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The Largest American Tributary to the Great Lakes is On the Mend

Minnesota Whitewater Rafting

Leo Tolstoy opened his epic tale Anna Karenina with this powerful observation: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same could probably be said about rivers. Happy rivers are healthy, clean, teeming with fish and fowl, abundant with life, responsive to the seasons and beautiful to behold. Unhappy rivers become joyless sewers. Some, like the Cuyahoga River, in Cleveland, have even required fire departments. This is the story of our Northland river, the St. Louis.

The St. Louis River originates as part of a rare triple watershed north of Two Harbors, Minnesota. There are only a handful of triple watersheds in North America. Raindrops falling a hundred yards from one another can flow to destinations as far removed as the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean. The 194-mile St. Louis River flows into the largest freshwater lake in the world— Lake Superior—from there channeling through the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence Seaway and on to the Atlantic.

For centuries, the St. Louis River served as a habitat for wildlife and a waterway for the resident native peoples who were conscientious caretakers of its waters. It was a happy, productive river. This changed with the influx of European settlers and the advent of an industrial era that harvested the region’s rich iron deposits and generous abundance of timber.

Politicians, desirous to capitalize on all the wealth being generated by mining ore, pressured U.S. Steel to build a plant along the St. Louis River Estuary on the western edge of Duluth. Jobs were created and the city’s population grew, but there were unintended consequences. Decades of toxic runoff from the steel mill, paper mills upstream and other industrial projects damaged the ecology of a river which had also become a dumping ground for wastewater plants.

Over the course of a century, what had once been the region’s most striking feature evolved into perhaps its greatest shame. Northlanders eventually realized they had to reverse this legacy. In response, over the past 30 years there has been a significant investment toward cleaning up and restoring the river and adjacent nature habitats. The restoration of this 12,000-acre estuary has been one of the largest environmental projects in Minnesota’s history and a remarkable achievement that is enjoyed by both residents and visitors alike.

The region, especially famous for its forests, trails, lakes, rivers and topography, is again a destination for fishing, swimming, kayaking, canoeing and whitewater rafting. The natural beauty perpetually inspires outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes as well as writers, poets and artists.

There is still more work to be done and many remain concerned about the future of the river. But for now, it is healthier and happier than it has been in a long time. Its future is in our hands.

Chris LaFleur is an owner and guide with Minnesota Whitewater Rafting, located on the St. Louis River, in Scanlon, 20 minutes southwest of Duluth. He spent most of his formative years exploring the region and its rivers as well as the BWCAW. LaFleur has developed a deep appreciation of ecosystems and ecology as well as the need to protect these areas for future generations. He and his wife Stephanie are now serial entrepreneurs in "fun" and "adventure" pursuits. For more information, visit

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