Dave Lind: Mantorville to Oxbow Park, a less traveled route

July 11, 2018

The last week in June, Robb and Kristin Welch and I decided to paddle the South Branch of the Zumbro Middle fork, from Mantorville to Oxbow Park, about 8 river miles.

It was a great day on the river as the water level and flow were perfect for an enjoyable outing.

The weather forecast was for high temps and humidity, but with a canopy of trees providing shade on the route, and with a slight breeze, the paddling outing was comfortable.

This is a great route for experienced river paddlers as the average drop is 9.8 ft/mile.

If the river level is in the medium range, there are constant high ripples and twists in the river along with ever-present tree strainers and snags that require river paddling skills to read the river and avoid the hazards.

This section of the Zumbro is narrow — about 30 to 40 feet wide but many places much narrower, and when the stream splits around an island.

Usually you can take the channel that looks like most of the water is going and be OK, but use caution as less water flow can mean hazards such as rock ledges or tree strainers, and as the river narrows there is less space to maneuver around the hazards.

Check the river flow before you go. Too high and it’s dangerous for most paddlers; too low and you will drag your canoe or kayak on the rocky river bottom.

In years past there were trips where I felt like I walked in the river lining the kayak through the shallows more than I paddled! But that was before the NOAA flood gauge was online to check the river flow. Now if the flood gauge reads above 17 feet and below 18.7 feet, it’s good for paddling.

On this trip the flood gauge was at 17.66 feet.

The shuttle route: The Minnesota DNR access at Mantorville on the north end of the Highway 57 bridge near a trailer park campground allows limited parking and access to the river bank.

The Minnesota DNR carry-in access at Oxbow Park is on County Road 105 at the first picnic shelter located on the south end of the park. From the parking area it’s about 50 yards to the river access.

The best route to shuttle cars between Oxbow Park and Mantorville is to take County Road 5, County Road 15 and Highway 57, about 7 ½ miles. Note: There are no canoe outfitters that service this route.

June thunderstorms with heavy rains were frequent in Southeast Minnesota, causing some area streams to flash up to near bank full high levels. I don’t like paddling in high water levels when the river is near bank full. For some paddlers it’s a rush to go fast down a stream, but not me.

High water in Southeastern Minnesota usually means brown, muddy water resulting from farmland runoff, and as the streams rise, the banks erode, causing trees to be washed into the river and possibly caught downstream in a tree jam, causing a dangerous paddling hazard.

In my younger days I would paddle high water and even as it was a momentary thrill, it really was somewhat boring for me in the sense that all you need to do is stay midstream to avoid tree strainers.

High water tends to wash out riffles and small rapids on the streams. I prefer to run the streams at “medium” level; that allows you to use river reading skills to find the best path through the shallow riffles and to avoid the tree strainers on the narrow branches and forks of the rivers.

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