Little Lanesboro, and the river that runs through it

Much of the allure of little Lanesboro, Minn. – 50 miles west of La Crosse – is about the river that runs through it.

Root River is known for quality fishing, and the South Branch (starting at Forestville State Park) ranks among the nation’s 100 top trout streams. Between the park and Lanesboro is Preston, population 1,324 and home to the National Trout Center.

The 60-mile Root River State Trail – pretty, peaceful and paved for bicycling and walking – follows much of the river from Preston to Houston, population 987 and home to the International Owl Center.

Minnesotans who appreciate nature and small-town charm have long found their way to the area, and Lanesboro, population 754, is the tidy, hospitable, tourist-friendly and early-to-bed hub.

I’d add safe and relaxing, too, except for our unfortunate experience along the Root River during the only overnight getaway that my guy and I risked taking during this pandemic year.

Kayaks, canoes and inflatable tubes drift past riverside farmland, woods and bluffs near Lanesboro. Outfitter prices include shuttle service between one navigable part of the waterway and another.

“The river has gentle to moderate flow with a few riffles” but no major rapids, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources says online. Staff at Root River Outfitters described the river level as low, an average of two feet instead of four for our stretch of it, with pockets up to 12 feet deep.

On an otherwise perfect summer day, we rented a canoe to traverse seven miles, Lanesboro to Whalen, the shorter of two route choices. I pictured a lazy two or three hours afloat, listening to nothing but birds and our own voices, absorbing the scenery and spotting wildlife between a gentle paddle here and there.

What I brought home was a strong memory that wasn’t pretty: my first experience with a capsized canoe. It happened when we needed to decide whether to veer left or right, to get around a mid-river clump of land.

We paddled left and guess we chose wrong. What happened next happened mysteriously and quickly, seconds after we navigated through ripples way too small to be classified as rapids. We hadn’t been rocking the boat, and we didn’t bang into anything before landing in shoulder-deep water.

A couple of times before that, we got stuck in shallow water, once ending with water in the canoe as we tried freeing ourselves. I’m not much of a swimmer and even more of a novice when in a canoe, but this wasn’t my first paddle.

By the time we got to our endpoint, I was too rattled to stop for a from-scratch slice at Aroma Pie Shoppe, the must-stop reward for anybody who makes it to Whalen, be it by water, foot, bike or auto.

Back home, a neighbor asked if we had taken any summer trips. “Just Lanesboro for a couple of nights,” I replied, which drew an odd look.

“We were there a couple of years ago – what did you do?”

“In a canoe for part of a day.”

“We took out kayaks, and there was a point where we needed to decide whether to go left or right around a little island …”

They split, and guess what happened to the kayak that veered left?

Lanesboro bills itself as Minnesota’s Bed and Breakfast Capital (there are at least eight). We stayed at Habberstad House B&B, a gorgeous Queen Anne Victorian with well-tended gardens and a big porch to watch life pass by.

Décor is comfortable, not fussy, and a beautiful breakfast was delivered to each room instead of being served to all guests in a dining room. habberstadhouse.com

Habberstad is one of 11 independently owned properties marketing themselves as Inns of Choice – destinations whose owners promise to go way above and beyond minimum government mandates to keep guests safe during this pandemic year.

I had written about five of these inns in recent years and knew the Habberstad was in excellent company. The other properties are Foxglove Inn, Sturgeon Bay; Washington House Inn, Cedarburg; Livingston Inn, Madison; Inn at Wawanissee Point, Baraboo; Old Rittenhouse Inn, Bayfield; Castle La Crosse, La Crosse; Stewart Inn, Wausau; Rivertown Inn, Stillwater, Minn.; Solglimt B&B, Duluth, Minn.; and Jail Hill Inn, Galena, Ill. innsofchoice.com

The Bluff Country region of Minnesota will be beautiful as leaves change color, although coronavirus concerns already have affected some business operations.

Lanesboro is an artsy town but with fewer live music options than usual, and its nifty, professional Commonweal Theatre is shuttered. Still open are art galleries and gourmet fare at Root River Unwined, Pedal Pushers Café and Old Village Hall Restaurant. lanesboro.com

Whalen’s Aroma Pie Shoppe closed in early September, instead of the more typical mid-October, because of an employee’s COVID-19 diagnosis. facebook.com/aromapieshoppe

Tours of Niagara Cave and its limestone passageways – totaling one mile of hiking underground, with 275 stairs – are suspended because of the pandemic. The attraction includes an underground stream, waterfall and wedding chapel. niagaracave.com

The nearby Harmony area is Minnesota’s largest Amish settlement. Look for maps to farms where baskets to furniture are made and sold. Or check out the weekly Saturday farmers’ market, May to October, and local shops with authentic Amish-made goods. Guided tours of the Amish area are suspended until spring 2021. exploreharmony.com, amish-tours.com

Well worth the short segue from Lanesboro – and open as I write this – is family-owned Trout City Brewing, which has patio and sidewalk seating in addition to open-air seating indoors. Add a nibble of local ethnic heritage, as in a Swedish meatball or Polish sausage sandwich. Wash it down with a Red Sky Belgian ale. prestonmnchamber.com, troutcitybrewing.com

For more about the area: bluffcountry.com.