Recently, the Aitkin County River Trails Committee of the Aitkin Area Chamber of Commerce, submitted an application to the National Mississippi River Parkway Commission to designate the Mississippi River in Aitkin County as a Great River Road Interpretive Center. We have not heard back yet if our application was approved but fingers are crossed. By being confirmed as an interpretive center, Aitkin County will be listed on the Great River Road website and be part of a network of unique places along the Mississippi from Itasca State Park to the gulf. Currently, the Forest History Center in Grand Rapids and the Lindberg House in Little Falls are the only sites in our area. Although Aitkin County lacks a single definitive site such as those, we felt collectively, Aitkin County has much to offer to Mississippi River enthusiasts and recreationalists, especially when you consider; Aitkin County has more river miles than any county in Minnesota. The Savanna Portage, the Mikwendaagoziwag Memorial, riverboat history, logging history and more are available. This does not include eight public accesses, from Jacobson to Aitkin, five campgrounds including Savanna Portage State Park and six remote campsites along the river bank. I haven’t even mentioned the great communities along the river and of course, the fishing!

The committee initially was encouraged to pick one site on the river and submit that to the Mississippi River Parkway Commission. This is essentially how it has been done. However, there are just so many ways to enjoy the Mississippi River in Aitkin County that the committee could not pick one site and really felt the entire river was in of itself a complete attraction. So we went for it, it took some convincing, but we got a letter of support from the Minnesota Great River Road Commission and as mentioned, are awaiting the decision.

The proposal gave a route through Aitkin County and starts at the Aitkin Chamber of Commerce in the historic Butler Building for information, maps and directions. While in Aitkin, visit the Aitkin County Historical Society museum which has a very impressive collection of riverboat and logging history and much more. The Aitkin County Fairgrounds with the riverboat showboat is a great stop and, of course, check out the river itself at the Aitkin County campgrounds and boat access. The Kimball state water access is approximately seven miles upstream, north of the airport, and is a great afternoon float or paddle back to the Aitkin campground. Another 11 or so miles upstream is the Hassman public access on Hwy. 169. From there, go up 169, take the Great River Road into Palisade and Berglund Park. Berglund Park has a boat access, campground and playground and the scenic old Soo Line rail bridge. We then direct folks up the Great River Road from Palisade to Jacobson, a great wildlife viewing trip, as well as the Wold Ferry Crossing boat access, the Lee Ferry access and the Verdun carry-in access. The Wold and Lee Ferry accesses are remnants from the old riverboat traffic days. Back then there were not many roads in Aitkin County, crossing the Mississippi River was a hurdle. The ferry accesses were actual ferry’s that transported people, vehicles, and buggy’s, etc., back and forth across the river, fun to imagine that in today’s world. While in Jacobson, the Jacobson Campground has a boat access and a free flowing artesian well for the best water in the county. And, if you have not, you need to check out Jacobson proper for the whimsical and creative displays, not sure what my favorite is. Jacobson is at the northern end of the tour, so from there take Hwy. 65 to the Sandy Lake Recreation Area. The rec area is where the Mikwendaagoziwag (we remember them) Memorial is. The tragic history of the site is well documented and worth looking up.  The recreation area is also where the Army Corp of Engineers help mitigate flooding in Aitkin County at the Sandy Lake Dam. Sandy Lake is a reservoir of the Mississippi River and the Sandy Lake Dam controls water going from Big Sandy and its watershed into the Mississippi. A side note is the abundance of wild rice, something that grows in only a few places in the world and Aitkin County is among the top. Last leg of the journey is Savanna Portage State Park. The Savanna Portage was the route that the early voyageurs found to go from Lake Superior to the Mississippi River which then greatly expanded their reach. As with the need to use ferry’s to get across the river, traveling by river, then the excruciating Savanna Portage just to get here from Duluth, is hard to imagine.

Ross Wagner is the Economic Development & Forest Industry Coordinator for Aitkin County, rwagner@co.aitkin.mn.us.

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