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35 miles of the Snake River

I've only paddled the Snake River once, but it sure was a doozy. Our team started the Memorial Day 2008 practice race by putting in the Snake River just downstream of Mora. We had six solo kayaks, for me, Mark, Roz, Dave, Brian, and Rick. The water was up, as usual in late spring, but the section between Mora and Pine City is generally a slow, lazy, winding river with heavily wooded banks hiding the frequent cultivated fields.


View Snake River (lower) in a larger map

It was a little cool at the 10 AM start, but not cold enough for anyone to use a spray skirt for insulation. We warmed up as the day wore on and sun rose higher in the sky, and spent plenty of time goofing around on the way down. As the afternoon progressed, the wind picked up from the southeast and made progression in that direction a little more difficult. By the time we reached the wide section of the river just west of Pine City, the wind was gusting up to 20 mph. At this point we all buckled down (in fact, I even leaned forward to reduce my cross section) and paddled hard to make it under the I-35 bridge.

After the bridge, we were in less exposed water and wound through the north end of Pine City, passing under a few more bridges in town until we reached the entrance to Cross Lake. We needed to cross about a mile or so of open water to reach the head of the Cross Lake Dam and the continuation of the Snake. While on the lake, there were a few concerns with powerboats and pontoons - although they were sure to see us in six bright yellow kayaks, we had to be careful for the potential wakes thrown up by the much larger boats.

We reached the portage take-out in mid-afternoon, after about 30 miles of mellow flatwater paddling. We pulled out and stretched our much stiffened limbs. Most of the team ended up double-portaging the kayaks, but for some reason, despite the fact we had an even number of people, I ended up alone and having to handle my own kayak. Maybe everyone was tired of me :), so I flipped the sucker up on my back and set off down the gravel road with seven+ feet on each side. Luckily, I was too far behind to bear witness to Rick's unfortunate lack of a belt. Brian still has nightmares to this day.

The Cross Lake Dam is a low-head dam, only about a couple feet high but providing some fast water just below it. The primary reason is the constriction of the channel, not the drop. Brian, Dave and I reached the put-in and paddled up to the dam (against the current) to ride the fastwater just a little. The flow was pretty laminar and it was easy to point upstream and wave surf without getting buffeted about. The others got ready, dropped into the river, and we turned around to get started on the 10-mile section to the St. Croix. Since I knew it was a rougher section than we'd paddled so far, I suggested to the others that they put on their spray skirts, and everyone obliged.

The lower section of the Snake has a significant current and a variety of class I-II rapids. Some of us had had experience in fast water, but not all of us. It wasn't long until we encountered the first class II. Brian, Roz, and Dave were up ahead, followed by me, Rick, and Mark taking up the rear. I set a line for the gnarliest-looking wave, got a great splash, and immediately bounced off a rock just below - I instinctively braced, although it probably wasn't necessary. The water slowed just a bit, and I looked behind me - only to see Mark in the distance and an upside-down kayak in between us. Yipes! Mark was paddling his ass off towards the dumped kayak, and I made a sharp turn and started to head upcurrent. As we both paddled towards the overturned kayak, we were thinking "pop up, pop up!". A few seconds later (although it feels like a few minutes in that situation), we saw a big bald head come up for a carp-gulp of air. A couple seconds later, Rick was coming downstream next to his overturned kayak, but well above water, buoyed by his PFD, and out of immediate danger. Mark reached the scene a little before I did, so he headed straight for Rick and told him to grab the coaming. As Mark and Rick headed for the nearest eddy, I caught the front end of his overturned kayak, dropped my paddle for a second, and flipped the kayak over. Then I recovered my paddle and tried to head for the same eddy, but with less success since I was forced to use one hand to hold the other boat (I didn't have a paddle leash handy, which I could have used to lash the boat). I had to check behind me to ensure I wasn't going to hit a nasty rapid or rock of my own, but the fast water was slowing at that point, and Brian and Dave had both noticed the commotion and come back to help by then. Within a couple minutes the kayak was emptied, Rick resumed his former and preferred position, and we all had a good laugh combined with a sigh of relief.

I do feel bad about the incident, though, because I hadn't insisted on helmets as mandatory gear. To be honest, I didn't think it was likely for anyone to overturn and risk hitting their head on the bottom - and even if I had required the gear (as permitted by my status as race "director"), I couldn't have been sure that everyone would wear them at that point. It's one of those situations where things could have been worse, but weren't. It's only after the fact that you make that grimace and admit that you've all been lucky.

Anyway, we continued down the rest of Snake, with a couple more class II, without any incidents. About 6 PM we noticed the river open up, passed the state forest campground and the boat launch, and glided into the much wider St. Croix River under a slanting sun. We were all tired out by now, so we beached on a gravel bar just south of the confluence and got out to stretch our legs and eat a little. Dave noticed a bunch of crayfish scuttling around in a gravel-lined pool and went over to start catching them, and I joined him. They're a lot of fun to tease, since they'll turn to face you and threaten with their pincers. The trick is to use one hand to attract their attention and then catch them just below the first two leg with your other hands. The nippers aren't any joke, though, so once you've got one you can go around chasing your teammates.