Common Ground

Reflecting on the river

In late October, after the glorious blaze of autumn color had begun to fade from the trees, Minneapolis Parks Foundation staff spent a half-day paddling the Mississippi through the section commonly referred to as the Upper River. With the help from Bob Schmitz’s Above the Falls Sports and our guide Stephanie Zahler, we put paddles to water at the I-694 bridge and propelled our five kayaks into downtown. The sky was overcast and the temperature slightly chilly, but the air was calm and we were dressed for a combination of both warmth and buoyancy.

This section of the Minneapolis Upper Riverfront captures all her beauty and brawn – passing between the elegantly designed water plant with its Spanish tile rooftops where Minneapolis and draws its drinking water on the Eastern Bank and the quiet North Mississippi Park to the west. We were greeted by a bald eagle who might have been surprised to see people paddling through at this time of year. We floated under railroad workers, repairing a trestle and past a heron rookery hosting more than 70 nests on a pair of small islands.

The industry along the western bank, beginning with the tattered domes of the Upper Harbor Terminal, and the loud, dusty activity at the metal shredder provided a glimpse into the working river’s industry as dust drifted across the river and into the neighborhoods of Northeast.

Elements of new design begin to show up a mile or so downriver. As we neared the Lowry Avenue Bridge with its sweeping arc of concrete and cables, we were able to see a nod to whimsy in the shape of a Ferris wheel rising in Northeast at the original Psycho Suzie’s site. Nearby, the sustainable new Mississippi Watershed Management Organization offices and rain gardens graced the shore.

Barges continued to come to and fro – activity that will not be a regular feature in the future with the decommissioning of the upper lock in 2015 – as we passed along the site of future Hall’s Island, a key feature of the new park being constructed at the site of the former Scherer Brothers Lumberyard north of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge, adjacent the city’s only lighthouse. Before landing our boats at the Federal Reserve Building beneath the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, we floated around the backside of Nicollet Island where elegant century-old homes reminded us of the rich historic connection the city’s neighborhoods have to the Mississippi River.

Pulling kayaks out in the heart of Minneapolis and rolling them on carts back to the Above the Falls offices in the North Loop neighborhood was another unique perspective on our city – the ability to spend three hours paddling one of the greatest rivers in the world, and then to re-enter the city with a fresh perspective, as a pedestrian toting a boat – is a very unique experience that changes how one sees our city and its connection to both nature and industry simultaneously.

Though brief, the time spent on the river has changed how I see our city. The critical links between this national treasure and our neighborhoods become more important when considered in the context of bringing people to our single-most important natural resource – the Mississippi River.

Along the whole trip, we visited as a team, shared stories, and listened to the sounds of the river and the city. We experienced a space in the heart of Minneapolis that still provides both awe and quiet; activity and respite. Like a hike up a hillside trail or bike ride through the countryside, a paddle along the Mississippi River provided our team with time to connect and a new perspective that will continue to inform our work.

The experience leaves me reflecting on what other adventures await us and how we can help activate our parks and public space for all members of the community.

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