Lost on a river?

How can anyone get lost on a river? After all, a river flows one way. Just follow the current, right?

Well I’ve been in situations on paddling trips where I have felt lost. On a trip on the Cannon River downstream from Welch, where the river flows into the Mississippi River, it’s a maze of backwater sloughs and islands. The current splits and flows in several directions.

I had to try three different channels before I found one that I could get through to the Mississippi River.

On another occasion, I felt lost on a route that as the crow flies was three miles but in reality had several long, sweeping turns that added seven miles to the route. I had no idea where I was or how long before I would reach the take-out. Many paddlers have told me similar stories.

It’s not really being lost, but more like "I don’t know where I am." If you are canoeing or kayaking in the boundary waters of Minnesota or ocean coastal waters, a map and compass are necessities to avoid really being lost, but when paddling the rivers of southeastern Minnesota, you can get by without a map or compass and many paddlers have little trouble navigating a river route.


That said, I always have a compass and a map of the river route on river paddling outings. A GPS with topo-mapping capability is a great way to easily record information on a paddling trip, but I also used paper maps for many years. The following are some ways to use a map to make a trip interesting and enjoyable:

• Mark on the map things that interest you such as eagle nests, a good lunch or campsite, a place where a small waterfall flows out of a limestone bluff or a good fishing spot. Doing this will help you observe the wonders of nature as well as providing information to share with others and is really the beginning of creating your own notes for each trip. Take a camera along (in a waterproof case) and snap photos to add to your notes.

• As I explored the rivers and creeks of southeastern Minnesota, I realized taking trip notes is essential for planning future paddling outings. Observation involves a sensual netting of your surroundings. Finding an 1800s limestone bridge on a wagon trail that crossed the North Branch of the Root River, or an abandoned hydroelectric power plant built in 1915 or some not-so-obvious remains of water-powered grain mills from the 1860s provide a window to research interesting history of Southeastern Minnesota.

• A good map, compass, and notes from previous paddling trips can help you "know where you are" on the river.

Here are some key items to document for each paddling outing: Route name and date; who was on the trip; river length of route in miles; total time from put-in access to take-out access; time to shuttle boats and gear between put-in and take-out accesses; Sightings of birds and animals; any difficulties (too long, tree strainers, fences, too shallow or too high water level); any other information that will help with future trip planning.

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