Friday, July 17, 2009

Houston Nature Center and Canoeing the Root River

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Now before you all get excited about the new attraction in Houston, let me just clarify – I’m talking Houston, MN (as in Hugh-ston) not Houston, Tx (as in Yew-ston). But regardless of how you pronounce it, the Houston Nature Center and surrounding area is a wonderful place to explore. I had the delightful opportunity of spending some time in the area recently, when my long-time friend and Adventure Buddy Mary asked me to join her for a weekend of canoeing on the Root River. Our plan was to paddle halfway between Houston and Hokah the first day, camping overnight at the Mound Prairie campsite on the river, taking out in Hokah the second day. So we shuttled our vehicles to the take-out and then up to the drop-off point, stopping at the Houston Nature Center for a map and directions to the parking area and put-in location.
Alice the Great Horned Owl Karla Kinstler and Alice, a 12-year old Great Horned Owl greeted us upon our entry into the nature center building, which houses a variety of owl-related gift items in addition to being a hub of nature programs that cover a variety of topics. Karla was friendly and helpful in getting us the information for our canoe outing, and we were soon on our way. After parking a vehicle at the Hokah landing, we made our way back up to Houston and unloaded at what appears to be a large sand pit on the edge of the river. We were warned by Karla not to park too close to the dredging machinery. We didn’t ask more about what that entailed, but we did try to park well to the side. When we walked down to the sandy landing, we noticed right away that there was nothing solid to launch from – no dock, no cement strips, just a bunch of mud and sand, enough sticky mud to suck the Keens right off my feet.

mud-luscious For as long as I can remember, certainly my entire adult life, I have detested the feeling of muddy, dirty, or sticky things. I can remember dreading the carving of the pumpkin each October, as I hated reaching my hands into the slime and pulling out strings of mucky seeds. I still do, come to think of it, but now I use a big spoon instead. So it was a bit of a stretch for me to take off my shoes and “walk the muck” to the landing, but somehow we got the canoe and all of the gear loaded and soon I was crawling out over our packs to the bow of the canoe, where I would take up my paddle, as Mary pushed us off from the shoreline. The current was quick, but there were few hazards to beware of, and no rapids. After paddling languidly for awhile, I decided to turn around so I could see and chat with Mary easier. The current was strong enough to carry us along just fine without paddling, so we indulged in quite a bit of chit chat and just floated along. Sometimes sideways, sometimes backwards, but always flowing down the river in the right direction. The day was absolutely beautiful. Driving into town the previous night I had heard predictions of rain all day. Well, I was certainly happy the forecast was wrong this time – blue skies, fluffy clouds and sunshine as far as the eye could see. We laughed and chatted and dangled our toes in the cool water and ate a lunch of homemade hummus, crackers, tomatoes, sprouts, gorp (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts… with a few extras) and of course, chocolate. No outdoor adventure is ever complete without chocolate!

Mile after mile of lush green shoreline passed us by on either side. We never saw another boat or any houses. We only saw 3 humans total, the entire trip, at a private campsite on the bank. Previously our adventures had taken us much farther north to escape the traces of humankind, into the reaches of the BWCA and the Superior Hiking Trail. We were both amazed at the seemingly wilderness experience so much closer to home. Mooo Are Yooouuu? There were other living beings along the river that day however. Cows. Lots of cows. They would see us coming quite a distance away and start moo-ing. We heard them before we saw them, and I always had to smile when I saw another group of them. Some were lounging, some grazing, all seemed curious by our presence on the river. One herd, the largest in number, started running away from the river, many cows moo-ing very loudly. We were perplexed – were we really so scary? One cow seemed especially loud... and then we saw two young calves running out of the woods, down the trail towards the rest of the retreating herd, and she stopped calling. Oh, so not so different than us humans calling to our errant kids to get out of the woods and come home, I thought.

Antler impression in the bridge Up ahead a bridge crossed the river, and Mary realized we must have passed our campsite. So soon? It seemed we had just begun paddling. If we had covered that much ground, I mean river, that fast, that meant we must have been paddling about, well, about 4 miles/hour! Wow. For floating along and chitchatting, not really paddling much at all, we were traveling faster than I normally do in my ultralight kayak! If that really was the bridge at the Mound Prairie take-out, then we had already missed our campsite by a mile, which meant turning the boat around and heading straight back up stream. We decided we would have to try. We did want to stay on the river that night, and that was the only campsite between us and our take-out point. So, upstream we went. And we paddled. And paddled. And seemed to make very little headway against that current. Our arms, relaxed from our leisurely afternoon of floating, were certainly getting a workout now. It took about 30 minutes to reach our destination, when we finally spotted the sign we had missed on the bank on the way past the first time. There was a fallen log at the shoreline that we pulled up next to, a place to hold onto in the rushing current. We decided I would get out and go up the bank (all mud and weeds) to take a look at the camp site. Deciding was the easy part. Finding mud stable enough to support me was the hard part.

Are we there yet? With the help of my canoe paddle, I finally navigated the steep muddy slope up to the top, about 10+ feet nearly vertical from the water level. I walked around looking for any sign of a campsite. I’ve been visiting remote campsites in the BWCA since my teen years, so I am no stranger to the sight of a campfire ring and a Ranger Box. I saw signs of neither. I headed deeper into the woods. Old cowpies littered the grassy areas. I spotted a structure of 2x4’s, possibly the old legs of what should have been a picnic table, rotting away on the forest floor. Ditto for the ranger box, which looked like it hadn’t been used (nor would I would have wanted to try it) for a decade. The fire ring was covered in fallen down trees. It was clear this site had not been maintained or used for a very very long time. I went back to the bank to give Mary the bad news. hitchhiker There was nothing to do but paddle the rest of the way, to the take-out, and go back to the Houston Nature Center and check out their walk-in tent sites. I noticed when I was getting out that a large frog had jumped into the boat, as if to say, “Take me away from here too!” After paddling downstream a ways, the frog reappeared from the bottom of the canoe and rested on my Duluth Pack, seeming to enjoy the view. We paddled to the bank and let him off. Hopefully his new location will suit him better. HNC Tent/picnic area Once off the water and loaded up, we headed back into Houston. The walk-in sites (a mere $10/night – with a very nice real bathroom & showers!) it turned out were ours for the picking, with not another soul in sight in the entire place. We selected the site furthest away from the nature center, at the back corner of the clearing, not far from a cattail encircled pond where scads of frogs and red-wing-blackbirds sang out cheerfully as we prepared our dinner and set up camp. Mary's tent We were both pretty tired after dinner and headed into the tent before dark. As we lay awake with nothing but screen between us and the sky, frogs continued their lullaby and fireflies started dancing across the open grass. I fell asleep quickly and slept soundly all night. Morning fog When I awoke, I had no idea what time it was. Birds were singing and the light still seemed like early morning, sometime around 7-ish, so I got up as quietly as possible and went for a walk. Fog hung low along the edge of the hills. Dew still rested on the leaves of the wildflowers and wild grasses along the paved bike path. Coneflowers were just getting ready to unfurl their petals, while earlier-blooming white campion and sweet clover bloomed profusely.

Metal Sculptures While wandering, I also took the opportunity to meander amidst the metal sculptures of the park. Old bikes and other metal scraps had been transformed into people, animals and even swings. After my walk it was time for breakfast and then packing up our camping gear and heading home, by way of Mary’s family’s cabin first for a picnic lunch. We discussed where to place her new (reclaimed) claw foot tub (outside, somewhere that could be filled using the electric pump, with a view of the west), checked out how the newly planted garden was growing, ate another great meal, outside on the picnic table Mary’s dad and friends had made, and tested out the hammock, basically procrastinating as long as possible before getting back in the car for the 3-4 hour drive home. Mary and I both agreed – for family-centered outdoor enjoyment, Houston and the Root River and surrounding areas are going down on our list of favorite places to visit and play, even if you have to tolerate a little mud between the toes to get there.

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