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Red Lake River canoe trip historic

Last week provided me with a great opportunity to discover Minnesota's Great Northwest, from canoe level, paddling the Red Lake River. This historic canoe route features a wide variety of terrains and includes Class 1-3 Rapids. This is a pioneer ...

Last week provided me with a great opportunity to discover Minnesota's Great Northwest, from canoe level, paddling the Red Lake River.

This historic canoe route features a wide variety of terrains and includes Class 1-3 Rapids. This is a pioneer prairie canoe route that edges small community downtown areas and affords campers a full range of services without suffering the hardships of the pioneers.

This was a true outdoor adventure opportunity to experience Minnesota's Great Northwest and the legends of the Red Lake River. Traveling this route is as much about discovering the beginnings of communities in northwestern Minnesota as it is about paddling the river itself.

Our two-day adventure began in East Grand Forks.

History indicates the transformation of East Grand Forks from sinful frontier outpost to progressive, modern city began in the late 1800's. This was a popular trading center and stopping off place for teamsters who drove the Red River Valley ox carts between Winnipeg and St. Paul.


W.C. Nash, a fur trader and government mail carrier, was the first to establish permanent settlement and the town became known as Nashville. A post office was established in 1873 and the name was changed to East Grand Forks.

Next stop was Thief River Falls, which is uniquely located at the junction of the Thief River and the Red Lake Rivers.

Thief River Falls developed with the lumber industry in 1887. It also became a major agricultural area because of the rich soil left by ancient, glacial Lake Agassiz.

Both the Sioux and Chippewa Indians referred to the junction of the Red Lake and the Thief Rivers as "Robber Rivers". Legend has it that individuals living in the area robbed from those passing through.

Thief River Falls' boasts a unique river walk along the two rivers that meanders through nine parks and two forest trails along the Red Lake and the Thief Rivers. Pictographs beside the walks depict 15 historic river sites including the Meehan Saw Mill, First Dam, Elk's Park, Chief Meskokonaye and the Ojibwe Village.

The next morning we traveled a few miles down the road to St. Hilaire where our canoes awaited. Glacial boulders still lay on the bottom of the Red Lake River in this area, fur traders of the 1600s left trails later used by the settlers of the eighteen hundreds.

St. Hilaire has been known as a railroad town, a mill town and a farming community - but it's always been a city by the river. The world's largest and most advanced lumber mill once called St. Hilaire home. The foundations of industry still protrude at the river's edge.

Over the years, the beauty and majesty of the Red Lake River have driven writers to pen to paper as they observed this scene from the seat of a canoe.


More history awaited us in Red Lake Falls.

Long before the first European explorers and fur traders came to the area, the natural confluence of the Red Lake and Clearwater Rivers was a favorite site for Indian temporary camps and permanent villages.

In 1798 Jean Baptiste Cadotte Jr. came to the area and founded a fur trading post for the British Northwest Company. Red Lake Falls was incorporated as a village in 1881 and as a city in 1898.

Until 1911 large lumbering operations were the areas life-blood, but with the loss of the forests came small tract farming followed by large grain farms. The importance of the City's role as county seat has also played an historic role in the growth of Red Lake Falls.

The city has several historic structures, but is dominated by the County Courthouse, a National Register Historic Site. An overnight in Red Lake Falls was welcomed after fours hours on the river.

Crookston lay another four hours ahead of us along the Red Lake River.

Crookston was incorporated in 1879 and is named after Colonel William Crooks, a railroad builder. The "booming" prairie chickens are a spring highlight for nature lovers. Tundra swans, trumpeter swans, chestnut-collared longspurs, sandhill cranes, waterfowl, grebes, warbler migration, and bobolink are a few of the other birds that can be spotted in or near Crookston in the spring.

You can walk the Military Memorial Walkway, or explore the Natural History Area or visit the oldest continuously operating movie theatre in the United States, the Grand Theatre, where vaudeville once reigned, or tour the rest of the large historic district in downtown Crookston.


Seeing the Red Lake River and its' riverbank communities from canoe level is an exciting experience. If you embark on this adventure, I recommend a few essentials: suntan lotion, a rain poncho and a camera.

Oh, and a bottle of muscle liniment if, like

me, you haven't had a paddle in your hand for a while.

Johnson, who works with the Minnesota Office of Tourism in St. Paul, can be reached at (651) 297-3488 or via e-mail at curt.johnson@state.mn.us

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