As introduced last week, this summer I intend to get on the river at least once a week and write about it. Here is this week’s report.
It was muggy and buggy when I got to the landing, the last blast of a hot June day. It was the season of hatching eggs, evening storms, long evening light.
Earlier, I walked along the river in Stillwater and watched as a bald eagle swooped down from the north, circled the water above the Lift Bridge once, dropped slowly to the surface, and grabbed a fish in its talons. It then headed straight back upriver, toward the Wisconsin bank. Motorboats were all over the river, motorcycles rumbled from downtown, and there was this eagle minding to its family and giving everyone something wild to watch.
I headed upriver, slid my boat into a backwater. Right after I put the kayak in the water, an eagle came flying out of the trees, a tiny songbird close behind. It was probably four inches tall and the eagle’s wingspan was probably four feet. I thought: it’s an eagle-eat-fish-little-bird-chase-eagle world.
It took me a while after getting on the water to get away from the mosquitos and for my legs to stop burning from their bites. I dunked my feet in the water to cool them off.
Coming around a bend, I came upon view of a deer crossing a soggy patch of ground, splashing through three or four inches of water. I don’t think it heard me over its own noise and I drifted along a minute before it looked up, stopped, watched me, and then went back to plodding through the mud.
It’s a good idea when doing an out-and-back on the river to go upstream first so you don’t go farther than you want to paddle against the current. I worked my way up to a bottleneck where the channel was blocked by a massive tangle of tree trunks. There was no way upstream without a little walking. I probed the backwaters of the backwaters, confirming that there was no way up. The big snag might get blasted out in short order, by a flood or failing wood, or it might start to slow the water, and sand will settle out and start building a new island. All the other channels were dead-end too, although a couple could get knocked through eventually with the current dammed by the other snag. I turned back earlier than intended, so I drifted downstream without paddling.
The birdsong seemed to crescendo as the day cooled and calmed and the sun slipped toward the bluffs. A little yellow warbler hopped down to a tree hanging in the water and twitched its head around as it jumped between branches. I lost sight of it for a minute, then it flew in front of me and to the trunk of a silver maple, where it poked its head into a cavity in the tree, feeding its young.
Imagining that image later, it merged with a moment a few days earlier on a tributary of the St. Croix, not far from where I watched the warbler family. My wife, three-year-old daughter, and I spent a couple hours in the shallow rushing waters of the lower Apple River. Katie waded with Annika, helping her learn to walk on the rocky, sandy bottom. The laughed and shared a secret trust. Moms are magic.
For a long time, I’ve tried to understand and explain what makes the St. Croix special, and why I love it more than any other river. Being my “home” river, earning one of the highest levels of protection possible, being beautiful right there in our backyard are all part of it. But that can be said of many rivers for many people.
It occurred to me on this trip that it’s not any one characteristic, but the overall assemblage of attributes that makes it unique. The combination of rare species (sturgeon, dragonflies, mussels, etc.), scenic beauty (bluffs, pines), recreational opportunities (power boating to kayaking), water quality (mostly healthy, clean enough to swim in), geology (sandstone and basalt), natural and human history (glaciers, Oneota, logging), and a dizzying array of other ways to look at the river are what define the river.
The St. Croix is a complex creation, and everyone who loves it has an equally complex relationship with the river.
Before the last turn back to the landing, the second or third heron of the night flew over. It too was headed home to roost. With my hands busy unloading the boat and putting it away, my legs were attacked by mosquitoes, angry welts rising. It was all I could do to keep working and get somewhere safe from the little jerks. My relationship with the river is complex indeed.