For many Twin Cities residents, the Mississippi River holds a special place in our image of home. The great Mississippi serves as a backdrop for marriage proposals and family photos on the Stone Arch Bridge. It provides a sense of tranquility enjoyed by people who want to escape into a little bit of nature right outside their doorstep. Runners and bikers who chase the current from the many walkways along the river’s banks feel its energy.
But how many of the people who pass over the river on their daily commute, who run along its banks or toast its view from the cantilever at the Guthrie, have actually been on the river? Unfortunately, the amount of people who have explored the Mississippi River via the river itself is very few. Fearful of its swift current or the presumed dirty water, most people spend their whole time in the Twin Cities without ever getting on the powerful waterway.
Bob Schmitz, owner of Above the Falls Sports, wants to change that. As an avid paddler and rower, Schmitz began exploring the Mississippi River when he moved to downtown Minneapolis in 2003. Between 2003–2009, Schmitz doesn’t recall ever seeing another paddler on the river during his frequent trips up and down the Mississippi. He adds, “I had the river to myself, and I was always amazed at how little use that river gets…so I decided to try to make a little business out of it and introduce people to the river.”
In 2009, Schmitz opened Above the Falls Sports, which has developed into a bustling business that operates multiple kayaking trips per day. With a mission to promote recreational activity in the Mississippi River Valley, Schmitz and his crew of knowledgeable guides help paddlers experience the history and aesthetic beauty of the cities from a truly unique perspective. With a variety of tours and private lessons available, Above the Falls Sports encourages people to experience the city from the mighty Mississippi and exposes people to the joys of water recreation.
Above the Falls Sports offers a variety of kayaking trips, all of which allow paddlers to see the Twin Cities area from a new and distinctive angle. The Working the Channel tour is the “premier urban kayaking experience that explores the industrial heritage of Minneapolis from the perspective of the river that made Minneapolis life possible.” During the 2.5-hour tour, paddlers explore the river area between St. Anthony Falls and the Broadway Avenue Bridge, where guides discuss some of the industrial history of Minneapolis and draw attention to iconic landmarks such as Nicollet Island, Boom Island, and the Grain Belt Brewery.
For adventurers who want to see more of the river, the four-hour trip from Downtown Minneapolis to Minnehaha Falls is a truly unique experience. Though June 9 saw the last trips through the Upper St. Anthony Lock which is now permanently closed, adventurers will continue to have access to Lower St. Anthony Lock and Lock & Dam #1. At the suggestion of Schmitz, who was “trying to get as many people as possible” through the trip before the upper lock closed, my wife and I took advantage of that limited edition tour over Memorial Day weekend. As long-term residents of Minneapolis, we were awe-struck as we saw the Downtown skyline from the river and paddled through the only gorge on the Mississippi River.
The highlight of this trip is definitely traveling through the locks, a unique experience that allows paddlers to participate in Minneapolis history hands-on. (One guide joked that it was like being in a big bathtub while the water gets drained, only this time, we’re the rubber ducks.) While the locks drain, the guides give historical background into how the Mississippi River aided in the industrial development of the Twin Cities. Schmitz adds that he hopes this trip encourages people to “be aware of the river system and how it has impacted the economy and our market system.”
After a quick stop at Bohemian Flats, our guides led us down the river, pointing out eagles, ducklings, and other wildlife. We ended at Minnehaha Falls, where we enjoyed a quick hike up to Sea Salt for a much-needed lunch after our time on the river. Even to Twin Cities residents like us, the trip is a special way to appreciate the beauty of Minneapolis, seen from a completely different viewpoint.
Paddlers who want to spend the whole day on the river are encouraged to participate in the Minneapolis to St. Paul trip. With stops at Minnehaha Creek, the Fort Snelling Interpretive Center, and the Depot in St. Paul, the trip connects the Twin Cities and allows paddlers to experience the rich history of the Mississippi River.
Another trip from the Coon Rapids Dam to downtown Minneapolis provides an opportunity for nature lovers and birdwatchers to paddle past the Great Blue Heron Rookery. The tour also travels through forested parkland, past Minneapolis Water Works, and former industrial sites, creating a blend of natural environment and industrial progress that reflects the development of the Twin Cities area.
No matter what tour you choose, when you go out on the river with Above the Falls Sports, you’ll be assured that safety is the top priority. The Mississippi River has a reputation for being a dangerous waterway, but Schmitz believes the public tends to have an exaggerated misconception of the river’s power. He explains that although the undercurrent of the Mississippi can be strong, the current on the surface of the river is relatively slow, making it possible for kayaks to safely glide down the banks of the river.
Even though the river is much safer than most people expect, Schmitz and his guides take every precaution to ensure the safety of their patrons. Personal flotation devices are mandatory, and the guides discuss how to avoid potential hazards and obstacles on the river. Additionally, all tours begin with a brief practice session in a calm portion of the river to ensure that paddlers are comfortable with — and can perform — fundamental strokes. While paddling down the river, the tours stay close to the shoreline, where the water is more shallow and calm. The guides are also trained to respond to a variety of situations and assuredly instruct paddlers how to navigate areas of choppy water, allowing people to explore their adventurous sides in a safe and controlled manner.
As an increasingly popular sport in the United States, kayaking is a great way to experience the water because you don’t have to be extremely physically fit to paddle. Schmitz believes kayaking is an “easy way to get in a boat and an easy way to use it because you don’t have to know a lot of strokes or techniques.” Paddling a kayak simply requires continual strokes with equal pressure on each side. The ease of maneuvering a kayak allows people to get out on the water quickly, making the river much more accessible than by other watercrafts.
There are many health benefits to kayaking — another reason why people should take advantage of water recreation. Kayaking provides a great core and upper body workout, with each paddling motion engaging the arms, the abdominals, and the lower back. By controlling their pace and the power behind each stroke, paddlers can push themselves for an intense workout, or simply enjoy a leisurely paddle. Regardless of whether someone’s paddling for exercise or pleasure, kayaking provides an opportunity to connect with the environment and appreciate the beauty that Minnesota has to offer. Through kayaking the Mississippi River, visitors and Twin Cities residents alike can experience our great cities from a unique and memorable perspective.
Above the Falls Sports invites people to experience the river through their standard or private tours or through kayaking lessons. To book your tour or get more information, visit www.abovethefallssports.com.