Paddling to a scene from history

GRANITE FALLS – More than 200 paddlers and countless others took part in the Clean Up the River Environment’s (CURE’s) annual Minnesota River History Weekend and the Minnesota State Water Trails 50th anniversary celebration Saturday around the Granite Falls area.

Combined with the well-organized activities, the pleasant weather provided ample opportunities for people of all ages to enjoy all that nature has to offer along the Minnesota River.

“So far it’s been fun,” Granite Falls resident Colleen Ford said just before stepping inside one of the many voyageur canoes Saturday. “I’m here for an adventure.”

Dixie Tilden, CURE office manager, was thrilled to report that the maximum number of participants had registered for seats on the voyageur canoes.

“We had 160 register for the big voyager canoes, and another 25 paddling individually,” she said. “They’ll be leaving in three staggered segments from Kinney’s Landing, and they’ll finish up at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park.”

Since her husband was unable to attend, Kris Netherton of Spring Valley decided to invite her sister to the Granite Falls event.

“We decided to spend the weekend here to check out this event,” Netherton said. “It’s a great opportunity to be out on the river. I’ve never been on the Minnesota River before. I’m having a great time.”

Approximately 20 guides from Wilderness Inquiry, a non-profit corporation founded in 1978 and headquartered in Minneapolis, were on hand to assist participants. The organization has served people of all ages, background and abilities on canoe, sea kayak, horse-pack, raft, hike, dogsled and safari adventures for 35 years.

“We take well over 10,000 kids a year down the river,” Wilderness guide Casey Baustian said. “But we’ve never been on this route before.”

Baustian pointed out that the voyageur canoes were handmade by Northwest Canoe in St. Paul.

“We have 18 of the 24-foot canoes,” she said. “Each one holds 10 people. They’re like the ones French fur traders used to use. They’re made out of cedar strips, and they weigh between 150 and 300 pounds.”

As people got off the shuttle bus, Wilderness Inquiry guides handed out lifejackets and paddles to everyone. Granite Falls resident Avis Freitag and some other participants got a few chuckles along the way because of the fake mustaches they wore.

“I got it at the first theater performance,” Freitag said.

A play, written by Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord of PlaceBase Productions and performed by various actors, told the story of the Minnesota River Valley back in 1873. As people paddled down the river Saturday, they received a one-of-a-kind “Paddling Theater” experience. Historical characters emerged along the riverbanks or on shore to tell the tales in story and in song.

“I play Park Worden,” Granite Falls resident Brian Schulz said. “He’s a prominent man who helps promote Minnesota Falls. He owned the first grist mill, and he fights to get the county seat.”

Doug Bengtson of Wood Lake portrays Horace Austin, who also wants people to vote in favor of Minnesota Falls getting the county seat.

“Horace is a prominent businessman in the community,” Bengtson said. “Our purpose is to stop the people from going down and voting the wrong way.”

In Scene 2, Schulz and Bengtson bantered back and forth with Scott Tedrick (portraying Dallas) and Heather McDougall (T.P.), who were river ruffians in support of Granite Falls. Tedrick, dressed as a woman, and McDougall, dressed in a business suit, got plenty of laughs from audience members.

“The characters are interesting,” Ford said. “They do a good job.”

Though the unique theater experience was appreciated by most of the adults, the children seemed to like canoeing the best.

“I’m excited,” 4-year-old Luna Siddens said as she waited her turn to board the 10-person canoe.

Nick and Kristianna Siddens of Astoria, S.D., brought Luna and her 2-and-a-half-year-old sister Georgia with to the CURE event.

“We saw the information about the event in the paper, so we thought we’d come up,” Nick Siddens said. “We’re canoeists in South Dakota.”

Kristianna Siddens also brought her father, George Gehart of Brookings S.D., along.

“I thought it would be neat to paddle in one of the voyageur canoes,” she said. “We canoe right by our house.”

“It’s called Fish Lake,” Luna Siddens said.

Saturday also marked the first time in more than a century that experienced paddlers had the opportunity to battle Class I and II rapids along the “Historical Rapids” route. The rapids emerged after the recent removal of the 107-year-old Minnesota Falls dam.

“There are another 10-20 people who are expected to do the rapids,” Tilden said. “That’s where they took the dam out this fall. It’ll be the first time anyone has done that in 100 years.”