Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in the fall 2012 edition of RiverTime, the St. Croix River Association newsletter. Dan is past chair of the River Association.
Sight, touch, sound, smell and taste: autumn engages each of our senses in such unique and marvelous ways. No wonder that, above all the other seasons, it puts us in high spirits. Of course eye-popping colors top the list of the season’s gifts. To savor the colors, my son Matthew and I are paddling upriver, our goal the impressive cliffs at Rock Island, not far upstream from the Franconia landing. It is late morning on a classic, clear, crisp autumn day.
While the St. Croix’s floodplain forest has begun its slow fade from summer’s green to a lackluster grey, the bluffs above are a patchwork of glorious colors. Yellows dominate ranging from those that are pale and green-tinged to those that radiate rich, sunset gold. Here and there is the pumpkin orange of maple, the cranberry red of oak, the toasted wheat of half-naked trees past prime. In stark contrast are the dark greens of scattered white pines and the backdrop of brilliant blue sky. In coming weeks an even wider array of colors will be woven into this diverse forest landscape: burgundy, bronze, mauve, mahogany, copper, terra cotta, rust and more.
To some people autumn tree color says it all. That’s unfortunate because there is so much more to celebrate. Early this morning elongated wisps of vapor danced slowly, magically, everywhere across the mirror-like surface of the river, a sure sign of autumn’s cooler air. Now, under a breeze and mid-day sun, water’s surface dances, sparkling with effervescence. Fresh-fallen, curled-up, dry leaves float by pushed this way and that by the wind, like so many tiny sailboats. In places the river bank is speckled with baby blue asters, a reminder that the valley’s autumn wildflowers are a treasure in and of themselves.
By early afternoon we reach the cliffs, siblings of those at Taylors Falls a few miles upstream. Their origin dates back one billion years. It was a time when earthquakes from here to Lake Superior split open the earth’s crust unleashing monster lava flows which cooled into this super-hard, dark-grey basalt.
Today we are all alone as we study the cliffs’ complex beauty. Their face is marked with crags, crannies, overhangs and fault lines slashing across this way and that. Oxidation of minerals in the rock has created three distinct shades of brown on grey. Breaking the drab tableau are random brush strokes of pale green and rusty orange lichens. Several outposts of grey-green cedar eek out their existence in the hostile vertical environment.
I remember hiking with a boyhood pal to the top of these cliffs some sixty years ago. On hands and knees we carefully crawled to the edge. “Look!” he exclaims, holding up a perfectly shaped Native American arrowhead, perhaps a remnant of a long ago clash between Dakota and Ojibwe. Native oral history tells of a particularly bloody battle at nearby St.Croix Falls over two centuries ago, one of many in a decades-long struggle for control of the St. Croix Watershed’s abundant food and fur resources.
On our return down-river, we stop paddling while we dwell on a unique sensation. The feel of cool, dry air is brisk and exhilarating on bare skin. Simultaneously the afternoon sun creates a radiant, soothing warmth deep within. Nothing epitomizes the touch of autumn for me better than this delightful contrast.
What about sound? In our neighborhood a signature sound of autumn is the din of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Canadian geese honking and hollering in the back slough which serves as a rest stop on this busy flyway. They are joined in their river journey by other migrating water birds: cranes, teal, snow geese, cormorants, terns, mergansers and more, all just passing through.
It is late afternoon by the time we reach journey’s end. After securing the canoe we hike up through the woods toward home. In places the trail is covered with a blanket of new fallen, dry, crisp leaves. They crinkle and crunch underfoot – as if we are tramping through piles of old, crumpled newspapers (or perhaps a bowl of Wheaties). It’s another sound unique to the season.
We pause to savor. An autumn forest has a subtle but distinctive aroma, herbaceous and vaguely sweet like newly-sawn wood. I pick up a sample of the forest floor and roll it between my hands. The fragrance — earthy with hints of mushroom, tobacco and cedar — reminds me of a great, well-aged wine. It also conjures up childhood memories of evening smoke from burning piles of leaves in our neighborhood. It was a wonderful autumn smell, indelible on the psyche.
A black squirrel darts across the trail, no doubt busy caching acorns for winter. Google tells me that the blacks are a subgroup of the Eastern Gray Squirrel. They likely were dominant throughout North America before the arrival of Europeans. Their dark color helped them hide in the virgin forests, dense and shaded. As time passed, hunting and deforestation led to biological advantages for their grey-colored cousins.
The light of autumn’s late afternoon sun, low in the sky, carries a special quality, a heart-warming ambiance. Even great photographers find it difficult to capture. Today it makes the colorful forest canopy glow, incandescent, as if lit from within. Below, like uniformed soldiers, the trees’ leafless trunks stand silently at attention in shadowy ravines. It’s an engaging contrast: above is light and airy, filled with translucent colors; below is home to grey, solid, vertical columns. A bit of a stretch but I imagine being in a great gothic cathedral. It reminds me that nature often outdoes even the most spectacular of human creations.
We arrive home in time for supper and, finally, a taste of autumn. For me the quintessential taste is apple, in all its delicious variations: baked, butter, dumplings, carameled, cider, crisp, sauce, and unpeeled, fresh-off-the-tree from our neighborhood orchard. Tonight what better way to celebrate the ample rewards of the season than a large slice of warm apple pie.
Autumn in the St. Croix Valley makes me smile.