On a warm, sun-drenched September afternoon, full voyageur canoes crossed a choppy stretch Mississippi River for more peaceful sheltered waters of a nearby bay.
Fall colors were visible in fits and starts along the tree-lined shore just off Green’s Point on the river, at the end of Executive Acres Road north of Brainerd. Nearby, the sun glinted off the white head and tail of a bald eagle as it negotiated the gusty winds with ease.
Thursday’s river outing marked a celebration after years of work to successfully complete the Mississippi Northwoods project, which brought private, nonprofit and government groups together to protect 2.7 miles of undeveloped river shoreline and 2,000 wooded acres.
The Mississippi Northwoods project links with state trust land, county forest and a wildlife management area to create 9 miles of protected shoreline. Last year, the Minnesota Legislature approved spending $11 million from the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund in what Gov. Mark Dayton supported as a signature Legacy dollars project.
For Lawrence Severt, who along with his cousin Wayne Dryburgh grew up along the Mississippi River where the river expands to create Rice Lake, protecting the pristine shoreland is welcome. The family has been along the river for six decades. They remember when there were few houses, when they could play by the old logging camp and sink in thick sawdust, when a house on the river served up pancakes to boaters as well as gasoline. They grew up with a sense of community on the river and greater appreciation, they said, for the changing seasons. They hunted and played along the stretch of the river in summer and winter.
“I think it’s a great deal to set it aside for posterity,” Severt said. “Most of it is unspoiled. You can see all kinds of wildlife.”
To them, the wide expanse of river — with its bays and islands, places to swim and fish, wild rice and hunting — is a still largely undiscovered gem right in its own backyard.
“When you come up here, it’s just wild and beautiful,” Marian Severt said.
That is just what the people who gathered in the voyageur canoes were there to celebrate. Severt and two other pontoons driven by Tom Larson and Gary Scheeler met the voyageur canoes from Wilderness Inquiry near where Sand Creek joins the Mississippi River. Speakers addressed the full canoes from the deck of the pontoon. Todd Holman, The Nature Conservancy program director, said it all started with a relationship between nonprofits and local government and major landowner Potlatch, which has worked on other land now part of parks and trails.
“This is a great, great conservation project — great for Crow Wing County and great for the state of Minnesota,” Holman said. “Potlatch is working with the communities on some of these really large, consequential conservation projects. ... This is a hunting and fishing driven application as much as it was protecting the river and the forest, all of these overlap to the public benefit.”
Holman said a groundswell came together to support the project, which includes the corridor for the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail connection.
Kirk Titus, Crow Wing County Land Services supervisor, said the county has been doing a lot of field work on the property this summer. Bryan Pike, Crow Wing County natural resources manager, will handle the Northwoods property. Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, and Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, along with Crow Wing County commissioners, were among those in the canoes.
Gary Drotts, retired DNR area wildlife supervisor, said he’s always considered this piece of property to be one of the highest and best pieces to protect in Crow Wing County. Drotts also spoke of the importance wild rice, for its cultural heritage and for wildlife. Wild rice rose from the shallows nearby. Minnesota has about 30,000-40,000 acres of wild rice, Drotts said. Experienced wild rice pickers may get 300-500 pounds in a six-hour day. About 1,500 people statewide still pick wild rice, Drotts said. The river provides some of the latest rice of the season.
“It is a pure and natural product,” Drotts said, noting wild rice is basically nature’s wheat field and an important crop for Ojibwe and the Dakota in Minnesota. “We have the most wild rice left in the actual lower 48. Minnesota has the most and within Minnesota the actual center of the actual rice range is Crow Wing, Aitkin and Cass counties.”