Return of the rapids: Could the Upper Mississippi River run wild again?

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The Upper Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis, where St. Anthony Falls once dominated the landscape with 16-foot falls and rugged rapids. Here, an idea of what the river could look like if it were restored to its previous, wild state. // Illustration by Brent Schoonover

Boulders and whitecaps surround me. My kayak feels unsteady at best, a mere toy in the hands of Mother Nature. I secure my helmet a notch tighter and grip my paddle with adrenaline-fueled super-human strength. I’ve never whitewater kayaked before, but I’m determined to learn. And what better place to do so than my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota?

Fighting against the surging rapids of the Mississippi River, I struggle to control my kayak as I careen past Guthrie Theater. The rental company advised me to drop in at the Bohemian Flats, just past the 35W Bridge, but I want to see as much of the Mississippi River Gorge—the eight-mile stretch from St. Anthony Falls to Fort Snelling State Park—as possible. But there’s no time to look around now. All my focus is on steering clear of boulders and staying upright.

Suddenly, a mile has passed. The river calms a bit as I near the University of Minnesota, walled in by the newly expanded East and West River Flats. Islands tall with trees and schools of massive sturgeon appear. Picnickers and hikers dot the park land. Eagles and osprey circle overhead. Herons and fishermen stand in the shallows.

Fellow kayakers and rafters join me as we navigate our way under the Franklin Avenue and Lake Street–Marshall Avenue bridges toward St. Paul, to where Lock and Dam 1 used to be. The concrete wall and towering lock that controlled the river for over a hundred years are gone now; their remnants serve as reminders of the not-so-distant past.

Next page: What it would take

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Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road, seeking out good food, drink, conversation, and fodder for her next story.