Spring on the St. Croix

Sleepy and I paddled my favorite stretch of the St. Croix River yesterday, from Osceola to Log House Landing (near Copas just north of William O’ Brien).

We put in about 11:00 under partly cloudy skies. The forecast was calling for showers and maybe thunderstorms later in the afternoon, but it sure didn’t seem possible at the time. It felt great to be back out the water.

It isn’t long after you leave the landing at Osceoloa that you can sneak into some really cool backwaters that run parallel to the main channel. Things suddenly get very quiet and it’s hard to believe you are so close to a major metropolitan area. Birds were singing, geese were honking at us if we got to close to where they were nesting, and green was starting to emerge everywhere, from buds on the trees to bright splashes at the base of the bluffs where some plant was monopolizing on a lack of competition to proliferate on the damp forest floor.

I didn’t take any photos of that first stretch yesterday, but here’s a couple from autumn a couple years ago. Funny to see the green just emerging yesterday, knowing it will all end the same way, in a blaze of orange, yellow and red.

Autumn on the St. Croix

Displaying unusual foresight, I had purchased some knee-high rubber boots for both myself and Sleepy the previous weekend when I had been at Fleet Farm. Displaying my usual flakiness, I had left both pairs of boots on my front porch when we left my apartment yesterday morning. So we both traveled in sandals, which was “interesting” given the 50 or 60 degree water temperature.

When we pulled off shortly after entering the backwater we stepped out of the canoe and directly into cold, squishy mud. Exactly what the boots had been intended to protect us from. Alas.

The sun was still shining and we stood looking out over a small bay. Four turkey vultures made slow circles across the river, spending a disconcerting amount of time directly over our heads. It being Earth Day, we retrieved some old beer cans and stowed them in the garbage bag we had brought for that purpose. I sure don’t want to look at the same garbage all season long.

We headed back down the river after not too long, generally paddling only when we need to manuever or when the breeze kicked up, as it occasionally did. The water levels were great and the current was moving along nicely, though never enough to create any dangerous eddies, sweepers or other hazards.

We saw no one in the backwaters, only hearing boats on the main channel once-in-a-while. Small planes frequently passed overhead though, probably pleasure cruisers, and I was reminded of the story of the fight to ban seaplanes from what was the Superior Roadless Area (later to become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness), led by Sigurd Olson, as I recently read about in David Backes‘ fantastic biography of Olson, A Wilderness Within. The planes, which became popular after World War II when there was suddenly a surplus of planes, pilots and mechanics, threatened the wilderness nature of the area, allowing fishermen to fly in to lakes for the afternoon that had only been accessible by difficult, multi-day canoe trips previously. The ultimate success of the campaign led Congress to pass legislation for the first time that expressly protected wilderness in the United States.

But I digress. The planes were loud and they kind of bugged us. I don’t ever expect them to be bannned from flying over the St. Croix.

A little further down, we heard falling water back in the woods. I had heard it before, but the falls themselves had always been hidden by thick foliage. Not today. From the river, we could see water running down a rock face 50 yards from shore and we decided to check it out. We landed the canoe by running it right up the little creek that entered the river there.

The falls felt like a special place. They weren’t much, just two small streams of waters falling over a smooth and mossy rock face, a small pool of clear water at the base.

Quite cunningly, I suggested to Sleepy that he climb up next to the falls while I stayed down below. “It’ll be a cool photo,” I said. Being the good sport that he is, he scrambled up the loose, steep slope to pose for this compelling shot.

After lingering a bit longer, doing our own casual worship on this special Sunday, thanking the Earth for secret waterfalls, we walked back to the canoe. Pushing off into the current again, we admired a pock-marked rock sticking out of the river where the little creek entered. I remarked that it looked like a meteorite and Sleepy thus dubbed the falls “Meteorite Falls.”

Proceeding down the river we kept nosing the canoe through any passage that would admit us. Exploring the backwaters of the backwaters, we found vast wetlands with all varieties of ducks nervously exploding from the water. We saw more small waterfalls tumbling down the bluffs. Trying to paddle back toward one, our way was blocked by a tidy beaver dam.

We stood by the dam for a few minutes to have a snack. A very light rain began to dimple the beaver pond, but had subsided by the time we got back in the canoe. The sky was darkening a little with gray, puffy clouds rolling over the bluffs on the Minnesota side.

Just before re-entering the main channel, we passed by the Great Blue Heron rookery that is a highlight of the trip when visited at the right time of year. Often, a springtime trip can allow you to paddle right through the submerged island with the giant birds flapping overhead or perched on their nests in the treetops. The water wasn’t high enough yesterday, but just paddling by was amazing. There were probably over 100 nests visible from the water and many of them had birds perched on the edges. And it seemed like everywhere we looked around the area, a heron was flying or standing along the shoreline. The wind picked up for a few mnutes and was blowing us around so we kept moving along and I didn’t get the camera out.

The first stretch upon entering the main channel is fairly wide and heads due south. With the wind yesterday out of the south and east, it had the potential to be a pretty challenging paddle for being headed downstream, but we lucked out with a mostly calm spell as we drifted down it.

At some point along there, it started to rain. And the wind started coming out of the south pretty good, so I just have a vague memory now of paddling along looking at the bottom of the canoe to avoid the rain that was otherwise driven into my face. Pleasant. The rain waxed and waned, but the day was still warm enough that it wasn’t too much of a bother. We stopped at my favorite campsite for a lunch of roast beef sandwiches, Pringles and Hamm’s and then got back in the canoe for the last mile or two.

At this point the current was strong, especially along the west bank, and we paddled very little for that last stretch. The current easily kept us in a straight line heading downstream at a relaxing pace, close enough to shore to see the shoots of green amongst the rocks. A warm, rainy afternoon like this would only hurry on that growing even more.

Soon enough the river brought us to the landing. I was a little bummed to see the trip end, but looking forward to many trips down the river in the months ahead, and the warm, dry car waiting for us. It had been good to see the river this early in the season. We had seen a lot of birds, including Bald Eagles, an Osprey, a lot of Great Blue Herons, buzzards, wood ducks, mallards and other unidentified ducks, geese, heard many songbirds, seen a few jumping fish, and had gone several hours without seeing another human and feeling like we were a long ways from where we actually were.

9 thoughts on “Spring on the St. Croix

  1. Greg Post author

    Hey you all – thanks for commenting. It was a good trip, I hope to get out on the river with each of you sometime! All I could think after the trip was that no matter how many times I travel that stretch of river, I still see so much that is new to me every time. I don’t think I can ever tire of it.


    Happy Spring.

    ps – Cheers to beers. Hamm’s — and all the other St. Paul or formerly St. Paul-based breweries — will always hold a special place in my… palette. And Hamm’s does just go down nice sometimes.

  2. eric

    Hey Greg,

    Outstanding post – very well written! With all the other stuff going on, I hadn’t really gotten the itch to go paddling – until now!



  3. Greg Post author

    cK – thanks, I’ll keep ‘em coming just as often as I manage to make it out on the river… hopefully often this summer.

    eric – it’s probably the earliest in the season I’ve been out, but it was great to be there. Very neat to see things coming alive. With not much in the way of leaves on the trees we could see far into the woods and there was just so much to hear and see. hope you get out soon!

  4. Greg Post author

    Jim – a “gem” is right. An amazing and wild river so close to the Twin Cities. I sure enjoy your photos, thanks for stopping by and commenting.


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