Searching the water by a sandbar near the confluence of the Cottonwood and Minnesota Rivers last Sunday, 7-year-old Jesse scooped up an eight-inch-long freshwater mussel shell, its two halves still joined.
“Look at this mussel shell,” he said, bringing the bivalve to Wild River Academy’s Anna Johnson and me, his paddling partners for the morning, while adding details about the departed creature that he’d learned in a DNR workshop.
The ordinarily reticent boy and his sisters joined their parents and other paddlers for an August 11 canoe trip on the stretch of the Minnesota River between New Ulm and Courtland. Anna and Natalie Warren of Wild River Academy guided the party through part of the river new to us all.
By this point downstream, the upper valley’s granite outcrops give way to shale and sandstone, the latter often tinted a rusty red.
“Why are the sides red?” Jesse asked as we slid past a rouged bend.
“The rock has iron in it,” Anna said. “Do you know what iron is?”
Since Jesse’s father teaches science, he’d heard of it, and our canoe chatter turned to talk of rust, iron, and blood. We’d found our kinship with the riverbank.
I’d anticipated a float through farmland, somehow anticipating a peopled river. Instead, the meandering curves sheltered cedar waxwings, great blue herons, white pelicans, a river otter and four bald eagles. Two were juveniles who looked to be fledged this year, not yet confident in flight nor sure that humans should provoke it.
While the eagles are a sign of the river’s health, other measures of the watershed weren’t so positive. Near the end of the float, we found the traces of an abandoned mentality, bald tires and the rusting frame of a manure spreader testimony to a time when the Minnesota was used as a mobile dump.
And the river’s own erosive power lay strewn in the water, enormous skeletons of cottonwood and basswood trees creating snags and sifters that tested Anna’s abilities to correct my own rusty steering skills. Not far downstream, a kayaker had perished during high water in June, a reminder that the river’s no place for the complacent.
More than debris or danger, however, it was possible to see the fruits of river restoration. Rip-rap had stabilized the bank where the dump had been, and the same strategy outlined culverts at the river’s edge.
Like the children on their first paddle, the fledgling eagles and the fresh freshwater mussels are signs of new life for an old river. Do you have friends with whom you’d want to share the river? Consider asking them to join you on a CURE outing—or to join us here at CURE.
Blog post by Sally Jo Sorensen