Between Lake Itasca and Bemidji, there are beaver dams and downed trees blocking the river. We were able to push and/or drag our canoe over all of the beaver dams. Water levels will affect your experience at these dams. The number and location of fallen trees varies over the years. In some places other river users had come through with chainsaws and removed some of these obstacles. We were able to run or drag our canoe over some of the trees and had to portage our boat up the bank and around others. Getting trapped by these obstacles could be possible in high water conditions so caution is advised. Vekin’s Dam is an ancient low wood and rock logging dam about seven miles from Lake Itasca; it requires a short portage.
Below Bemidji, there are eleven man-made dams that must be portaged. Behind these dams are lakes of varying size; there was no current in these lakes so paddling required more work than on the open river. Most recreational use along this portion of the river was in these lakes.
The portage routes are marked on the Minnesota DNR maps. The portages ranged from simple to real pains. Problems included: unmarked take-outs and put-ins; take-outs and put-ins that were essentially piles of big rocks with no sandy place to land or launch your boat; unmaintained portage trails that were wet, muddy, steep, and/or had encroaching vegetation. Some portages require traveling on pavement through towns and crossing busy streets.
The first portage is at the exit of Cass Lake at Knutson Dam. Depending on the water level, you may be able to paddle over the shallow spillway; we did this, but scout from shore carefully ahead of time.
In Grand Rapids, the Blandon Dam operates a free portage service. Prior to getting to Grand Rapids and about 2.7 miles below Cohasset, you arrive at the Pokegamma Dam. At this dam there is a signboard offering portage service from either here or from Sylvan Lake in Grand Rapids. There is a phone number on the sign: call and make arrangements with the dam’s management. You could get a ride around both dams, but then you will miss paddling to Grand Rapids. The portage at Pokegamma Dam is just a couple of hundred yards and is easy. The portage in Grand Rapids is over 1.5 miles and crosses a very busy street. We used the service in Grand Rapids; a friendly driver showed up at the take-out with a canoe trailer and helped us load our gear and drove us to the put-in below the dam. He then gave James a ride to the grocery store.
In Sartell, you portage across the parking lot of the Riverside Depot café. You can stash your gear behind the very friendly café and stop in for a meal; their Battleship Burger is our lifetime favorite burger.
Be very cautious at the Blanchard Dam portage; this was the most difficult portage, with some people reporting taking three hours to complete it. You will have to carry your gear almost 2000 feet and, in doing so, climb up and down several steep embankments with very loose footing.
Some people portage the short section of rapids below the town of Sauk Rapids. These are rated Class 1 to 3 depending on water levels. We were able to run them without incident on river right.
Portaging some locks on the Middle Mississippi is possible, but not required.
Portaging on the Lower Mississippi is limited to voluntary crossing of wing dams or emergent sandbars while using back channels. There are no portages on the main channel.
Between Minneapolis and St. Louis, the Army Corps of Engineers has constructed 29 sets of locks and dams. The most northerly lock, Upper St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, was decommissioned in the spring of 2015. Operations hours of the Lower St. Anthony Lock may be reduced as well. As of 2016, the portage options were unclear and were still being discussed by various interest groups. The Mississippi River Paddlers Facebook group should be a good source of current information. There is also a local portage service operated by the Paddle Taxi.
You must either transit a lock or portage around it. At many locks, portaging would be difficult or impossible as there is frequently no place near the lock to take out or put in and the lock complexes themselves are more than ½ mile long. By studying maps and satellite images, it might be possible to plan to portage some locks by using side channels. If you plan to try this, remember that maps and satellite images may not match the water level when you are at the lock, so what may look possible on paper may be difficult or impossible in reality. For example, a spillway may be a viable portage at low water, but be a very dangerous place at high water. Using a marine radio you can ask about portage options when you speak with the lockmaster. After consulting with the lockmaster, we portaged Lock 17 over the river left spillway as conditions were perfect and there was a tow in the lock when we arrived. The vast majority of paddlers use the locks. There are three exceptions described at the end of this section.
The locks were constructed when the Army Corps of Engineers built dams to create lakes to maintain consistent water depth for shipping. The locks allow boats to transit the dams, and use of them is free and available to any type of craft using the river. Kayaks and canoes have the same rights to passage as tows and private powerboats. There is a pecking order and commercial traffic has priority over recreational traffic, which sometimes can mean a long wait to use a lock. It can take a tow between one and two hours to transit a lock, so if one arrives just before you do, you are in for a long delay. On our trip we had mostly good fortune with the locks and only had to wait for more than half an hour on a few occasions; we had many “drive-thru” transits with no wait at all.
To use a lock without a marine radio, you paddle up to the end of the long wall, which is a huge concrete structure extending many hundreds of feet upriver from the lock gates. There pull a marked cord announcing your desire to make a transit. With luck, the lock staff will be able to see you and come out and let you know what the situation is. A far better solution is to carry a marine radio (use channel 14, except for Lock 26, Mel Price, that uses channel 12) and contact the lock when you are 10 to 15 minutes out. “Lock XX, this is down bound canoe. We are 15 minutes out from the long wall and request passage. What is the current status for a transit?” The lock-master will respond and let you know whether there is a wait or not, how long the wait might be, or if you are lucky will say: “Down bound canoe, this is Lock XX, we’ll have it ready for you when you get here.”
After approaching the lock, you find a place to hang out near the end of the long wall where you can see a traffic signal light. Depending on the winds, this may not be as simple as it sounds as there is rarely a place to tie up. When the lock is ready to receive you, the light will turn green. You paddle in through the open upstream gates and usually a lock staff member will direct you to a particular point and drop you a line to hold. There may be other recreational craft in the lock with you, but you will not share it with tows. After everyone is stable, the upstream gates are closed, the water level is slowly lowered to match that of the downstream river, and the downstream gates are then opened. When the lockmaster is satisfied that all is well, he will sound a loud horn signaling that it is now safe to let go of the line and paddle out. Do so immediately and get out of the way of the downstream lock entrance as quickly as possible.
Do not tie off on anything in the lock or you may be dumped out of your boat and it will be left dangling as the water drops. Although in some locks the water level only changes by a foot or so, in others the drop is as much as fifty feet. If a tow is exiting a lock as you arrive, do not approach the long wall until the tow is completely clear of it. The tow will generate massive waves in the narrow confines near the long wall that could easily swamp your boat.
We found the lock staffs, civilian employees of the Army Corps of Engineers, to be generally very friendly, interested in our journey and helpful. On three occasions staff members actually used their own vehicles to portage us around locks that had long delays due to the presence of tows. They helped us get our canoe out of the water, transported us to an appropriate put in, and helped us get back on the water. Nice people.
There are three locks where there are easy options to transiting the main lock. At Lock 14, there is, on river right, a back channel through a marina that leads to a small auxiliary lock. Since the auxiliary lock only transits small craft, you will not be delayed by tows; it is worth using this option. At Lock 15, there is a back channel on river left that goes around Rock Island. Once in the channel, you will pass smaller Sylvan Island and soon see a dam. There is an easy and short portage river left before you reach the dam: climb up a short set of rocky steps and follow a marked trail around the dam. After the portage, a short paddle brings you back to the main river downstream from Lock 15. Given how much river traffic there is in this area, we chose to take the portage route rather than risk a long delay.
Finally, at Lock 27, the last on the river, there is a better way downriver than transiting the lock. The problem at Lock 27 is that to approach it, you must first paddle an 8-mile long rock-lined man-made channel. There is no shelter here from tows, which will be very close due to the narrow width of the channel. If you stay in the river instead, there is single obstacle: the Chain of Rocks. This is a partially natural and partially man made rocky barrier that stretches across the entire river. At normal water levels, we have been told, it is runnable by those who know the route, but should NOT be attempted by those who don’t, if for no other reason than that some of the concrete blocks that make up the dam have protruding rebar. There is, however, on river left, a very easy and very short portage around this barrier. The river was running very high when we were there, the Chain was mostly submerged and we just paddled over it without incident. Even if you must portage, we believe that you will be much better off doing so than transiting Lock 27.
We generally enjoyed using the locks. It added variety to the trip and often we were the only boat in these huge structures, which was really cool. The staffs were great and it felt like we were really participating in the way the river works.
South of Minneapolis, the main channel is marked with buoys. Looking downstream, the river right side of the channel is marked with green flat-topped buoys called “cans” and the river left side of the channel is marked with red conical topped buoys called “nuns”. These can be very useful because the tows are going to stay in the channel and the buoys identify it.
However, when the river floods, as it did during our trip, it uproots many of the buoys and drops them where it pleases. Usually this is on the riverbanks, where we saw large numbers of stranded nuns and cans. However, sometimes the river just shuffles the buoys around so they now mark what is definitely not the channel. The tows know where the channel is anyway, but the paddler probably doesn’t. We have no idea how long it takes the Coast Guard to replace and realign errant buoys after a flood. Be cautious about assuming that all of the buoys are in the right places.
In high water, buoys can also “rabbit”. The current forces them underwater and they disappear for varying periods of time, only to unexpectedly pop back up to the surface. Bouys weight about 800 pounds, and getting hit by a rabbiting buoy is dangerous. We were actually nicked by one; fortunately, it just grazed our canoe as a direct hit might have been disastrous.