The first Minnesota water trails summit focuses on paddle sports economic value

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St. Cloud hosted the first Minnesota Water Trails Tourism Summit at the River’s Edge Convention Center.

The two-day summit started Sept. 29, with paddlers getting ready for the ‘Experiential Day,’ which included paddling on the Mississippi River, then on Tuesday the summit offered ‘break out sessions’, and speakers for attendees to learn about the economic benefits of paddle sports.

“What this is attempting to do is to engage communities, conventional visitors and bureaus on how to promote the water trail resources in their communities and to help them develop economically…really, it’s to help push what is the best water trail system in the [United] States and to get it used more widely,” Alexander Watson, a DNR regional naturalist, said.

The second day of the summit started with breakfast, followed by keynote speaker, Natalie Warren, founder of Wild River Academy—a non-profit organization aimed to engage and educate students in communities about outdoor recreation.

Before introducing Warren, Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the DNR, stood before the attendees to speak about the mission of the DNR, and the hopes of the summit.

“Economic development, conservation and outdoor recreation are the three missions of the DNR,” Landwehr said. Educating people about the Minnesota water trail system as a driver for tourism correlates with the DNR missions, he said. By transforming the water trails into a valued resource and promoting the use of the trails for tourism and recreation can be that economic driver, he continued.

Landwehr then introduced Warren to the podium, and left her to talk about her experiences on the water trails, and her advice to the summit on how communities can utilize the water trails to help their local economy, by accommodating to paddle sports.   

Warren opened her PowerPoint presentation, and on the first slide there were pictures displaying scenes of the Mississippi River, not far from urban areas.

“You would imagine the closer you get to you get to the cities, the more urban it would get,” she said. “That’s not the case with the Mississippi River.”

By staying in close proximity to the communities and homes of the paddlers, it helps show people in the community, and surrounding communities, that trips don’t have to be in a distant place, taking up large amounts of time, she said. It can be done locally in only a few hours, she said.

“It forces us to see the impacts we have as humans on the environments,” Warren said. During these urban trips, some of their camps wound up being across or near industrialized areas, she said. It gives people a “glimpse” of where energy comes from; it shows how water is recycled and used, she said.

“Accessibility is huge,” Warren said. Paddling locally can give people of sense of safety and familiarity, since it’s close to home, she said. Warren also stated that public access to the river, such as a boat launch or a river walk, helps the town become more accommodating to through-paddlers, tourists and to the river itself.

“A river walk gives the people of the community a place to visit the river at any given time,” Warren said. It’s accessible to people of all ages, and welcomes people to the river.

During their trips, towns that had museums of the town’s history and displayed themselves as a river town made it a likely stop for paddlers, she said.

“There’s always a way to reach out to people,” Warren said. After considering these factors, you’ll see the local economy “boom,” but it will also impact the people that live in town and those that pass through, she said.  It makes for a “happier and healthier” town, she said. Warren wrapped up the speech in just under an hour, and the ‘breakout sessions’ were next up on the agenda.

The ‘breakout sessions’ offered more techniques and strategies on how to address challenges when talking about getting people engaged in paddle sports.

One barrier to water trail recreation for much of the public is seeing kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding as out-of-reach because of financial cost. When asked how communities can overcome this issue, Erik Wrede, DNR Water Trails coordinator, used the city of Winona as an example of ways communities can make paddle sports accessible to everybody.       

“The [Winona] Parks Department has free paddling at the local lake. The US Fish and Wildlife Services there organized an event called ‘The Summer of Paddling.’ Their Visitors Bureau does a good job of promoting all of that,” Wrede said. “But it all starts with free or really low cost experiences to get people interested and involved. It’s not unreachable; it’s finding how you can reach it.”

One of the greatest challenges is the polluting of the Minnesota waterways from a variety of sources, which threaten not only public engagement, but the general health of waterway ecosystems. While the summit did not focus directly on the issue of environmental conservation, summit leaders and participants believe that getting the general public on the water is essential to keeping waterways healthy.

“More recreationists, equals more advocates,” Wrede continued. “The more people you get on the water, to experience the water, the more people there are that are interested in protecting it.”

“One of the goals of the committee is to build a network of people interested in advocating for outdoor recreation on the state water trails, water stewardship and building a state-wide network,” Wrede said. He said that citizen engagement is the foundation of the DNRs plan for water stewardship.

“We [the DNR] do ‘I can programs,’ which basically teach people who’ve never done it, how to do it, Watson said. The programs have a heavy skill-building component and have proved successful in the development of safe paddlers, he said. Being that it is an entry-level program, the main goal is to bridge the gap and give the basic experience needed to engage in outdoor activities.

“DNR has been doing programs for decades,” Watson continued. “The new twist is that we’re targeting those who aren’t regular park visitors. We’re trying to go out and find people who might have an interest, but maybe aren’t sure.”

“There are so many recreational activities in our country,” he said. “We have to show them how wonderful the world is on the water, and all the nature you can see and the beauty of it all.”

“It’s not just moving the canoe through the water; it’s about engaging your curiosity in the natural world. It’s just medicine for people and it makes them feel good.” The DNR is trying to give people more of that experience and opportunity, he said.