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.
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.
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.