Tag Archives: st. croix river

June Haibun: Nowhere Else But Here

Sunrise at the spot

I awoke this morning at dawn because our dog, Lola, was standing over us in the tent, acting agitated. No matter how tired she should be from the previous day’s adventures, and no matter the fact that she routinely sleeps in until 9 a.m. on the weekends at home, it starts to get light out when we’re camping and she has to get out of the tent. But it was a good prompt to pull on some clothes and climb out of the tent and take in a few moments of sunrise in the valley.

There was fog blowing around over the water and the grasses across from us and the sun had just come over the bluff on the Wisconsin side. The dominant sound in my memory of the moment is of the rushing waters of the spring-fed creek tumbling over sand and rock before merging with the river at our feet. But there is also a chorus of songbirds, their singing coming from every direction. Warblers in the trees around us, red-winged blackbirds across the channel, untold others singing in every key.

Birdsong, water rush
    For quiet eternity
Never leave this world

Some hours later, after sleeping some more, after oatmeal and strong coffee, after fishing from shore and packing up bags and canoes, we pushed off into the river again, our backs to the site. The paddle downstream to the landing was substantially more relaxed than the paddle up to the site had been. We paddled steadily but easily, and pulled off at a beach shaded by big cottonwoods for a last swim and admiration of the white clouds in the blue sky, the quiet river carrying canoes, the minnows nibbling our toes in the sandy shallows.

Before we had left the campsite, I said goodbye to the site like Jack Kerouac would, with a bow and a “bah” as I walked down the trail. Our tents, chairs, coolers, and other random camping gear was all gone then, the site just a clearing in a woods of tall white pines, a fire ring and a pile of wood. The creek kept rushing by and the wind kept blowing off the river and none of that would change when we were gone, when I was back at work or home or barbecues or anywhere else. No, it would remain.

Canoe beached on the sand
    Fireflies in damp night woods
Swim long in this river

Sunrise on the St. Croix

(Be sure to click the photos to see nice, big, beautiful versions.)

June Haibun: Upstream

We paddled against the current about two miles to get here. Hardly able to believe the good fortune that the campsite was open. We sat by the little creek for a bit and sipped some beers and then left to paddle up another mile or so where we beached the canoes at a sandbar and wandered in the shallow water for a bit. Then we floated back down, fishing unsuccessfully. When we got back to the site late in the afternoon we sat by the creek again and sipped some beers.

Cold water flowing
   White pines with negative space
Laughter of good friends

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

Business and pleasure

I know I’ve been a negligent blogger for the past couple months, and for that I apologize to those who support and enjoy my efforts here. Work has kept me busy writing and thinking about woods and waters. I’ve also had the inklings of inspiration to save up some of my writing energies for a medium perhaps more tangible. Or maybe just another Esker.

For what it’s worth, I just completed editing my first newsletter for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. While you won’t find my byline in this one, I think some of you might still enjoy it, and just know that my editorial influence is all over it. There are articles on all sorts of issues regarding the Boundary Waters, as well as a really interesting examination of the essence of wilderness.

Members of the Friends should see it in their mailbox in the next day or two, but it’s also available as a PDF here.

Our next newsletter should see a lengthy report by me on an adventure I have planned for later this summer… a stint as a volunteer in the bow of a canoe with a Forest Service wilderness ranger in the stern. I’ll be helping with routine maintenance on portages and campsites in the Boundary Waters. It should be interesting to see what all goes into preserving the wilderness character of the BWCAW, though it will also be a big change to work in a place where I usually go to play.

Lastly, there was a nice opinion piece in the St. Paul Pioneer Press last week about the state of the St. Croix River, 40 years after it was declared one of the inaugural Wild and Scenic Rivers. Written by John Helland and featuring the words of former senator and vice president and perpetual St. Croix aficianado and advocate Walter Mondale, it talks about the treasure that is the St. Croix, and the very real threats it is facing from development and pollution. The article was spurred by a May meeting of river advocates that I had heard whisperings of a few months back. It sounds like the outcome was the one hoped for: interest and energy regarding the formation of a new advocacy and education group that would work to protect and preserve the St. Croix. You can read the article here.

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.

Images of Thankfulness

We hosted my parents and grandma and Rosie’s parents at our house for Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful day. Enough sentiment to make it memorable, enough relaxation to make it enjoyable.

Perhaps the best thing about Thanksgiving weekend is that you get the holiday out of the way right off. Once all the dishes were done, we had a long weekend of well-deserved rest and play.

On Friday, I had a couple free hours in the afternoon so I drove over to our nearest park and took Lola for a wander in the woods.

On Saturday, we went a-Christmas tree cutting with Rosie’s clan. The three families met in Stillwater and then headed across the St. Croix to find a tree.

Rosie and I got our tree tied on first and hit the road back to her parents’ for dinner. En route, we decided to swing by the Arcola High Bridge to see the sun set over the valley.

As we were driving away, the moon was suddenly hanging over the tree tops, as big as I’ve ever seen it.

I was out catching up to tomorrow, or was I caught up in the past?
These days it’s hard to tell what’s out in front from what’s behind.
But, oh God, it’s unforgettable and unpredictable the way our chemicals collide.

- Cloud Cult

Finally, on Sunday, we went for a hike with Rainier and B (and Lola and their dog Quercus). They were leading us to new parks and it was a good wander around the northwest part of the metro area. Our primary destination was closed for a special deer hunt that day and that day only, so we improvised and found a state forest where we could walk some fire roads and trails through the pines.

Perhaps my favorite part of the walk was through a stand of red pines planted 50 years ago. The thick carpet of red needles on the path and the wind in the high canopy created a strange peaceful effect. A crow’s caw some distance away echoed carried through the woods.

I got myself a new look,
(Something gave me another chance to see).
Each time, each time I will try to do better.
Right now, right now is where I guess I belong.

Pulled my fist from my mouth.
I beat myself for a quarter century.
Remind, remind that it’s bigger than me.
Dissolve, dissolve into evergreens.

- ibid.

The cold started to set in over the course of the weekend. Winter is looming awfully long right now, and November has been dim and darkening, the skies have been gray, the wind raw, the land impartial and unmoving.

But there are lessons in all of it, and I’ve survived every other winter I’ve attempted, and already the cold is feeling more comfortable.