River Bum Blog: Covering Archaeology From A Kayak

Paddling around Marine on St. Croix helps tell some obscure St. Croix River history.




4 minute read

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A big thunderstorm crashed through eastern Minnesota on Monday morning. It caused problems for commuters, and delayed the divers who were investigating historic dams near Marine on St. Croix. I was planning to accompany them, so my morning plans were moved to the afternoon.

After a series of phone calls and text messages with the team, we decided to rendezvous on the river about 1 p.m. They would launch their pontoon from Somerset Landing, and I would kayak over from Marine on St. Croix to watch and talk for my story about the study.

By lunchtime, the wild winds and rain had made way for sunny and calm. Just another summer day on the St. Croix. I parked by the Village Scoop and carried my boat and gear down the gravel path to the water. All I had to do was paddle up the channel and around the small island, known to locals as Crunchberry Island, to find the National Park Service archaeologists.

I decided to stay in my kayak for most of the time that I was watching them. It gave me many more opportunities to take photos and to follow them as they worked their way up and down the dam, built by an Osceola steamboat captain and his crew on behalf of the U.S. government in the 1870s or 1880s. It sat in plain sight, an unnatural pile of rock on the beach, but had not been recognized as a historic artifact before they saw it. Under the surface, it was made of more rock as well as timbers. The researchers were methodically mapping it for preservation and interpretation.

Paddling around such a scene presented new challenges. I was worried about drifting into somebody in the water, and was constantly checking where I was, where they were, and where the current was pushing me. I would drift downstream 50 feet, perhaps beach myself on some sand, then paddle back up where I could talk with the support team that remained above water. All the while, I trying to get the right angles and observe the important details.

It was peaceful. The team talked in measured voices, calm and collected as they made sure they were working safely while discovering this previously-undocumented historic structure. A single canoe passed by in the time I was there. At least two great blue herons flew by.

The archaeologists were diving into an obscure chapter of St. Croix River history. A civil engineering project may lack the romance of the fur traders and loggers, the complexity of Native American culture, or the frontier adventures of European immigrants, but it slowly revealed itself as an important story nonetheless.

At this site, some hardy river men had tried to tame the St. Croix. They wanted to force the water into one channel where it was previously spread out amongst braided islands, to make sure steamboats needed for increasing trade in the growing region could consistently get through. They put their minds to work on designing the right dam for the right place, and their put the bodies to work placing massive timbers and rocks in the powerful current that would still be there more than a century later.

Not much about the St. Croix stays the same over the course of a hundred years.

There is so much obscure history of the St. Croix River. The ferries, the blueberry train, Wolf Creek, the Grantsburg Paint Mine, and pretty much the entire history of the upper river. This seemingly endless supply of stories, all tied together by the river, keeps me coming back, and keeps me writing.

Oneota pottery at the Sheffield Site
Oneota pottery at the Sheffield Site

The next day, I happened to tag along on a visit to another archaeological project. Researchers from the Science Museum are continuing to excavate a former Oneota village next to the river in Marine on St. Croix. I wrote about this place and the mussel shell-tempered pottery that its residents left behind a couple years ago. It was a very popular article, and I received a lot of feedback along the lines of, “I had no idea.” While St. Croix Valley residents have heard a lot about the Ojibwe and the Dakota who battled over the St. Croix Valley around the time of European settlement, the pre-contact peoples are largely ignored – largely because there is no written record of their cultures. Yet, shortly before I stopped by the Oneota site, they had found another piece of pottery, more than 700 years old, and that story is still being transcribed.

After the archaeologists were done with their preliminary work to map the site, I sat on the bank and talked with team lead Jessica Keller, who was still wearing her wet suit. She works all over the United States, often investigating shipwrecks, and was clearly enjoying her month in the St. Croix Valley. She said the people they’ve met have been friendly and interested in their work, and connections to the dam construction project were more common than expected. People knew about the dams as spots to avoid while boating, and some even had ancestors who had been involved.

It seems like as much as everyone knows the big St. Croix stories – the Native Americans, the loggers, the geology, the Wild & Scenic designation – everyone also knows a few stories that not many other people have heard about. Those are the stories St. Croix 360 is designed to share, so everyone can deepen their understanding of the river in all its complexity.

See you on the river!


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River Bum Blog: Covering Archaeology From A Kayak