ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Todd Foster grew up next to the Sauk River and has spent most of his life living along its banks.
That gave him an initial interest in the outdoors and canoeing in particular. He has explored thousands of miles of rivers and streams in North America, including a 110-day trek from his home in St. Cloud to Hudson Bay. Paddling with his friend and canoeing enthusiast, Scott Miller, they left Foster's house on the Sauk, paddled to the Mississippi River, down to the Minnesota River, up and west to the Red River, across Lake Winnipeg, down the Hayes and Gods rivers to Hudson Bay.
The duo is writing a book about the experience.
So, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Sauk River Watershed District, an organization started with input from the Chain of Lakes Association, Foster and Miller saw an opportunity.
Starting June 12, they'll make the comparatively short, 110-mile trip down the length of the river from Lake Osakis to St. Cloud. They plan to spread it over eight days, with "meet-and-greets" in Sauk Centre, Melrose and Cold Spring.
They'll speak with representatives from the Friends of the Sauk River, the Sauk River Watershed District, Stearns County Parks and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to address the shape of the river corridor.
While the river faces some of the same issues it did when the Sauk River Watershed District was formed, Foster and Miller want to demonstrate the opportunity Central Minnesotans have in their midst.
"If you like adventure, you don't have to go all the way to Hudson Bay," said Foster, 35, who is the membership director for the Friends of the Sauk River and also serves on the board of managers for the watershed district. "The Sauk River is right in our backyard. We want to let people know what a terrific resource this is."
The Friends of the Sauk River also have created a Canoe Library, available at no cost to anyone who doesn't have canoeing equipment and would like to test the waters.
"Now there's no excuse not to use it," Foster said.
Foster and Miller met 16 years ago while working at a Boy Scout camp. They later learned of their coincidental interest in canoeing and made a 10-day trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
"We packed like we were going to Mars," said Miller, 35, a massage therapist who lives in Minneapolis on the Mississippi. "But it was a lot of fun, and we've been paddling as much as we can ever since."
Miller says the Sauk is one of Minnesota's hidden treasures.
"It's a gorgeous river," he said. "It goes through agricultural country and the wildlife is concentrated along the river. It twists and turns, and you have no idea what you'll see around the corner. The last time we canoed it, we entered a stretch where the entire river was covered by a canopy of trees. It was a hot day, so that was welcome. We saw cows on each side for a while, then some kids with fishing poles. It was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. We always see bald eagles and wild turkeys. It's amazing."
The river drops from an initial elevation of 1,320 feet above sea level at Lake Osakis to 992 feet above sea level at the confluence with the Mississippi. Perhaps the Sauk's most used stretch is the Chain of Lakes between Richmond and Cold Spring — where more than 80 miles of shoreline can be found on a length of less than eight miles.
History can be found all along the river. There's Waite's Crossing — an 1850s river crossing was part of the Red River Trail — which is marked by a commemorative stone at Knights of Columbus Park in St. Cloud. The length of the river also serves to define the transition between hardwood forest to the northeast and prairie to the southwest.
That's not to say it couldn't be improved. Foster says the river still feels the impact of the nearby agriculture, septic systems and fences and other obstructions across the water.
"It's still an impaired river in some places because of these water quality issues," Foster said. "People on the lakes blame the farmers and the farmers blame the people on the lakes. In reality, we all contribute to it."
Foster and Miller plan to map and get GPS coordinates for every obstruction as they come downriver. They'll make that information available to the DNR, which has assumed responsibility for the canoe trail from county control.
"As much as I'd love to do that myself, I just don't have the time to do it — so it's great that (Foster and Miller) will do that for us," said Scott Schroeder, district supervisor of parks and trails with the DNR. "Since the Sauk has been designated a canoeing and boating route a few years ago, we're starting to get people coming here from all over the country instead of just the locals who are more familiar with the area. The potential for people encountering obstacles is bound to increase. We hope we can take the information and find some way to assist the property owners to find a solution."
Foster just wants the river to be safe for canoeing.
"It's no fun if you get hung up in a barbed-wire or electrical fence," Foster said. "It can actually be dangerous. At the least, you often have to portage around those places."
The Friends of the Sauk River are doing what they can to help. The 42-member group organized as a nonprofit about six years ago and has facilitated the use of state money to get rid of trees and other obstacles. They also organize and participate in river celebrations, river cleanup days and monitoring programs.
The Sauk River Watershed District has used funds raised through adjacent property taxes to restore shoreline, conduct a septic inventory, resolve feedlot abatement issues and help leverage federal and state funds for larger projects.
"In the course of 25 years, we've helped obtain $14 million in grants and another $14 million in loans for various projects," said Holly Kovarik, administrator of the Sauk River Watershed District. "But we're also trying to promote things typical homeowners can do, whether it's rain barrels or rain gardens ... the water quality of the river has improved over the 25 years and Minnesota has done a lot as far as conservation. But 40 percent of our waters are still impaired, so we still have a lot of work to do. You don't just snap your fingers and have these waters clean themselves up."
Foster is one of four appointees to the watershed board from Stearns County.
"We hope this trip might inspire some other people — maybe those who've never canoed before — to paddle the Sauk," Foster said. "Even if you go for a day, there's equipment available, and you don't even have to paddle hard. You can flow with the current and enjoy the ride."
Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.