Day 4: Wild River Wanderings

Getting in a groove as we travel bigger waters.




5 minute read

Canoe conversations.
Canoe conversations.

The scale of the St. Croix is only apparent once you have traveled dozens of miles of it, day after day. It is not a 14,000-foot mountain or a mile-deep canyon, but it would take most people two weeks to descend the whole National Scenic Riverway, including the Namekagon. You would seen only a smattering of bridges and houses.

This feeling of being a very small object floating down a big and wild river set in on day four, as our band of paddlers went from Grantsburg to Wild River State Park, a distance of almost 18 miles. It went quick.

We got a short rain shower in the morning (which is when I sat in the U-Haul and wrote my last blog post). Then everyone hiked the quarter-mile down to the landing through some very buggy woods. The mosquitos kept things moving at the launch.

The river was rising again after the rain earlier in the week. It pushed us along without hesitation. Due to my blogging and other dawdling, I was bringing up the rear with Mike Bartz again. He remarked not long after we left and came around a bend to see a broad channel ahead of us, “Look at that big river.” We were getting south of the area where he was most familiar with the St. Croix, and it is remarkable to see it grow in width and power.

At the Old Railroad Bridge landing near Rush City, Minnesota, we pulled over for a search-and-rescue demonstration by National Park Service law enforcement officers.

Working dog.
Working dog.

The demonstration included an excited and happy Dutch shepherd named Brinn. One of our brave paddlers hid with the mosquitoes in the woods, and Brinn found her in short order. She bounced through tall grass, nose up, successful despite a strong wind blowing away from her.

This site is where the train used to cross between Rush City and Grantsburg. It’s also where the Blueberry Special used to run.

Old Railroad Bridge, 1935
Old Railroad Bridge, 1935 (Photo courtesy Julie Johnson, via the Heritage Initiative)

According to Julie Johnson, whose family still has a cabin on the river nearby, and who shared the story on the Heritage Initiative’s website, local residents would ride the train from Rush City, get dropped off along the way, pick berries, and catch a ride home on the train’s return:

“The train made several unscheduled stops along the way to deliver pickers to the patches and told them when to expect the train’s return. The engineer blew the whistle in advance of arrival to warn the pickers of its return, giving them time to get back to the tracks to be picked up for the return trip.” (Pat Kytola, Early Railroading)

The bridge was nearly destroyed by ice jams in 1945. The train stopped running in 1951 and the bridge was demolished shortly thereafter. Today there are a couple islands in the river that look suspiciously like old bridge abutments.

Not far down from there, we came upon a few of our group taking a break, and Mike stopped to wait. Despite his statements that he has no desire to rush anyone, and he’ll let people know if they need to get moving, people often hop in their boats and paddle away when he sweep shows up. It’s a lonely job.

I wanted to stay on the water so I floated on alone for a while. I mostly let the river carry me, dipping my paddle only when I needed to maneuver a little.  After a few miles I came across a few canoes pulled up on a rare beach along the way. With all this high water, sand has been a rare sight. I continued to drift downstream.

Big river.
Big river.

It’s always easy to catch up with an angler. I met up with Joe, who often had a line in the water, and his wife Mary, from Dresser, Wisconsin, amidst some islands. With all the high water, Joe hadn’t seen much action. He set the rod down and we talked our way down the last few miles. The quiet, still day and the amount of time we’d spent on the river had apparently worked its magic, because I recall our conversation turning to some pretty philosophical topics. We also discovered we shared the same favorite stretch, and in fact the same favorite spot, on the St. Croix. I thought we should paddle it together sometime, and then thought, well, how about on Friday?

It was early afternoon when we pulled into Sunrise Landing, at the upriver end of Wild River State Park. Three vans and trailers from Eric’s Canoe Rental were there waiting, and I think our crew impressed them as we efficiently loaded the boats. They took us to drop our kayaks at the main landing, where we start in the morning, and then to our campground.

When I got to the campground I was sweaty and bug-bitten and the thick foliage and humid conditions were a bit challenging. But somehow the bugs seemed to disappear and we ended up having a great relaxing night. My parents drove up from Stillwater with dinner for me, and one of the paddlers who had left the trip for a day rejoined us with a full supply of hot dogs and buns and grilled them up for everybody. There were great showers not far away, and several folks got a piece of the apple pie my mom had brought.

Park naturalist Mike Dunker tracked us down and presented a great program about the logging era. The crowd was a little raucous, and he gave it right back. We learned that the logging camps were no-nonsense places. And we learned they once thought the region’s white pines would last 500 years, a fair bit longer than the 65 years it took in reality.

I went to my tent in high spirits, to be woken in the night by the screams of a rabbit dying  (probably by owl) and what must have been two raccoons fighting. It made for pleasant dreams. In the morning, we would be reminded what it’s like to pack and paddle in the rain.

The paddle comes to an end today. I have been challenged by power outlets and connectivity, but will catch up and post about the rest of the trip this weekend, please check back!


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Day 4: Wild River Wanderings