Much of our 11 miles today took us past St. Croix State Park – at 34,000 acres and bordering 21 miles of the St. Croix, Minnesota’s largest state park. A few landings and campsites can be seen from the water, but for the most part it is untracked woods and wild water.
In honesty, it is a somewhat monotonous stretch of the St. Croix. The forest we traveled past was largely flat floodplain forest. Not many hills, not many pines, one mile much like the others.
Hidden in these unvarying miles is a little of the power of the St. Croix. While one can grasp the majesty of a Yellowstone or Yosemite in one jaw-dropping vista, to behold the 255 miles of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, you have to spend time with it, you have to take it in mile by mile. It’s clear why providing this experience for 60-some paddlers each year is valuable to the work of the St. Croix River Association, as the days spent on the river inevitably affect dozens of people who understand and are passionate about the river’s subtle charm.
On this second day of six, the wonder began to seep in. I paddled all day with Mike Bartz, our sweep, last man down each day. He paddles a beautiful wood canvas canoe he restored himself. The river let us spend the day in rambling conversation, broken up by miles of silence and solitary thought.
Mike said he loves his canoe almost like his dog. It’s the same Old Town Yankee model that BWCAW champion and writer Sigurd Olson used at his guiding business in Ely in the 1930s. A retired Wisconsin game warden, Mike told tales of poachers and bears, topics touching on biology and law enforcement. We laughed about men and women and wild rivers.
My dog and I once came up to the little Yellow Banks Landing at the upstream end of the state park one June day to meet two buddies. They were late and the mosquitoes were horrible, so Lola and I took to the water and paddled around while we waited. The next day, our group floated downstream, my talkative buddy in the bow ultimately spinning around in his seat so he could look me in the eye while he chatted, and we realized in such a setup, somebody is always looking where the canoe is headed, and we spun slow circles downstream. I remembered it being a lot of the same, perfect for catching up with an old friend or a new one.
It was also then that I first came to grasp how St. Croix State Park could be thought of as Minnesota seventh National Park. It was developed by Civilian Conservation Corps crews during the Great Depression under National Park Service supervision, then handed over to the state. The stone and timber buildings of the CCC camp are on the National Register of Historic Places, and retain the energy of young people working hard with their hands. It is a big and bold park, a human attempt to match the scale of the river.
The day started sunny and blue skied, perfect paddling weather. Nary a breeze. Slowly high clouds blew in, and then obscured the blue entirely, and the air stopped moving altogether. The water was smooth and metallic, we drifted past giant ferns leaning over the banks, past beaver-chewed trees, past skinny water-sculpted islands. Like any natural wonder, the landscape is the star, awe-inspiring when experienced one paddle stroke at a time.
Our group is spread across a large campground a short walk from the river this evening. I have been invited to a patch of a floor in a cabin that paddle regular Bill Cook reserved. The skies are looking stormy and, though I trust my tent after Saturday night’s storm, the prospect of not having to pack it up wet in the morning is mighty appealing.
The biting bugs love the humid, still air, so we are dressed in long pants and shoes and doused in bug dope and still slapping and scratching but so it goes on the St. Croix in June.
Tomorrow the river will be more lively. We’ll also paddle farther than either day yet, putting on about 19 miles as we head to Governor Knowles State Forest Campground near Grantsburg. The stretch features a few fun riffles, rarely-seen cedars leaning over the water, and the mouths of the Kettle and Snake Rivers on the Minnesota side. It should also include a glimpse of yet more of the quiet power of the St. Croix, a big river with nothing to prove.
The internet connections have been slow tonight and last night, sorry to not be able to upload more photos!