Video: the future of the Ames Mill Dam may include a kayak park

This is a video of the second half-hour of Councilor Jon Denison’s Ward 4 meeting at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Saturday morning. At-large Councilor Noah Cashman also participated. This segment is entirely about the plans for the Ames Mill Dam, with a report on the latest developments by Dave Hvistendahl.


I blogged about tearing down the Ames Mill Dam back in August and there was some discussion of how a this area of the river might be suitable for recreational/competitive kayaking, similar to the kayak/canoe park that exists downtown Wausau Wisconsin and the whitewater park planned for the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.

Watch the video, as planning has progressed considerably since then. Photos below are of downtown Wausau.

wausau-whitewater urban-kayaking



  1. I wasn’t able to attend the meeting yesterday, but I just finished viewing the video discussion of the possible Ames Mill Kayak/Canoe Park, and I LOVE this idea!

    One historical note: I certainly can’t speak for the Cannon River Watershed Partnership (I think my membership has lapsed–I’ll have to remedy that…), but back in the mid-’90s, Chris Robbins, who was then the CRWP’s river advocate (or some such title), approached me, as a kindred tree-hugging, neo-Luddite, clearly-out-of-the-mainstream kind of guy, about writing an opinion piece for the Northfield News advocating the removal of the Ames Mill Dam and returning the “Riviere aux Canots” (“River of Canoes, as French fur traders called it — see to its pre-white-settlement condition. I happily complied.

    I believe I wrote this piece with a piece of charcoal on parchment, but I’ll see if I can find a copy. If I do, and it’s not embarrassingly poorly written, I’ll pass on an electronic facsimile here.

    My two cents worth on the current proposal: I think it would be wonderful if it was possible to have one challenging, boulder-strewn chute for psycho-extreme-adventure-seekers, and one less-challenging, but still adrenaline-inducing chute for folks like me who love to canoe and can handle a wee bit of whitewater but aren’t up to Category V rapids. I think MANY people would love to be able to canoe/kayak through the heart of Northfield without portaging, not just the dudes and dudettes who would flock to an Olympic-caliber whitewater park. I daresay we might even be willing to pay a few tax dollars (or a fee) to do so.

    PS To Dr. Hvisty and others working on this: I’d happily get involved if you need any volunteer foot soldiers to help make this happen. I can be reached at

    January 20, 2008
  2. Ross Currier said:

    For a closer to home, and more urban, example, check out Owatonna.

    January 20, 2008
  3. I’m very excited to think of the possibilities of the new stepped structure that will facilitate recreational (human) and natural (fish) uses.

    One thing I am concerned about is how emergency personnel get to someone who is in trouble on the rapids since they dump into a man-made, straight-walled canyon of sorts once you hit the mill.

    Has emergency access been addressed? Dave Hvistendahl mentioned something about steps to allow kayakers and canoeists to walk back to the top of the rapids, would that facilitate emergency access as well?

    Not that I’m paranoid about danger, but it would be tragic to have someone drown because people couldn’t get to him or her to help.

    January 20, 2008
  4. Greg Sumner said:

    I also am so excited to hear of a Whitewater park! I grew up canoing down the Cannon here as a child and in my college years got into whitewater paddling. There is a large group of people in the Twin Cities that drive over 2 -3 hours away on a weekend to paddle at Sandstone, Duluth or over to Wasau wi. There just isn’t much near the cities to paddle in. If there were a whitewater park as convenient as Northfield I am certain they would flock here. And with the resources that have been pulled together for the Mississippi Whitewater Park project, I would not see it as very hard to get plenty of skilled people to help or groups to assist with this project. Here is a link to their project that they have been working on for over 10 years.

    A link to help you visualize what people could enjoy from downtown while visiting our town as well as provide a great recreational opportunity for our youth and others.
    Nice overall view of the park – little crazy background music
    Here is the Wausau Park website

    I too agree that it would be great to have a side that would allow recreational paddlers to paddle on through the dam without too much trouble. It is practically impossible to portage this dam without a lot of trouble and walking through busy intersections. This could only add to bringing more people to Northfield. Imagine being able to canoe from Faribault to Cannon Falls by staying overnight in downtown Northfield! It would assist with the whole Mill Town Trails concept that is similar to what is already on the Cannon from Cannon Falls to Red Wing. Currently, I don’t know of many people that ever canoe through Northfield. It is either starting here or stopping here because of the dam. But what a fun trip it would be to start upstream from Northfield and then stop in Northfield for lunch and then finish downstream.

    If there is a group gathering to make this happen I would be more than happy to help out with what I can.

    Thanks for getting this at least considered!

    January 20, 2008
  5. Ross Currier said:

    Griff –

    The consultant just mentioned Owatonna, he didn’t provide a website. Maybe you could take it up with him.

    Brendon –

    The consultant referred to our current dam design as the “drowning machine”. My impression from the presentation was that the new design will be both less dangerous and more accessible.

    January 20, 2008
  6. John S. Thomas said:

    I was just down in Owatonna Friday evening.

    They impose a 3% city lodging tax, but they also have an outstanding tourist bureau, a great tourism website, downtown maps, signage, information, and anything else you would need if you were to visit there.

    Owatonna is not all that much bigger than Northfield in many regards.

    My question to the NDDC, and the chamber, as well as others. Why can’t we get this done, and get some real movement and positive public relations in our community?

    January 21, 2008
  7. Ross Currier said:

    John –

    I won’t speak for the Chamber of Commerce or the Convention and Visitors Bureau. However, I will say that Northfield indeed does have a lodging tax, ask you if you’ve checked out, offer you a downtown directory ( and ask you to compare it to the Owatonna version), inquire as to your views on the test model signage (, and finally ask you to be a little more specific on what you believe are the keys for us to”get this done, and get some real movement and positive public relations in our community?”

    Thanks much,


    January 21, 2008
  8. John S. Thomas said:

    Well, in some ways… this would be my point.

    I have been a resident since 2001, and did not know this site existed. If even the residents do not know about it (and I consider myself quite web savy), then there is an issue of promotion.

    I guess I could have Googled. I just did, and that link came up TENTH when searching for “Northfield MN”. That is probably why I missed it.

    Searching on “Owatonna MN”, gets the page listed as #3.

    I would also make the recommendation that the City modify its site slightly, so that visiting Northfield stands out more, and is not hidden under about Northfield.

    I also did not know that the map you sent existed. It is a very good map, and rivals the Owatonna map, however… how do folks find it?

    Tourists need ease of use. 😎

    I am also a strong advocate, that if the Liquor store does move, that the parking lot be expanded into the 5th and Water project, and that the old store be transitioned into a STAFFED Northfield tourism and visitors bureau. Its location is ideal at the main entry, close to bridge square and DJJD type events, as well as centrally located and easy to find in our community.

    WIth the trailhead and other great things coming right through that area, I really feel that we have a GREAT oppurtunity to do some awesome things to promote Northfield.

    Just my $0.02. I am all for what has already been done, but I would like to see every resident be informed, know where this information is, and be an ambassador for Northfield.

    I have bookmarked your links, and will spread the word.

    Thanks Ross!


    January 21, 2008
  9. Anne Bretts said:

    John, wouldn’t it make sense to work with a few businesses to have their staffs trained to offer tourism and city info, and keep the highway tourism/chamber office we have now and get a taxpaying business in the liquor store?
    I could see the Library, the Archer House, Blue Monday and the other coffee houses, Perkins and Applebees all being great ‘first contact’ spots. The staffs wouldn’t even have to know all the details. They could have maps and the phone number for the tourism office and just call in to ask specific questions for visitors. Giving all the hotel/coffeehouse managers tours of the city and some encouragement on a regular basis could create a strong and effective network rather than just a single office with limited staff in a location that might or might not be visible. Tourism ‘experts’ — people from any business — who have had some fun training might wear ‘ask me’ buttons to let people know everyone here is a booster.

    January 21, 2008
  10. I was out at Stanton Airfield volunteering this summer and we had a group of kayakers come through and told us they were moving down the cannon river thru northfield and portaging, I don’t remember the details, but it leads me to
    wonder how much river traffic do we already have that we don’t really count?

    January 21, 2008
  11. BruceWMorlan said:

    I presume that whoever is considering this is paying attention to the upstream impact of removing the dam. If removing the back pressure effect of the dam results in rapid but shallow water then have we really gained anything? I’d like some assurances that we actually keep a “navigable” waterway upstream. Or is it sufficient that people be able to launch from just upstream of the current dam and float on down to Cannon Falls?

    January 21, 2008
  12. I’ve added a blog post on my website ( that includes one more minor wrinkle on the discussion above: the possibility of including a run-of-the-river microturbine to the dam conversion to generate a small, symbolic amount of electricity.

    I’ve also included a photo of a toothy five-pound northern I caught at the base of the dam in the summer of 1968. These guys could range further upstream with the proposed dam conversion.

    January 21, 2008
  13. Jerry Bilek said:


    that’s a great looking fish. Let your bangs grow out and dangle in in your face and you’ll look 10 again. What kid didn’t have a zebco 202. I used mine to catch crappies in atlas pit.

    January 21, 2008
  14. Christine Stanton said:

    I just came back from vacation and am excited to see this conversation picking up again. Kayaks are great, but let’s not forget about canoes. I still think about the possibility of a “Northfield Outfitters.” It would be great to have the Chamber next door or even in the same building. If the outfitters offered transportation upstream and pick-up downstream, canoers (sp?) and kayakers would begin and end in Northfield. We would not have to worry about them just “traveling through.” The west side of the Second Street Bridge still seems like a great location, with or without dam reconstruction.

    The one concern I have heard about reconstructing the dam is the possible impact water levels would have on downtown structures. Does anyone know if this is still a concern?

    January 22, 2008
  15. Larry DeBoer said:

    It is great to be excited about a new Cannon River Dam and limestone waterfall feaure,but remember that 52 homes in Hope, MN still dump their raw sewage with every flush into the Straight River, which dumps directly into the Cannon, which passes through Northfield. Someone needs to address this fecal bacteria before we think about frolicking in the Cannon in Downtown Northfield.

    January 22, 2008
  16. John S. Thomas said:


    Why not the old liquor store, right by the park with ample new parking?


    January 22, 2008
  17. I agree with the positive comments, and would add one additional item that was only briefly mentioned. There is no reasonable portage for those who might choose to use one. Carrying canoes, kayaks and gear through the city streets, or down the sidewalks and stairs is awkward at best. And there is no clear and consistently reasonable location to launch boats below the falls/rapids. If we are going to more readily attract boaters, this will be an essential element of the new venue.

    Who is interested? What existing organization might best be suited to address this issue? Do we need yet another organization to take on this opportunity? (I hope not)

    January 23, 2008
  18. Anne Bretts said:

    Perhaps the safety center (or a new building on that site) would make a good outfitting place, with room to store canoes and kayaks, space to sell gear, parking and a visible location. It also could offer the visitors’ center and public restrooms/secure parking for bicyclists.
    I think it would be hard to make the liquor store site work, given the amount of space/parking needed. But I really like the idea of people thinking about lots of options.
    One thing to keep in mind when talking about a visitors’ center, or any other project, is that it’s fine to talk about where local people might want it to be, but the key is to find locations that work best to draw customers. We might think the liquor store spot would be a good visitors’ center, but what’s the best spot for catching the attention — and money — of visitors?

    January 23, 2008
  19. Griff Wigley said:

    Dave Hvistendahl will be our guest on today’s Locally Grown podcast, live at 5:30pm on KYMN 1080 am.

    January 23, 2008
  20. I love the waterfall, but it’s hard to listen to music right next to it.

    As for how to get anything going in this or any town, you have to
    be willing to give addresses of places, let up on the idea that all
    know what you are talking about when you are talking in letters
    and not words, be willing to change your normal meeting site
    in favor of what others are able to navigate, AND how about
    inviting more seniors with experience and know how to meeting
    meetings. Our living ancestors should be honored in this way
    every day., with special accommodations, special invitations
    and special treatment at the meetings.

    Since we have moved here, the only ones that have really reached
    out to us and treated us like real people and not just possible customers,
    are the elderly of this town. They have been very refreshing to socialize
    with, full of useful information and wise words, and willing to share all they have…within reason, of course. They are Northfield’s greatest asset imho.

    January 24, 2008
  21. After listening to the podcast…I am more in favor of getting rid of the dam, as long as what replaced it looked very natural. Now, I have question to those of you that have been involved for a longer than I have…I have heard rumors that the original dam is underneath the dam that is there now. Is that true?

    January 24, 2008
  22. Ross Currier said:

    Hayes –

    Last night, I was imagining the Cannon River area from the 5th Street Bridge to the 4th Street Bridge…a cleaned up river bank, enhanced Riverwalk, and Ray Jacobson’s “Harvest” sculpture on the east side, and perhaps a new Skatepark, enhanced Ames Park, and maybe a kayak launch on the west side…with safe but stimulating stretch of navigable whitewater in between.

    – Ross

    January 24, 2008
  23. Ross,

    That is a beautiful vision. After sitting through some Streetscape meeting I can almost share your vision. I am just worried about the historical significance for the dam. Especially if the original dam is under the one that is there now.

    I am in agreement the dam needs to go it is just really sad for me… 🙁

    January 24, 2008
  24. Ross Currier said:

    Hayes –

    Maybe some creative architect can “ghost it in” at the current location.

    – Ross

    January 24, 2008
  25. Griff Wigley said:

    Here’s Dave Hvistendahl’s summary email that he sent to Malt-O-Meal, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, City of Northfield, Northfield Downtown Development Corporation, and the Cannon River Watershed Partnership:

    Transmitted herewith is an outline of the legal analysis of the efficacy of transferring the dam to a non-profit corporation, then leasing the recreational facility to the City of Northfield.

    The replacement of Ames Mill dam, owned by Malt-O-Meal Company (MOM), offers a once in a life time opportunity to improve the quality of the Cannon River for canoes and Kayaks, while removing an impediment to fish migration.  Malt-O-Meal has indicated a willingness to explore the possibility of adding canoe and kayak chutes to the new dam structure, provided that Malt-O-Meal can transfer the dam to a non-profit agency, and thereby avoid the liabilities inherent in ownership, and accomplish it at a reasonable cost.  The DNR, however, will require MOM to continue to pay for the maintenance of the replacement structure to DNR standards.

    The logical group to serve as dam owner would be the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation (NDDC).  By this email I request that they schedule a board meeting to consider the proposal.

    The new structure cannot substantially reduce the water level of the impoundment area, due to the possibility that the reduced level might cause subsistence in buildings upstream.  A reduction in water level of a foot or two may be possible,which would narrow the channel upstream.

    The initial proposal by Barr Engineering was deficient in a number of aspects.  The basic plan was to tier or step down from the existing dam, which would have increased high water levels against Malt-O-Meal, Froggy Bottoms River Pub, and other buildings along the river, as well as reduce the maximum flowage under the Mn DOT’s 4th Street Bridge.  (The 4th Street Bridge has its own original 1930’s superstructure).  It is unlikely that MN DOT would have approved  plan that increased stress on the bridge.   Barr Engineering’s design did not receive a good reception in the city because the structure did not approximate natural rapids. Many people objected to the uniformity of the structure, based upon reviews of other dam replacements done by Barr Engineering.

    A number of cities from Ohio to Colorado have created tourist magnets by creating white water runs in old millstreams.  The major project in Minnesota which has been crawling along for a number of years is the St. Anthony Falls project in Minneapolis.  The consulting engineer for the project has been the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group (   I spoke with Risa Shimoda, strategic planner with McLaughlin Whitewater, who said that they had a good working relationship with the DNR, and that they have worked as both primary and consulting engineers on such projects.  If Barr has not designed a whitewater structure, MOM might find it advantageous to use McLaughlin in some capacity.

    The main costs for the City of Northfield would be to construct a walkway or stairs as part of its Bridge Square river wall reconstruction that would allow paddlers to portage upstream at river level to repeat the run.  The construction of a weir near the Second Street bridge could raise the level of the water one foot below the dam structure to improve the aesthetics and navigability of the two block stretch during July and August.  Andrew Berglund of Northfield designed a self-cleaning concrete weir in the 1980’s for use in the river.  The advantage of Berglund’s design is that it is simple and easily replicated, using wood forms. (We will forward a copy to the DNR and the Northfield City Engineer.) The city would also be responsible for maintaining the boat landings and warning signs.

    Time is of the essence, since MOM would like to start the project this spring.  I have therefore opted for a blanket email to the main parties involved to expedite the discussion.

    I must add the disclaimer that the law firm of Hvistendahl, Moersch & Dorsey is not representing any of the potential participants in this project.  We have initiated this communication in the public interest and for the long term benefit of downtown Northfield.  Each party should consult with its own legal counsel in determining its responsibilities and liabilities, as well as the wording of any final agreement.


    January 25, 2008
  26. Griff Wigley said:

    So how polluted is the Cannon River as it flows through Northfield?

    Tracy’s blog post last August titled Cannon River Pollution Control kicked off some discussion but now we have a compelling reason to worry, ie, the fecal bacteria that Larry mentioned above. Or are kayakers not worried about such things?

    January 25, 2008
  27. Chris Ash said:

    My wife and I would LOVE to see a whitewater park in town. What a great idea! Please let me know if there is anything we can do..

    Chris Ash

    January 27, 2008
  28. Griff Wigley said:

    Suzy Rook has a story in today’s Nfld News titled Dam work delayed as state funds sought.

    Plans to rework the Malt-O-Meal dam were put on hold this week, allowing the company to seek state funding for the project. Harry Anderson, a senior project manager for the cereal manufacturer, said the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources approached the company recently, suggesting it could help pay for the reconstruction. Coordinating with the state’s budget cycle, Anderson said, means the project won’t begin until 2009 at the earliest.­

    February 2, 2008
  29. Ross Currier said:

    Hey Griff –

    Maybe we could get David Hvistendahl to weigh in on this latest news. I ran into him yesterday at GBM and he’d heard of several potential sources of financing for different aspects of this complicated but exciting project.

    – Ross

    February 2, 2008
  30. I think the local whitewater paddling community would be overjoyed if Northfield were to create a whitewater park. I guarantee that you will receive support from the local whitewater paddling club (

    Here is a link for info on some other communities that have successfully created whitewater play parks.

    Mike J

    May 29, 2008
  31. I think the local whitewater paddling community would be overjoyed if Northfield were to create a whitewater park. I guarantee that you will receive support from the local whitewater paddling club (

    Here is a link for info on some other communities that have successfully created whitewater play parks.

    Mike J

    May 29, 2008
  32. Matt Ryan said:

    I think it’s a great idea… I would use it all the time (I work at Carleton.)

    Another plus… it would be good for downtown businesses, as it would bring a bunch of people into downtown Northfield from the twin cities metro — plus, it would be an enjoyable spectator spot for festivals.

    There are definitely ways to accommodate both downriver canoeists and whitewater kayakers, either by offering a smoothwater channel that would run alongside the whitewater park or by putting in a nice portage (actually, a whitewater park would need put-in/take-out spots both above and below the drop, and a path between the two… which would be beneficial for all users of the river.)

    Regarding safety, the consultant is absolutely correct: the current dam is a perfect drowning machine. You’ve probably seen the whole trees that get stuck in it from time to time, tumbling around… there’s no way a person could get out of it! Man-made whitewater parks are many orders of magnitude less dangerous than the current dam.

    After a bit of poking through the difficult-to-use mnpca site, it looks like the Cannon is typically a bit better water quality than the Vermillion in Hastings, which is a popular local kayaking spot.

    June 2, 2008
  33. john george said:

    The one inconsistent ingredient in a “whitewater park” concept is the water. It would be interesting to compair the GPS flow of rivers with whitewater parks and the Cannon River. Right now, with the rains, there is quite a bit of flow, but if my memory serves me correctly, there are quite a few days out of the open water season where there are only a couple inches of water going over the dam.

    Matt- Concerning the portage connecting the access points, where would you suggest putting it? It seems to me that the only area would be the river walk on the east side of the river. In my opinion, to use that area would really take away from the downtown attraction. Or, are you suggesting narrowing the channel to accomodate a path? Just wonder what your thoughts are.

    June 2, 2008
  34. With regards to adequacy of flow volume of the Cannon river, a query of the USGS website querying monthly mean flows from 1990-2007 show that the flow rate in cubic feet per second in the CANNON RIVER AT WELCH is:
    Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
    397 463 1,130 2,100 1,460 1,740 1,110 870 770 699 674 528

    If we guess that the flow in Northfield would probably be about 200-300cfs less than at Welch, and that the prime months for use might be May-Oct, we have :
    May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct
    1,160 1,440 810 570 470 399 cfs

    Even at the low end of the flow, this is a respectable amount of water for the creation of play features in a whitewater park. For a good local comparison, the Vermilion river in Hastings MN has natural features which create beautiful (and very fun) play features at flows above 150cfs.
    Another god comparison would be the play park in Salida Co, which has the following flows:
    May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct
    975 1,860 1,140 684 370 345

    A competent engineer should be able to tailor the features in the park to whatever natural flow levels you’d care to stipulate.

    June 2, 2008
  35. Matt Ryan said:

    John, I like your idea re: the siting of the portage. I had not thought of using space already in the river channel to place the walkway, but that could be the simplest solution. I imagine that a whitewater channel would be somewhat narrower than the current channel, so that could leave space for a path.

    The portage idea that first jumped to mind for me would be to build stairs into the river off of the east river walk, but the drawback to that is that it would require canoeists and kayakers to walk across the Water St., and could potentially impinge on the river walk. Ideally we’d be able to build the stairs entirely in the channel, keeping the river walk pretty much how it is now… I’m not sure about how feasible that would be, though.

    June 3, 2008
  36. john george said:

    Chris Israel has a good post in the other stream (what a great pun!) on the Ames Mill Dam concerning the silt that has settled behind the dam. I was talking to another friend a couple weeks ago, and he brought up the same subject. Perhaps people down stream will experience a lot of brown water before we can have a white water section in town. I think it is a valid concern, though. I suppose much of it could be dredged out, but I have no idea what this would add to the cost.

    June 5, 2008
  37. Jerry Bilek said:

    This was discussed at the NDDC forum. The Prof from St. Olaf studied this issued with other dam removals and generally it is only a very short term problem(few days). She did say the DNR could test the silt levels before the dam was removed.

    June 6, 2008
  38. Patrick Enders said:

    Is it just my faulty memory, or have the divets in the downstream side of the dam gotten bitgger in the last year or so?

    March 11, 2012

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