Some hellish noise woke me up in the middle of the short dark night at Wild River State Park. First, it entered my dreams, vaguely introducing terror.
Then I jolted awake and realized it was real. It was an angry and fearful screaming, which I figured to be a rabbit’s final cries, and which Jim confirmed as such in the morning, saying an owl was likely the killer. As I lay there, another noise entered, sounding like vicious fighting, probably raccoons or mink fighting.
I drifted back to sleep and the creatures fought their fights and died their deaths as they always have.
Another unwelcome noise awoke me around dawn: rain on the tent. I was happy to close my eyes and let the patter lull me back to sleep. I awoke again later, lacking cues of a brightening day to tell me if it was time to rise. So I went back to sleep.
It seems many others followed suit, and when I finally packed up my gear and donned my rain jacket and pants and emerged from the tent, it was nearly 8:30, time for the mandatory morning briefing. Several slept through it. I drank coffee and ate oatmeal and was wet.
Volunteers from the Friends of Wild River State Park shuttled us down to the boat landing in their cars. Our driver had a thermos of coffee and talked of rare prairie plants.
The rain kept up and we paddled away in conditions much like the first morning. This morning would take us down eight miles of the Indianhead Flowage, the slower, broader stretch behind the St. Croix Falls Dam.
Despite the grim conditions — driving rain, the rain jacket hood tight around my face — it was a rewarding paddle. For maybe a mile, a Great blue heron played tag with us. It would fly up from the banks just as we were almost past it, and land another 100 yards downstream. And repeat. And repeat. It had many options for getting away, but insisted on leading the way.
This lake-like body obscures what was once the fastest and most furious stretch of the St. Croix. Before the dam was built, it featured six miles of rapids and short waterfalls. It was difficult to travel upstream on this stretch, so supplies and other shipments were offloaded at St. Croix Falls and carried over an eight-mile path to Wolf Creek, where a series of trading posts and settlements was located above the rapids starting in 1832.
According to local historian, writer, and “River Road Rambler” Russ Hanson, the first trading post at the site was burned down by Henry Schoolcraft because it was selling liquor to Native Americans. A store remained at the site until the 1940s and today the Wolf Creek Bar still operates. He has a lot more interesting information about Wolf Creek in this blog post.
The rain let up about a mile from St. Croix Falls, and I paddled with Jim and Mike to the landing at Lions Park. There, we were met by lunch provided by the Lions Club and a shuttle ride around the dam.
At some point during the rain, I decided to accept Jim’s offer to spend the last night of the trip at his cabin. It meant paddling another eight miles past our designated campsite for the night, but it also meant I wouldn’t have to deal with my soaked tent until I got home.
When everyone else pulled off at the Eagle’s Nest campsite above Osceola at mid-afternoon, Jim and I grabbed some overnight gear and got back on the river. The skies were gray but the rain was still stopped and a breeze was drying tents as folks set them up one last time.
I always associate the wide, straight stretches running north-south around Osceola with headwinds. It seems like if a wind is blowing on the St. Croix, it’s blowing from the south, and these stretches invite such winds in. So when we started getting slammed by wind right away, I thought this might be a long afternoon.
We ducked behind points and islands and paddled on steadily. And then the wind blew itself away. Stillness settled on the St. Croix.
Neither of us hardly acknowledged the fortunate conditions — not wanting to jinx it I suppose. Instead we pushed down the river, passing along the stretch I’ve paddled the most and which Jim has known all his life as his family has explored it from the cabin. Below the Swing Bridge, Jim pointed out the pool where his grandfather had taught him to fish decades ago.
The water was perfectly flat and all was quiet. We didn’t see a soul, except herons and the birds ever singing. The river was also wider and slower here, and required steady paddling. I was damp and tired, and munched on almonds most of the way.
The river and our paddles carried us in, and we finally pulled off at a point covered in tall white pines around 6 p.m. We had only touched land when the sprinkles started, and had to laugh as we scrambled to unload our gear and climb the 86 mossy steps up to the cabin above, where a roof and screens on the windows were a welcome refuge.