The winter wind is timeless. Certain things have changed along the St. Croix River: settlers come and gone, limestone dug up and hauled away, land bought and sold and ultimately protected.
But the winter wind keeps blowing.
A sharp breeze kept the 25 people who joined the Standing Cedars Winter Walk on February 15th hopping from foot-to-foot, barely any skin bare, as they got ready to go in the parking lot. Despite the wind they showed up to walk the woods, bluffs and prairies.
Our guide, Steve Rassler, president of the Standing Cedars Community Land Conservancy, helped people get snowshoes on their feet, and then kept his opening remarks brief before we marched into the shelter of the trees.
We would walk about 1.5 miles around the Tewksbury Property, one of the conservancy’s smaller parcels. We would stop at an old homestead and historic quarries. We would learn about efforts to restore natural prairie in the face of encroaching trees and brush.
First, Steve said thanks. Thanks for the nice new parking lot, built last fall and plowed this winter by St. Croix Valley Landscaping. Thanks to the St. Croix River Association and 45 Degrees for providing loaner snowshoes. Thanks to lots of folks.
Then we set off in a long single-file march down a narrow packed trail. Those in front packed it even more, and a few folks not wearing snowshoes came last. The trail took us down one level of bluffs and to our first stop.
Steve stood in front of a snow-covered rock face where one could still see it wasn’t quite natural. This is where in the early days of St. Croix Valley settlement, limestone had been quarried for two purposes in construction: the rock itself was used in foundations, and it was also processed into mortar which cemented the rock together.
This wasn’t a big mining operation. They were digging by hand, going for the easy stuff, and hauling the rock out on horse-drawn wagons.
Just before we started walking again, Deb Ryun of the St. Croix River Association pointed out robins flitting through the forest around us, and even starting their first bit of cheep-cheeping, a sure sign that spring is already starting its return, despite that cold wind.
We left the woods and started across open flat land perched above the St. Croix, a river terrace. Here, we were on Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway property that adjoins the Standing Cedars land. We learned more about how these pieces of land will be managed in close coordination a bit later.
We paused at the edge of the bluff, where we looked out across the frozen river. It was quiet and still and beautiful, but I don’t think I was alone in dreaming of open water season.
We trekked a short ways along the bluff and stopped again where there was evidence that decades or even a century before, someone else had thought it a fine view. An old limestone foundation was nestled in the brush, remnant of a historic cabin. They would have hauled their water from a spring gushing out of the bluff below. We were standing in a huge thicket of lilacs, which those settlers had planted way back when. It’s unknown when the cabin was built, but Steve told us that no roof can be seen in 1938 aerial photos, suggesting it had been abandoned well before that year.
The path from there meandered through meadows, with lots of big red cedars and brushy prickly ash overtaking what was once prairie. I was walking with Deb from the River Association when she paused and sniffed and pointed out the barely discernible scent of fox.
When we came to a stop, Steve explained that the loss of natural prairie to cedars, prickly ash and other plants was the focus of a plan by Standing Cedars and the National Park Service to restore it to its natural state, while creating a bit of energy and paying for the project with the wood. The plan is to have a logger come into the site and remove undesirable trees, including the cedars, and run them through a woodchipper on site. The chips will then be hauled to to a power plant in St. Paul, where they’ll be burned to generate electricity.
The plan works particularly well because it won’t cost anything. The cost of the logging operation will be covered by revenue from selling the chips to the power plant. After the harvesting, more work will be needed to remove invasive species and restore native plants.
From here, it was time to head back up the hill. As we crossed the prairie and then back into woods, we saw more evidence of limestone quarries, more places where logging will be used to restore the land, and even a grouse’s hiding spot.
The final leg of the hike cut through the woods on an old wagon road. Steve talked about how he and other volunteers had blazed the trail by hacking through nearly impenetrable brush. He also mentioned Standing Cedars is always looking for people interested in volunteering (find out how at this link).
When we got back, the smiles of a successful winter adventure were abundant, but warm cars called and we said goodbye quickly. Plans are already being discussed for a second Standing Cedars hike in May, when the beautiful lupines should be blooming. Stay tuned for information about that – and sign up for St. Croix 360 email updates to make sure you don’t miss the announcement.