Return to the river

The St. Croix in springtime

I’m well aware it’s been a long time since I’ve posted on here, much less with any frequency. I blame quitting one job and starting another. A winter that overstayed its welcome by about three weeks hasn’t helped any either.

But, I decided that if spring is going to be reticent with signs of her arrival, I’ll take matters into my own hands and mark the season myself. Namely, by putting a paddle in the water.

My new colleague Brian and I canoed about 10 miles of the St. Croix yesterday. We had both been commiserating over our shared paddling itch since we first met when I interviewed in late February and this trip had been proposed not long after, keeping us in check while winter clung (and clung and clung) to Minnesota. Having worked together for three weeks now, it was good to finally share a canoe.

While my instincts for a day trip such as this one are usually the six or seven miles of river from Osceola to Copas, we instead paddled from William O’ Brien State Park to the Boom Site landing. It is a wonderful stretch of river, but I’d only paddled it once before (with Rosie) a few years ago.

The beauty of the section is that boats aren’t allowed to travel north past the Arcola High Bridge as a means to prevent the spread of Zebra Mussels. So, all the pleasure boats from Stillwater have to stay south and the only other boaters you share the river with are those who also come down from landings upstream. But, south of the bridge, the absence of boats above is usually well compensated for. On Rosie’s and my previous trip, the last miles had been stressful as we dodged the wakes of the plentiful boats of a summer weekend.

Which is why Brian and I paddled it today. It isn’t quite pleasure boating season.

Brian in the bow.

Putting in at O’ Brien, we found the river way out of its banks, its waters even sojourning into the parking lot by the landing. We loaded the canoe at a spot where one might normally park the car and we shoved off. A woman pulled up just before we departed and started setting up an easel and other accouterments of painting. Though the scene of islands of leafless trees sunk under gray water under gray skies had a certain stark beauty to it, I was struck by the thought that she could probably find an identical scene in November.

No sooner had we paddled out of the parking lot than we were being swept downstream at no mild pace. The river was flowing above 15,000 cubic feet per second by the gauge at St. Croix Falls and high, fast water had been part of the recipe (last July, the daily mean was just over 1000 CFS). It was why neither of us planned on having to paddle too hard. And why we each had a waterproof bag of dry clothes at the ready.

We progressed along limestone and sandstone banks, admiring their White Pine crowns and ephemeral waterfalls that spilled the season’s meltwater into the river. Flocks of Barn Swallows were flitting over the river everywhere we looked. Beautiful birds with iridescent blue on their backs, they would be near-constant company down the river. At the time, though, we could not have imagined the sorts of feathered company we would have an hour or so later.

A home along the St. Croix River at the village of Marine on St. Croix

It wasn’t long before we were cruising by Marine on St. Croix, giving us ample opportunity to fantasize about calling one of the riverside cabins our own (any of which would have served either of us as ample full-time abode). Though enjoying these fantasies, I was a little disappointed by the sheer number of structures along the stretch of river. Most of them have been there since long before the river was designated Wild and Scenic and I don’t begrudge their presence, but it did increase my appreciation for the much less developed shores upstream.

We were making rapid progress down the river and soon the valley broadened out. Somewhere unseen along the Wisconsin shore, the Apple River entered, concealed by sunken islands. We first wandered a back channel along the Wisconsin shore, carefully dodging some strainers and pushing through a couple shallows, then we found ourselves immersed in a most amazing scene.

A bird haven on the St. Croix River

In a watery plain at least a mile wide — the High Bridge visible in the distance — there were birds simply everywhere. The Barn Swallows were still present, but they were now overshadowed by vast flocks of all kinds of waterfowl. Geese sent up mighty cacophonies from perches on top of beaver lodges, loons quietly cruised amongst the grasses, flying flocks of unidentified ducks blackened the skies, a Great Blue Heron crossed the river in front of us, a stick in its beak, heading for a rookery on an island a ways off. I had really never seen anything like it, much less paddled through it. All these migrating birds stopping here in some sort of garden. We were both simply in awe and frequently put down our paddles just to admire it.

While I knew photos would utterly fail to capture the scene in any way, words similarly fail to really convey it. I couldn’t help being reminded of an African savanna, vast and wild, fertile and rich, host to as many birds of feather as a savanna might be to gazelles or zebra. Thinking about it now, there is no such place upstream or downstream for many miles. This wide spot in the river must have been a welcome refuge for these thousands of birds as they made their way to northern summer homes, the current in this shallow expanse was slow, predators few, and there was ample room for everyone.

The river ultimately swept us through this world of birds and we found our way to the main channel along the Minnesota shore. Before long we were at the High Bridge, where we finally found dry land where we could pull up and have lunch. We ate sandwiches in a stand of cedars and pine, the ground dry and soft with needles, the air fragrant. The afternoon was still cool and damp and we both bundled on more clothes as we sat eating.

The Arcola High Bridge seen from the water.

We were about to set off again when a guy mucking around on the banks with two kids struck up conversation and ended up showing us some Pitcher Plants he had discovered. Brian pointed out some green skunk cabbage coming up next to the plants. Though both still hunkered close to the ground, they were nonetheless a welcome sign of imminent spring.

The river below the High Bridge narrows into one primary channel and follows a fairly straight path toward Stillwater. The sandstone bluffs on both sides tower over the valley with distinctive White Pines topping them. The pines seemed to be filled with their own light, the green aglow against the drab backdrop of cloudy gray skies and leafless gray trees.

We had this section of river almost entirely to ourselves, a drastic contrast to the summer weekend day when Rosie and I paddled it and dodged boats and their wakes the whole way. We continued to paddle infrequently, instead spending a lot of time just enjoying the quiet and peacefulness of being back on the water after a long winter.

Rounding a last point, we both paddled hard for the landing, which was in sight now, without saying a word. The canoe leaped across the water

There is a feeling I get when out on that river or on a wilderness lake that I never know how much I miss it until I feel it again. Yesterday it washed over me and I felt a peacefulness so strong that it seemed to originate deep in my body, in my shoulders that awoke to the paddling, in my hands cold with river water and wind, my eyes and ears filled with the days sights and sounds.

From my body, the peacefulness traveled to my mind, inspired and collected the thoughts of the day, and all of it traveled on to reside in my heart.

The bow of my Wenonah Spirit II against the gray waters of the St. Croix River in springtime.

9 thoughts on “Return to the river

  1. Andy

    An amazing weekend for birds on the St. Croix is right!
    We’ve had not dozens, but hundreds of pelicans(!) stopping off in Hudson’s Lake Mallalieu over the last week. A 30-yr resident told me he’s never seen a one of them stop here. Me, I never knew they flew inland period.
    Thanks for sharing your weekend.

  2. samh

    Does everybody else who read this today appreciate just how much better reading it is than looking at the cubicle wall in front of them?

    Greg, your blog posts always have just the right combination of science journal, relaxing prose and photographic imagery to ease the mind into a different, better place.

  3. Scott

    It sure was a great weekend to get outside. I think your documentation of your trip was a lot better than mine :D

    I decided, at the last minute, to mount a camera on my handlebars and take a photo every few seconds. Well within twenty seconds of the ride I had already bumped the zoom so all I got was a lot of up close pics of rear ends. Doh!

    Where can one rent a canoe? Taylor’s Falls? Laura and I would like to get out a bit this summer.

  4. dharma bum Post author

    Sean – thanks. It sure was a welcome respite from a hectic few months.

    Andy – that sounds incredible. Funny that we didn’t see a one just a dozen or so miles upriver. It sounds very cool though.

    Sam – thanks for the kind words. It is nice to offer some escape to my fellow desk jockeys on a Monday morning. Glad you like what I’m doing here.

    Scott – I bet that was a great ride. We stopped at the Marine General Store to pick up a sandwich before our paddle. It is a fun(ky) little town for sure. I think of all the time we’ve spent riding around that area… before we had cars we’d put on so many miles in a day. I remember more than a few times when Palmer and I would ride down to Marine from Square Lake, get sugared up at the General Store, and then ride back, with the requisite sugar-fueled ascent of Nason Hill.

    You can definitely rent canoes at Taylor’s Falls, and I think even at William O’ Brien. The stretch from Taylor’s Falls to Osceola isn’t my favorite, so we usually put in at Osceola, but we should definitely figure something out and get out on the river together this summer!

  5. rosie

    sounds like it was a great day, bum! and the writing on this post was just beautiful. i can’t wait to hit the (warmer) waters with you and poochie soon.

  6. dave


    Great to read you again. Heard from Lene today, made me think of you and so looked.

    Great pics.

    d (ya know, rip rap dave)

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