Minnesota Water Trails Summit

by Aaron Klemz, Communications and Engagement Director

This week, over 100 people gathered in St. Cloud for the Minnesota Water Trails Summit to celebrate 50 years of the Minnesota Water Trails program and share best practices for developing paddlesports recreation in Minnesota. I joined them to learn more about how people across Minnesota are integrating paddling into their communities, developing the next generation of paddlers, and creating economic opportunities based on paddlesports.

This event was attended by a wide variety of outfitters, local government officials, park professionals, nonprofit groups, and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employees who work on the Water Trails program. Here are some facts that I learned at the summit:

Participants canoed through the Beaver Islands in St. Cloud and listened to presentations about this section of the Mississippi

Participants canoed through the Beaver Islands in St. Cloud and listened to presentations about this section of the Mississippi

  • Minnesota has over 4,500 miles of designated water trails on 33 rivers and the shoreline of Lake Superior
  • Designated water trails have signed and maintained access points, maps, and many have campsites
  • Registrations of non-motorized boats (like canoes, kayaks, and standup paddleboards) are a quarter of all boat registrations in Minnesota
  • Registrations of canoes in Minnesota are steady, and registrations of kayaks and stand up paddleboards are increasing dramatically
  • Tourism is a $12.5 billion industry in Minnesota, creating 245,000 jobs and comprising 17% of all sales tax revenue

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness may be the crown jewel of Minnesota’s paddling opportunities, but Minnesota offers an incredible breadth of paddling opportunities. Sometimes you only have a day, or just an afternoon to get on the water. Minnesota’s Water Trail system offers amazing access to great paddling in urban, suburban, and rural environments – from near wilderness experiences to highly developed places.

The continuum of paddling options in Minnesota is also critical for the growth of paddle sports and the development of the next generation of water stewards. Greg Lais of Wilderness Inquiry (WI) kicked off the conference with a speech that described how his childhood experiences led to a lifelong love of paddling. It also introduced people to the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures program and WI’s outreach programs to inner-city schools. Keynote speaker Natalie Warren of Wild River Academy described how she first experienced paddling in the Boundary Waters through YMCA Camp Menogyn, and then went on develop a non-profit dedicated to outdoor education. As she described it, her wilderness experiences inspired her to retrace Eric Sevareid’s “Canoeing with the Cree” route to Hudson Bay. On that journey, she enjoyed the interactions with people in communities along the way. Subsequently, she’s organized long-distance river expeditions called “Paddle Forward” that interact with students and community members as part of the trip.

Protecting the Boundary Waters can only be accomplished if there are a lot of people out there who love it. Events like the Minnesota Water Trails Summit showcase the work that many people are doing to pass on a love of water-based recreation to the next generation. The abundance of paddling options and the number of people working to highlight paddlesports in their communities bodes well for our work to protect clean water in the Boundary Waters and across the Quetico-Superior.

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