Tag Archives: spring

Fade to green

early spring rain f, by Flickr user withrow

early spring rain f, by withrow

The world I live in has lately been gray and wet and dirty and dim. Snow has mixed with rain, the wind has blown it in my face, and the sun has remained hidden in the flat, colorless sky. When it has rained, the water has pooled up on top of mud and sod, dirty puddles that are not the celebrated signs of spring.

But in the midst of this weary weather, I know that all this does herald the arrival of that fertile season. This precipitation is seeping into the earth, and will fuel the life which will soon spring from it. These cold rain showers will give way to the green smoke of the first buds on the cottonwoods, the trilliums on the forest floor. And then that will give way to the bright green of fresh leaves and then, with hardly enough time to notice, the world will indeed erupt into life.

With my head hunkered down now as I make my way through the gray outdoors, I can see in my mind’s eye the lush woods of summer, a mass of green. That which has been so long buried under snow that it’s become like the fading memory of a dream is now perceptible again. Visions of liquid–even warm–water in the lakes and rivers begin to sharpen. And everywhere there is green.

Good for the goose

Geese Flying, by Flickr user superstrikertwo

Geese Flying, by Flickr user superstriketwo

The early trout season in Wisconsin opens today. Despite the fact that we might get a couple inches of snow tonight, it is an undeniable harbinger of spring, or at least the weakening of winter’s grasp. There is a long way to go before spring is recognizable, but I know that many who get out there today will hear chirping birds and cast to rising fish.

What a winter. I remember the first hit of real cold in mid-December. It was windy and sub-zero and dark. Then it seemed like all of January was frozen solid, an indistinguishable blur of sharp temperatures that just went on and on week after week, except for the very last day of the month when it seemed the weather gods wanted to screw with us all and the mercury jumped up to the mid-40s, everything melted, and we were robbed of a full month of sub-freezing temperatures.

A week or two ago I walked Lola in the morning through a melting world, knowing that it was too early to consider this a long-lasting relief, but suddenly I heard honking overhead and I stopped and turned and watched a solitary goose cross the sky, an early scout for open water, overeager to return to his northern climes.

But yesterday I found myself walking outside without my jacket, first to a meeting downtown St. Paul with my new boss, and then over to Great Waters for a quick pint to wrap up the week.

I went home feeling weight lifted from my chest. There will be much scrabbling left to do this month, this season, this year, this life, but I feel a little like that goose, glad to be aloft after a winter in brackish southern marshes, seeking open water and signs of spring.

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.

She and she and me

She and she at Pine Point.

She walks next to me and she runs ahead. The snow is melting; water above, water below. Pools in low spots are the color of pee over the snow. In the shade, a crust of snow and ice freezes over puddles.

The four o’ clock sun of March is still strong enough to set off on a short Sunday afternoon walk under. Down the old rail grade we go, the dog criss-crossing the trail in front of us. No one else in the park. Just the dwindling daylight of the dwindling weekend and the quiet talk of woods and meltwater, soggy snow seeping into the earth.

She slips her hand into mine. She runs ahead.

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.