It was a first for both of us. For Icaro Macedo, a summer intern at the research station from Brazil, it was his first time in a canoe. For me, it was my first time taking a Brazilian canoeing. Since he was spending a couple months both living and working at the station, it seemed important that he see a little of the river flowing by a hundred yards away. It also seemed important to hear what a marine geology student from South America thinks about the world, rivers, science, and the future.
Before coming to the station in May for a two-month internship, Icaro had studied at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls for two semesters. He had not been back to Brazil for a year and – while he missed his family and Feijoada, the meat and bean stew that is Brazil’s unofficial national dish – he wasn’t too eager to go back. Icaro had visited the research station in March on a field trip, and chose to stay in the United States a while longer to work here. He also has ambitions to spend a lot of time traveling and living around the world. To do that, he needed an education, and the English language. We talked easily all afternoon, even though he spoke only Portuguese when he arrived last summer.
On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, we launched the canoe at Log House Landing and floated in a few hours back to the station, six miles downstream. Icaro took right to it, comfortable on the water, balanced in the boat, and a natural with the paddle.
We didn’t need to paddle much. The current would carry us where we were going in plenty of time, so we moved more or less at the pace of the river. After pushing off, and as we angled across the river toward the undeveloped Wisconsin shore, Icaro immediately asked if that side was floodplain, which it is, and that began a rambling discussion about forests and water and more. It continued the whole afternoon, with periods of peaceful silence when we floated along soaking in the sights and sounds, and even the smells.
Not only was this section of river the right length and convenient for our outing, it would take us past William O’Brien State Park, where the white pines perch on limestone banks, forming an amazing aesthetic that is a relief from all the floodplain forest, and can catch the attention of newcomers to the St. Croix. A student of rocks, Icaro studied the broken bedrock closely while we passed by, commenting on its sandy composition. Rock illustrates some of the Earth’s most ancient history, and is thus a storybook for anyone who knows what they are looking at. I pointed out some of my favorite trees, explaining that I love white pines because no two are alike, their limbs protruding at irregular intervals. We talked about the river’s logging history, and how the watershed was deforested in the 19th century to build the cities of an expanding nation (many of which promptly burned down). Just 56 years after the last log was floated down the river, it was protected as one of the country’s first Wild & Scenic Rivers.
In Brazil, Icaro said, there is a growing environmental awareness, especially among his generation. I wondered if he thought there could ever be federally-protected rivers, like the National Wild & Scenic St. Croix, in his homeland. He first mentioned the Amazon, which faces many pressures yet also has many protections, and then said the São Francisco River might also be deserving. At 1,800 miles long, the São Francisco is the fourth-longest river in South America (the Mississippi is 2,300 miles long, the St. Croix is about 170). Just like in the U.S.A., conservation is often challenged by economic and political forces.
At the station, Icaro is assisting with research on how agricultural practices have altered phosphorus inputs to Minnesota lakes. Before he heads home, he will present his results at the station’s bi-monthly Research Roundtable to an audience of the station’s scientists.