Is this the best place to skip stones in the Twin Cities? I’ll go out on a limb and say it is.
At the edge of one of the runways within the 17th busiest airport in the United States, and in the shadows of three massive highway bridges, Fort Snelling State Park is not in one of the most audibly pristine spaces in Minnesota. A little noise, however, should not dissuade you from taking the opportunity to circumnavigate an island, toss some rocks and walk along the banks of two of Minnesota’s three largest rivers while you are likely within 30 minutes of where you live.
In case you’re wondering, the three longest rivers in Minnesota are the Mississippi, the Red and the Minnesota. And the 30-minute claim is making the massive assumption you live in the Twin Cities. If you are not in the Twin Cities, know that Fort Snelling State Park is within a stone’s throw of multiple hotels, the Mall of America, and both downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.
After stopping to pay a $7 day fee, I drove a quiet road through backwaters until I got to a parking lot and trailhead at the base of the Mendota Bridge. The parking lot was busier than I thought it would be on a Tuesday afternoon, yet it only took a few steps to leave the cars and their occupants behind. After crossing a walking bridge into Pike Island, I sensed that the park was large enough to be able to disperse walkers and hikers pretty well.
SACRED DAKOTA LAND
Pike Island is named for Zebulon Pike. He acquired thousands of acres of land from the Dakota people, who had lived on the land that is now the Twin Cities for countless generations. A sign posted on the trail reads: “The island that marks the meeting of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers was originally called Wita Tanka, or Big Island, by the Dakota. Here they hunted, made maple syrup and fished near the banks of the ancient island. They also gathered to meet with other people form surrounding villages and later, with traders and soldiers.” To learn more about the importance of this land to the Dakota people I found a write-up on the Bdote Memory Map web page interesting.
As the din from the highway and occasional passenger plane blended into the background, I was walking along the bank of the Mississippi River. There wasn’t another person in sight. It was at this point that I started thinking about the millions of people living within 20 miles of where I was, yet I could only see water, sand, rocks and trees. I felt alone with my thoughts. I found myself thinking about how calm everything felt. The turbulence of the world did not reach me. I also could not help but think about how busy the city lakes and the riverbanks in downtown Minneapolis are compared to what I was experiencing. Where I was, there were no joggers, strollers or dogs on 10-inch leashes. It was just me, the water and a million rocks.
A FLAT ROCK AND CALM WATER SOOTHES THE SOUL
As a boy, I grew up throwing things – baseballs primarily – so I could not resist the chance to skip a few stones. Finding flat rocks is not difficult and, with the calm water, I was skipping stones like a pro. (As soon as I typed the previous sentence I was off to Google “professional stone skipping.” Yup, there are some folks who claim to be professionals.)
Okay, after reading about the stone skipping prowess of those who claim professional status, please allow me to redact my claim. Regardless, as the video shows, skipping stones along the banks of the Mississippi is a dang good way to spend a portion of a sunny afternoon.
If you have rambunctious kids who are itching to get out, or if you are a rambunctious kid (of any age) itching to get out, consider a date with the riverbank and a handful of rocks.
ROCKS FLY, SO DOES THE TIME
Before I knew it, after stone skipping, hiking and pausing to snap a few photos, I had been on Pike Island for just shy of two hours. In that time, I encountered six people, two of whom had dogs, and one who had a baby on his back. It felt like I had the place to myself. I didn’t have it to myself because I also felt like I was sharing the space with the hundreds, if not, thousands of people to traverse the Mendota, Highway 5 and 35E bridges every hour. They were there, I could hear and see them, but how little thought do people crossing a river at 70 miles per hour give to the space 100 feet below them? I can speak from experience: not much.
I have crossed these bridges often and had never given the space beneath a second thought. Until now. Wherever I cross a river, I will now take time to think about what lies below the tree tops I can see from the overpass.
As the fall of 2020 gives way to the winter of 2021, finding spaces like Fort Snelling State Park is going to continue to be important for me. Being in nature is important, being away from crowds is important, sunlight is important, seeing moving water is important and moving my body is important. All of these things are readily available at this state park.
I look forward to being able to explore more of the Twin Cities’ natural spaces.
This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.
Twin Cities Producer Luke Heikkila also took in the rare experience of witnessing the October 2020 drawdown of the Mississippi River, a sight that got his imagination turning.
Let’s keep rolling, shall we? Luke Heikkila is no stranger to taking in the sights of Minnesota’s famous waterways. In recent history, he ventured north to take in the experience of an angry Lake Superior swept up in a powerful gale that blew in 86-mile-an-hour gusts and sent waves upwards of 20 feet. He even captured video of the occasion.
Maxine Davis is a documentary filmmaker whose love of the outdoors has always been a source of strength and peace. In her film, Women Outward Bound, Maxine reconnects with the first females accepted into the rigorous wilderness education program. In 1965, 24 women experienced challenges and triumphs and together made history. Discover more about how the outdoors has shaped her career and her life.