Two hundred years ago, there was a six-mile cascade on the St. Croix River which ended only when the water hit basalt and plunged through the most scenic gorge in two states. Over the six miles, the river fell 55 feet.
One hundred and sixty years ago, towns grew on each side of the river at the base of the falls, and then spent half a century failing to harness the river’s power for sawmills or other industry – beleaguered by legal battles – watching millions of logs float past to the Marine, Stillwater, and beyond.
One hundred and eights years ago, a dam was completed at the base of the falls. The growing cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul needed electricity for their new light bulbs. The rapids were drowned, a pretty lake covered the rushing river.
Two months ago, Xcel Energy, which operates the St. Croix Falls dam today, began to let the water out of the lake. Repairs were needed on the dam’s wall on the Minnesota side, and over the course of several weeks, the level dropped about eight feet, revealing a channel long obliterated. It is expected to begin filling again this month.
On a bright blue and orange day in October, three people and three dogs set off on foot up the exposed lakebed, the river flowing – flowing! – to our left, Minnesota across the water. We had stashed two canoes at Spangler’s Landing, six river miles upriver, and we were going to walk up from Lion’s Park in St. Croix Falls, then float back down. We wanted to see the riverbank up close and then ride the river.
At first, there was mud. Boot-sucking stuff with rocks scattered throughout. Sometimes you could step from rock to rock, sometimes you could not. It soon turned to mostly sand and rock, but the whole way up we encountered occasional muck. We also saw a sandstorm whipping across a desert-like sandbar, an old wooden barrel, mysterious rusted metal objects of many shapes and sizes, bedrock carved by a forgotten current, creeks cutting new channels through silt, and knotty pine logs about 12 or 16 feet long that had been sawed on both ends and could have only been leftovers from the timber era. We searched them for signs of brands but saw nothing conclusive.
There were also millions of mussels shells, turning white in the sun. A few times we had to walk across a bed of them, a graveyard crunching underfoot.
I mostly had my eyes glued to the ground, scanning for relics and artifacts of the stories the St. Croix tells. That’s how I saw a chunk of stoneware with a blue swirl across it. I picked it up, and saw another slab, this one half a circle and unadorned, seeming to be the bottom of some vessel. I scraped at the sand with my boot but turned nothing else up. This was a find we all paused to ponder. Such pots have been made in Minnesota, mostly in Red Wing, since the 1860s. Perhaps it had been broken when it fell off a shelf in a wannigan, one of the floating food trucks that fed lumberjacks as they drove logs downriver, as it navigated the rapids. I imagined the crew would have chucked the broken crockery overboard without thought.
Six miles on uneven terrain wore out my legs, but the walk was worth it. When we arrived at Spangler’s, we had to merely put our canoes in the water and drift back to where we started.
The view from the water was entirely different than from the beach. The sparse foliage of a windblown week in autumn let us see deep into the woods, where the fallen colors blanketed the forest floor on steep hillsides. The Wisconsin side in particular has high bluffs here, and it appeared to be healthy oak savanna in places, a dry and warm habitat that is perhaps the most prolific endemic valley vegetation since the old-growth white pines were plundered.
A few sentinels still poked out of the forest, reminders of what had once stood alongside this 10,000-year-old stretch of whitewater.
The river was broad and placid, but it was still slipping downhill. We angled to the Minnesota side, where a broad floodplain wetland stretched toward the base of Wild Mountain’s ski hills. The bottom and the banks were mostly sand and mud, but then we saw a rock bar protruding into the channel and, as we passed by it, we slipped past a couple rocks impeding the flow and little swells of water standing in a line below them.
“We’re shooting the St. Croix falls,” I said.
Earlier, as we walked past all the relics of past eras on the St. Croix, it felt like walking through a museum. But being gently pulled downstream made us fully feel the river as it once was, and someday will be again.