The sun sets after 8 p.m. for the last time each year in late August. For three years now, Slim and I have marked the milestone by going for an evening paddle on the St. Croix. Eight o’clock sunset seems like the cutoff for us easily getting out on the river after work and ought to be an occasion.
We usually cheat by cutting out early, because if you’re going to go out for three hours you might as well go for five.
So we meet in Marine and get provisions at the general store, drop Slim’s truck for our shuttle, and head up Highway 95, the orange sun of a hot and hazy day making the green landscape glow.
At the landing, we run into Andrew Carlson of Riverwood Canoe. He says their business is going well in its fourth season, and he wishes more people knew how great the beginning and ending of the day can be on the river. He says he recognized me by my beard.
Slim and I set off down the river. It is on these evening outings that we have seen wild life, experienced great silence and solitude, and watched the golden sun drop toward the bluff and then out of sight behind white pines. This point in the season, the river is not typically flooded, and the air and water are warm enough for sublime swimming. These days are a fleeting magic.
This time, the water is up quite a bit from a few recent rainy days. It is flowing about 8,000 cfs at the St. Croix Falls Dam, while in years past it’s around 3,000. It’s colder and not as appealing for swimming, and it lets us go places by paddle we had not previously. We dip into channels and inlets that are usually low sandy spots. We nose up a narrow creek. We go under one of the gaps in the Cedar Bend swing bridge that I’ve never floated through before (though we’ve been down the stretch at 20,000 cfs, too).
Last year’s trip is remembered for the family of sandhill cranes that watched us pass in wary silence, stalking through tall grass, the mom and dad herding the young imperceptibly towards the woods. Slim and I sat in the canoe in silence, the current carrying us past, our eyes locked to theirs.
We see cranes again this year, though only fleetingly as two fly across the channel and behind some trees.
The natural wonder of the evening is the cardinal flowers. The first time I saw one, I was paddling near William O’Brien State Park and spotted what I thought must be something manmade on the bank. Perhaps construction flagging? Litter? It was too bright to be natural.
Much like the scarlet tanager, cardinal flower seems to glow, the color saturated. I’d seen them once or twice since, but never like this night. The banks are in many places carpeted with the flowers. We are in awe of the sight at first, and then in awe of the extent of the bloom.
The St. Croix is essentially the western extent of the cardinal flower, the frontier of its range. Lobelia cardinalis is found in Wisconsin and south and east and west, just not the northern plains and mountains. It’s like all the growing energy of summer in these latitudes explodes in one last fit of pigmentation and pollination. The flower is a favorite of the Ruby-throated hummingbird, which depends on it for a burst of nutrition as it begins a long migration south that will culminate with a 500-mile crossing of the Gulf of Mexico.
As the hummingbird sips nectar, it might brush its head against the plant’s anther, picking up pollen. Fly along and it will deposit that pollen as it gets another boost in the process. The plant is often damaged by deer, maybe it is doing well because whitetail numbers are down.
The only other human we see is a man fishing, his small boat anchored below the bridge. He is reading a book and we nod at each other but do not break the silence to ask if he’s catching anything.
We find more than we seek, immersed in the wild and scenic and serene and soothing St. Croix. We also are bestowed with awe and wonder inspired by observations of the endlessly complex natural order.
I wonder, if we are making a big deal about this last post-8 p.m. sunset, why did we not get out more often this summer in the evening? What about when the sun set after nine? It’s an area for improvement.
It is around here that the sun starts hitting the trees, and we come to a fork in the river. The left, eastern, Wisconsin path would extend the influence of the sun a few more minutes and we steer into a narrow channel toward it.
This year, the sunset date is special because a nearly-full moon would also be rising early in the evening. We came down the channel pointed southeast right at the moon as it rose above the bluff, while across the river the sun blazed through the trees. Below the moon, the trees wore a yellowish hue that whispered of autumn.
The sun disappears about an hour before meteorological sunset for these parts. Just like back when I was out there before sunrise this summer, when it took about an hour after official dawn to see the sun.
In the dimming day, we paddle and drift down to the landing. The water was glassy, sliding down down down to the sea. The evening was cool and clear, the moon rising bright as the sky darkened.
As we scraped up to the landing, a guy in his twenties pulled his kayak out of the back of his truck and came at a near-run down to the water. He told us he was going out overnight solo for the first time. He trotted back to the truck, parked it, and returned to the river with a backpack. The twilight was nearly gone, and I could only admire his sense of adventure. After all, the evening also marks the lengthening nights.
Links about cardinal flowers & hummingbirds:
- Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal Flower) – Minnesota Wildflowers
- Cardinal Flowers and Hummingbirds–Pollination Perfection – Eye on Nature
- Ruby-throated Hummingbird – U.S. Forest Service/Pollinator Partnership