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Group seeks state paddling trail on Mille Lacs

The trail would connect the communities of Wahkon, Isle, Malmo, Garrison and Vineland. Along the way, paddlers could explore numerous bays, islands, wildlife sanctuaries, state parks and undisturbed public beaches.

Kayakers paddle on the Mississippi River Saturday, Aug. 1, in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Mille Lacs Lake may soon join the list of Minnesota water bodies sporting a designated state water trail for paddlers.

Steve Dubbs, chair of the Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway Committee, offered the Crow Wing County Board an overview of the potential trail Tuesday, Sept. 15, which would circumnavigate the lake for a total of 75 miles. Dubbs said when his group hosted public hearings while organizing the push for state scenic byway designation — granted in June 2018 — a suggestion they heard frequently was a kayak trail on the lake.

“It came up often enough where it was one of those things that if you hear it a few times it’s probably a pretty good idea,” Dubbs said. “ … The feedback we got from the general public was that we should do it. Our experts said it was a no-brainer.”

Steve Dubbs addresses the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, Sept. 15, about a proposal to designate a water trail for paddlers circumnavigating Mille Lacs Lake. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins


In seeking the designation from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Dubbs said he would be requesting a letter of support from the Crow Wing County Board to show the project was a legitimate proposal backed by surrounding jurisdictions. That request is expected to appear on the board's Tuesday, Sept. 22, regular meeting agenda.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm around this project. At our first event we had over 65 paddlers,” Dubbs said. “On my way up here today I saw a couple vehicles going around with kayaks on them. Kayaking is hot, and for a minimal investment, we can offer something that’s new to tourists and to the area and maybe attract a few people to support local businesses.”

The trail would connect the communities of Wahkon, Isle, Malmo, Garrison and Vineland. Along the way, paddlers could explore numerous bays, islands, wildlife sanctuaries, state parks and undisturbed public beaches. A string of DNR water accesses provide lake access and dozens of local resorts offer overnight accommodations with the possibility of a lodge-to-lodge paddling experience, according to the group’s marketing materials. If the committee achieves its goal of designating the trail, it would join the 35 other state water trails with over 4,500 miles of paddling opportunities, including shoreline campsites.

A map shows the proposed route of a state designated-water trail intended for paddlers that if approved would circumnavigate Mille Lacs Lake. Map / Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway Committee

Dubbs said establishing the trail would require no spending or maintenance and seemed to be a good place to start to accomplish some of the committee’s goals.

“We’re just getting started and we’re trying to pick the low fruit, and the kayak thing seemed to be, one, no money, two, no maintenance, and pretty easy to execute,” he said.

Board Chairman Steve Barrows said as a sea kayaker himself, he supported the idea of establishing a trail on the lake.


“It’s a wonderful exercise, it’ll teach you how to sit in a sitting position and do a permanent situp for the rest of your life. It’s pretty stressful but it’s fun and it’s a water sport so you’re always wet, so you have to expect that,” Barrows said. “ … The kayak is a whole different world to experience on a lake.”

Barrows said he was also a cyclist and asked Dubbs about a bike trail around the lake, noting he was aware of a group that at one time was attempting to make that happen. Dubbs said that’s a popular idea as well, but a little more difficult to execute.

“In our public hearings, a bike trail around the lake was the No. 1 idea that was brought up as something the area needs,” Dubbs said. “It’s kind of difficult around the lake. There’s so many burial mounds and so many other issues that need to be addressed. It would be difficult, I’m not saying it’s impossible. … Hopefully someday, we’ll be able to tackle a bike trail around the lake.”

Attracting tourists to the Mille Lacs Lake area is a focus of the committee, which Dubbs said formed in the wake of the sudden suspension of walleye fishing in 2015. The 68-mile scenic byway is the state’s 22nd byway. The byway loops around Mille Lacs Lake and includes highways 169, 27, 18 and 47. Shakopee Lake Road, which is a county-owned road, is also part of the loop. A partial list of the route’s attractions include birding and wildlife viewing, the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Vineland, several historic Civilian Conservation Corps campsites from the 1930s and 1940s, the nation’s smallest national wildlife refuge and two state parks.

Dubbs said the organization also requested national scenic byway status and is expecting to hear whether it achieved that by November.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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