Tag Archives: paddling

June Haibun: Firewood

On Saturday about six o’ clock Brian and I got into Gabe’s canoe and paddled away from the site and across the river, looking for firewood. We tried the big backwater right across from us first, hoping to find driftwood that had hung up in the grasses there when the water came down, but there was nothing but a gaggle of red-winged blackbirds and a few ducks that exploded out of their hiding spots skyward at our approach.

When the bottom came up too far and I had to get out and nudge us off the sand we turned around and headed back to the main channel. There, we turned upriver and went a hundred yards or so up to a spot where the steep eroded banks provided just a small enough beach to pull the canoe up.

We scrambled up the vertical bank, the sand slipping out from under our feet, and then we headed back into the woods. It was mostly just trees and grass, no under-brush, and we walked around until we found where the flood waters had stopped earlier in the season and there was a winding line of driftwood piled up.

I put on gloves and unsheathed the axe and went to work making a pile of usable firewood, mostly wrist-sized pieces twice as long as optimal for burning. Later, we would break it or chop it up as we needed it to stoke the fire. Brian took armloads back and forth to the canoe and we loaded it up to the gunwales. It was warm and dirty work but rewarding. In 15 minutes time we had a boatload and we pushed off and paddled back to the site.

  Unload the canoe
     The bright light of day is gone
   A long evening begins

June Haibun: Downriver

In my memories of spring paddles, the river and the skies are gray. The trees that line the shore are leafless, but birds sing out loudly.

This spring, when we put the canoe in the water it was raining. The first mile of paddling was cold and we wondered what had compelled us. Later, when the rain had stopped, I wondered how we would have fared if it had not. Then, we navigated the many parallel channels of the river in its wide valley and knew the day would merge into the many memories we share of this river.

Slip past sunken point
   Cormorant looks north from perch
Current takes us south

When October comes we know we must go to the river once more to sustain us for many months. The day is somehow always clear and sunny and cool. We only share the river with a few fishermen or duck hunters. The white pines stand in sharp relief to a pastel palette of hardwoods on the bluffs.

While trying to consume the experience, to commit not just the experience but the feeling to somewhere deep in memory for the frozen season ahead, I also give in to autumnal urges for reflection. This is when I thank the river, when I see how another year of getting to know it has changed me.

Osprey fishes above
   He competes with fewer now
A telling test for all

It is dreams of summer days on the river that are in our heads when we decide to try paddling in cold springtime rains and it is to revisit such memories that takes us there on quiet fall days.

On a day in mid-summer we leave the landing where revelers are beaching rented canoes and picnickers are strolling the banks and we don’t go far before we ease the canoe through a narrow channel and into a familiar backwater.

When the unrelenting sun becomes unbearable, it is a simple matter to land the canoe and swim. Preferably, this is done where a spring-fed creek enters the river and one can find in the mingling waters a temperature that is just right.

A bass jumps by shore
   Bright rings by a leaning tree
Green banks hide meaning

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.

St. Croix Postcard

St. Croix Postcard

{click image to see a larger version}

“The upper valley is a rugged, wild region, a lonely and beautiful one, a land of brooks and creeks and rivers. The Totogatic and Namekagon, the Yellow and the Clam, the Kettle and the Snake, all once busy lumbering streams, today join the main channel to become true water trails for modern canoeists and fishermen on trips of personal discovery and exploration.”

~ James Taylor Dunn, “The St. Croix: Midwest Border River,” 1964