How to Canoe the St. Croix River in a Pandemic

Our experience was a mixed bag

In our never-ending quest to find coronavirus-friendly outdoor activities, we spent a recent Sunday canoeing the St. Croix River. In typical Instagram fashion, the idyllic scene pictured above doesn’t tell the whole story.

We reserved our canoe via Taylors Falls Canoe & Kayak, a century-old, family-owned and -operated kiosk inside Minnesota Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls. This is the busiest park we’ve visited all year. Finding a parking space was like dodging obstacles in a video game. (“Watch out for the bro with the cooler! Careful, there’s a family of nine behind you!”)

Interstate has been a regional draw since 1895. Folks flock here for camping, fishing, hiking, rock climbing, cliff diving, and ogling some of the world’s deepest glacial kettles, a.k.a. potholes. Another popular way to experience the area is paddling a canoe or kayak along the area’s towering basalt cliffs. Minnesotans and Wisconsinites throng this area in regular times, so you can imagine what a magnet it has been throughout Covid-19.

Yet as bustling as the park was, there was no line at the canoe rental. We’d reserved our boat online and paid in advance, which made pickup a breeze. While the teenage workers at Taylors Falls Canoe & Kayak were friendly enough, they mostly stood around chit-chatting with one another instead of helping guests with their rentals. No doubt, many folks who come to Taylors Falls have been boating since they were kids. But that’s not our experience nor the experience of others we saw struggling to push off. (One poor family set out backward, with grandma awkwardly straddling the thwart.)

We knew our stern from our bow at least, but the river was crowded with canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, motorboats, and paddle steamers, making navigation tricky for newbies. (Andrew Parks‘ coxswain skills also leave something to be desired.) We spent our first hour turning in circles and cursing one another.

Aside from a few dramatic rock formations, there’s not much geological variation along the 7-mile stretch between Interstate and the Osceola landing in Shafer. It’s wide-open river, flanked by trees, with very little shade. We canoed between noon and 2 p.m. but would recommend others go earlier (like 9:30/10 a.m.) or later (5/6 p.m.) and bring sunblock, sunglasses, a hat, bug spray, and water. More advanced paddlers, meanwhile, should park at William O’Brien State Park and hop the 9:30 a.m. shuttle up to Interstate, then canoe back to William O’Brien. The 17-mile trip takes between five and seven hours.

All told, we paid $46.49 for a heavy two-seater aluminum canoe with two paddles and two life jackets. (Note: If you don’t have a Minnesota State Parks permit, you’ll also pay a $7 park entry fee.) BYO padding (a stadium seat with backing would be ideal) and hand wipes, since the gear is not always sanitized in between users.

FWIW, the team behind Taylors Falls Canoe & Kayak disputes this, pointing to its Covid-19 protocol detailed online. Alas, on the afternoon we visited, the workers did not intercept returning canoes at the Interstate pickup spot; they were taken out within minutes of their arrival by new guests (including us), with zero cleaning in between. Make of that what you will.

Last tip: Pack a mask. You’ll need it when checking in at the rental kiosk and for the 10-minute shuttle bus ride from Osceola to Interstate. Face masks were required to board the bus (woo-hoo!), but only a quarter of the windows were lowered to increase air circulation. (Why not put them all down, especially on a hot summer day?) It would also be nice if guests from unrelated parties were required to sit every other row on the bus, instead of piling in behind the driver. C’est la vie.

Taylors Falls Canoe & Kayak
307 Milltown Rd., Taylors Falls, MN; 651-465-1080.