Canoeing Minnesota's Cloquet River: Paddling into the Dark

The Minnesota DNR does a great job with their designated water trails, and the Cloquet River was no exception.

The Minnesota DNR does a great job with their designated water trails, and the Cloquet River was no exception.

I’ve been wanting to paddle the Cloquet River in northeast Minnesota for a few years now. I read “Wild Country…Still” in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine, which originally piqued my interest, and the more I researched the river, the better it sounded! 

Looking at a map, the Cloquet River looks like a squiggle running roughly parallel to the north shore of Lake Superior, through a remote and undeveloped stretch of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. It offers stretches of whitewater paddling and primitive riverside campsites. I never really hear anyone in the Twin Cities talk about the Cloquet. The Boundary Waters and various wild rivers far north of the Canadian border are a common topic of conversation, but the Cloquet seemed like it was relatively unexplored territory, which struck me as odd, considering its closeness. That also made me want to check it out even more.

In his Guide to Minnesota Outdoors, Jim Umhoefer describes the Cloquet as “...one of the state’s most primitive canoe routes.  Most of the river flows through the wild lands of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, inspiring a sense of isolation that explorers may have felt.”

As luck would have it, I came across a notice that the University of Minnesota at Duluth’s outdoors club (UMD RSOP) was running an overnight trip on the Cloquet. The trip was open to non-students, and I’d heard that the school had a great environmental education degree and outdoor recreation program, so I figured this would be a quick and easy way to test the waters of the Cloquet. I called my buddy, Jeff, to see what he was up to, and after a few minutes on the phone, he signed on—let the adventure begin!

Getting on the River—Almost

Our campsite on Indian Lake. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

Our campsite on Indian Lake. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

On Friday afternoon, Jeff and I rolled up to the UMD campus and met up with the RSOP group. I immediately recognized Adam, one of their trip leaders, who worked at Northern Tier High Adventure last Winter at the same time I was an instructor for their Cold Weather Leader Training program. After the usual pre-trip shuffling, distributing, and tossing around of food and gear, the group loaded up portage packs, hitched the canoe trailer up to the Sprinter van and headed north .

Due to low water levels in parts of the lower Cloquet River, we were headed to the upper and wilder section, above Island Lake Reservoir. This was the area I really wanted to explore. We reached the campground on Indian Lake around 6:00 p.m.  After a bit of discussion, the group decided to camp here at an established campsite and shove off early in the morning, rather than travel a few miles in the evening and risk having to whack out a camp in the bush in the dark. This would also allow us to paddle the next day with just our gear for the day, instead of a full camp set-up.

Sunset paddle around Indian Lake. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

Sunset paddle around Indian Lake. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

Knowing that we’d have a long day on Saturday (22 miles), plans were made for an early rise and departure. After a sunset paddle around Indian Lake, and some good times hanging out around the fire, I hit the sack. At 5:30 a.m., the thunderous roar of a locomotive bolted me upright in my bag. Turns out that in the middle of this remote and dense forest, a train track ran about a quarter mile from the site. If you want to avoid the "My Cousin Vinny" freight train wake-up, you might want to camp elsewhere.

After a big breakfast, packing, more gear shuffling, a river prep talk with some basic instruction on whitewater maneuvers (e.g., Duffeks and Draws) and safety signals from Nick and Adam, we were on the water! Not exactly on time, but it was turning out to be a bright, sunny, perfect morning, and spirits were high.

One of the reasons I really like taking trips with different people is all the different tips I pick up and the stories I hear. After breakfast, I saw Nick rubbing coffee grounds on his hands. Nick spends his Summers paddling the border canoe country as a guide for Laketrails Base Camp and said the grounds scrub the grime off your hands and the coffee bean oil acts as a natural lotion. Something to try next time I'm in the woods. Nancy, another paddler in the group and a retired environmental science teacher, shared many interesting points about the local plants and vegetation, including pointing out Sweet Gale, also known as Bog Myrtle. Nancy said  that she likes to use it to freshen up her tent and musty gear on a long trip, and when dried, it makes a delicious tea. One other tasty take-away: the UMD RSOP Gado-Gado dinner made of Thai noodles, sautéed chicken, green peppers, and onions, all covered in a sauce consisting of peanut butter, chopped ginger, and soy sauce. Delicious!

Paddling the Cloquet 

Making our way down the Cloquet River with the UMD RSOP group. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

Making our way down the Cloquet River with the UMD RSOP group. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

The upper section of the Cloquet is a smaller river than I expected; often not more than 30 feet across, rarely more than five feet deep. We paddled for miles through the forest, enjoying the snaking twists and turns and quiet solitude offered by the Cloquet River. Jeff and I worked on coordinating our paddle strokes and communication, while looking for bends or deadfalls to practice our eddie turns and peel-outs, ferrying moves, side-slipping, and overall boat control. Jeff was new to whitewater canoeing, but he's an exceptional athlete and picked it all up very quickly and enthusiastically. Even though Jeff had been on several flatwater canoe trips, he was surprised at the amount of nuance and technique involved in whitewater paddling, and it was clear he was really enjoying picking up the new skills.

...Wonderfully wild, with nearly unbroken forested banks. Red and white pines, fir, spruce, aspen and birch make up the forest of the Cloquet Valley.
— Minnesota DNR Water Trail Guide

With the dry Spring and low flow, the rapids on the Cloquet River were fun, but not intimidating. Heavy rains or a big Spring melt could, of course, swell the river and fill the rapids with big waves and fast chutes, but on this trip, we didn't encounter any major rapids.

The river did offer the isolated, wild, and woodsy feel I’d imagined. It’s a great piece of wild country, and we had it to ourselves. We saw a few cabins as we paddled, maybe five in total; however, they did not detract from the experience. Most were of the old hunting shack variety, set back from the river’s edge and blended into the landscape so well that we hardly noticed them. 

Beaver-chomped trees lined the river banks, and we saw bald eagles, deer, and even an otter swimming along next to us for a stretch. Bears, wolves, and moose also roam these woods, and the little-travelled water holds the promise of good fishing. 

Jeff and I canoeing the Cloquet River. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

Jeff and I canoeing the Cloquet River. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

At one point in the trip, I broke out the canoe pole. Other than poling lake shores when collecting wild rice, poling is not a common practice in the northwoods of the Great Lakes region, but I really enjoy it and think it's an incredibly useful skill. I was headed to Maine for a canoe trip in a few weeks, where a few Registered Maine Guides and other canoeist keep the art alive, so I took the chance to stand up, find my legs, and shake off the rust. Given that we had a long day, I wasn't able to spend time playing around, moving up and down rapids, but at least I got to stand up for a bit of easy downriver cruising, and I didn't put Jeff in the drink. The Cloquet River has a fairly rocky bottom and isn't too deep, so it could make for a really fun poling trip.

If you're new to the Cloquet River like I was, you'll be happy to know that the DNR’s excellent guide clearly marks the rapids, along with portage trail markers. The portages looked to be in good condition, so if you're looking for a northwoods river camping experience but don't want the whitewater, it'd be no problem to carry around the fast sections. As they say, no one ever drowned on the portage trail! 

After stopping to scout the major sets of rapids, we ran them all. We were paddling the UMD RSOP’s canoes, the Wenonah Spirit II in Royalex. Judging from the hulls, they had withstood tons of abuse over the years, and they weren’t quite as maneuverable as a more rockered, river-focused canoe, but this multi-purpose canoe did the job. At the low water level, each run was fun and with a bit of basic maneuvering skills, the main issue was getting hung up in shallow spots, rather than swamping from huge waves crashing over the bow. 

As the sweep canoe team, Jeff and I stayed behind in rescue position after scouting, while the others shot the rapids. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

As the sweep canoe team, Jeff and I stayed behind in rescue position after scouting, while the others shot the rapids. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

Fun side note: Our trip took us through rapids with names dating back to the days when this was a working logging river (e.g., “Camp G,” “Dry Foot Brown’s,” “Buzz Ryan’s,” and “Dana’s”), each rated as class I-II.  

Abby and Nick running the rapids of the Cloquet River. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

Abby and Nick running the rapids of the Cloquet River. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Lindstrom.)

It was a warm, sunny, bug-free, and overall, perfect day on the river. Good thing it was so darned nice, because it turned out to be a really long day. So long, in fact, we ended up paddling well past dark to reach our take-out. This not something I’d suggest on an obstacle-filled river, but it did provide a serene, beautiful, and somewhat otherworldly experience as we glided through the darkened, moon-lit forest. We each had dry bags with extra clothes, and I had my usual essential wilderness gear, so I wasn't too worried; but, at the same time, it did raise the stakes considerably. We had a few people who, after getting soaked in the river, were struggling to stay warm in the dropping nighttime temperatures. In camp the night before, temperatures had bottomed out near freezing. The trip leaders had wisely suggested to bring headlamps, which were flipped on to help illuminate downfall, dark corners, and search for submerged rocks as we pushed on to our take-out. Carefully working ahead on the shoreline, we safely made the take-out at the Carroll State Forest Road access point above Dr. Barney’s rapids. 

The darkened obstacles, wet, and cold could have added up to a bad scenario, but the skills of the group and a bit of basic preparation kept it a fun and safe experience.
— Scott

While a few of the crew jumped in the car waiting at the take-out to run the hour and a half shuttle up to Indian Lake and back, those who’d gotten soaked switched into dry clothes, and we quickly made a large fire and ate what was left of our food to get some warming calories in the system. Then it was simply a matter of sitting back and  enjoying the northwoods night around the warming blaze. The darkened obstacles, wet, and cold could have added up to a bad scenario, but the skills of the group and a bit of basic preparation kept it a fun and safe experience.

The Cloquet River lived up to its promise of a fun and near-wilderness experience. I'll be back! I'm eager to explore the next 13-mile section directly below our take-out (Carroll St. Forest Rd. to Island Lake Reservoir). Lynne Smith Diebel, in her highly recommended book, Paddling Northern Minnesota, describes this next section as a "great wilderness trip that features the Cloquet's most difficult rapids. …The land through which the Cloquet races is remote and uninhabited, and between the rapids, wildlife watching and fishing are great options." The three major rapids on this section (Cedar Rapids, McCabe's Rapids, and White Sides Rapids) are all rated Class II-III! 


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