Canoeists begin 125-mile journey down the Sauk River

By Alison Dirr

Canoe enthusiasts Todd Foster and Scott Miller will pack a collapsible ladder when they leave today for their 125-mile paddle from Lake Osakis to the Mississippi River.

The pair plans to use it to scale some of the fences blocking their path down the Sauk River. According to Foster, farmers and landowners use the barriers to prevent cattle from leaving their lands.

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"Generally [land] right along the river is kind of marginal crop land because it gets muddy... so a lot of times [farmers] don't plant right up against the river but they still want to use that land so they use it as pasture for cattle," Foster said. "And if you own both sides of the river, you want your cattle to be able to get from one side of the river to the other side of the river to pasture."

However, the fences violate state statute by obstructing the public waterway. They may also create hazards for those traveling down the river.

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According to Foster, members of the Sauk River Watershed District, an organization whose goal is to "enhance and protect our natural resources" traveled the upper Sauk River two or three years ago. The group charted obstructions (LINK, if possible) in the waterway as they went.

He estimated they found 25 to 30 fences spanning the river between Lake Osakis and Sauk Center at that time.

"There's been no enforcement or no real action to try to remove these fences, so I expect most of them to still be there," he said.

In fact, they don't have far to travel before they encounter their first obstacle.

"A couple days ago I went up to Lake Osakis just to look at the river and check things out and from the road, about 100 yards after we start the trip, there's a fence," Foster said. He added that the chain link extends into the water, making it impossible to pass.

Other fences will resemble clotheslines stretched across the waterway, and still others, he said, will be electric.

"Some fences, I would imagine, that we're going to be able to push the strands of the fencing up with our paddle and try to sneak underneath it with the canoe," he said. "[With] the first fence I was looking at just a couple days ago that's not possible so we will have to get out and portage around that."

This presents another potential problem, however, because they will be trespassing on private land. Foster said he hopes landowners will be understanding considering their fences force canoeists to find an alternate route.

He expects most will allow them to pass, although he has not contacted any landowners along the Sauk River in advance. He has, however, alerted law enforcement and the Department of Natural Resources in case a conflict should arise.

But although he recognizes this possibility, Foster said he wants to stress that he has no problem with farmers themselves.

"We're not anti-farming or whatever," he said. "We understand that for decades and decades this has been the practice with the fencing issue, but moving forward we need to find a solution that can kind of work for everybody."

MN Today will continue to track the progress of duo as they make their way down the Sauk this week.