Note: Originally published on One Man’s Wonder, reprinted with permission.
It’s my first day this still-young spring/summer out in my canoe on the lovely
St. Croix River.
I love hitting the water on weekdays like this when fewer people are out here. Today, I’ve seen fewer than a dozen, most in quiet canoes and kayaks. Much of the time, there’s no one in sight—in fact, no sign this couldn’t be a mid-May day a century or two ago.
How liberating it is, how celebratory of life’s sweet privilege, flipping my trusty old Mansfield down to the water, stepping in and paddling away. I think I feel more comfortable, more competent, handling this little wooden canoe in the water than I do walking on dry land. That’s how much at home I feel here.
Clumps of grass and other flotsam drape like Spanish moss from trees overhanging the bank. The highest of them bring to mind the image of waters, perhaps just a month ago, swirling six feet over my head. But today’s water level is perfect—low enough to expose a few small sand beaches and bars; high enough to afford access to shallow backwaters.
Today’s cast of characters out here is pretty much the same as when I plied these waters as a boy: great blue herons, bald eagles, beavers, muskrats, turtles, clams and scores of other critters seen and unseen. I wonder how many are direct descendants, perhaps eight or more generations removed, of the very beings I communed with back then.
All afternoon I’m buffeted by gusty southerly winds. Even against the current they nudge me upstream with ease. (Heading back again will be a different story.) The wind makes fishing a challenge; I’m barely able to get in one cast at some targets before being blown out of range. At this rate, I could probably just let my line out and troll without paddling a stroke.
Just the second cast of my Mepps buck-tail spinner fools a forearm-sized northern pike. A nuisance really, but I can’t just horse it in on my ultralight spinning gear. If smallmouth bass are the grab-and-run foxes of the game- fish world, pike are the ravenous wolves. This one, like most, has engulfed my lure, which sits deep in its mouth, past rows of needle-sharp teeth.
I’ve developed something like a surgical protocol for this clash point between my love of this sport and my empathy for the fish. Jaw clamp, mouth spreader and forceps working in tandem, I reach in and jiggle free the hooks. If that takes more than a minute or so, I perform the closest thing I know to pike CPR, moving the fish back and forth in the water to force water through its gills. I hold it till it swims away—the more angrily, the better.
Heading into my favorite meandering slough, I escape much of the wind. As I coax my canoe around the first bend I’m aware of a presence. Twenty yards to my left, a young beaver lumbers unbothered down the bank and into its element. I anticipate the instinctual tail slap and dive.
Instead, the wet, furry lump swims toward me and then weaves side to side among felled branches, eyeing, at what seems little more than arms’ length, what he must take as one strange vertical creature astride some kind of huge green turtle. It both pleases and concerns me that he’s not alarmed.
Muskrats, too, glide along the shore, some with mouthfuls of soft green grass to feather their nests. They take little interest in me. Mosquitoes, however, do. Even in broad daylight, even with a decent breeze, they’re out. I can handle a few, but this doesn’t bode well for my tender skin come dusk.
The Canary Lives
Working the rocky shoreline with well-placed casts, I hook up with several more voracious pike. I’m beginning to see this as another in a string of signs I’ve noticed over the past few years that the cold streams and springs feeding this river may no longer be up to the task of keeping it a cool-water habitat.
Like the growing numbers of large-mouth bass and sunfish I’ve been catching recently. These are warm-water species, ones one associates with weedy, bathwater lakes, not clear, free-flowing rivers.
But then I tie into a dapper, foot-long smallie, with those distinctive dark rays emanating back from its reddish eye…and then another…and another—this last one a real test for my four-pound-test monofilament. I’m encouraged, for I fear the disappearance of these handsome fish could signal the end of the St. Croix as I’ve always known it.
I’m spotting lots of waterfowl today: Canada geese and several strains of ducks. I try not to look threatening, but the geese posture and scold me anyway as I glide past, Then I notice the trains of little flaxen feather balls traipsing behind each pair. I hope they’ll be safe tonight as hungry coyotes prowl.
Soon there are five voices—each distinct in tone and cadence—wrapping me in their haunting refrain.
A Chorus In the Sanctuary
As sure as gravity, the hours have pulled the sun down into the treetops, and I begin wending my way slowly back the way I came.
Dusk’s gradual descent has sapped the wind. I picture the air as a liquid, slowing, cooling, settling in pools throughout the woods around me. Now every sound is caught and amplified in its thick stillness.
The rhythmic anthem of a barred owl stirs that fertile air to my left. I do my best to answer, and another owl joins the chorus from my right. I continue my feeble imitation and soon there are five voices—each slightly different in tone and cadence—wrapping me in their haunting refrain.
I have—albeit rarely—heard loons on the St. Croix, but they’re not typical of the soundscape here. These owls, though, with their characteristic eight-note lament, come pretty close in their chilling, exotic effect.
On that sublime note, I’m ready to head back up to the Franconia landing and home. Now, with the cooling air concentrating the heat and carbon dioxide I exude, the mozzies have caught a whiff and are on me in force. I’ve not seem them this thick—or this big—for years. Before running the gauntlet, I break out my new Repel lemon-eucalyptus repellent.
I’m anxious to see how this botanical formula compares with the more controversial DEET-based repellents I’ve used. Sure enough, the pleasant-smelling stuff manages to keep the little buggers off, but just barely. Still, they swarm around me, hovering barely an inch from my skin. It’s all I can do not to inhale them. I wonder how other animals, without the benefit of chemicals or hands, cope with this version of death by a thousand cuts.
As I approach that last bend before river’s main channel, there’s Mr. Beaver again, atop a log perch. This time, he barely looks up from his green-willow supper. I extend my silent thanks—and, I hope, a blessing—to him and the other gentle beings I’ve met today. After all, this is their house, and I’ve been merely their guest.
I hope it’s not presumptuous to say I’ll be back.