It’s the first warm day of Spring. Minnesotans crawl like crabs out of concrete cracks in the city to feel the sun kiss their skin; to remember what it is like to simply sit outside. Not scurrying from building to building or waiting for a bus in below zero weather. Not skiing or running faster to keep warm in our freezing northern climate. Many of us love winter. But when that first sunny warm day hits there is a collective sigh of relief rising from the busy bike paths, parks, and brewery patios. We exhale and remember something we forgot we knew: seasons change. Time passes. I put away my broomball shoes and skis and dust off my bike and canoe for a full summer of paddling ahead.
No matter the season, my soul is always trying to get back to the river; back to a time when my biggest concerns were the direction of the wind, the weather, the next portage or whitewater set. I’ve paddled over 7,000 miles in a canoe. My boat has flowed through the aqueous veins and arteries of North America, from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, from the vast expanse of pristine arctic tundra to the industrial Chicago sanitary canal. While I do not lament that I’ve picked up more responsibilities in life since those long carefree expeditions, a part of my heart still belongs to The River. It shows when I get lost in the view out my window. When I drive slowly over bridges just to catch a glimpse of the water. When I feel sorrow but can’t quite pinpoint why, or from where. The river is always calling for me. And today, this perfect warm Spring day, I answer.
Diane and Lee, strong women I’ve paddled with for over a decade, not surprisingly agree to come along for the journey. We met when we were young, wild, and free; loose cannons paddling our summers away. Not much has changed, but now we are lawyers, marketers, photographers, writers, scholars, partners, homeowners, and much more. Our life paths vary but our shared roots are always reaching for the river. We fill a bright orange SealLine Bigfork Dry DayPack to the brim with too many snacks and tuck away our phones and personal gear in our individual Skylake Dry Daypacks. The canoe creaks when we put her on top of the car, stretching her bones after hibernating all winter. They take a moment to settle into each other before remembering the summer routine. Canoe, car. Car, canoe. You’ve met before. Now take us to the river!
The Mighty Mississippi River flows through the heart of Minneapolis and St. Paul. This is our playground. The river here has a history akin to other cities on major waterways throughout the country and the world, one filled with industry, economic growth, and pollution. Historically, many towns and urban areas turned their backs on the river due to water quality issues, fear of flooding, and dams. During the Progressive Era (1890-1920) dams went up across the country in response to the government’s call to turn a “menace” (rivers) into a resource; to tame them and subdue their power to wreak havoc over our lands and buildings. Political rhetoric of the Progressive Era centered on people using science and technology to dominate nature, with a common understanding that rivers were wasted if they ran freely to the sea. America strived to harness the power of rivers to contribute to a capitalist economy, always searching for new and innovative ways to foster growth. This desire to use rivers for our benefit has folded over on itself: today, cities like Minneapolis are turning back to the river for economic growth that centers social and ecological benefits.
We launched on the flooded Mississippi just north of downtown Minneapolis. The smell of sizzling grills and the sounds of laughter and music filled the air, creating a quintessential summer vibe. The river took us into her current for a nine-mile float into downtown. The scars we’ve made on the landscape–a century of industry, pollution, and development–were visible in the metal walls along the riverbank, holding back piles of gravel and scrap metal. I felt like a historian, letting the current setting sink in before it changed forever, just like those who painted or wrote poems about the river before the changes wrought in the industrial period. This is the stretch of river I paddle every week in the summer, usually by myself, preferably during sunset. I want to remember every loading dock and graffiti mural before big industry leaves the river corridor. Urban riverfronts as we have historically known them–as dumps, as dangerous, as dirty–are about to change forever. For Minneapolis and St. Paul, this means amphitheaters, parks, interpretive centers, potential dam removals and whitewater parks, trails, apartments, restaurants, river access, and outfitters. Looking at the concept plans for the corridor shows the entire face of the river changing in the next decade or so.
We pulled over north of downtown and started the two-mile portage around a falls and two lock and dams, stopping for breaks at the iconic Stone Arch Bridge and, of course, for ice cream (not every portage can boast an ice cream pit stop). Someday we might be able to paddle right up to the lock. Someday we might be able to paddle rapid sets in the heart of downtown. Someday we might be able to live, eat, breathe, exercise, sit, and play at nearly every stretch of the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities. But just as the promise of industry to boost the economy and build a better world had unforeseen negative impacts at the beginning of the Progressive Era, we have to consider what impacts, good, bad, and everything in between, could result from our quick turn to redevelop and re-purpose our riverfronts.
As communities start to see waterfronts as assets and envision a future of rediscovered natural space, new businesses, and recreational opportunities, it is important to look critically at the plans and processes in motion. This is a pivotal moment in history for urban river development, here and around the world. But will we use it wisely? Who decides what a park is? Is it just a bike trail, or does it have basketball courts and skate parks? Who gets to live by rivers? Are we including equitable living and low-income housing or will the increase in property values displace people who have lived by the water for generations? Some communities, generally poor communities of color, have been unjustly separated from the river by highways and industry, often suffering through unhealthy environmental conditions and poor access to natural spaces. Now, during the planning phases of many of these development projects, is our moment for intervention and opportunity to reconnect everyone to the river. Who is the river for? Who should the river be for? Without asking these questions, we risk creating just another urban white space that prioritizes profit over our diverse societal and environmental needs.
We plunged the canoe back into the river south of downtown. The aches and pains from portaging seemed to dissipate as soon as we returned to the water. I felt a strong sense of hope for the river that runs through my home, and pride in the people who work to improve it. Maybe one day it will be healthier. Maybe one day it will be a safe space for people from all walks of life to heal; to get lost in the ancient truths of nature; to respond to the call of the river, just like we did on this sunny Spring day.
Natalie Warren lives in Minneapolis and is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota studying Environmental Communication. She has paddled over 7,000 miles in a canoe and her passion is rooted in rivers and recreation. Her book Hudson Bay Bound, a tale about being one of the first two women to paddle from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, is currently in production. Natalie works with communities to develop and improve water trails and river towns. Follow Natalie on Instagram @nwarren1188.