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Knapp's Cave in Scandia isn't just a beautiful kayaking spot — it has a rich history too

The rich history of Knapp's Cave along the St. Croix River
The rich history of Knapp's Cave along the St. Croix River 03:12

SCANDIA, Minn. — Native Americans, Swedish immigrants and even cattle thieves have all taken shelter in a little spot along the St. Croix River. Nowadays, Knapp's Cave near Scandia is still a draw for kayakers and hikers.

"It continues to feel like you are stepping back in time when you come here," said Pam Plowman Smith.

Stepping back in time also means watching your step.                                                                        

It can be a treacherous trek along this part of the St. Croix River. But it's also full of unspoiled and unbridled beauty. And what's waiting at the end, makes it all worthwhile. 

"It's been an attraction. I have letters from the 1920s where people talk about a picnic up to the cave. So, it's been an attraction for a lot of years," said Plowman Smith.

Well before it was a place for picnics, Knapp's Cave served as a sort of motel. Archaeologists discovered Native American pottery inside that dates back a couple centuries.

In the mid-1850's, Swedish immigrants spent winters there, trying to survive until they could build a permanent log cabin in the spring.

"There was no place to store a family that happened to arrive in September or October. So, there were a number of families, anecdotally the Johnson family in particular, would spend the winter here in the cave," said Plowman Smith. "I can't even fathom how they did it and one of the families we know had a baby."

But survive they did. There's also evidence that thieves stored their loot here and sometimes even stolen cattle. Despite centuries of visitors, much of the cave remains a mystery.

In recent history, the farthest back anyone has gone is about 150 yards. N one has ever made it to the very back of the cave, experts say.

That's because it gets too narrow to explore. Dave Borchert's brother learned that the hard way.

"He was adventurous, and he was trying to fit back into an area he didn't fit, and he got stuck. But he managed to finally squirm his way out," said Borchert, who lives near the cave.

What's likely back there are caverns with plenty of bats and plenty of spiders. Knapp's Cave is actually named after Oscar Knapp. He was one of the longest-running riverboat captains on the St. Croix and was known to bring hunting parties and others to the cavern.

"During that time he was doing the excursions he was almost an early environmentalist you could say. Certainly, a steward of the river," said Plowman Smith.

The cave is surrounded by private land and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, so really the only way to get there is to kayak or canoe, and then hike up. But those looking for an adventure won't be disappointed.

"This stretch of the river is unique and historic and so incredibly beautiful," said Plowman Smith. "Nature abounds here."

Some people also call the cave "Mondale's basement" because former Vice President Walter Mondale had a home near there. On June 19, the Scandia Heritage Alliance is sponsoring a kayak trip to Knapp's Cave and other historic locations along the river.

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