“March 4, 2014, with nearly a meter of snow covering the sedge marshes and black ash forest lowlands, I set out in snowshoes to see what I could find.” – Brian Collins
What Collins found earlier this month was trumpeter swans enjoying a patch of open water, a curious coyote who briefly gave them a chase, and a feeling of the wild winter character of the upper St. Croix. Luckily for the rest of us, he made a wonderful video of the outing.
The high school biology teacher from St. Croix Falls is also a dedicated river steward who wants to preserve such experiences for future generations. He writes in an email to St. Croix 360: “We must all be thankful for the legacy that has been left for us, and we need to respect and pass on that legacy for all future generations.”
In addition to the stars of the video, Collins writes that you can also hear American Robin, Hairy Woodpecker, and White-breasted Nuthatch, and encourages viewers to “watch in a quiet room and transport yourself to the beauty of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway.”
Brian answered a few questions over email about the outing, the coyote, wildlife photography, and how to take care of the river we love. (It has been slightly edited for clarity and length.)
Greg Seitz: What do you like about filming and exploring the St. Croix River?
Brian Collins: The Saint Croix River is a wonderfully wild place. Seen from the air, it is a ribbon of rich and contiguous habitat connecting hundreds of woodlots, wetlands, and prairies. The Saint Croix River is an essential corridor through which countless animals migrate, hunt for food, and fulfill their life needs. Picking a spot, any spot, on this river is a near guarantee for a wildlife encounter!
GS: Do you think the coyote ever knew you were there? How did you manage to not scare it away?
BC: The coyote didn’t know I was there until it was very close. It was mostly preoccupied with the swans. When it finally realized I was there it ran hard, following the river ice far to the north! I was very well camouflaged and standing very still. When photographing wildlife, I try very hard to allow nature to happen, and I choose places that will break up and conceal my form. In this case, I used the cover of a small island rising from the frozen river. If I scare an animal away, I feel as though I have intruded, so, in this case, the outcome wasn’t ideal.
GS: What do you think a video like this says about the St. Croix?
BC: All of the footage for this video was made in the same evening! We are truly rich in every way to have such as great resource, such a wild and beautiful river. This video reminds me that the possibilities are endless, that intimate experiences in the wild are always going to be in my future so long as I keep visiting this wild and scenic river. The Saint Croix provides the greatest beauty for those who travel light, move slowly and quietly, and respect the wild beauty all around. This video is also a reminder that the river is a world of change and interaction between living things. I would like to add a note about safety. When traveling the river in winter, be safe and pay attention! Not all of the river’s ice is safe, and winter conditions are fickle.
GS: How would you encourage people to be good river stewards?
BC: Being a good river steward is part conduct and part action. When using the river, love the river and leave no trace. I strongly encourage people to participate in at least one of the many excellent organizations that work toward awareness through environmental education, citizen science, political action and direct care and stewardship of the river’s ecosystems. Join the Gaylord Nelson Audubon Society, the Saint Croix River Association, the Ice Age Trail Alliance, or one of the many Friends of the watershed like the Friends of Crex Meadows or Friends of Interstate Park. If you live on a lake in the watershed, get active with the Lake Association! Support your National Parks Service and your state DNR! Getting involved in conservation and citizen science is fun and keep us all connected!
GS: How long were you out filming that day?
BC: I was out for about two hours that evening. Once daylight savings time kicks in, I try to get out as often as possible after a day of teaching biology in the classroom. When I head out this way, I don’t usually use blinds, but I always wear earth-toned clothing, often with two or more tones to break up my form, and usually some kind of camouflage. This winter, I have relied extensively on snowshoes. They allow quick travel, longer travel from roads and silent travel through soft and deep snow. I find that more happens when I work my way slowly to small streams, patches of open water, or active game trails and then just wait…