, executive director of the Mississippi River Fund, believes that public perception of the river is oftentimes negative, and the designation may help lay to rest apprehensions. 


“When people think about the Mississippi River, there is still a lot of, ‘Oh, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous, it’s just a place for barges,’” Nyberg said. “It is not really true. We want this designation to help introduce the idea of using our national trail.”


Park Ranger Dan Dressler believes the Twin Cities portion of the Mississippi suffers from an image problem. 


“Fifty years ago or longer, the river wasn’t nice. It was filthy, polluted and industrial, not a place you came to recreate,” Dressler said. “As times have changed, it is much cleaner than it used to be and much of the industry has moved away from the river.”


The Mississippi River Fund and Wilderness Inquiry are both local nonprofits located in the Twin Cities that support getting people on the river and outdoors. The organizations, along with dozens of other state and local partners such as the Minnesota DNR, serve the community with various programs such as Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures. 


“The UWCA that we have been running is starting its fourth year,” Labovitz said. “It was primarily for school kids, but as people saw big canoes on the river they said, ‘Well, I want to do that too.’”


Since the UWCA’s inception, Wilderness Inquiry has broadened paddling experiences to include the general public. 


Safety is one issue that stands out to many people when thinking about recreational activities on bodies of water, especially rivers. But park ranger-led activities and literature the organizations publish on river and water safety help mitigate dangers.


“We are not just giving people a kayak and saying ‘Have a good time on the river,’” Nyberg said. “These are very managed experiences that are supervised by the National Park Service or their partners at Wilderness Inquiry.”


Dressler leads various events and believes they can be very safe, rewarding experiences. 


“The boats are 24-foot cedar-strip canoes,” Dressler said. “… Because of their stability, these boats are very safe to be on the water with.”


Around 15,000 children are part of different river events each year, Nyberg said.


“We’re hoping to continue that momentum and get some visibility for what a great and wonderful local resource we have right here,” she added.


Others along the river have noticed the excitement, leading to the creation of a new series of events. The Summer of Paddling 2012 will focus on various recreational activities, but next year’s theme will likely be fishing and the following could focus on cycling.


“You can imagine every year, it’s just a way to say the Mississippi River and the lands and parks around it are just a great place to go recreate,” Labovitz said.


Wilderness Inquiry will host events all summer in the Urban Wilderness Canoe Area with various themes such as bird watching, brewery hopping, Fourth of July fireworks in downtown, a history of St. Paul’s gangster activity, fishing and foodie trips with a food critic.




More Online

To see a video by Patrick Roche on the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area National Park, go to thejournalmpls.tumblr.com. To learn more about the park, visit nps.gov/miss.