The Northern Croix

The remote upper reaches of the river offer solitude to two observant paddlers.

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Big Fish Trap Rapids, upper St. Croix River, photo by John Schletty
Big Fish Trap Rapids, upper St. Croix River, photo by John Schletty

In its upper reaches, the Saint Croix is a northern river, especially below Gordon Dam, where white cedars and alders line the banks and the water is tinted dark with tannin. With the forest walls dense and the water unclear, the landscape is secretive. In a place where winters are long and soil poor, life proceeds with caution. So it is a rarefied place Wolfman and I paddle into, him in a canoe, me in a kayak.

“I love not seeing any buckthorn,” he says.

“Give it 20 years.” I hope I am wrong.

Only a mile downriver we stop to inspect Gibson Cabin, a classy log structure a stone’s throw from the river. I’m excited to see a newly constructed section of the North Country National Scenic Trail now passes by the cabin. Although the cabin is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, its doors hang open and a large pile of guano sits at the base of a set of stairs leading to an airy loft.

“I might move in and never leave,” Wolfman says. “I could grow a garden and learn to live without women.” In the two years I’ve known Wolfman, (we had met while hiking on the Ice Age Trail; we started chatting and discovered a mutual hatred for buckthorn), something is often going wrong for him in this department.

Gibson Cabin, photo by John Schletty
Gibson Cabin, photo by John Schletty

Beneath Copper Mine Dam is one of the best paddling stretches on the entire river. The current is swift and easy rapids abound. White pines grow on small rises. The banks themselves are made of cracked red sandstone.

Despite a zero-percent chance of rain in the forecast, indigo clouds fill the sky. Impossible rain falls a while before the sun breaks through. First I feel the sun warm on my back, and a moment later, golden light unfurls onto everything ahead, casting the trees and grasses incandescent. With dark clouds remaining as a backdrop, it is a scene as dramatic as it is beautiful.

The river widens and stills before Big Fishtrap Rapids, the second-largest rapids on the river, runner-up to the one beneath the Highway 8 bridge, though, in my book, Big Fishtrap’s remote setting places it higher on the awesomeness-scale. The sound of distant roaring water comes from a narrows barely visible ahead, and reminds me of the white noise setting on the mobile in my toddler’s crib. Soon, however, the sound is formidable.

“Am I going to die?” Wolfman asks.

“Probably not from this, but you never can be sure,” I say.

Where the water quickens, Wolfman pulls ahead of me and toward the fish-trap with a few fierce paddle-throws. The fish-trap itself is a deeper pit of water behind a fin of rock that extends perpendicular to the current, a feature visible when the water is low. Now it is buried under a bubbling, white wave.

I watch Wolfman bounce through and follow. I glance at the shore and am startled by how quickly it is passing. Water surges over the deck of my kayak, but I stay upright. I duck into a cove where Wolfman is already on shore. I stop, too, and we haul gear through brush a ways upriver to a campsite above the rapids.

Below Gordon Dam, photo by John Schletty
Below Gordon Dam, photo by John Schletty

After setting up our tents, we sit on a rock ledge above the fish-trap. Wolfman practices his howling. He is pretty good at it, and after a while, barely audible from the north, comes a chorus of eerie wails as apropos to the northland as dark water and cedar trees.

In the morning, I run the rapids again and we continue downriver, passing the mouth of the Namekagon. At Big Island, I am glad to see the massive pine at one of my favorite campsites has survived the 2011 July 1st windstorm. We stop to look around, but I am impatient because I had told my wife I would be home by noon, and it is already noon, and I wish to avoid Wolfman-type problems.

We paddle on to Riverside Landing. Prior to the 2011 windstorm, a pure stand of century pines grew here. After the storm, I had been saddened to see those pines broken and scattered, only a few left alive, but on this day of the fish-trap, grasses and flowers already grow thick and high beneath the surviving pines, as though this is the way things have always been.

At Riverside, silver maples are far more common than cedars, and the river is not northern like it is only 24 miles upriver, at Gordon Dam. I had missed the transition. And with that, I close the trip as I prefer to close all trips, not with a farewell, but with a reason to return.


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3 responses to “The Northern Croix”

  1. Brian Finstad Avatar
    Brian Finstad

    Regarding the Fish Trap Rapids, a reference to them is found in the Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, published in 1911:

    “About 15 miles below the mouth of the Eau Claire are rapids now called ‘Fish Dam.’ William Gordon, for who the Town of Gordon was named (incorrect, it was named for his father), informs us through C.W. Peaslee that there was in early days a battle at this place, and that it was called by the indians Meros-e-wingin. The battle no doubt took place in the 18th century, when all of this territory was disputed ground between the Sioux and Chippewa.”

  2. Brian Finstad Avatar
    Brian Finstad

    The site of the Gordon Dam was dammed early for logging purposes (I have heard as early as the 1850’s or 60’s) and a larger dam constructed in 1888 following a wash out of the original dam. The present dam was built in 1935 as a WPA project. Found in a “Letter of the Secretary of the Treasury, Communicating a Report of a Geological Reconnoissance of the Chippewa Land District of Wisconsin and the Northern Part of Iowa” from 1848 is the only description that I am aware of which describes the natural rapids that existed where the modern Gordon Dam is sited today.

    “”About twenty-three or twenty-four miles below the head of the St. Croix, the river expands into a small lake, or, rather, two lakes, connected by a bend of the river. At the foot of the lower of these the first red sandstone which was observed in place reaches the surface. Here the rapids commence flowing over its horizontal ledges, which are much broken and split into pieces. The rapids are short, with slack water between. Two of these are very sudden, swift, and difficult to navigate. Trap boulders, some of which are large, fill the channel, and do not appear to be far out of place. The width of the St. Croix, at these rapids, is about the same as that of the upper part of the Chippewa, near the mouth of the Court Oreille river.

    The red sandstone of this part of the St. Croix has numerous smooth and almost polished spots disseminated through it, more argillaceous than the body of the rock; some of these have much the appearance of impressions of organic bodies, but they are so indistinct that no definite structure could be observed with a common magnifier.”

  3. Lisa Dembouski Avatar
    Lisa Dembouski

    Hello! Thank you for this great article (and to Brian Finstad for his helpful comments, as well)! I’m wondering how I can reach John Schletty for permission to use and share his photo of the Big Fish Trap rapids? I was too busy paddling them to get my camera out, and his image is the best I’ve seen for depicting what they’re like. Thank you in advance! ~LD

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The Northern Croix