Rosie and I were paddling the Loonie Tune, Canoeman and T.L. were in the Freighter, the old Alumacraft, and we both flanked like bodyguards the star of the paddle, a canoe you’re honored to float alongside, Seliga #173, a wood-canvas canoe handmade by Joe Seliga in his garage in Ely just like he’s been doing for about 60 years, on its almost-maiden voyage. Dark green canvas, mahogany and ash gunwales, bright clean ribs inside, everything about it artistry. Museum-worthy. Awesome. It was paddled by its proud owner, Traveler, just back from a Peace Corps stint in Nepal cut short by the civil war there and a following six month gig tracking elephants in Cambodia (you can’t make this stuff up, you can’t) and his and T.L.’s roommate Grouse.
A day on the St. Croix, always a good day. I’ve paddled this stretch a few times now, putting in at Taylor’s Falls, Franconia or Osceola, usually taking out at Log House Landing. Today it was Franconia to Log House, about 12 river miles.
You never know what a paddle is going to be until you’re on the water, and then you only know what it’s like at the present moment. When you’re in a canoe on the water you’re at the whim of the wind and the weather, water levels, channels, what the spring floods did, how your memory serves you.
It was a little breezy when we put in. It’s discombobulating when you’re on a river and the wind is blowing upstream. We opened beers and floated a bit, only paddling to keep the bow pointed downstream and a buffer between us and the Seliga, the hull of which touched nothing but water and air all day. Then we paddled. The other four, three of whom had been on six week trips on Arctic rivers at least once, generally kept healthy leads, but there was no urgency to the trip, no timetable to keep, no camp to make before dark, nothing but a wild and scenic river, good paddling, an afternoon in September when we saw more duck hunters than fisherman, and hardly anybody else using the river.
The river there is heavily braided, with at least two main channels. When the other channel joined up a mile up from the Osceola bridge the river got bigger and the wind got stronger. Then, much stronger. At first I wondered if it was easier paddling downstream against the wind or upstream with the wind at your back. Within a half-mile I knew it would have been easier to paddle upstream. We fought on against it, no choice. A wind like that likes to grab your bow and quickly push you sideways and I spent much of my effort just trying to keep the canoe pointed into the wind.
Hours later, on the drive home, my arms would burn and ache from that effort.
We finally made it past the bridge, a reassurance that we had in fact been moving, but the waves against us were even taller and the wind stiffer in the next short stretch. We did what we had to do and made it to what we hoped would be the respite of the backwater that is my favorite part of the stretch. You slip into the backwater through an narrow gap in the shoreline, and the narrow water goes upstream first and then archs around and heads back south, an almost too-perfect hidden entrance. I was shown this little passage by a biology teacher in high school and every time I weave a canoe through it I am further infatuated with it.
There was a short narrow stretch then and we all were smiling at being out of the wind and in this cool little piece of water. Lunch was mentioned and no more was necessary for everyone to aim toward an island and pull the canoes up. We drank beer and the other guys ate gorp, summer sausage, cheese while Rosie and I had some roast beef sandwiches. We ate and Canoeman threw a tennis ball for his dogs, Gus, the slow, sometimes bullying golden retriever, and Juno, the high-strung lab/collie that can outrun anything any day. Canoeman whipped the tennis ball across the channel and Juno and Gus unhesitatingly retrieved it every time. It made for good entertainment. After some jokes about dogs and some general enjoyment of the lunch break, we took to the water again.
We paddled down a fairly straight and narrow section of water. Where the bluff came close to the river Traveler proposed a toast to “backwaters” and we toasted and drank. I told about the time I had been on this section with Wrench and we had seen a big bald eagle sitting on a dead tree up the bluff, then we had seen a red-tailed hawk flying above the water, then the eagle dropped off his branch and dove at the hawk. They fought mid-air over the water and eventually disappeared around a bend in the river downstream.
We saw a few bald eagles this day, along with an osprey that slowly drifted toward the water and then suddenly dropped and splashed hard on the water and then flew away, too far off to be certain, but his talons looked empty.
The water was placid in the backwater, an enormous relief after the wind, and we took it pretty slow. Rosie threw a few casts and we enjoyed seeing where little springs tumbled out of the forested bluffs and into the river. At times the bluff climbed relatively sharply from river-right, but at one point the valley broadened to a huge flood plain that extended from the river maybe a mile to the bluffs. Always at river-left were low islands that separated this channel from the main river. In the spring they would be submerged but now they rose a few feet above the water.
I don’t recall ever paddling this section at this time of year. I think I’ve usually come here in the spring when I’m craving paddling after the winter, although I really can’t be sure I haven’t been here later. In any case, I hadn’t know what to expect as far as water levels, and had been a little concerned that in this shallow backwater we might end up dragging the canoes or something. It was shallow, with our paddles occasionally hitting the sandy bottom, but we never had problems floating over anything.
Until we got to the rookery. The reason I first came to this section in high school was as a member of the bio-earth club. That teacher I mentioned had organized the paddle as a means of observing the Great Blue Heron rookery on an island en route. In the spring you can paddle right over the island and under the trees that are filled with at least 100 nests, the birds fly slowly amongst the trees, their giant nests precariously situated in the very tops of the trees. It feels like a trip to the Jurassic age. A little later in the year you can walk over the island and find the broken egg shells.
When we arrived now, there wasn’t much to see. Except for a giant log jam in the channel halfway down the island. There was no weaving the boats through that. Luckily, the island that separated our channel from the main channel was only perhaps 10 feet across here, so we pulled the canoes up and simply lifted them over and into the water on the other side. The backwater would have spit us out into the channel in only another couple hundred yards anyway, so it was no great loss to our route.
Here the river was wider with only one main channel, but the wind had subsided almost entirely and we continued the leisurely float. It wasn’t much further before we came to a railroad bridge. It’s a neat old bridge that when the steamboats frequently traveled the river would actually swing on its big round center support, opening like a door for the boats. Today, the old shack attached to one end has collapsed into the water, but the bridge is still in occasional use.
We pulled off here and the four other guys donned their life jackets and scrambled up onto the bridge. Rosie and I kept Juno and Gus nearby, though they were quite perplexed for their master to disappear, but his voice to still continue from directly overhead. The guys walked to the other side of the bridge where the channel underneath was quite deep and after some examination of the situation, dropped off the bridge and 20-3o feet into the water. Whoops and yells followed. They all did so once and then swam to the other side. A train whistle echoed down the valley and Canoeman ran up onto the bridge to rescue a hat and wallet that had been left there. He sprinted across to our side of the bridge where he deposited it with us and then we waved as the tourist train crossed slowly over the river. He then went back to join the other guys for another jump and this time they swam back to our side.
All the while, Rosie and I enjoyed hanging out with the dogs, sitting in our Crazy Creeks, and just relaxing. When they got back on shore they were pretty cold and eager to get paddling again so off we went.
It was an uneventful few more miles to the take-out. The river was calm and wind-free. The banks are almost entirely green still, a nice reminder that it’s really still late-summer, as much as our minds leap ahead to autumn. But, in another few weeks it will be fall and I think this group of paddlers might return for an overnight to see the colors and feel the cool.
At the landing, T.L. and I were left behind to watch the gear while the others took the car we had dropped off there to pick up our cars. It started to spit a little rain, the dogs mucked around on the bank, we had another beer and watched the water. A fish jumped, the leaves rustled, everything was pretty quiet. Just like it always is and always should be.