My children and I have watched boats go through the locks on the Mississippi River, but this time we were in one. As the water drained, our flotilla of wood canoes descended deeper into the shadow between two massive walls.
Cold air wafted off the wet concrete onto our summer-warmed skin. Spectators lined the railing and peered down at us as we sank lower, lower, lower: Ten feet. Twenty. Twenty-five. We stared at the massive metal doors on the downriver side as the water receded and their height was slowly revealed. And everyone waited.
"The doors will swing open," explained our guide, Adam Hoffman, who sat in the stern of our 24-foot canoe. "It will look like Jurassic Park. Then, you'll hear the big horn, and we'll move forward."
Going through the lock at the Ford Dam in St. Paul was a highlight of our half-day paddle down the Mississippi River with Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis outdoor adventure company that also offers trips around the globe.
As we found, you don't need to leave home to find an exotic landscape. We sliced through the heart of the Cities and felt far removed from urban life. Traffic on Interstate 94 raced overhead, while we watched herons dive for fish in a linear wilderness. Houses and cars and joggers were hidden behind the wooded bluffs.
"I was a Boundary Waters snob," said Greg Lais, founder and executive director of Wilderness Inquiry. "I thought Mississippi water was kind of a low-grade dump, a place to be avoided, until I started going there. You're totally impressed at what a beautiful river it is, at the wildlife. You don't even know you're in the city."
Wilderness Inquiry runs dozens of Mississippi River trips every season, mostly with school and community groups, in partnership with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and other agencies. Its goal is to get 10,000 kids on the river every year. I went on one of its weekend trips open to the general public with my husband and three children.
We started in the parking lot at Hidden Falls Regional Park on a weekend morning in mid-June. A school bus took us upriver to our launching spot at East River Flats, a level grassy park just below the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota campus. We stopped at the bathrooms in the U of M boathouse and then gathered for instruction.
"Don't use the paddles as shovels," one guide announced, just as my 8-year-old son started to grind his into the dirt. We learned how to grasp the knob at the end with one hand and place the other on the shaft so our hands were about a shoulder width apart. Then, we learned the pizza stroke.
"Imagine you're sticking your paddle into the oven and you're trying to slide out a pizza, so keep the paddle flat," said Hoffman, our leader, as he demonstrated how to bring the paddle out of the water.
Wilderness Inquiry owns a fleet of two dozen voyageur canoes that accommodate six to 10 people, seaworthy canoes that can withstand the wake of a barge without tipping. Seven of them were pulled onto the sandy beach for our trip of 60-plus people.
Hoffman set plastic step stools in the water, and we climbed in without even getting our feet wet. My 8-year-old eagerly volunteered for the bow position. I braced myself against Hoffman's shoulder as I slid onto the woven seat next to my 11-year-old son. My husband climbed in next with our 5-year-old daughter, followed by a couple from Minneapolis. Hoffman pushed off and hopped into the stern.
"Put those paddles in the water," Hoffman called from the back. "We'll be rowing like Vikings here, all together." He told my 8-year old to set the pace, and we turned downriver.
As we paddled, Hoffman shared river trivia: The Mississippi is more than 2,300 miles long. It drains 40 percent of the nation, nearly everything between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians. The heavy winter snow and spring rains raised the river to unusually high levels this year.
On the day we paddled, the river was flowing at 16,000 cubic feet per second.
We passed under I-94, the sound of traffic barely audible. Minutes later, we approached the arched bridge at Franklin Avenue. A pile of logs had snagged at the base of a massive concrete piling.
"When we get under a bridge, I really like to make a lot of echo," Hoffman said. So we pulled in the paddles and hollered.
One boy howled like wolf and was answered by a reverberating pack.
Seen from below, the bridges no longer seemed like utilitarian roadways. They were awesome sculptures that rose from the forested banks like a series of triumphal arches we passed under on our journey downstream. Other things looked different from the river, too.
"We take these kids down here, and they've driven over the Mississippi River a thousand times, but they've never touched it," Hoffman said. "They've never been on it. And they can't believe they're in the city. They think they're in Quetico, out in the wilderness."
We saw a kingfisher dive for fish, a family of mallards and a goose followed by a gosling. We saw great blue herons flying low or wading in the shallows and swallows that darted out of holes in the rock. And we spotted a bald eagle perched on a high, dead branch.
After decades of decline, the bald eagle has made a comeback, and four years ago, it was removed from the list of endangered species. At that time, Minnesota had more bald eagles than any other state, except Alaska, Hoffman said.
"Can you guess the state that had the next highest number?" asked Hoffman as he paddled. The answer surprised me: Florida.
We saw people fishing from the bank, but mostly we saw only traces of human activity. We passed steep beaches of white sand that had been sucked up and dumped by a vacuum dredge, evidence of the Army Corps of Engineer's effort to keep a 9-foot channel in the river for navigation.
We also saw candy wrappers and chip bags in the water and shredded plastic bags that had caught on low hanging branches when the water was higher.
"Here's a bit of nasty history," said Hoffman, as we paddled past what looked like a steep concrete boat ramp. It channeled storm water runoff from Minneapolis. "They used to pour sewage directly into the river," he said.
Just north of the Lake Street Bridge on the Minneapolis side, we glided past the angled silhouette of the Minneapolis Rowing Club, a spare and elegant modern building nestled below the trees. I had never seen it, even though I've eaten on the patio of Longfellow Grill, just a couple of hundred feet above it on top of the bluff.
"This is really interesting to me because I've never seen the city from this angle," said my husband, who has run for years on footpaths on both sides of the river.
We pulled in for lunch ahead of schedule on a sandy beach on the Minneapolis bank below Lake Street. When our guides offered to show people to the park's rest rooms, my first reaction was to wonder how there could be rest rooms in the middle of nowhere? We ate lunch on a blanket and the kids traced tic-tac-toe in the sand.
We also got a geology lesson from a National Park Service Ranger Abby Olson who was on the trip. Millions of years ago, the entire Twin Cities area was covered by an inland sea, she explained. As the sand settled to the bottom, it became sandstone. Mud and silt settled into a thin layer of shale, and then as the sea creatures died, their skeletons were pressed into limestone. We could see the three layers of sedimentary rock on exposed sections along the river.
My kids were more interested in how the river gorge was formed millions of years later at the end of the last ice age. More than 10,000 years ago, a massive waterfall in present downtown St. Paul eroded upstream, carving out the steep banks on either side.
"Anyone heard of a waterfall in Minneapolis?" asked Olson.
Yup. St. Anthony Falls is what's left of that 200-foot waterfall. And, St. Paul residents have bragging rights. It was bigger when it was on our side of town.
As the waterfall eroded upstream, huge chunks of rock broke into the river. Thousands of years later, when the riverboats started coming, the rocks blocked their way, and that's why St. Paul is where it is. It was as far north as the riverboats could navigate, until the Army Corps of Engineers showed up.
When we climbed back into our canoes, we could see the three white arches of the Ford Street Bridge straight ahead. This time, my husband sat in the bow, I sat next to the our daughter and the boys were seated behind us.
"Mama, I'm paddling," shouted the 5-year-old, who had spent the first leg of the journey snacking and looking around. When her paddle hit her brother's paddle, he scolded her for not keeping pace. Then, the boys bickered with each other.
"You're going too fast," one said to the other.
I bet the voyageurs were more coordinated. Hoffman told us that those early fur traders would have paddled 57 strokes per minute, and just to show us, he shouted out the seconds like a metronome and we struggled to keep up, suddenly feeling the breeze in our face.
"Now, imagine doing that all day," Hoffman said. No wonder voyageurs died young.
We approached the Ford Dam around 1 p.m.
To the left of the dam was the powerhouse built to supply electricity to the Ford assembly plant. We could see the big blue Ford sign above the trees.
To the right were the twin locks known as Lock and Dam 1, one of 29 lock and dam systems built on the river by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to even out rapids, deepen the channel and make the river navigable. (The locks at St. Anthony Falls were later numbered 0 and 00).
"Imagine a giant bathtub with two big doors on each end," said Hoffman as he steered us into the right lock and up against the wall. "We're floating in the top and once we get inside, they just open up some drains and all the water comes out."
It felt like we were coming into a dock, and a worker leaned over to hand my husband a line.
"Don't tie it to anything," instructed Hoffman. "Just hold it and keep the rest loosely coiled by your feet." (Apparently, some boaters have tied on, and when the water level went down, their boats were left dangling in the air until a lock worker shut off the drain and cut the rope.)
After the other canoes glided tightly next to us, the doors closed and our tiny flotilla was corralled by two concrete walls and two sets of massive metal doors in a space a bit longer than a football field and about a third as wide.
We waited. Nothing seemed to happen. Then, someone exclaimed, "Wow, look at that," and pointed to the wall. We'd dropped a few inches, and we could see a line of exposed wet concrete that had been under water seconds before.
"We're really starting to move now," said my husband, and he reached to slap a wet handprint onto the side of the dock above the water line. Within a couple of minutes, his handprint was far above his head. We were going down, but we couldn't feel it.
"If you look behind us, there is water coming through the seam between the doors," Hoffman said. And sure enough, water poured through the length of the crack. The metal doors were the only thing between us and a wall of water.
"It is totally normal," Hoffman added reassuringly.
By the time we came to rest, we were nearly 30 feet below where we started, shadowed by damp walls on each side. When the river below the lock is at its normal lower level, the drop is even more, 38 feet.
Then, the Jurassic Park downriver gates opened and we paddled out. Suddenly, we were in the sunshine. Motorboats zipped past. After seeing no boat traffic north of the lock, we had entered the party zone.
We crossed to the St. Paul side of the river, splashing over the wake of a motorboat, which prompted my daughter to cheer. Hidden Falls Regional Park was in front of us, and we saw people fishing from shore and playing in the water. We made a spectacular landing among a crowd splashing on a small sandy beach.
Three hours after we started paddling, we were back in civilization. We gathered in a circle for goodbyes and then went our separate ways.
"It was amazing how secluded and peaceful it felt on the river," said Dan Gainey of Menomonie, Wis., who had come on the trip with his sister and three children. It was the first time canoeing for his daughter Catherine, 12.
It was also a hit with his son Charlie, 17, who has Down syndrome and competes as a swimmer in the Special Olympics.
"I like to explore nature," said Charlie, who now wants to go on a three-day paddling trip with Wilderness Inquiry in the Apostle Islands.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Touring the Mississippi River on voyageur canoes
Where: Mississippi River from East River Flats below the University of Minnesota to Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul
Information: Wilderness Inquiry; 612-676-9400; wildernessinquiry.org
When: Public trips offered Aug. 27, Sept. 25, Oct. 1
Cost: $45 per person
Target audience: Preschool and older, all abilities
Crowd pleaser: Going through lock and dam
Avoid: Getting sunburned. Wear hats and slather on the sunscreen.
Tip: Pack a picnic lunch to eat on the sandy beach.
More: Read previously published family outings under "family fun" at MinnMoms.com.