Taken through the binoculars. Shortly after I took this, the heron flew ahead of the egret and continued working its way up the shoreline.
When I must leave the great river
O bury me close to its wave
And let my canoe and my paddle
Be the only mark over my grave
‘Mon Canoe d’écorce’ (‘My Bark Canoe’)
I didn’t know him, but Joe Seliga represented something good and important. I shared the water with his canoes once or twice, and it was a pleasure and an honor. He passed away on Sunday at the age of 94. He went quickly and his wife was waiting for him. He left a legacy of wonderful canoes, and much more. Bon voyage.
“He loved what he was doing, and that made him young, and it made everyone else around him young,” said Jeanne Bourquin, who has built wood-canvas canoes in Ely for 21 years.
“He just lifted you up,” said Nancy Piragis of Piragis Northwoods Co. in Ely. “How could a person in his 80s and 90s dance all night? He did it every year at the Mukluk Ball.”
In addition to being an excellent craftsman, Seliga loved paddling and fishing in the canoe country. He made many trips with Ely’s Dan Litchfield.
“Everywhere we went, he’d been there already,” Litchfield said. “We took my Seliga (canoe). He was in his high 70s and 80s.”
Seliga loved fishing for walleyes and lake trout but had no time for smallmouth bass, Litchfield said. He recalled the time he and Seliga were planning a trip to the Man Chain of lakes in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. Seliga told Litchfield not to worry about packing a cook kit because he had one stashed in the woods up there.
“We got to the spot, and he said, ‘It’s right behind this rock,’ ” Litchfield said. “He found this old plate bent in half and said, ‘Those damn bears.’ I said, ‘Joe, when’s the last time you used that cook kit?’ He said, ‘Oh, 10, 15 years ago.’ ”
Smith, of Widjiwagan, remembers camping with Seliga on Slim Lake near Ely.
“The thing that struck me was that in the summer, he didn’t use a sleeping bag. He was from the bedroll era. He had a blanket, and if it was cold, he’d put his feet into a Duluth pack.”
It’s hard to figure out where this trip began…
First, a few weeks ago we paddled down the St. Croix with a floatilla of three canoes and swore we’d be back.
Then, Saturday afternoon, while Rosie and I are cavorting in the fallen leaves and the golden trees at a state park, Canoeman leaves me a message. Usual non-sequitir, surreally comedic stuff. Establishing contact. Rosie and I have a “thing” in downtown St. Paul that night so it’s about 11:00 when I call Canoeman to see if he’s around the Twin Cities. He is, at a bar in Minneapolis with a couple other people. He also asks me what I would think of paddling the river tomorrow.
Rosie and I meet him over there, find him and a couple other guys trying to hold the pool table, drinking Summit EPA, a fine beer if there ever was one. We drink, check out the hip-hop and the hipsters, talk. We talk about checking out the river the next day. Canoeman has to work at 6:30 in the evening and I have an obligation at 4:00. We do some math, and do it again, and then ask someone to confirm our math, and figure out we would have to meet at 8:30 in the morning to complete the float in time. By this time it’s after midnight. The other guys think it sounds like fun but their pillows hold greater draw than the river at that hour. Wrench shows up and he’d love to also but he has to work. Rosie would also love to but she has work to catch up on before Monday. So it’s just me and him.
It’s after 1:00 when we part ways with plans to rendezvous in seven hours. When I get home I drink water with Rosie and try to throw my gear together by the door and then we hit the hay.
In the morning I grab breakfast on the way. When I get off the freeway I enjoy some great vistas over the fields of foggy ponds, golden mowed fields, even two hot air balloons. I get to Canoeman’s right one time. He’s in the driveway packing his car.
To the river. A shuttle is always easy with two people and one canoe. We drop my car at the landing, drive upriver about 10 miles and put in.
So, finally, this is where the trip, the actual trip, begins.
The entrance to the backwaters is only a couple hundred yards downstream from this landing. It’s stunning how much higher the water is. Where we ate lunch on an island last time, a few feet above the water, is now under at least 12 inches of water. We thread our way through some sunken shorelines, not paddling as much as we are pushing our way through the trees.
A little further down we nose the canoe into the soggy shoreline and get out. It’s only a little after 9:00, but we figure people drink wine at church on Sunday mornings all the time. We break out the box, yes, the box, of wine that Canoeman’s parents generously provided the expedition, a necessity on a dry Minnesota Sunday morning. It’s this Three Thieves wine which comes in a liter box but which is surprisingly good. We split it up and enjoy it all day as we paddle.
Where the river widens out we poke into another submerged island and emerge on the other side to the backwater’s backwater, a swampy channel I’d never seen before. Weaving through the grasses, we reach a ridge that looks like a good spot for lunch. It’s steep up to the top and we discover quite wet. I don’t know if it was leaking groundwater or still wet from the flooding, but it’s a messy scramble to the top. But worth it.
After lunch of crackers, cheese and salami, Canoeman dozed and I explored a little bit of the ridgetop.
Knowing that we were paddling with time constraints, I decide to check the time before we leave. It’s 20 minutes earlier than our earliest guess and we’re perfectly on schedule. The rapid current of the flooded river is making this easy. We head back out, me in the stern now.
The railroad bridge the other guys jumped off on our last trip down.
We stop at the sweet campsite where I always feel obliged to stop and say “I gotta camp here sometime” but where I never actually have (ask me about how Anne Bancroft, Arctic explorer, screwed us over the one time we tried). It’s secluded from the river by a high berm (from the top of which there’s a great view over the broad river), a tiny cold little creek trickles right by the fire ring and the picnic table, and there’s great tent pads.
We have some cookies and after one last little rest, hit the water for the last time. Now we paddle pretty steadily, not out of any rush but just enjoying the strokes after drifting along in awe of the scenery for a lot of the day.
When we get to the landing we bring the gear and the canoe up, then hop in my car, drive up to our put-in, get Canoeman’s car and come back to the landing to load the canoe. I change into some fresh clothes, put on deodorant, and head to my in-laws for a delicious Sunday evening meal, Canoeman heads home and then to work. I think how incredibly good it is to be able to squeeze in a paddle like this once-in-a-while.
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.