This summer, I plan to get on the water at least one day a week and write about it. Trips will include boating the big waters of Lake St. Croix to overnight paddle adventures. Here is the first installment.
Two weather conditions guided my kayak outing on the St. Croix recently: a stiff breeze out of the south, and several days of rain during the previous weeks. First, I wanted to stay out of the wind, and second, the rain had raised water levels enough that many islands were flooded. Paddling through the trees provided refuge from the blowing waves as I explored backwaters near Marine on St. Croix.
I started upstream from my launch so I wouldn’t end up going farther than I wanted to fight the current. When I soon came to an island, I chose the channel less traveled. It was a narrow and shallow passage, only tempting because of the high water. The route soon became a quest to make it all the way up it, and I threaded my way through the trees, constantly looking for the next passage, telling myself, “where there’s water, there’s a way.” (It occurred to me that is a good saying for much of life.) I used my paddle to pole and push off wood and muck, to brace against tree trunks so I could make hairpin turns, and sometimes even to pull a little water.
Refusing to give up hope, backtracking and criss-crossing to find the next way forward, I felt a little like an old explorer obsessed with finding a Northwest Passage no one was even sure existed. Of course, my journey had no geopolitical goal, I simply didn’t want to get out of my seat nor turn around and give up. I pushed over logs, I squeezed between trunks, and I squeaked through gaps between down trees and the bank. In many places, driftwood was piling up in ridges as the water came down from a peak a couple weeks earlier. All the debris that had been washed into the river was coming to rest. Sediment suspended in the water would slowly settle out too, all of it serving to bring soil and organic material to the floodplains for another year.
Finally, within sight of where the channel rejoined the larger backwater, I discovered my Northwest Passage did not in fact exist. Down trees crossed the entire channel, and the water flowed an inch deep over sand. I would need to get out and drag through and over these obstacles, or portage over the skinny strip of land that constituted the head of the island. I chose the latter and dragged my boat up and over the hump of land, five feet high and 10 feet across. Perhaps I had failed in my quest, but at least I had stayed out of the wind for a while.
After reaching the top of the backwaters, I crossed the main channel, about 200 yards of bigger water. A pontoon boat was beached at the top of an island on the Wisconsin side, and a couple young men were working on getting a boat motor started at a dock. The three pontoon passengers watched me idly as I crossed the channel. I had the wind coming at my right side out of the south, and the current pushing from my left, and I shot across, quickly hitting the calm water of the channel the pontoon guarded.
It occurred to me at that point to consider my equipment. Not many boats could have darted through that dark flooded forest so deftly, but the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 seemed to be just waiting for the opportunity. In the past few years, I’ve taken the boat 90 miles at a time down both the St. Croix and the Namekagon Rivers, and it suited me fine for those long downriver days, occasional crossings of flowages and other unmoving water, and even some gentle whitewater. But getting where other boats can’t go is a personal passion, and that ability endeared the boat to me on this outing. It draws mere inches of water and slid surprisingly over places where I could have put my hand down and touched sand. The twelve-foot boat spun easily, squeaked through gaps a longer boat would have been stymied by, and was stable when I pushed over submerged timber or used my hands to pull past trees.
My paddle was nothing fancy, but it served its purpose and was made in a factory just a few miles upriver. Bending Branches is a big part of the paddling world, and it produces its paddles at a factory in Osceola, just a mile or so from the St. Croix. While I intend to get one of their beautiful, super lightweight models someday, the Whisper model is tough, not that heavy, and easy to handle. I also didn’t worry about occasionally putting it against a tree trunks and using it as a lever to make a sharp turn.
The part of the St. Croix that I was exploring this day might be one of the river’s greatest sections for kayaks and canoes. The broad braided channels of the river between about Osceola and the High Bridge give paddlers a chance to get on small water, to find little hard-to-reach places, and to do it all without needing to run a shuttle. It’s not difficult to paddle against the current here, and to use the slower backwaters to complete a loop route.
Convenience aside, this section is stunning. Here is wildness and wonder within reach of hundreds of thousands of people. Game fish swim beneath and herons, eagles, osprey, and warblers fly above. In early summer, it is a slice of Eden, the water clean and cool and the banks green with ferns and fresh leaves.
I had been out there a couple hours when I saw a great blue heron take flight and I realized I had not seen many birds. Few ducks or geese, some birdsong from the trees, but no great numbers. It was square in the middle of the season of baby birds being born, perhaps the parents were preoccupied with their delicate wards, sticking to the safest territory possible. Maybe everything was napping.
The channel soon met the top of Rice Lake, the big expanse at the confluence of the Apple River. The flats made a mile-long fetch, and whitecaps whipped up the main body. Pushing into the big water for a short stretch to get to shelter on the other side, the Pungo impressed me once again. It ate up the waves while letting me angle slowly against them. I took only one big splash to my face.
I pushed on back to my landing at this point, finally bumping into shore about three hours after leaving. As ever, I was in awe of the experiences available to anyone with a boat and a few hours. I’m already anticipating next week’s adventure.