Minnesota Water Trails

The Minnesota DNR documents what they label ‘water trails’ but the water trails do not encompass all routes that might be of interest to paddlers, nor does the water trails link show those routes or gauges for those other routes. Look at the ‘cooperative’ site that includes gauges from organizations which cooperate with the DNR for more information.

Water trails: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/watertrails/interactive_map/index.html

Cooperative gauges: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/waters/csg/index.html

Gauges on water trails are interpreted on the first link. Interpretation converts the water level from CFS or height to a subjective High/Medium/Low. Novice paddlers may find the DNR Medium to be High to Very High while experienced paddlers might consider the DNR High to be Medium to Low. The cooperative gauges are color-coded based on percentile of a normalized curve of historic water levels.

Also be aware that there are three federal agencies that operate gauges: NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association, operates gauges they term ‘AHPS’ for Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service; USGS, the United States Geological Survey; and USACE, the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Most applications do not collect data from all these sources.

The Minnesota DNR does not maintain water trails. Years ago they did proactively send a pair of employees down SE MN rivers in a jon boat with a chainsaw. Today they maintain accesses, and they maintain their internet website. They do not have the resources to proactively maintain water trails.

The DNR may remove obstacles reported to them. I reported three hazards several years ago in a quarter-mile section of the Zumbro River. They did remove one strainer, but left a sweeper, and the sidewalk chunks placed by a homeowner. I also reported a hazardous fence on Bear Creek and on an upper section of the Zumbro, and in both cases they informed Soil and Water who did take action. So, the DNR will act on reports whether or not the river is listed as a water trail.

I am aware of five paddling-related deaths in the last 15 years in Southeast Minnesota: one each on the Root, Cannon, Zumbro rivers, and two on the Straight river. All were on routes listed on the DNR website as water trails. Four involved trees. Southeast Minnesota rivers are class I, but the trees are class III!

Advertising routes as DNR-maintained is inaccurate and gives people a false sense of security. Paddlers should have a frank awareness of their ability, seek education and training, and always practice safe paddling. Among other things, this means wearing your lifejacket at all times, just like you click your seatbelt and wear a bike helmet. In each of the local fatalities, the paddlers experienced cold water and/or made additional mistakes such as paddling alone, with just one boat, or didn’t wear their life jacket. It is unknown whether any had any formal instruction. Refer to these Top 10 Safety Tips (https://www.americancanoe.org/page/Top_10) or in general see the American Canoe Association at www.americancanoe.org. Another useful link is What to Wear When.

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