Canoeing the Zumbro River

Nestled in southeastern Minnesota, the Zumbro River has multiple branches and forks that come together to make their way to the mighty Mississippi. Carving through the driftless region, this designated Minnesota Water Trail passes bluffs, farms, and quaint towns. Water levels are often low, so it’s imperative to check gauges before setting out. Usually Erik and I like to paddle when the readings are high or very high, or at the very least, on the high side of medium. Given the Zumbro is fairly close to our house and includes some 150 total miles, we plan to paddle the river over a number of day trips.

Sign post at the canoe carry-in access in Zumbro Falls showing the many branches and forks of the Zumbro River along with access points and amenities.
4/8/23: North Fork of the Zumbro: Zumbrota to Zumbro Falls

Gauge CSAH7 near Mazeppa read 663 cfs which is on the high side of medium and Zumbro Falls gauge read 9.69 ft = high

The North Fork is small and winding. It drops a precipitous by Minnesota standards 5.7 feet per mile over this section. At these water levels, the current was strong and even looked a little intimidating as we went to put-in at the Covered Bridge park in Zumbrota. This was our first time paddling in 10 months and combined with cold fast water this wasn’t necessarily the smartest decision.

The very old Covered Bridge in Zumbrota. We put in just downstream (this side) on the far bank.
Looking downstream from the Covered Bridge.

The guidebook, Paddling Minnesota, warned of log jams and we hadn’t even gone a mile when we came upon the first one.

Love the snow on the north facing slopes. This photo doesn’t quite do the steep bank (albeit short) justice.

Although the bank here wasn’t terribly high, it was steep. We both had to use our hands to clamber out. Then we had trouble putting back in as again as it was an undercut 10 foot muddy bank. That first mile took us 19 minutes. We hoped there wouldn’t be too many more logjams.

Big hill on the south side, still covered in snow.
The sun took its time coming out so it was a bit chilly, around 50 degrees.
Selfie that shows Erik’s bike in the canoe.

Our next mile took us just over 9 minutes. We thought perhaps we were clear of logjams but just upstream of the first bridge, the pillars from the old bridge were still in place, creating another log jam. At least this time the banks were gradual and other than fighting with a downed tree onshore, the portage went much faster and that mile took us only 14 minutes. Back on the water the miles were ticking by, all in the low 9’s.

More photos of the North Branch of the Zumbro above Mazeppa.

Near the town of Mazeppa there was a down tree across the entire river, submerged just enough to create a half foot drop and odd standing wave. We floated over, the stern bumping on the log.

Our edition of the guidebook, published in 1999, said there was an 18 foot dam in Mazeppa that the county was planning on removing that would presumably leave some rapids. We checked these out on Google Satellite, which is only relevant at the captured water level. Erik always wants to run rapids but I was like “That dam was 18 feet. I’ve never ran an 18 foot dam before!”

As we approached the rapids in Mazeppa, the first wave looked pretty big. I demanded that we scout which Erik agreed to, although instead of getting out of the canoe, he merely stood up in the canoe to get a better view and then decided we could run them. This was fairly audacious seeing as the water was still very cold, we were in our Kevlar Jensen 18, and we also had a bike strapped down in the boat. I saw the size of the wave trains and knew I was about to get soaked and sure enough the bow went under in the first wave train. Water poured into the front and some got down my tall boots. Then we got horribly thrown sideways and I braced as hard and fast as I could, absolutely determined NOT to tip. Erik did something in the back (later he admitted to actually dropping his paddle and grabbed the gunwales) but was able to lean us well enough to right the canoe and my brace ended up being not that hard and short-lived. We bounced through a few more waves and then took a break at the city park on river right. The first thing I did was take off my “Alaska” boots and dump out the extra water.

Looking back upstream at the old dam site in Mazeppa from the walking bridge.
And looking downstream from the bridge, our canoe barely visible on river right just below the rocky retaining wall.

We took a lunch break, walking near the river and taking photos from two bridges. While doing so, a woman from the local Mazeppa-Zumbro Falls Messenger came to interview us. She had been on the bridge when we shot the rapids and wanted to write a piece about us because not many people boat this section of river. Classic. Last year, in our well over 200 miles of paddling Minnesota Waterways, we saw just two other canoes. This is exactly why I write this blog and do these things. Because our Minnesota rivers are amazing.

Looking downstream. This first drop definitely looks impressive.

After Mazeppa the river picked up even more steam, sweeping around near constant river bends. I thought about taking a photo, but the river demanded attention. We didn’t have any close calls or near misses, but we were occupied picking the deepest channel, avoiding wave trains, and powering past sweepers when the current threatened to push us into the outside bank. It was a bit like we were on a ride. The snowy south bank would come near, casting us in shadow and emitting its cold air, then we would turn away to the open valley, basked in sunshine once more and warm air. We caught occasional wafts of manure. But mostly we focused on the river.

Some sandy banks on the north side just downstream of Mazeppa.

And then, just like that, the main branch of the Zumbro came in from our right. Suddenly the river got much wider and the riffles and navigating the deepest channel ended. The river got boring as we paddled the last 7.5 miles to Zumbro Falls, but the current was still chucking and we made crazy good time, even aided by a tail-wind at times. Our fastest mile was 8 minutes on the dot.

Looking back up at the main Zumbro River. We had come in on the North Fork on the right in this photo (not shown)
A house up high on the riverbank once the North Fork joined the main Zumbro.

We were cruising so fast we didn’t need to stop for any more breaks and soon enough, without much effort in the strong current, the second bridge in Zumbro Falls came into view and we took out at the canoe carry-in access immediately downstream of the bridge on our left.

Of note, according the the guidebook, the low falls for which [the town of Zumbro Falls] is named has eroded to become a stretch of rapids. Per the map these look to be downstream of where we took out.

Uffda…this was one engaging paddle until we hit the main Zumbro. 23 miles in 4 hours and 18 minutes including portaging two log jams, a lengthy lunch break complete with a newspaper interview, snowy bluffs, fast current, and a solid Class II in Mazeppa made for a fulfilling adventure!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: