I am not a morning person. Apparently not many people are, because I was alone on the river, before the sun emerged from behind the Wisconsin bluffs. I had set my alarm for 4:30, risen in the dimmest dawn, propelled myself out of the house, and driven 30 miles upriver to launch my kayak and spend a few hours greeting the day.
I did this for you, reader, so you could know a little of what happens when the river wakes up, and still get a good night’s sleep.
My outing would take me from Log House Landing a couple miles paddling upriver, and then an easy float back downstream. That meant fighting the current at a time earlier than I’m usually awake. My reward was the softest light, fog rising off the water, distant hazy bluffs, singing birds and swooping swallows, and a sense of the river’s ceaselessness. Not long after launching, a smallmouth bass leaped toward a swallow as the bird chased its prey just above the water. Maybe the fish was going after the swallow, maybe it was chasing the same bug.
I’ve done this loop before, taking a backwater upstream to enjoy a weaker current (or at least a placebo) and then drifting down the main channel, enjoying my labors. This morning, maybe I hadn’t had enough food or water or coffee or, most likely, sleep, and every stroke became a battle. A clammy sweat broke out on my forehead. I took my time and took frequent breaks, but then would drift backwards a little ways as I rested and shot photos or made notes. Slowly I went north, marking my progress by passing small sandy islands situated every couple hundred yards.
The valley was lightening but the sun was still nowhere to be seen. My mind stayed stuck in another world, and I recognized my mental state from an article I read yesterday about the value of nature. I was “brooding,” my attention turned inward, focused on personal problems and the such. In an article titled “How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain” in the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds wrote about new research into the mental health benefits of time spent outdoors, focusing specifically on a new scientific study examining how a walk in the woods can beat back negative thinking:
Brooding, which is known among cognitive scientists as morbid rumination, is a mental state familiar to most of us, in which we can’t seem to stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives. This broken-record fretting is not healthy or helpful. It can be a precursor to depression and is disproportionately common among city dwellers compared with people living outside urban areas, studies show. Continue reading…
While the wondrous effects of nature on human health have been popularly known since Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods,” the how of its medicinal qualities is still emerging. The new research aligns with what I believe on the matter: the sights and sounds and feeling of being somewhere wild simply pulls us out of our own heads enough to break the cycle of brooding. The sense of awe and wonder at the external environment overpowers our internal chatter.
About the same time the sun finally hit the eastern bluff, beginning a slow descent toward the water, my mind was sufficiently pulled outside. Just before this, I had seen a mature bald eagle land in a dead elm tree and sit there precariously, its wing draped loosely, perhaps drying from the morning dew. A bit farther up, I started to hear the keening cry of a juvenile eagle, and soon spotted it sitting in a tree, periodically screeching.
Then the great blue herons started to distribute around the backwater. I had never seen so many in such numbers, except a mile upriver at their big rookery. It soon occurred to me that not only were these herons traveling in groups of two to six, instead of the birds’ usually solitary behavior, they also looked a little smaller and a little lighter color than usual. I could only presume they were the year’s broods – teenagers learning to hunt and fly and be herons. Like human teens, they traveled in groups.
It was by a beach that hosted four young herons before they flapped off that I first saw the sun, about an hour after its official sunrise.
By the time I reached the top of my loop, the sun was on the water and I had achieved my goal: I was no longer brooding. Many people might think a solo kayak outing is a good time to think – in fact, that had been my approach for the first part of the paddle – but what I realized I needed most, and which was most natural on the river, was time to not think. Watching the world made me feel great, and I stayed focused and positive long after I left the St. Croix for the day.
Soon the swallows were at tree-top level, following the bugs as they rose toward the sunlight falling across the valley. The morning was coming on fast now and it was getting louder. The sun is the great life-giver of our planet. Without it, there would be no photosynthesis, a first step in the food chain that transports nutrients from the earth to the bugs to the bird birds and beyond. Many of the insects feeding the swallows this morning had probably feasted on algae in the water before swimming to the surface and flying into the atmosphere. Water and sunlight are two of the most fundamental elements of life, and the morning gave me both.
At the main channel, I paddled just another short pull to round the big pillar of the Cedar Bend train bridge, fighting one last battle up the swirling eddies below the bridge, and then looping around it, and then suddenly, I was done with my labors. I could sit back and let the river carry me back to the landing now.
Now my eyes and my mind truly pointed outside. My notebook from this leg of the journey is full of questions – observations of what leading to the why and the how. Perhaps this is the definition of “wonder.” One question was about what I did not observe: I had hoped to see sandhill cranes, but had not, even though I often see a few in the area on afternoon and evening paddles. Was this just chance, or are the cranes late risers?
These kinds of mysteries put life in perspective, showing me the larger interconnected world, and not just my own trivial troubles.
Before long, the whole river was bathed in sunshine. It was then I saw my first dragonfly, a large specimen with a barrel-chested thorax, buzzing low over the water near the Minnesota side. Dragonflies need time in the morning to warm up so they can beat their wings 20-30 times per second. It had likely perched on a branch, then set forth to find its breakfast, hopefully one of the mosquitoes that had attacked me earlier.
Now the river was as I knew it. Some trees with their backs to the sun still cast shadows, but more and more it felt like another bright and hot summer day, which would presumably continue for a good 12 hours, before the short night returned.
I drifted on down the river, reluctantly returning to the landing and my car and the workday ahead. Paddling little, letting the current carry me along, I felt every little twist of the current, seeing how the river always follows a perfect path, sets a perfect pace. The leisurely float more than made up for my pre-dawn struggles, and I said a silent thank you to “Earlier Greg” who woke up, drove through the dark, and paddled against the current to earn me this trip.
I had seen the river that runs while we sleep. I saw the sunrise, and the St. Croix as ceaseless and ancient, water flowing without pause since a time before time.