Scenic, historical gem
The Cannon River Watershed lies in a
glacier-related transition zone. The upper portion, west of Faribault, flows through lakes and marshes that were long ago covered by glaciers. Downstream from Faribault the river runs through rolling hills with a mix of forest and farmland.
Below Cannon Falls, the current picks up as it drops on its way to the Mississippi River through a deep valley that was not covered by the last few glaciers. The Cannon River is one of six designated wild and scenic rivers in Minnesota.
I decided to learn first hand what the Cannon River had to offer for a paddling experience, and found over 80 miles of a fantastic recreational river with a great historical background.
The sky was overcast as my son-in-law Jack Harreld, Jim Moran and I launched our solo canoes laden with camping gear on a memorable voyage down the Cannon River from Sakatah Lake near Waterville to the Mississippi River.
The section of the river from Sakatah Lake to Faribault winds through mostly flat marshy areas with two small dams to portage before the river empties into Cannon Lake. By the time we paddled the four miles across the lake the clouds gave way to bright sunshine. The river then flows four miles through Faribault, an urban experience, where there are two large dams to portage around.
On the north end of Faribault, the Straight River empties into the Cannon and doubles the size of the river. It was easy paddling with the fast current as we continued about nine miles through a beautiful scenic remnant of the Big Woods ecosystem, the Cannon Wilderness Area, and with a mix of wooded hills and sandstone bluffs along the river.
As we headed downstream the second day, we passed the limestone walls of the Archibald Mill at Dundas, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1870’s there were 15 mills between Faribault and Northfield, a distance of 15 miles. There is a 10-foot dam in downtown Northfield with no developed portage, and the banks have high retaining walls.
Continuing downstream, we reached the campground at Lake Byllesby County Park by late afternoon after fighting a 30 mph wind across three miles of Lake Byllesby, which was not fun. After 22 miles of paddling we slept well that night.
We should have brought our fishing gear as we saw many fish as we paddled along. The Cannon’s upper portions on the lakes upstream of Faribault have sunfish, crappie, walleye and northern pike, while downstream of Faribault it is good smallmouth bass fishing.
Early the third day, we portaged around the 60-foot dam that forms Lake Byllesby and paddled through the golf course on our way to Cannon Falls. From Cannon Falls, the current increases as the river flows through a deep wooded valley on the way to Welch.
At times you can glimpse bike riders through the trees as they ride the Cannon Valley bike trail between Cannon Falls and Red Wing. Our plan was to camp near Welch, but because of the faster than normal current we reached Welch at noon. We decided to continue downstream, winding through the backwater area, which was a challenge trying to find the right channel to the Mississippi. Once we reached the Mississippi River we paddled downstream to Red Wing where we had left a shuttle car.
My recommendations for day trips on the Cannon River are:
• Faribault to Northfield: 16 miles. This section has two alternative accesses to shorten the route.
• Cannon Wilderness Park, 7 miles.
• Dundas, 13 miles.
• Cannon Falls to Welch: 12 miles.
There is a rest area and carry-in access six miles downstream from Cannon Falls that can be used as an alternate access.
Canoe, kayak, and tubes can be rented at Cannon Falls and Welch. Shuttle service is also available.
Dave Lind is writing a monthly column on his favorite places to canoe.
Use the guidebook Canoeing the Driftless that details over 50 kayak/canoe routes in southeastern Minnesota. Available at Tyrol Sport & Ski, www.RiverPaddling.com and bookstores. You can download a Cannon River map from www.dnr.state.mn.us